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Vietnam: Social Media Successfully Forced Government To Leave Traditional Fish Sauce Alone (For Now)

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Traditional fish sauce production. Photo credits: baonghean.vn

Social media in Vietnam carries quite a force when it comes to having a say in public affairs, and the government is well aware of that. The effect of the new cybersecurity law of 2018 and its attempt to reign in the people’s power remain to be seen. However, the vibrant online civic space in Vietnam just recently proved how effective it could be in fighting against illogical and unreasonable governmental regulations.

This time, it was all about the fish sauce which for the majority of Vietnamese people, could very well be the essence of their souls. If anything could cause an uprising in the country, interference with the people’s consumption of their fish sauce might very well be it.

Three years ago, when the disastrous Formosa marine pollution erupted, the fear of not being able to have a safe supply of fish and salt (the main ingredients for making the fish sauce) prompted thousands of Vietnamese to take to the streets.

So for this reason alone, one would assume that it must take a very gutsy governmental department to take on a fight against the producers of this national treasure.

To everyone’s surprise, the Bureau of Production and Market Development for Agriculture Produce (Bureau) in Vietnam emerged in early March 2019 as the one who was willing to put on the hat of such a fierce fighter.

The Bureau proposed a new set of rules and regulations, detailing the practical steps that all who wish to produce fish sauce in the country must follow.

This particular bureau might have underestimated the outrage from not only the fish sauce producers but also the Vietnamese people at large when the proposed regulation went public.

It could partly be that the making of fish sauce is quite diverse and supposedly done according to the unique traditions and techniques in each region in Vietnam.

Similarly, not many of us would imagine instructing all French winemakers how their bottles of wine should be made or telling the whole Italian cheesemakers that they must follow their government’s detailed steps to produce their mozzarella.

More importantly, for years, the traditional fish sauce producers in Vietnam have been fighting against a few large food corporations who had created a monopoly which mass-produced not fish sauce, but its substitutes.

It turned out that there were two kinds of sauce involved in this battle.

The traditional fish sauce is organically made from fish and salt, and it takes longer to yield the final products.

The other is a chemically induced sauce that may smell like fish sauce but catered to an entirely different taste.

This non-traditional fish sauce substitutes, however, have dominated the market in Vietnam during the past two decades because they are considerably cheaper.

Nevertheless, the traditional fish sauce continues to survive throughout this battle even though their products cost more than those manufactured by the big factories.

Perhaps, because, in recent years, Vietnamese people begin to favor the traditional taste both for health reasons and for protecting the keepsake of their national identity.

I remember this one time when attending college in California, as I was passing by an apartment complex near my school, I suddenly felt the presence of my motherland and nostalgically yearned for my mama’s cooking while the distinctive aroma filled the air from one of the studios.

I am probably not alone in having such an experience where one associates fish sauce with memories of her homeland, making it an essential part of who she is.

And there it went, in the last few weeks, the Vietnamese people were not shy in expressing themselves on social media and letting the government knows that they were firmly against the proposal to regulate the traditional fish sauce’s production.

Their outpouring anger was enough for the Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Science and Technology to quickly announce on March 12, 2019, that the proposed regulation for fish sauce production would be halted indefinitely.

But the abrupt halt did not calm down the public and the traditional fish sauce producers. For the people, the attempted regulation seemed to disproportionately favor one corporation in particular, Masan Group, who had dominated the fish sauce substitutes market in Vietnam.

Almost three years ago, the traditional fish sauce producers had suffered a different attack from another controversy allegedly concocted by a Public Relations firm – T&A Ogilvy – who worked with major food corporations, including Masan.

Back in December 2016, mass media in Vietnam picked up a story from the survey sponsored by T&A Ogilvy where it claimed that 95% of all fish sauce samples collected nationwide contained an alarming amount of arsenic content.

The story was later proven to be entirely false, and the Prime Minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, himself ordered an inquiry into the survey’s claims. Nevertheless, the traditional fish sauce producers already suffered losses when consumers panicked and avoided consumption.

This time around, the Vietnamese public seemed to believe that the latest proposed governmental regulation just proved that Masan would not give up on this ambitious dream of becoming the only producer for fish sauce in the country and that the government chose to stay on the corporation’s side.

Because fish sauce is not only a staple in many people’s diet but also a part of their identity, they came to doubt the government’s actual intention for attempting to regulate the production of such caused them.

On social media, people alleged that this whole incident just showcased the intricately entwined relationship between the Vietnamese government and the conglomerates – such as Masan Group.

To have such an allegation coming from its people should be a worrying sign for a regime that has been trying to maintain its dwindling legitimacy like Vietnam. And while the battle is not quite finished, social media will continue to be the much needed civic space for Vietnamese people to voice their concerns and exercise their rights.

Opinion-Section

The Power Of Your Ballot

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As election day approaches for seats in the Vietnamese National Assembly, it is important to take a step back and reflect on the significance of this political exercise as a whole and on our role as voters. 

It is common knowledge that several aspects of this entire electoral process are suspicious or perhaps even fraudulent. As such, a large portion of the Vietnamese population may choose not to vote at all, even though they seem to care greatly about the politics and elections of other foreign nations. At first glance, their actions are logical and make total sense. 

Why should Vietnamese citizens continue to take part in a rigged electoral system where their votes will not matter in the end? Why should they take time off from their day and exert effort to indulge in the whims of a government that hardly even cares about the well-being of its people? After all, non-participation is a form of civil disobedience in itself, and in most cases, it is effective and it works.

Yet, in the context of Vietnam, perhaps another way to express discontent might be more effective in bringing about lasting social and political change.

A History of Fraud and Deception

The Vietnamese government has constantly alleged a remarkable voter turnout since the 2002 election for the National Assembly, according to the IFES Election Guide. To be specific, Vietnam tallied 98.85 percent in 2002, 99.52 percent in 2011, and 99.35 percent in 2016. It is also expected that government claims for the turnout for the upcoming election will remain in a similar range. 

Yet, according to some experts, election results in Vietnam come as no surprise as these tallies could be mere fabrications, highly exaggerated, and may not accurately reflect reality. To support their opinions, these experts – such as Mu Sochua, a board member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), and a former Cambodian Member of Parliament – state that the VCP will enlarge these numbers by relying on proxy voting – wherein one person can vote for his/her entire family – and pressuring local authorities to ensure high voter turnouts in their regions. 

Contrived voter statistics is not the only thing the Vietnamese government is guilty of; its claim of free and fair elections is also deceptive. Candidates for the National Assembly are closely scrutinized and vetted by the Vietnamese Fatherland Front, an arm of the VCP. In the upcoming elections, out of 868 candidates vying for 500 seats, only nine are self-nominated, with six of these also reported to be members of the VCP as well. From this, we can see that pluralism and choice are all but non-existent. 

Prior elections also illustrate this phenomenon and the distinct lack of choice. A report by Freedom House states that out of the 500 seats available for the National Assembly in 2016, 473 were taken by Vietnamese Community Party members while “independent” candidates, who were also vetted by the VCP, took 21. 

Independent candidates and those who are not part of the Communist Party also face an uphill battle in their bid to be candidates in the elections. While most don’t even pass the Vietnamese Fatherland Front’s scrutiny, some are imprisoned or pressured into rescinding their intention to run. 

The arrests of Le Trong Hung, Nguyen Quang Tuan, and Tran Quoc Khanh, as reported by Amnesty International, stand as recent examples.

Le Trong Hung was a citizen journalist who worked for Chan Hung TV and Nguyen Quang Tuan was a medical doctor. Tran Quoc Khanh ran a popular social media account, which he used to comment on social issues and to criticize the Vietnamese government. All three were independent candidates running for seats in the National Assembly in the upcoming election. However, they were arrested for allegedly violating Article 117 of Vietnam’s penal code, a statute which Amnesty International claims in the report, “ …violates Viet Nam’s international human rights obligations” and that Article 117 “should be repealed or substantially amended…”

To top all of this, the result of the National Assembly elections is more or less carved-in-stone and predetermined months in advance. This can be seen in the “tentative proportion” or “tentative allocation” data released by the National Assembly’s Standing Committee. The committee has portioned the number of available seats and through this, we can get a fairly clear picture of who will get “elected” and what the priorities of the National Assembly will be over the next five years. 

To Vote or Not to Vote 

Hence, we are faced with a conundrum.

Given the state of elections in Vietnam with all the deceit, manipulation, and unfairness involved, would it be proper and appropriate to still vote come election day, or would non-participation in the system itself be the better alternative?

The usual reaction, when faced with such a situation, would, of course, be the road of passivity and non-compliance. Ergo, to choose not to participate in the elections at all. 

This perspective is all well and good. After all, a lack of voters usually implies a government’s lack of legitimacy and the absence of its citizens’ trust. However, legitimacy does not seem to be the VCP’s concern and they would be more than happy to pad the actual number of voters through the use of various statistical anomalies. 

On the other hand, choosing to vote seems to be a fruitless and purposeless course of action when the result is more or less predetermined several months in advance. 

At the end of the day, it appears that no matter what we decide to do with regards to the elections, the Vietnamese government and the Communist Party emerge as the true victors.

Rays of Hope 

And yet, you have someone like Luong The Huy, an openly homosexual man, civil society activist, and gender expert, who is one of the few self-nominated candidates who somehow managed to slip through the Vietnamese Fatherland Front’s obscure vetting process. 

On election day, May 23, he and a few other candidates will take on a seemingly hopeless fight for a slim chance at winning a single seat in the National Assembly. The odds and the deck are stacked against them, but they still continue to push back; they refuse to remain silent in passive acceptance. 

And while most of us cannot run for any government position, choosing to vote is the next best thing; even though it feels like an exercise in futility, we should still force ourselves to vote come election day. 

Even though our choice may not matter, our mere participation in the simplest of democratic freedoms given to us shows the VCP that we are concerned and invested in the direction the country is moving towards. Even if the election is rigged from the start, the mere act of supporting a candidate that does not agree with the Party’s schemes shows the Party that we will not take kindly to the government’s machinations and ploys. Even the act of submitting a blank ballot carries much more weight than simply not voting at all. 

The VCP thrives on the growing apathy and passivity of its people and could care less about legitimacy. Hence, choosing to vote and then deciding to vote properly becomes an act of rebellion; it becomes revolutionary in that it respects the concept and sanctity of the democratic process itself rather than the Vietnamese government as an institution. And if enough people unite and vote for those actually deserving of a seat in the National Assembly, there is a minuscule chance that perhaps true and lasting change and reform can slowly come from within. 

The strength of your ballot lasts beyond election day and extends far into the uncertain future. And when your time comes to make a decision, we hope you make the right choice.

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Opinion-Section

Ao Dai, The Freedom Index, And An Election Goes Uninterested In Vietnam

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Photo: Reuters.

Why are so few paying attention to this country’s grand affairs, such as our upcoming general election on May 23, 2021?

Maybe the op-ed article written in Vietnamese by Huynh Minh Triet that was previously published in the Luat Khoa Magazine on March 17, 2021, would offer us some perspectives on this question? The translation was done by Hoai Huong.

***

In March 2021, with the most crucial election in Vietnam about to start in two months which should be the event that attracts the most public attention in the country, what has sparked controversy was a Japanese adult movie and a freedom-ranking list of a foreign organization.

Freedom House, an international non-governmental organization, on March 5 categorized Vietnam as a country that has neither political freedom nor internet freedom. The online Vietnamese population immediately rushed to the Freedom House Facebook page, scolding it both in English and Vietnamese. Even the postings on this account that were irrelevant to Vietnam also came under fire.

Furthermore, on March 10, Japan released a soft porn movie in which the main actress, who wore a Vietnamese ao dai, was a young girl of Vietnamese origin. Again, the online population in Vietnam vehemently protested, expressing their hurt feelings because the movie humiliated them. The press quickly gathered the most impressive comments to prove that the national superiority complex had been hurt. 

Wow, if only our national affairs captured public attention in the same way as Japanese sex movies or the Freedom House rankings!

Vietnam is currently undergoing the tense process where our general election on May 23 has the utmost important responsibility to select our National Assembly’s deputies who will represent all of us. Nevertheless, such a significant event received virtually no considerable discussion on social media. 

On March 9, Tran Quoc Khanh, an independent candidate, was arbitrarily arrested. His news was covered superficially in newspapers and mentioned on just a few Facebook accounts of interested individuals. Word of the arrest came and went unnoticed among the online population.

Aren’t the Vietnamese interested in elections? 

No, they are. But just not with their own country’s elections.

The Vietnamese were one of the peoples around the world most enthusiastic about the US presidential election in 2020, and their fondness for Donald Trump might have contributed to this phenomenon.

Vietnamese people created all kinds of news channels to support Trump and made all kinds of projections and comments about the US election on social media platforms. We grew openly hostile to one another and even humiliated one another because we supported different candidates in the US presidential election. Worse still, following the election, the Vietnamese online population rushed the US Embassy Facebook account to express frustration over the failure of their idol Trump.

In Vietnam’s elections, however, things were different. No relationships turned sour when the VCP arranged for Nguyen Phu Trong to seize power again. There were no vehement protests or objections when candidates who were not Vietnamese Communist Party members were detained or had their names crossed off the list. 

However, we discussed US voting laws with great passion and many of us cursed “the damn Democratic Party” for allegedly wanting to ease restrictions so that illegal immigrants could vote. Many shouted with joy when Trump criticized voting via postal services as he claimed this would lead to cheating. In fact, however, many of us have never seen a ballot box in Vietnam.

Is it true that a political system in which the people can only vote for candidates recommended by the Party is so perfect that we do not care about domestic elections? 

No, definitely not.

Are we so insensitive to our responsibilities, while having surplus energy for trivial matters that are not even related to Vietnam? 

Probably.

But there may be another reason: that is because we are scared.

The widespread fear from the land reform campaign (in North Vietnam in the early 1950s) has not actually subsided. Fears have now been heightened by the 2018 Cyber Security Law – an identical copy of China’s. Under this new law, all that we speak up about or write about on social media platforms can be used as a pretext for the authorities to harass and arrest us.

Few of us dare to confront the authorities because we are all afraid of being murdered in a police station, upon which the government will claim that we have “committed suicide due to a guilty conscience,” as it has stated during Vietnam’s review under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in March 2019 to rationalize the unusually high number of people who died unexplained in police stations. 

Thus, in the face of events really close to us and of great importance, we remain silent and “project” our depression onto safer events such as Japanese adult films and the freedom rankings of an organization thousands of miles away.

A Myanmar demonstrator under arrest in the capital city Yangon on February 27th, 2021. Photo: Reuters

Now, let’s take a look at a neighboring country, Myanmar. At the time I wrote this article, 150 people had been killed while taking part in demonstrations to protest against the military coup that overthrew the democratically-elected government led by Aung San Sui Kyi. For the Burmese, the ballot is their life. For us Vietnamese, how many of us can’t be bothered to even think about the weight our ballot can carry?

Freedom is not free. The Myanmar people are declaring with dignity that they are ready to pay an exorbitant price to have freedom.

We may feel free to criticize the Freedom House rankings, but this does not render us freer.

So, how can we change this? I have not come up with an answer yet. But if most of us keep staying silent for our own sake, and then throw our bursting surplus energies into things which are trivial or less important – and also less risky – to preserve the self-respect of a cowardly collective consciousness, then we will never find the answer.

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Human Rights

When Calls To Free Pham Doan Trang Are Not Enough

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Pham Doan Trang. Graphics: Luat Khoa Magazine.

This op-ed article was written in Vietnamese by Trinh Huu Long and was previously published in the Luat Khoa Magazine on October 10, 2020. 


Every time an activist is arrested, several campaigns for his or her release emerge in response to the government’s persecution of human rights. This method is the oldest, most common, and most familiar form the common citizenry uses to call for justice.

I have been a part of those movements and have even organized several campaigns many times in the past nine years. 

Yet, despite everything, I constantly ask myself if these calls to action actually do any good? “How long am I going to do this,” I ask myself, “and are there any benefits to this or not?” These are just some of the questions that constantly linger in the back of my mind.

Most likely, those arrested will remain in prison; their sentence will be upheld. In fact, the length of the individual’s  imprisonment might even be made longer. Despite all our work, more and more people are still being incarcerated. There has been no change in our laws or institutions, despite all our efforts at home and abroad.

And even if we’re blessed with the smallest amount of luck, those arrested are granted asylum in another country, defeating the primary purpose of our campaigns.

Pham Doan Trang, imprisoned activist, blogger, journalist, and co-founder of The Vietnamese and Luat Khoa online magazines has put some of my concerns to rest.

“I do not need my own freedom; I need something much more significant than that: freedom and democracy for the whole of Vietnam,” she wrote in a letter on May 27, 2019, her 41st birthday, and while she was on the run from the police. “This goal sounds grandiose and far-fetched, but reaching it is actually possible with everyone’s help.”

Doan Trang wanted this letter to be released to the public only when she was indeed convicted and not when she was merely detained. Eventually, she was arrested and now faces a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. 

If Doan Trang merely wanted freedom for herself, she had at least two opportunities to attain this in the past. 

The first was after her nine-day criminal detention in 2009. If she was obedient and ceased all her activities regarding sensitive topics and cut all her ties with social elements deemed “anti-state,” she would have continued to live a safe and full life. 

The second was when she studied in the United States and could have chosen a path towards residency or citizenship. In fact, at least three agencies and organizations wanted to sponsor her permanent stay in America.

So, why did Doan Trang choose to return to her homeland? It is because she understands that her freedom means nothing compared to the whole of Vietnam. Vietnam needs people to step up and work for the freedom of everyone. 

Such a concept is simple and easy to understand, yet making it a reality is challenging to attain.

Doan Trang could have chosen to contribute to Vietnam’s fight from the outside as many others, including myself, are doing. Yet, she chose the most complex, most painful, and most difficult way to contribute to the cause. She returned home and faced the problem head-on. She published various works, wrote books, and even taught about democracy and freedom right in front of the police.

Doan Trang often told me that the best way to fight is to be an example, to be an inspiration for others to do the same. Only then can we, as a society, start to see what democracy, human rights, and the rule of law look like in reality. Words without actions are meaningless.

Sadly, I do not know how successful Doan Trang’s efforts have been, nor how many lives have been touched by her words and deeds. But regarding her arrest in October 2020, I would like to say this.

Activists have a saying called “sharing fire,” which means sharing the tasks and responsibilities of dangerous activities with many people to reduce individual risk. Sometimes we coordinate with each other, but more often than not this is not the case; people passively participate in this phenomenon without discussing plans in advance.

What if the deeds Doan Trang had done in the past five years were divided among five or 10 people, would she still have been arrested? More recently, if she had not produced the two Dong Tam reports, would she be in jail right now? 

She often told me that these things are not difficult to accomplish and that there are many people who share similar ideas with her. If so, why are there so few people standing up for what is right? Granted, some people do, and Doan Trang was one of them. Yet because of inaction, apathy, or fear, she and the handful of brave, noble souls like her shoulder the entire risk.  

Many of them will go to jail, while those who are content to watch from the sidelines will get angry again. They will once again clamor for the release and freedom of those imprisoned. But in the end, nothing gets done. Rinse and repeat.

Will we Vietnamese forever play the same old games with the government? Will we continue to sheepishly and ineffectively demand the release of our friends? Then, when nothing gets done, will we once again forget and return to the tolerated normalcy of life in this great prison that the government has made?

Things will be different if more people actively do their part to create social change, just like Doan Trang. Doing so has two advantages.

The first is to “share the fire” with those still fighting to reduce their risk and limit their chance of getting captured. Government resources are limited, and they can only invest in monitoring and controlling a few people. 

Those outside Vietnam can do their part as well. For instance, to write something similar to the Dong Tam Report, we just need to collect data on the internet and conduct interviews online or through the phone. It is not necessary to live in Vietnam physically to accomplish these tasks.

The second is to normalize press freedom, independent publishing, and political activities considered “sensitive.”

When these activities become commonplace, the government will be forced to accept them. This was observed in the past when private businesses were considered illegal. Nonetheless, they continued to operate, and gradually the government had to admit that these establishments were a fundamental component of the country’s economy. Since 1986, the state no longer considers owning a private business a criminal offense. 

For me, the best way to help Doan Trang and people like her is to play a more active role. Eventually, everyone will benefit when the political space expands. No one will ever be arrested or imprisoned again for writing or publishing books. I will no longer have to clamor for one person’s freedom every single time someone gets arrested. I will finally be able to rest. 

Calls for Freedom are good, but they are often not enough. We should release ourselves from the shackles of fear, apathy, and apprehension to actively fight for progress and change.

Doan Trang has completed her mission and the responsibility now falls on our shoulders. Even if she were to be released tomorrow, even if she chooses to stay in Vietnam or decided to leave, the fight continues in each one of us.

And if you love Doan Trang, I implore you to do what she would have done.

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