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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

Biden’s Emphasis On Soft Power And What It Means For Vietnam’s Democracy Movement

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Photo credit: Na Kim (illustration), Tom Brenner (photo)/ Thinh Nguyen, Luat Khoa Magazine/ Kao Nguyen, AFP. Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

President Joe Biden has repeatedly emphasised “soft power” in his foreign policy speeches. Will this policy work in Vietnam? And how will it affect Vietnam’s democracy movement?

Biden’s emphasis on soft power: what’s in store for Vietnam and should one believe it?

It’s almost a year into Joe Biden’s presidency. Throughout his tenure, two keywords, “relentless diplomacy” and “soft power,” have echoed in every corner where US foreign policy is concerned: from the ending of the “forever war” in Afghanistan to the reorganisation of trans-Atlantic relations, and to engagement with Asia. The challenges for which President Biden will implement his “relentless diplomacy” and “soft power” approach are, in short, the covid pandemic, climate change, and China[1].

Vietnamese readers can be assured of Biden’s serious interest in Asia by, amongst others, the appointment of a competent expert Kurt Campbell [2] as the White House coordinator for the Indo-Pacific region, US support for Taiwan and its alliance with Japan, vaccine donations, and, most recently, Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to the region and Vietnam specifically. 

Regarding China, Biden’s promise [3] of “fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights” will be arguably the most effective tool for the United States in the realm of soft power. Economic and military strength notwithstanding, the Chinese regime is infamous for its authoritarian governance and long record of human rights violations. Ironically, China’s military strength, as observed in its actions in the South China Sea, makes its draconian image even more despicable. 

By contrast, the era of Pax Americana, despite criticisms of US imperialism, has built an overall image of the United States as a promoter of human rights and democracy. Although the recent Afghanistan debacle has damaged the reputation of the United States, Biden has been quick to assert [4] that the new era of US foreign policy will be about “lifting people up around the world” and “renewing and defending democracy”.

Speaking of Pax Americana, Biden’s emphasis on “soft power” and “relentless diplomacy” happens in a context different than that of American leaders of the past who boasted about a US “moral imperative” and “doing the right thing” only to turn a cold shoulder to their allies when the tide of geopolitics turned. In the post-Americana era, despite Biden’s denial/rejection [5] of the imminent “China-US Cold War”,  it is widely recognised (as indicated by the US “pivot to Asia”[6]) that US national interests depend on whether or not the United States can counter China’s plays in Asia. As such, one can expect Biden’s words to have substance rather than just simply paying lip service.

Biden’s “soft power” in Vietnam: the state-versus-people conundrum    

When it comes to China and human rights, there is a clear distinction between the perspectives of the Vietnamese state and the Vietnamese people. At the most basic level, Vietnamese leaders have little to no concern for the interests of their people because their positions are not determined by voters. Vietnam’s election is well known for being a farce [7].

The divergence between the Vietnamese public and the Vietnamese government on China could not be clearer. When the government approved a bauxite project related to China in 2009, the Vietnamese people signed a petition to oppose it. When the people took to the streets in the early years of the 2010s to oppose China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, the government cracked down on these protests and detained several protesters. When the Special Economic Zone bill was announced, it was perceived by the Vietnamese public as giving questionable privileges to China and also was seen as a threat to Vietnam’s national security. As a result, massive protests broke out in the streets in 2018 and the bill was shelved as a result.

Most recently, the use of China’s COVID vaccines in Vietnam has been met with public resistance and fierce criticism of the government. Anti-China protesters’ shouts of, “Coward to the enemy, cruel to the people!” (“Hèn với giặc, ác với dân!”), is precisely the Vietnamese people’s attitude towards their government on China.

At this point, one may argue: “But the Vietnamese government has also spoken up against China many times, so it cannot be as pro-China as the above-mentioned events indicate.” This is true and quite a few analyses [8] have highlighted the stake for the Vietnamese government in playing US-China politics wisely instead of simply bowing to China. However, it is important to understand that when Vietnamese leaders do stand up to China, it is often “all bark and no bite.”[9] More importantly, whether Vietnamese leaders shake hands with Biden or with Xi, or play the superpowers off against each other, they do so first and foremost based on their, or the Communist Party’s, own interest [10], rather than on the interests of the country and the people.

Thus, it is highly unlikely that the United States will find a true ally in the Vietnamese government in its state-to-state diplomacy against China. Because of this, the US will also find it difficult to tap into the Vietnamese public’s anti-China sentiment. Hanoi has shown little to no concern about how Vietnamese citizens feel or about what they want, and it has unreservedly deployed force to quell anti-China protests and online dissent in the past.

The road to promoting human rights in Vietnam does not seem promising either, especially the rights to free speech, peaceful assembly, association, and fair trial. The promise of US leaders to “respect Vietnam’s political system” [11] seems rather odd because the very existence and stability of Vietnam’s political system rest on the suppression of exactly those rights. The relentless arrests of people who speak critically of the government on their Facebook pages and of those who ran as independent candidates in the lead-up to the May 2021 national election are just some examples.

What has played out so far in the field of human rights does not show much innovation. State-to-state talks about the situation of human rights in the country, assistance for specific high-profile activists who have been arrested and who are on trial, and US leaders holding meetings with local activists are all par for the course. It remains to be seen if Biden’s administration will open a new chapter of human rights promotion through public diplomacy or if it will lead to more of the same: the worsening of human rights and democratic freedoms in Vietnam. 

Public diplomacy and soft power: a look into the books 

The term “public diplomacy” was first coined in 1965 by Edmund Gullion, founder of the Edward R. Murrow Center of Public Diplomacy at Tufts University (Cull, 2009) [12]. Definitions vary but all agree that public diplomacy is a foreign policy practice entailing nation A engaging with the public of nation B in order to influence B’s foreign policy through bottom-up pressure to A’s advantage (Bettie, 2014) [13]. In short, it is about image projection and national branding, which is distinctly different from traditional diplomacy which consists of state-to-state engagement. 

In the work of historian Nicholas J. Cull (2008) [14], activities that count as public diplomacy include (1) presenting new policy ideas to the foreign public (i.e., advocacy), (2) exportation of culture to foreign countries as well as two-way cultural exchanges, and (3) international broadcasting (i.e., reaching a foreign public through mass media).

While public diplomacy can be understood as a channel of persuasion, soft power is the content that gives a nation the power to persuade the foreign public. Prominent soft power scholar, Joseph S. Nye Jr., defines soft power as the attractiveness of a nation that lies in its culture, including its language, arts, cuisine, institutions, brands, and moral values (Nye, 2008) [15]. Soft power goes hand-in-hand with public diplomacy, as “public diplomacy tries to attract by drawing attention to these potential resources through broadcasting, subsidizing cultural exports, arranging exchanges, and so forth” (Nye, 2008, p. 95) [16].

Soft power may also be drawn from hard power. The presence of US military forces in the South China Sea to aid countries bullied by China communicates certain moral values to the people of those countries. However, underlying such a presence in the more complex and pragmatic interests of the United States than simply a normative or moral stance.

Using the above discussion on public diplomacy and soft power, how would President Biden’s plans for Vietnam measure up? What would his roadmap navigating the state-versus-people conundrum in the country look like?    

Evaluating Biden’s diplomacy and navigating Vietnam’s state-versus-people conundrum

Biden’s words promise a new era of US diplomacy, but his actions so far still seem to be following classic state-to-state diplomacy and militaristic intervention more than what is prescribed for public diplomacy and soft power. 

Furthermore, public diplomacy has always been a component in US foreign policy in previous administrations through supporting local registered civil society organisations and non-formal oppositional actors. Thus, with Biden’s emphasis on “soft power,” his administration will disappoint if over the next few years it rehashes many or most of the previous administrations’ actions; this old approach is effectively circumscribed by the state-versus-people conundrum mentioned earlier.

However, the good news for the United States is that despite the disastrous presidency of Donald Trump and the many upheavals in US politics and society, public opinion [17] in Vietnam is still in favour of the United States, especially when compared to China. The soft power is already there. 

As Vietnamese people have grown increasingly more concerned about Hong Kong and Taiwan, their opinion will also be shaped by how the United States intervenes in the Taiwan – China situation. The collapse of Hong Kong has done serious damage to the image of the West, but it is still looking good on the Taiwan front. In addition, the story of Taiwan is not just about standing up to China; it is also about nation-building and the nationalistic pride of a people who chose democracy over dictatorship. 

In summary, US soft power in/over Vietnam will come from the stories of human rights, democracy of the US itself, and its defence of Taiwan against China. This soft power will come across even stronger if US public diplomacy also promotes Taiwan as the protagonist in the region, as a counter to Chinese politics, and as an inspiring story of Asian democratisation. These narratives will further widen the gap between Vietnamese hearts and minds and China, while simultaneously raising aspirations for democratisation amongst the Vietnamese people. In doing so, the United States will also not give a reason for the Vietnamese state-owned media to be hostile towards democratisation and the Vietnamese democracy movement. State propaganda cannot accuse America of imposing Western political ideas and values, nor of hypocrisy and one-upmanship if the US approaches the issue in this way. 

Having said earlier that the Vietnamese government has shown little to no concern about the Vietnamese people’s anti-China sentiments and that it uses brute force against human rights and democracy activists, what is the point of raising aspirations for democratisation and being critical of China? The point to be made is precisely about the kind of mass awareness and feeling of efficacy that will translate into the political agency and oppositional collective action. Old school public diplomacy has come short of this task and has failed to help the Vietnam democracy movement gain strength in numbers. 

My conversations with prominent activists in Vietnam’s human rights and democracy movement show that the seemingly invincible power of the Vietnamese government to repress dissent, the crackdown on protests, and carry on with unpopular policies, comes from the fact that the human rights and democracy movement is small in number and that the majority of the public lack the theoretical scaffolding to help them translate their discontent with the government and nationalistic sentiment into coherent and organised demand for democratisation.

This article, written from my perspective as a Vietnamese, a scholar, and a supporter of collective action towards democracy for Vietnam, has suggested a few ways for American diplomats and foreign policy experts to walk President Biden’s talk.

Meanwhile, Luat Khoa Tap Chi, a well-respected independent news outlet that serves Vietnamese readers, has already beefed up its column on Taiwan as an inspiring example of democracy for the Vietnamese. The comrades of Luat Khoa are also planning their next step, with Taiwan and mass awareness at the core of their strategy. The Biden administration, with the aim of utilizing soft power, should not miss this opportunity to work with them. 

Bibliography:

  1. Ash, T., G. (2020, 7 Nov). What will President Biden’s United States look like to the rest of the world? The Guardian.
  2. Green, M., J. (2021, 13 Jan). Biden makes his first bold move on Asia. The Guardian.
  3. Tran, B., T. (2021, 3 Jun). No Trade-off: Biden can both Deepen US-Vietnam Ties and Promote Human Rights. United States: Center for Strategic and International Studies.
  4. Borger, J. (2021, 21 Sep). Biden promises end to ‘relentless war’ and start of ‘relentless diplomacy’. The Guardian.
  5. ibid.
  6. ibid.
  7. Vu, A. & Gerin, R. (2021, 21 May). Vietnam goes to the polls with state-approved candidates offering little choice. Radio Free Asia.
  8. Nguyen, T., T., Q. (2021, 30 Sep). Trans-Pacific partner membership and the love triangle of Vietnam – Taiwan – China. The Vietnamese.
  9. Reed, A. (2021, 14 Mar). The enemy of my enemy: tensions between the US, China, and Vietnam. The Vietnamese.
  10. ibid.
  11. Tran, B., T. (2021, 3 Jun). No Trade-off: Biden can both Deepen US-Vietnam Ties and Promote Human Rights. United States: Center for Strategic and International Studies.
  12. Cull, N. (2009). Public Diplomacy Before Gullion: the Evolution of a Phrase. In: Snow, N. and Taylor, P. (eds). Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy (pp. 19-23). Tayler & Francis.
  13. Bettie, M., L. (2014). The Fulbright program and American public diplomacy (unpublished doctoral thesis). The University of Leeds, Leeds, United Kingdom. 
  14. Cull, N. (2008). The Cold War and the United States Information Agency. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.
  15. Nye, J. (2008). Public diplomacy and soft power. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 616, pp. 94-109.
  16. ibid.
  17. Seah, S. et al., (2021). The state of Southeast Asia: 2021. Singapore: ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.

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Opinion-Section

Pham Doan Trang Is A Journalist, Her Profession Is Not A Crime

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Pham Doan Trang. Graphic: Trinh Huu Long/The Vietnamese Magazine.

As I am writing this beginning line, my mind is flooded with memories of Pham Doan Trang. I also realize that it has been almost seven years since I said goodbye to her before she left the United States to return to Vietnam. We had become friends and spent seven months together in the United States, and I have not seen her since December 2014. I also have not been able to contact her or speak with her on the phone since October 6, 2020. Vietnamese police arrested her near midnight that day in Saigon. My last text message to her was “Trang, answer me,” which I sent the night she was detained.

Doan Trang can be classified as many things, depending on the person you speak with. She is a journalist, an activist, a teacher, a political person who opposes the Vietnamese Communist Party, a prominent figure of the democracy movement in Vietnam, and more. Yet, for me, Doan Trang is a friend, a very close friend, and that’s it. My only hope is to help set my friend free because she has not done anything wrong. She deserves to be free so that she can continue to write.

And yet, sadly, her writing is precisely the reason that has put her in prison in Vietnam.

In Vietnam, writing or producing verbal speech (YouTube, TikTok, etc.) can be a severe crime when you refuse to obey the government’s censorship system or self-censor on your own. If you look at the details of any political case in Vietnam, I guarantee that you will only find the alleged wrongdoings to be the uncensored writings and speeches produced by these defendants. It does not matter how the Vietnam government classifies their crimes as “abusing democratic rights” or “propagandizing against the state,” their crimes are always their writing and speech.

For Doan Trang, I can also think of another aspect in which she has irritated the Vietnamese authorities even more. She was not just a journalist; she was also trying to encourage more people to write and be more aware of politics in Vietnam. I was one of the people she inspired to take writing as a profession and focus more on Vietnam’s human rights and political affairs. 

In my writing career, I have two people to be grateful for: my two co-founders of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam (LIV), Trinh Huu Long and Pham Doan Trang. If I had not met them in life, I don’t think I would have been confident enough to write in either Vietnamese or English, especially as a journalist.

I left Vietnam and came to the United States when I was 12-years-old. I was not too young to think of myself as a native speaker in English, but I was not too old to be confident in my ability to write in Vietnamese either. However, after meeting Trinh Huu Long and Pham Doan Trang in 2014, they changed my life as I believed in their cause and decided to co-found LIV. Starting from that point, I began to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in Vietnam through journalism. Trinh Huu Long may be the first teacher in journalism for me, but Doan Trang is the inspiration for my decision to change my career from law to journalism.

Many people have asked me why I decided to quit my legal profession and started working for a non-profit organization that focuses on Vietnam. Maybe this career change was not advantageous for them and could be stepping down in life. But Doan Trang’s last words before she left the United States stuck with me throughout these years: “Every country needs a generation of young people who will sacrifice their lives to build a better society for others. If our generation refuses to take up this job for Vietnam, then who else will? Do we wait for the next generation to sacrifice for our country and choose an easier life now?” 

Doan Trang chose to take up this task to promote human rights in Vietnam, and she left America to go back to Vietnam, knowing that she would be imprisoned in the future. Then, for me, the decision of giving up my life as a litigation lawyer to write about human rights and political issues in Vietnam seemed to be a much easier job when I compared myself with Doan Trang. 

She’s inspired me, and we both have the same goal: to put Vietnam on the map for international audiences and encourage more Vietnamese people to care about human rights and democracy. To write about these issues should not be a crime in any nation because we only want to educate the public. What did we do so wrong that my friend Pham Doan Trang has spent one year incommunicado in Vietnam?

The Vietnamese government cannot explain away Pham Doan Trang’s case or any political cases that have sent hundreds of dissidents to decades in jail. However, I hope the international community and foreign governments can speak up louder and be more explicit against this injustice. 

Journalism is not a crime; writing about politics and human rights is not a crime. Vietnam continues to suppress the free press and the freedom of speech much harder now, which is not an action the international community should condone. Please speak up for those imprisoned by the Vietnam government, such as Pham Doan Trang, because we are on the right side of history.

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Journey To The West: Vietnamese Top Leaders’ Recent Vaccine Diplomacy

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Vuong Dinh Hue and Nguyen Xuan Phuc receiving COVID vaccines and equipment donations in Europe and the United States respectively (from left to right). Photo credits: Vietnamnet; Thong Nhat/TTXVN. Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine

In the past month, newly-elected Vietnamese leaders have been seen “touring” Western countries, from Europe to the Americas. From the chairman of the National Assembly Vuong Dinh Hue, who went to Europe, to President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who went to the United States and Cuba, both are parts of the “four pillars” (tứ trụ) leaders – those at the very top of the Vietnamese political system. 

Not only are they two of the most important leaders of Vietnam; they are also newly-elected: although they have re-sworn their terms in the office about three months ago in July, they have held power since April of this year. But that is a different topic for another day.

In other words, these trips are important. National leaders who were just elected do not just go to other countries on official trips for no reason at all. Whatever they were doing in Western countries, it must have been calculated to yield significant political impact on their new term in office. 

But what exactly were they doing, or hoping to achieve from these trips? 

Despite what the Vietnamese state media is telling you about “comprehensively promoting economic and international cooperation,” the most important reason is very simple: getting more COVID vaccines for Vietnam. Is it to genuinely help the people back home to access vaccines or rather it is to save face after the government’s poor handling of the crisis in recent months? 

Vuong Dinh Hue in Europe 

On the occasion of the fifth session of the World Conference of Speakers of Parliament in Austria and the ongoing European Union – Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA), Chairman Hue’s six-day trip to Europe in early September seems to serve multiple purposes as he mainly visited Austria, Belgium, and Finland. 

However, upon the conclusion of the trip, the most important highlights according to Vietnam’s state-controlled media were all COVID-related. In an article published by Vietnamnet about Hue’s achievements during the trip, it was all about him successfully bringing back foreign-donated COVID vaccines or equipment, with the exception of buying 50 million COVID vaccine doses HIPRA from Spain (this vaccine is still in trial, so the doses are not being delivered immediately to Vietnam). In an interview with a high-ranking diplomat accompanying Hue on the trip, more than half of Vietnam Plus’ article is about Hue asking the EU to send more vaccines to Vietnam. VTV coverage of his trip reflects similar patterns. 

Nguyen Xuan Phuc in the Americas 

While Vuong Dinh Hue might have had more reasons to go to Europe than Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the COVID vaccine agenda in Phuc’s trip to the Americas – the United States and Cuba – is significantly more obvious. According to the deputy minister of foreign affairs Dang Hoang Giang, President Phuc’s main objective in the United States was to give a speech in the United Nations General Assembly and to meet with pharmaceutical companies to talk about vaccine supplies. Additionally, Phuc’s trip to Cuba also coincided with Vietnam’s very recent approval of Cuba’s Abdala vaccine

Questions arise about Vietnam’s plan to battle COVID

COVID vaccines being the priority of the two leaders’ foreign trips makes even more sense as we take into account the role of Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, another of the four pillars, who at the moment holds direct decision-making power over domestic COVID policy

As we know that the COVID pandemic is shaping the “four pillars” priorities during their new terms, I believe that there are two questions that arise. 

First, why did the Vietnamese government have to wait so long to actually conduct vaccine negotiations abroad? 

Vaccine diplomacy is good for a rising middle power like Vietnam, and the country had an advantage last year as it had an extremely low infection and mortality rates. While the mentioned leaders did not hold de-facto power until April 2021, they seemingly inherited little concrete plans from their predecessors about obtaining the vaccines or conducting early vaccine diplomacy. This is why the government’s abrupt fundraising plan for a “COVID vaccine fund” in June seems to reflect a lack of preparation at least and systematic governmental incompetence at most. 

This lack of preparedness eventually resulted in the newly-elected leaders literally begging for vaccines in foreign countries after Vietnam suffered from months of restrictions with the number of total cases approaching 1 million. Though the vaccination rates in Vietnam are getting better, and more vaccine supplies are always better for the people, it is definitely not a good look for these leaders and the government itself, despite what the state-controlled media tries to tell us. 

Second, I believe that we should also ask the question: What is Nguyen Phu Trong, the remaining member of the “four pillars” elite club, and arguably the most powerful, contributing to the government’s COVID plans? 

He is the oldest and longest-serving of the “four pillars” leaders. He also held the Communist Party’s secretary-general position over the past decade. While Chinh is tasked with the heavy-lifting duty of curbing domestic infections and Hue and Phuc are busy abroad, Nguyen Phu Trong seems to remain hidden behind the curtain. His most recent public appearances include an official meeting with leaders from Laos and Cambodia and speeches about corruption

While this makes sense because, in theory, the leader of the Communist Party cannot interfere in the executive function of the government, we must ask ourselves if this is really the case, and whether secretary-general Trong is dodging responsibility for the most serious national and legitimacy crisis that the Communist Party and the Vietnamese government have faced in recent years. 

Citations

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