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How Can The EU Parliament Convince Us That Vietnam Will Improve Its Human Rights Record When Dissidents Continue To Get Jailed For Exercising Their Rights?

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Photo credits: tapchitaichinh.vn

The European Union – Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EV-FTA) is expected to be a comprehensive win-win deal for both sides, ambitiously seeking to improve trade and boost mutual economic growth. As with all free trade agreements to which the EU is a party to, a human rights clause is built into this FTA with Vietnam. Many EU officials and parliament members that I have met in the past two years through my advocacy for Vietnam’s human rights situation earnestly believe that Vietnam will improve its record once the FTA takes effect. 

In the past, these friends have asked me to have some faith in the current regime, assuring me that our Vietnamese human rights activists and defenders will have better days in the future. It is a very typical “give them more time” argument that they expect me to accept. Yet the record shows that Vietnam’s aggression against human rights activists increases every year while government-controlled courts continue to hand out harsh sentences. I often wonder how EU officials still want to convince me to have such faith? 

In March 2019, I met with an EU official who was participating in the negotiations of the EV-FTA. She expressed great sympathy for human rights defenders in Vietnam and even realized the situation for human rights there was worrying. And yet, towards the end of our conversation, she asked me what I thought about one of Vietnam’s ministers, whose name I will not disclose. She seemed to be fond of the guy and praised him for belonging to a “progressive group in the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP)” that she said hopefully would one day push for an improvement in human rights in the country. 

As a democracy activist, I personally think that regardless of whether a person is progressive or not, none of the VCP members right now would dare to inch away from the Party’s political monopoly inside the country. And I frankly stated that the Ministry of Public Security – the national police – would never allow any official to raise his or her voice over the human rights situation in Vietnam. Asking for political pluralism, an improvement in the human rights situation, and democracy would place anyone in danger of being sent to prison for more than a decade, as the latest political trials have shown this year. 

I met with the official right after attending the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s 125th session in Geneva, Switzerland where the Committee completed its third periodic report on Vietnam’s implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Vietnam submitted its report after a 13-year delay in December 2017–the original deadline was set for August 2004. The Committee sadly acknowledged that in Vietnam’s review “less information was provided on the actual implementation of ICCPR and application of domestic laws in practice, where concrete data was crucially lacking.” 

Vietnam ascended to the ICCPR in 1982, but with regard to complying with the international covenant on human rights, it didn’t actually provide any opportunities for people to learn and exercise their rights. More than that, the government did not allow the Vietnamese people to use the ICCPR in courts to defend themselves when such rights were being violated. 

The point is that more than three decades after Vietnam joined the ICCPR, the human rights situation in Vietnam remains hopeless and people’s rights are being violated on a daily basis. How can we believe that the EV-FTA will improve such a situation when the ICCPR has so far failed so miserably?

I began to write this article after receiving the news that a close friend, an activist from Vietnam, had been detained upon arrival at the Noi Bai International Airport, where she was put into detention by 10 security police. Dinh Thao is an environmental and human rights activist who left Vietnam to study and work abroad as an advocate for human rights more than three years ago. She was a medical doctor before becoming an activist and I am sure some of the EU parliament members must remember her because she advocated for Vietnam’s human rights situation in Brussels a few years ago and may have met some of them. 

Thao is non-violent and even created a project to educate people about peaceful demonstrations. Yet she was detained by the police immediately after her arrival in Vietnam. What crime did she commit to deserve such treatment? Or is it just simply the fact that the government violated her rights in retaliation for her advocacy internationally for more human rights in Vietnam? 

On the same day that Dinh Thao was detained, November 15, 2019, another Vietnamese was sentenced to 11 years imprisonment and five years of house arrest. Nguyen Nang Tinh, a  music teacher who also advocated for human rights and democracy for Vietnam, was accused by the state of “propagandizing against the government” via his Facebook posts. Tinh denied that the alleged Facebook account belongs to him, but if you read the posts in that account you’ll see that there was nothing that called for a violent overthrow of the regime. If you search for him online, you will see videos of him teaching young children patriotic songs, songs that demand human rights for the people. How could his activities be called “propaganda against the state”?

As I have worked to protect the human rights of activists in Vietnam for many years, I have often recounted their stories to many Western politicians and officials. The activists I have met are people who had the opportunity to learn about the concept of human rights and who then started to defend such rights for others and also sometimes for themselves. They are the people who believe in the spirit and the universal values of human rights and they also believe that international laws, such as the ICCPR, will protect them. They probably had hoped that the ICCPR would be implemented in Vietnam at their trials. But that hope was never realized because we have never seen arguments articulating any of the articles of the ICCPR, such as Article 19, which protects the freedom of expression, presented in Vietnamese courts. 

And as a result, human rights activists and defenders have often typically been sentenced in rushed one-day trials without an independent judiciary. Sometimes the decisions handed down include lengthy jail sentences, as in the case of Nguyen Nang Tinh, which happened this month. 

In response to the EU officials who asked me to “have faith” in the regime, I point to a database built by the independent civil society organization The 88 Project, which catalogues the arrest and detention of political prisoners in Vietnam. A representative of that organization informed me a few days ago that in 2018, the Vietnamese government had arrested 145 people. These arrests showed the authorities’ blatant violation of the human rights of citizens. That number was greater than the number of arrests Vietnam made in 2017, 2016, and 2015 combined. In 2018, the number of arrests went up because the government detained and sentenced many people after large demonstrations happened in June 2018, in protest against the new cybersecurity law and the development of special economic zones with Chinese investment. 

It is not only human rights activists who are being treated unfairly and who are suffering mistreatment in Vietnam. There are also other groups, such as the workers, for whom the EV-FTA probably has some aspirations to improve their work environment and living standards. Many EU Parliament members have urged the Vietnamese government to quickly ratify the remaining three International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions prior to EU voting on the trade deal. Vietnam has promised to ratify the three ILO conventions over a time period of five years beginning in 2018. However, ratification of international laws is one thing, while the reality of how the Vietnamese authorities have failed to improve workers’ lives is another story. 

In Taipei, Taiwan, legal migrant workers from Vietnam went on a protest this month to demand the abolition of broker fees that each of them had to pay to be able to work in Taiwan. These broker fees are considered to be part of the most exploitative system of all of the countries in Southeast Asia from which these workers come from. What does the Vietnamese government know about this system and why does it allow such a broker fee system to continue to exploit their people? Would the EV-FTA be able to eradicate that system to improve the lives of these workers? How can I have the faith to believe that the Vietnamese government will ever take care of these people? 

Recently, Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia released 70 opposition activists in order to improve his country’s human rights image after the EU threatened the withdrawal of special trade preferences. Cambodia’s political system has many aspects that are far better than in Vietnam. That country at least has an opposition political party – the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). On the contrary, the Vietnamese Communist Party has a political monopoly and we don’t have a single other political party. 

Running for office as an independent candidate will not lead to any success as the 2016 elections have demonstrated. Being a member of a political party that was formed overseas was the reason that Vietnam sentenced a 70-year-old Vietnamese-Australian man, Chau Van Kham, to 12 years in prison earlier this month. 

And yet, the EV-FTA provides for a lot more benefits for Vietnam than compared the trade preferences that Cambodia would get from the EU. How can Cambodia demonstrate a greater willingness to improve its human rights record while Vietnam just keeps getting worse? How can I have faith that Vietnam will eventually improve?

During these days, police brutality in Hong Kong has increased dramatically as we see from the recent news coming out from universities there. And as we support and pray for young people there, I hope none of the international politicians and officials will say “give China more time” so that they can resolve their human rights problems. 

In my personal capacity, despite all my efforts, I have yet to make Vietnam’s human rights situation become more well-known in the world. However, I can not look at all of my human rights activists friends in Vietnam and tell them to be patient and to give the government more time. 

We need to raise our voices and demand right now that the Vietnamese government make an effort to improve its human rights record. Should Vietnam make some improvements prior to the EU Parliament vote on the FTA trade deal? Yes, absolutely. Vietnam has to show its good faith by releasing the more than 200 political prisoners who are currently serving time and by allowing the emergence of political pluralism with fair and free elections. 

Opinion-Section

“Law of the Jungle” for Pham Doan Trang

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The arrest of Pham Doan Trang on October 6, 2020. Photo courtesy: Luat Khoa Magazine

This article was written in Vietnamese by songwriter Tuan Khanh and published on The New Viet magazine. The Vietnamese would like to thank The New Viet and author Tuan Khanh for allowing us to translate and publish this article in English. This article was translated into English by Y Chan.

***

While combing through my notes about Pham Doan Trang, I recalled many details which only now have been connected together, which could make up a symbolic book depicting the journey of a young person, from growing up under the socialist educational system to breaking out of the barbed wire of propaganda. She raised her voice to become a symbol of Vietnamese youth born after 1975, who committed themselves to an ideology to help their country rise up.

But what is no less crucial is that along the same journey, we have also experienced a depiction of Vietnamese law, a legal system that is used by the state as “joss paper” to be burnt in traditional ritual and sanctimonious duties, which in essence is completely meaningless. 

Pham Doan Trang has unwittingly somehow become the main character in a tragic story that unveils, through her blood and tears, the nature of that so-called legal system. 

I have uncovered that brief personal struggle of hers and found three markers that could have predicted many recent events.

Pham Doan Trang has always opted to fight for democracy in a peaceful manner through her writings. But the “law” that surrounds her is completely the opposite. 

The first marker was in April, 2017, when the situation around Trang had grown intense. The Hanoi police shelved their kind and friendly attitude toward her, opting for other more “direct” measures. It started with a bicycle demonstration in Hanoi that was stopped by the police. The event was meant to commemorate the anniversary of the Formosa environmental disaster, which resulted in massive fish deaths in the seas off the coastal provinces in central Vietnam. Despite not having taken part in the demonstration, Pham Doan Trang was taken to the police station for interrogation.

“Mother fucker you cuntface!”  Trang recalls a young policeman pointing at her and shouting, angered because he was unable to tell her why she had been detained. When Trang protested against his attitude, the young officer, again unable to respond, shouted again, “I’ll pee in your fucking mouth”. It happened in front of several other police officers, women included. But all stayed dead silent. The incident marked the beginning of a stage when the police no longer treated Trang as a normal citizen who raised her voice on social issues. After that unlawful arrest, journalist Pham Doan Trang started to face much more brutal treatment from the authorities.

The second marker was June, 2018, when many demonstrations broke out in Saigon and Hanoi, protesting the lack of environmental protections as well as voicing criticisms against the Cyber Security Law and the Special Economic Zone Law. Trang took part in one of the demonstrations. She noticed at the time the presence of a young muscular man who was silently walking beside her. She felt a bit doubtful, but assured herself that the man would do no harm to her, but simply follow her.

She was wrong. In the midst of all the chaos and confusion when the demonstrators encountered the police, the young man suddenly approached and stamped on her foot to keep it from moving, then very skillfully delivered a kick under her knee. Trang immediately fell to the ground. The ankle joint, severely injured, swelled. The young man quickly vanished. She thought it was just a minor injury that would heal itself within days. But severe pain later forced her to go to the hospital.

In the two hospitals she visited in Hanoi for examination, after taking X-rays, the doctors all assured her that her injury was nothing serious and that she needed no treatment at all. Later, sensing something was not right, Trang decided to see a doctor she personally knew who worked in a hospital in Saigon. Only then did she find out that the expert kick she had suffered that day had seriously damaged her cruciate ligament, leaving only an almost necrotic lingering fibrous tissue. Had this injury gone undetected for just one more day, she might have had to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. 

What is a cruciate ligament? As the doctor explained, it is used to connect the thigh bone (femur) and shin bone (tibia), keeping the lower extremity straight and bearing the body weight while still enabling the folding and stretching activity through the knee joint. When the cruciate ligament is damaged, the thigh bone and shin bone instead of bonding to each other will become two loosely connected bones, and can not form a structure that bears the body weight while standing.

The kick on the knee will make the knee joint abruptly turn inward, either tearing or stretching the cruciate ligament. This kind of injury is mostly seen in football when a footballer suffers from a malicious foul or in tennis when a player folds his knee while falling down. Or, as in this case, it is the result of a powerful kick from someone who is well trained and knows exactly the consequences of his act. Although having recovered and been saved from losing her leg, Trang now has to spend the rest of her life limping, never again regaining her ability to walk normally.

The third marker was at the concert of singer Nguyen Tin in August, 2018. The melody was replaced by a continuous banging, the sound of bike helmets being smashed against Trang’s head. The act, performed passionately by four fully-masked young men with strong northern accents who were on motorcycles, lasted until the helmets broke apart.

According to Trang, right before this beating, she was taken away by the police after they interrupted the concert and arrested several other people, including her. She was pushed into a seven-seater car and driven to a deserted street in the middle of the night. One officer, who seemed to be the man in charge, then ordered her to get out of the car. Having all her personal identification papers and belongings confiscated by the police, Trang protested and tried to explain to the police that there was no way she could get back if she was left alone in that area. The man in charge handed her a 200,000 dong note (less than US$9) and told her to take a taxi. 

Standing in the middle of a street, confused and still in pain after the initial strikes by the police at the concert, Trang noticed the police car did not leave but stopped a few hundred meters away, from where the officers kept watching her. That was then the helmet-attack happened, after four young men on two motorcycles suddenly approached her. The young men immediately got to work without saying anything, striking her on the head, adding the curse “fucking” with every blow. Only when they all left did Trang manage to hobble away and seek help to get to a hospital.

The stories from the three markers that I point to are filled with countless acts that don’t fit into any legal framework. One can relate such acts to the kind of tactics used by criminal gangs who exert their brutal power to control their turf. The systematic and gang-like attacks used against this woman were planned and coordinated in a perfect manner, and any law-abiding citizen could easily become a victim of such brutality.

And now when Pham Doan Trang has been arrested under some very obscure laws, the joss paper is burning once again on the legal altar where the laws are put on the stage just for show.

In the coming trial for Pham Doan Trang, none of these stories will be mentioned. The Vietnamese State never represses its citizens. No peaceful activists have ever been arrested. Only those who break the law are rightfully punished. There are no human rights violations in this country. Vietnam is a country that always respects and ensures human rights. These words will be engraved on the joss paper being burned on the stage where people who put on judge’s robes hand down their law of the jungle.

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Opinion-Section

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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