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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.

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A Letter To Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Photo courtesy: TIME

Dear Justice Ginsburg,

I hope this letter will somehow reach you in heaven or in the afterlife. I have not seen any evidence for the existence of either place, and I will not presume you prefer one to the other. But I hope there is a place in the cosmos where you have gone after a life well-lived, and that you are happy there. I also hope your husband, Martin Ginsburg, is also there with you and for you, as he had always been. You both deserve each other for eternity. 

I do not intend to put on a pretense that this letter is only for you. The message is addressed to you in death, but I mean to speak to the living. More specifically, I want this letter to be read by my fellow Vietnamese people. This is why I am writing in both English and Vietnamese. I want to talk to my people about your legacy. 

I believe we cannot sincerely treasure a legacy if we do not attempt to understand it as much as we can. 

We can learn a lot from you and how you lived your life. I hope this letter can explore and elaborate a bit more on that possibility. I do apologise beforehand for any misunderstanding or misconception in this letter. It is only a starting point in my own process of learning about you and your life.  

We have heard in the US media in the past few days many cries of how your legacy is being threatened by the Trump presidency and the prospect of the Supreme Court consisting of six conservative-leaning judges, with just three liberal-leaning judges remaining who are likely to protect your legacy.

But I think your legacy should be understood more widely. Yes, the progressive legal advancements you left behind have been challenged and will continue to be challenged, perhaps even more vehemently. 

But suppose more people worldwide understand the lessons from you and how you lived your life. In that case, I believe the forces that will protect and enhance your legacy will be grown beyond a group of three US Supreme Court justices. 

So, what do I think we Vietnamese people can learn from you and your life? The first thing is feminism. 

What is feminism?

I am glad to learn that you were not born a feminist (to be honest, it always seems a bit dangerous to be born with an ideology implanted in your head). 

You are now a feminist icon, but you first came to feminism through a process of learning and teaching what you learned. 

This is important as it suggests that any person, no matter what their gender or background, can choose and learn to become a feminist. This matters to me because I am a man born and raised in the heavily patriarchal Vietnamese culture. 

The starting point for your feminism seems to be 1970 when you were a 37-year-old law professor at Rutgers Law School. 

On May 1 of that year, you chaired a student panel on “women’s liberation.” Later that year, in a panel at the Association of American Law Schools’ annual meeting in Chicago, you put forward two arguments. The first is against the stereotyped characterizations of women. The second is about “the infusion into standard curricular offerings of material on sex-based discrimination.”

According to your book My Own Words (2016), you did not just wake up one day in 1970 and decide to become a feminist. It was the students whom you taught who, in turn, inspired you. 

It is quite inspiring to know that in the late 1960s, there were “newly activist women law students” at the Rutgers Law School. And they inspired their professor to shift her academic focus from court procedure to women’s rights. 

So, you read and researched everything you could on the subject. Within a month, you had perused every federal decision ever published involving women’s legal status, and every relevant law review article.

In 1971, you taught your first seminar on sex discrimination and the law. Later that year, you started working with the American Civil Liberties Union on two litigation matters concerning sex discrimination, one against men and one against women.

These two sex discrimination cases provided you the first opportunities to bring your academic research straight from academia’s ivory towers to the judiciary’s dusty colosseums. You retrained yourself from a law professor to become an attorney who could prepare briefs, then present and argue cases in court.

To root out sex discrimination using the US court system, you and the ACLU chose to persuade the courts that any law that seeks to discriminate purely on the basis of sex is in contravention of the US Constitution. The Equal Protection Clause in that constitution stipulates that the state shall not deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The case involving sex discrimination against women is Reed v. Reed. While you did not argue this case in court, together with the ACLU director, you did prepare the brief, which was submitted to the US Supreme Court. 

The woman in the case, Sally Reed, was not allowed to administer her deceased teenage son’s small estate. The state law stated that only men were allowed to administer the estate of relatives who died without a will.

Having heard the arguments, the US Supreme Court ruled that the state law is unconstitutional. This is because the state law did discriminate solely based on sex and thus protected Sally Reed’s husband but not her. The law, therefore, denied protecting Sally Reed at least equal to how it protected her husband. 

In the case of sex discrimination against men, you acted on behalf of Charles Moritz. Moritz was denied a tax deduction for the cost of providing care to his elderly and invalid mother. The law stated that such tax deduction was only available for women and formerly married men. Moritz was a single man. 

In this case, you worked in partnership with your husband, Martin Ginsburg, a brilliant tax attorney. Both of you argued the case in the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

The court heard your arguments and ruled in favour of Moritz. In passing the judgment, the judges relied on the US Supreme Court’s decision in the case you had worked on earlier that year: Reed v. Reed

As a result of the above cases, several laws that discriminated purely on the basis of sex were changed or abolished. A lot of such laws discriminated against men as well as women.  

The year 1971 was just the beginning. The years that followed saw you produce “a tsunami of articles about gender and law that flooded law journals.” You also argued and won six landmark cases on sex discrimination in the US Supreme Court. 

I started this section of the letter by asking what feminism is, then together with you, I jumped from feminism to women’s liberation to women’s rights to sex discrimination.

So, what really is feminism then? Does feminism mean the absence of sex discrimination?

Yes. To you, to advance feminism is to promote gender equality

Your feminism seems not to be focusing on the sole advancement of women’s rights at the expense of men’s rights. Both men and women deserve to have their rights protected. 

Your view of feminism may be a revelation to many members of my sex. Many men view feminism with fear and disdain. For they think that feminists are coming for their rights and that the only way to satisfy a feminist is for a man to sacrifice all his rights, privileges, and entitlements. 

I guess it made sense for you to adopt such a view of feminism: As a lawyer, you had to rely on the US Constitution’s powers to strike down discriminatory laws. 

And that constitution, written by a group of white men in the 18th century, never mentions women, sex, or gender. 

There was an attempt to introduce the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution, which says that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” This amendment was passed by the US Congress in 1972, but it was never ratified by the states, and so it is now dead in the water.

Therefore, the only words in the US Constitution that could be relied on to fight sex discrimination are the Equal Protection Clause’s very words.

So that is your feminism: the legal advancement of gender equality standing on the shoulders of the giant – the US Constitution. 

It is a type of feminism that is not merely for preaching. It was forged through the sleepless nights on your work desk through the myriad of lectures, seminars, debates, and then through the US courts’ intense scrutiny, including the highest court in the land. 

Your legally pragmatic view of feminism is termed by legal scholars as “formal equality.” It has undoubtedly helped many men and women in protecting their rights, as we have seen from the effects of your first legal victories and the legal victories that came after.

But in reading about you, I have also learned that your view of feminism is not free from criticisms. 

The limits and future of your feminism

It has been pointed out by your most vocal critics that out of the six landmark cases on sex discrimination which you won in the Supreme Court, you argued for equality for men in four of those cases.

Professor Judith Baer, in her essay titled “Advocate on the Court: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the Limits of Formal Equality“, criticised you, saying that your legally pragmatic view of feminism is too obsessed with protecting both men and women, to the extent that it hurts women. 

Because men and women are naturally different and men already enjoy certain advantages over women in society, the insistence on treating both men and women the same in the eyes of the law can actually hurt women more than men. 

This is perhaps explained more clearly and vividly by Catharine MacKinnon, a radical feminist legal scholar:

“Almost every sex discrimination case that has been won at the Supreme Court level has been brought by a man. Under the rule of gender neutrality, the law of custody and divorce has been transformed, giving men an equal chance at custody of children and at alimony. Men often look like better “parents” under gender-neutral rules like level of income and presence of nuclear family, because men make more money and (as they say) initiate the building of family units. In effect, they get preferred because society advantages them before they get into court, and law is prohibited from taking that preference into account because that would mean taking gender into account.”

This failure of the law to consider the fact that a group in society may traditionally enjoy certain advantages and privileges over other groups is very significant in the eyes of many of your critics. 

These critics have argued that your feminism is white feminism – a kind of feminism that seems to benefit only white women who already enjoy certain economic benefits and social privileges more than women of colour. 

Having read the criticisms against your feminism, I am concerned for anyone who chooses to celebrate you as a feminist icon without first going through a critical evaluation of your feminism.

I have felt a certain uneasiness upon seeing some women of my colour celebrating you as a feminist icon purely through the universalist prism, which sees that women anywhere are the same and any difference due to race, social class, or religion does not matter at all.

But I do not agree with those who have claimed that your legal work has helped destroy all affirmative action programs that help women. 

That view is deliberately exaggerated and fails to consider the facts that you advocated for women’s affirmative actions in 1975. Later, as a Supreme Court judge in 2003, you argued for affirmative action to address societal discrimination. 

I am quite curious to learn more about how you square the two: the need to ensure equal protection of the laws and the need for affirmative action, or positive discrimination, to rectify “both civil and social inequalities and helps disadvantaged groups achieve a measure of freedom within the societies that oppress them”). But that is for another day.

Here, another criticism can be suggested: Your feminism helps advance formal equality for both men and women. So what?

Unlike in the United States, we have no problem with formal equality in Vietnam. 

Our Constitution enshrines women’s rights and has done this since 1946. Our Gender Equality Law came into effect in 2007. 

Yet, it would be an overstatement to say that the women in Vietnam enjoy a kind of gender equality that allows them to flourish. 

On the global scale in 2020, Vietnam is ranked 31 out of 153 countries in ensuring women’s economic participation and opportunity, 93 out of 153 in ensuring women’s educational attainment, 151 out of 153 in ensuring women’s health and survival, and 110 out of 153 in ensuring women’s political empowerment. 

Vietnamese women, on average, still earn $130 less than Vietnamese men per year. 

On a more micro-scale view I can still see that many women in my country suffer from sexual abuse, domestic violence, and extreme misogyny. 

I am ashamed to see that some of this Vietnamese misogyny has been shown in many things written about you on the Vietnamese social media in recent days. 

Some Vietnamese people seem unable to get over the fact that you supported the women’s right to abortion. They claimed that you were obsessed with killing unborn children. 

The fact is that you simply supported women’s right to choose, following your feminism. As you said to the US Senate in your confirmation hearing, “[i]t is essential to woman’s equality with man that she be the decisionmaker, that her choice be controlling. If you impose restraints that impede her choice, you are disadvantaging her because of her sex“. 

More than anything, such a hostile attitude towards abortion rights – which tends to be seen amongst Vietnamese men of older generations – betrays an underlying belief that Vietnamese women are not entitled to own and control their wombs. 

Suppose a Vietnamese woman’s decision to abort offends a Vietnamese man’s religious belief in the sanctity of her child’s life. In that case, it is the Vietnamese woman who is wrong, not the Vietnamese man. That seems to be what some Vietnamese people, men, and women, still believe, 74 years after the Vietnamese Constitution proudly announced that women shall have the same rights as men. 

So, it appears we need more than “formal equality”, to make Vietnam a better place for women. 

Does that mean your feminism is obsolete to us Vietnamese? That would be an overstatement based on only a partial understanding of your feminism. 

Professor Joan Williams argued that, as a lawyer, you fought for women’s rights with more than just a steely insistence on gender equality. 

In your legal briefs and later court decisions, you aimed to deconstruct the traditional male-female divide in which men must be the bread-winners, and women must be the dependants and caregivers. 

For example, in the case of Charles Moritz we discussed earlier, Moritz was discriminated against by the law because the law back then refused to recognise the possibility that a single man can be a caregiver for his elderly mother. Caregivers must be women or formerly married men (who have family members they could care for). 

Your legal arguments did not just point to the Equal Protection Clause. You sought to deconstruct that traditional assumption that caregivers must not be single men. In doing so, you reconstructed a new premise for the law: caregivers can be women, married men, single men, whoever has someone they have to care for. 

Social roles are social constructs. If a social role results in unfairness, we must attempt to deconstruct and then reconstruct that social role. 

It is another surprise to learn that your feminism originally was not only inspired by your law students. It was inspired by your research on Swedish laws and legal reforms in the 1960s. 

Back then, Swedish advocates argued that “imprisonment in the masculine role is at least as great a problem to men as conformity to a feminine ideal is to women” and “that a debate on liberation and equality must be about how men as well as women are forced to act out socially determined stereotypes.” 

Adopting such stances, you became a constructive feminist who “defines equality as treating men and women the same but only after deconstructing the existing norms defined by and around men and masculinity, and reconstructing existing institutions in ways that include the bodies and traditional life patterns of women.

Maybe you described your constructive feminism best in your own words:

“[W]ere I Queen, my principal affirmative action plan would have three legs. First, it would promote equal educational opportunity and effective job training for women, so they would not be reduced to dependency on a man or the state. Second, my plan would give men encouragement and incentives to share more evenly with women the joys, responsibilities, worries, upsets, and sometimes tedium of raising children from infancy to adulthood. (This, I admit, is the most challenging part of the plan to make concrete and implement.) Third, the plan would make quality day care available from infancy on. Children in my ideal world would not be women’s priorities, they would be human priorities.”

Here are perhaps hints of a future of gender equality that the Vietnamese people can consider. 

We have formalised gender equality, but how far have we attempted to reconstruct the existing norms and institutions to free both men and women?

Why is it so easy for Vietnamese men to assume and joke that if a young woman is wealthy, she must have a “sugar daddy”?

Why were many Vietnamese people irked to see a 17-year-old girl celebrating a bit prematurely when she was on the verge of winning a television contest against three male opponents?

Maybe I am reading too much into these behaviours. Still, I suspect they are because of the expectations deeply rooted in our culture about how women should live and should behave. Such expectations seem to dictate that, in her role, a young woman cannot become rich on her own; and that, in her role, a young girl should not over-celebrate and should not live true to her emotions. 

On the other side of the coin, I suspect that there are other deeply rooted expectations that imprison the Vietnamese men in specific roles as much as the Vietnamese women.

I have yet to see these expectations, roles, and social norms being debated and deconstructed by the Vietnamese people. But I am hopeful that one day they will be.

The letter is now quite long. I do not want to bore both you and my Vietnamese audience too much, so I will stop here. 

I hope to write to you another time. So that I can discuss more things I have learned from you, things that my Vietnamese people can also know to further their pursuits of freedom and happiness. 

I thank you for your feminism, and I wish you a good eternal rest. 

Yours sincerely,

Nam Quynh 

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Opinion-Section

With Economic Development Comes Greater Government Oppression: Why the EU Must Reconsider Its Free Trade Deal with Vietnam

The agreement threatens to legitimize a brutal regime unless greater human rights protections are incorporated.

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On the same day in 2020 that Vietnam chaired its first Security Council meeting in New York, just a few hours earlier and some 8000 miles away near its capital, Hanoi, the Communist Party of Vietnam directly attacked Dong Tam village for refusing to give up its land.

The result? Police shot dead Dong Tam’s beloved leader and former Party village chief, Le Dinh Kinh, an 84-year-old veteran who had been a Party member for 57 years; three police officers also died after falling down a sky-light, ostensibly pursuing “suspects” who resisted the authorities. Twenty two villagers have subsequently been arrested, with twenty being charged with murder. If convicted, these villagers could face the death penalty. 

The Dong Tam land seizure event of last week is therefore a watershed moment in Vietnam’s post-war history for many reasons. First, it marks for the first time in the age of social media an open and deadly clash between the Party and its once loyal support base: villagers in northern Vietnam. According to a 2015 Bloomberg finding, almost 70% of Party members live in the north, even though the north is home to less than half of the country’s population of 96 million.

Second, it shows the Party’s determination in ending the dispute, no matter the costs, and the great lengths it will go to muzzle public outcry afterwards, both on- and offline.

Just two days after the incident, the Ministry of Information, which controls and censors all media content in Vietnam, called for Facebook – by far the most popular social media platform in Vietnam, used by some 55 million netizens – to be punished for ‘not following Vietnamese laws’ in allowing ‘distortion and fake news’ to be spread on its platform.

Following official warnings and thanks to a large cyber-troop force the government employs, some users reporting on Dong Tam have been locked out of their accounts or had content taken down by Facebook, a fact Amnesty International has confirmed in recent days.

Offline, the Party’s determination couldn’t be more clear. Less than 24 hours after the incident, the most senior member of the Politburo and Vietnam’s top leader, Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, posthumously awarded the officers killed the title of “martyr”, designating them as first-class heroes.

A week later, in an elaborate ceremony held at the State Funeral House, the Prime Minister himself along with other Politburo members, including the powerful Minister of Public Security, attended the funeral, noting that the officers ‘sacrificed their lives to protect national security’.

It is, indeed, not surprising that the Party views the incident as a matter of significant national security. After all, though land disputes are common in Vietnam because the government does not recognize private land ownership, never before has an entire village dared to resist government seizure of its land at all costs and announce its intentions accordingly on Youtube and Facebook.

With Vietnam’s economy expected to grow faster in the next decade, land designated for development purposes and seized by the government will likely exacerbate the security situation on the ground if not dealt with decisively. In the case of Dong Tam, the land seizure was for Viettel Group, Vietnam’s military-run communications company. They had to act.

But the timing could not have been worse. In the coming days, the EU Parliament’s Trade Committee is expected to vote on the EU – Vietnam Free Trade Agreement, worth 42 billion dollars annually and described by the EU as ‘the most ambitious free trade deal ever concluded with a developing country’. If passed, it will go to Parliament for a final vote on February 10.

According to Human Rights Watch, already there is significant concern among some EU MEPs regarding Vietnam’s worsening human rights record. Just last month, they also discovered that the trade deal rapporteur, MEP Jan Zahradil, has institutional links with the Party, leading to his immediate resignation.

With the latest incident in Dong Tam, it is also important for the 751 MEPs to realize that while the deal will bring more economic benefits to Vietnam, without clear and concrete human rights benchmarks, the deal will likely provide more incentives for the Party loyal and powerful to grab more land from the poor for developments without proper compensation and recourse.

As a result, if passed in its present form, expect more land losses and tragic deaths in villages across Vietnam, not less. After all, 65% of Vietnam’s population still lives in rural areas.

As for the Security Council of which Vietnam is the President this month, expect no resolutions on the matter. Dang Dinh Quy, head of Vietnam’s permanent mission in New York, is a Communist Party member himself.

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Vietnam’s Travel Bans Infringe on Activists’ Rights And Violate Own Constitution

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Vietnamese police officer stands behind a barricade in Hanoi. Photo credits: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

On November 20, 2019, Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc, a Vietnamese Catholic priest, posted on his Facebook page that he was not allowed to leave Vietnam to go to Japan to meet with the Pope during the papal visit to Asia. The immigration police gave Father Thuc a document explaining the reason why the government did not allow him to travel abroad. It stated that the priest was banned from leaving Vietnam because the authorities believed they were preventing possible crimes against “national security and public order” according to Article 21, Section 6 of Decree 136/2007/ND-CP. This decree was issued (link in Vietnamese) by Vietnam’s executive branch on August 17, 2007.

This was not the first time Father Thuc was prevented from traveling overseas. About two years ago, he was also blocked from traveling to Taiwan to attend meetings with Taiwanese civil society organizations regarding an environmental disaster involving a Taiwan enterprise, the Formosa Plastics Corporation. In one of Vietnam’s four central coastal provinces, Father Thuc had helped some of the victims of the Formosa incident voice their concerns over a legal fight and the aftermath of the disastrous environmental situation. 

The case of Father Thuc again demonstrates how the Vietnamese government bans human rights activists from traveling in order to stop them from participating in international advocacy efforts. The Vietnamese authorities have confiscated the passports of more than 100 Vietnamese activists, banning them from traveling by citing the same legal section: Decree 136/2007/ND-CP. Activists are deemed by police as a threat to Vietnam’s national security and public order when they go abroad. 

This incident also explains why we seldom see activists from Vietnam taking part in international advocacy for human rights in Vietnam. And even when activists do travel, they may not want to expose themselves publicly during advocacy events for Vietnam’s human rights because they could lose their passports upon returning home. Dinh Thao, an environmental and human rights activist, had her passport confiscated after being detained for several hours by police after returning to Vietnam this month. In the last three years, she traveled the world publicly advocating for human rights in Vietnam, and the confiscation of her passport was the price she had to pay for her actions. 

The story of Dinh Thao is the same dilemma that almost all Vietnamese activists have had to deal with in the past five or six years. If they travel abroad and publicly advocate for human rights in Vietnam, they face the possibility of being blocked from traveling again after they return to Vietnam.  When Vietnam underwent its second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2014, activists accused the government of reprisals when it prevented activists from leaving the country to advocate for Vietnam’s human rights. Among them, Paulo Nguyen Ho Nhat Thanh, Pham Chi Dung, and Nguyen Bac Truyen were not allowed to depart the country to go to Geneva, Switzerland in January and February 2014 when their passports were confiscated. Pham Le Vuong Cac was also detained and had his passport confiscated in August 2014 when he returned to Vietnam after attending the UPR in Geneva. During the last UPR in 2019, Nguyen Thi Kim Khanh, wife of political prisoner Truong Minh Duc, participated in advocacy activities to raise her husband’s case in Europe and was detained for five hours upon her arrival in Vietnam. The police also took her passport without any judicial oversight, stating it was for national security.

Without their passports, these activists are prevented from traveling abroad and if they leave the country without it, they risk being considered illegal immigrants or worse, being accused of taking part in human trafficking schemes. 

The ban on activists traveling overseas is illegal, and it also directly violates Vietnam’s 2013 Constitution. Article 23 of the Constitution guarantees that “citizens shall enjoy the freedom of movement and of residence within the country; and can freely travel abroad and return home from abroad.” By issuing governmental decrees like Decree 136/2007/ND-CP in 2007, the Vietnamese government has violated the rights of its citizens. 

These decrees were not introduced, debated, and passed by the legislative branch but were executive orders whose constitutionality should ideally be decided by a judicial review. Sadly, Vietnam’s court system is not independent, and there is no constitutional court in the country. The government is able to issue unconstitutional decrees to suppress people’s rights without having any form of checks and balances. 

The right of movement has met the same fate as the right for peaceful assembly: both of these rights have been violated by governmental decrees with the people having no means at all to fight back. In Vietnam, the National Assembly’s Standing Committee has the right to exercise the power to interpret the law, including constitutional law. This is the committee that can decide whether a law or a decree is constitutional. Unfortunately, the Standing Committee has never exercised that power.

The government also does not notify activists when it puts their names on a “no travel ban” list, and some of them only find out upon arrival at the airport, as was the case of Father Thuc. Some people, such as Dinh Thao, had their passports confiscated by the police immediately after they returned to Vietnam from overseas. 

And yet, when the authorities infringe upon these activists’ right of movement, the police do not even follow the prescriptions as stated in Decree 136/2007/ND-CP. Article 22, Section 1(d) of this decree states that if a person is prevented from traveling because he or she is suspected to be a threat to national security or public order, such a decision to ban travel must be issued by the minister of the Ministry of Public Security – the head of the national police. In reality, none of the documents banning activists from traveling are signed by the minister. In the latest case of Father Thuc, the decision was signed by an immigration police officer, Lieutenant Colonel Phan Huan. 

Human rights activists in Vietnam face blatant violations of their rights by the government daily as reprisals for their work, but the government cannot stop the democracy movement from expanding. The activist community continues to grow and they willingly face harassment and imprisonment. In recent years, Vietnam has arrested more people for political dissent and handed down harsher sentences. Posting on Facebook with information that the government dislikes may land a person in jail for a decade, as we saw earlier this month. But at the same time, more people are willing to write and expose corruption and official wrongdoing in Vietnam. This is a time for political change and Vietnamese citizens want to be a part of this change. They are increasingly daring to face the consequences. 

In all of the human rights dialogue that the West participates in with Vietnam, putting an end to the travel ban should be top priority. If that happens, then the world will be able to hear Vietnamese activists express their struggles on the international stage. The advocacy to improve the human rights situation in Vietnam should start with eliminating the travel ban now.

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