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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

The Intertwining Of Science, Politics, And Ideology In Vietnam’s COVID-19 Crisis

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People line up to be vaccinated against Covid-19 in HCM City, June 24, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, a moment for science

The escalation of COVID-19 in Vietnam, especially in Saigon (officially known as Ho Chi Minh City), is sending millions of people into crisis. They have struggled on multiple fronts, from healthcare and making sense of varying isolation requirements to obtaining food and necessities amidst strict yet incoherent travel bans and supply shortages. 

The double target of trying to contain COVID-19 while simultaneously continuing economic activities that the government persistently defended and adhered to since the start of the pandemic has been abandoned. This is indicative of how serious the situation has become. Over the past few weeks, Saigonese have experienced life in a way they could never have imagined.

In this grim picture, Tuoi Tre Online reported on July 10, 2021, that Ho Chi Minh City’s Party Committee Secretary Nguyen Van Nen is now looking to scientists for advice.[1] The secretary’s words were quoted widely in the news: 

I feel that we need to consult the scientists…. At any time, I want specialists and scientists to see flaws in our strategy to fight the pandemic and contact me; I will consider their advice and respond timely. 

A Facebook influencer reacted to this news with a sense of irony and bitterness:[2]

So what expertise have you relied on to fight the pandemic? Anything but science? Have you been kidding your citizens all along? For one and a half years now, have you been playing with the life and death of millions of people? So, after all, is it true that the tools you have taken to fight a pandemic are simply government decrees and [the manpower of] the Communist Youth League? I feel so ashamed of being led by national leaders who are both blind and arrogant.  

It is rather apparent that in a pandemic, one had better look to the scientists. So, why is a government official only bringing them to the table now? The next question is, how critical can scientists be, with a government that does not like criticism? At the highest level, one must wonder where science and scientists are in the decision-making concerning public matters in non-democratic Vietnam? A look into the Vietnamese Communist Party’s (VCP) ideology that it has followed and its practices could explain this conundrum.

In ideology: the suppression of civil society and communicative rationality

In the United Kingdom, at the start of the pandemic, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies was activated. Since then, it has been working closely with the government as an external body to advise on making appropriate decisions regarding COVID-19 in the country. The importance and weight of scientific advice cannot be underestimated; UK scientists successfully convinced Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his cabinet to abandon their herd immunity strategy and adopt a nationwide lockdown in March 2020. 

Without this lockdown, the United Kingdom could have seen 80 percent of its people infected and 500,000 deaths.[3] On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the physician-scientist and immunologist Anthony Fauci, in his role as the chief medical advisor to the US president, has been a pillar in handling COVID-19 in the United States.

Liberal democracy entails the practice of taking advice from scientists and not restraining those who deliver honest yet uncomfortable truths to people in positions of power. The two hallmarks of liberal democracy that shape this practice are civil society and communicative rationality.[4] 

Civil society in a liberal democracy comprises actors and institutions that are supposed to be independent of the state and who act to balance state power. Therefore, universities and the myriad of civil associations in democratic countries are autonomous and can freely critique the conduct of the government or oppose laws and policies they view as problematic without fear of punishment. 

On the other hand, communicative rationality, an ideal of liberal democracy, means that people arrive at a collective agreement about something via genuine, intelligible conversations. Thus parliamentary debate and rebuttal in classroom discussions are part and parcel of a healthy democratic life and politics.  

Nowhere in the ideological textbook of the VCP can one find any sign of friendliness towards the idea of an autonomous, independent civil society, nor communicative rationality in the way the state relates to other estates in society. The Vietnamese government condemns independent civil society as a strategy of ‘hostile forces’ to undermine political stability.[5] Following the Marxist-Leninist ideology, the Communist leaders control civil society and use civil society organizations, such as the press, schools, and mass associations, to garner consent from the people for its rule.[6] Likewise, the Party believes in ‘self-criticism,’ rather than opposition or open, genuine debate in the National Assembly or in other venues where the state and citizens can talk to each other.[7]

In practice: the strategic mobilization of scientists while confining them within governable spaces

Since 1975, the Vietnamese State could be described as developmental. In the pursuit of economic growth and technological and social development, the state needs the expertise of scientists and intellectuals. This is evidenced by the existence of a wide range of research and scientific centers and institutions funded by the State that operate within the scope prescribed for them by the government. However, the system ensures that scientists and intellectuals employed in these research centres do not threaten the state.[8]

Despite these state-employed scientists and intellectuals, the Vietnamese government rarely describes its style of governance as “evidence/science-based.” This suggests that the VCP still aspires to be a good disciple of Marxism-Leninism when it comes to organizing the political system and governance. “The Party knows best” is apparently its motto. In other words, the Party sees itself as the supreme source of authority and expertise. This also makes Vietnam’s developmentalism different from, for example, Japan’s.  Japan’s developmentalism is based on rationality, whereas Vietnam’s is based on ideology.[9]

Speaking of rationality, communicative rationality still has no place in Vietnam’s politics nor in the civil sphere. The National Assembly has shown little sign of becoming a place for open, genuine debate about public matters. Critical thinking is still lacking in the way students are educated. The free press is still a wild dream for Vietnam. 

I interviewed the head of Luat Khoa Tap Chi not long ago. He described the prominent culture in Vietnam as a “culture of obedience and singular thinking” rather than critical thinking and genuine, intelligible debate. Last but not least, we shall not forget that in 2007, when the Institute of Development Studies was established by renowned intellectuals and scientists of the country to speak truth to power, it went into so much trouble with the government and was eventually disbanded.[10] 

Prospects of the VCP democratizing itself?

Not so much. In Saigon, what the Party Committee Secretary Nguyen Van Nen said about consulting scientists is most likely just a moment of him forgetting the Party’s line he should be toeing. Indeed, just a week after his statement, a Facebook influencer reposted on his Facebook page a VNExpress interview with Vu Thanh Tu Anh of Fulbright University Vietnam, which reportedly was removed from VNExpress’s website immediately after it was posted.[11] In this interview, Tu Anh discusses some failures in the government’s strategy to contain COVID-19.[12]

In conclusion, for scientists to speak truth to power, or at least to save Vietnam from this deadly pandemic, they require a change in both ideology and politics, which the VCP seems to be neither willing nor ready to take.  

Bibliography:

  1. Bí thư Thành ủy TP.HCM gặp gỡ các chuyên gia, nhà khoa học cùng bàn cách chống dịch COVID-19, 10 July 2021. Tuổi Trẻ Online. Available at: https://tuoitre.vn/bi-thu-thanh-uy-tp-hcm-gap-go-cac-chuyen-gia-nha-khoa-hoc-cung-ban-cach-chong-dich-covid-19-20210710120636333.htm
  2. Thai Hao’s Facebook page, 10 July 2021. The full post is available at: https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=1029231357886052&id=100023975920044
  3. Grey, Stephen & MacAskill, Andrew, 7 April 2020. Special Report: Johnson listened to his scientists about coronavirus – but they were slow to sound the alarm. Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-britain-path-speci-idUSKBN21P1VF
  4. The background of my understanding of liberal democracy in this paragraph comes from Alexis de Tocqueville (on civil society) and Jurgen Habermas (on communicative rationality).
  5. See, for example, an article in Cong an Nhan dan, available at: http://cand.com.vn/Chong-dien-bien-hoa-binh/Canh-giac-thu-doan-loi-dung-xa-hoi-dan-su-de-chong-pha-che-do-581991/; another one in Nhan dan, available at: https://nhandan.vn/tin-tuc-su-kien/xa-hoi-dan-su-mot-thu-doan-cua-dien-bien-hoa-binh-392081/
  6. The reality of ‘state-led civil society’ in Vietnam, most prominent before the late 1980s, is discussed widely in the academic literature. For example, I suggest Landau, I. (2008). Law and civil society in Cambodia and Vietnam: A Gramscian perspective. Journal of Contemporary Asia, 38(2), 244–258; and Salemink, O. (2006). Translating, interpreting, and practicing civil society in Vietnam: A tale of calculated misunderstanding. In D. Lewis & D. Mosse (Eds.), Development Brokers and Translators: The Ethnography of Aid and Agencies (pp. 101–126). Kumarian Press.
  7. See, for example, a discussion session organized by a mass organization, in Tortosa, A. (2012). Grassroots democracy in rural Vietnam: A Gramscian analysis. Socialism and Democracy, 26(1), 103–126. https://doi.org/10.1080/08854300.2011.645661
  8. See Morris-Jung, J. (2017). Reflections on governable spaces of activism and expertise in Vietnam. Critical Asian Studies, 49(3), 441–443. https://doi.org/10.1080/14672715.2017.1339448
  9.  For more on developmentalism and plan-rationality versus plan-ideology, see Johnson, C. (1993). The Japanese miracle. In MITI and the Japanese miracle: The growth of industrial policy, 1925-1975 (pp. 1–34). Stanford University Press; and Woo-Cumings, M. (Ed.). (1999). Introduction: Chalmers Johnson and the politics of nationalism and development. In The developmental state (pp. 1–31). Cornell University Press.
  10. Morris-Jung, J. (2015). The Vietnamese bauxite controversy: Towards a more oppositional politics. Journal of Vietnamese Studies, 10(1), 63–109.
  11. Thanh Nguyen’s Facebook post, 17 July 2021. Available at: https://www.facebook.com/paulothanhnguyen/posts/4395856270458582
  12. On 20 July 2021, another scientist, Vu Hong Nguyen, also shared on his Facebook page that his contribution to a TV program in Vietnam about COVID-19 vaccines was abruptly removed. He explains that his skeptical view of the Chinese vaccine Sinopharm, which he planned to talk about in the TV program, was not welcome. He titles this post on his Facebook page as ‘Do not let politics interfere with science’. Nguyen’s Facebook post is available at: https://www.facebook.com/vu.nguyen.758/posts/4726456800701987  

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Vietnam’s Unprecedented COVID-19 Challenge Compounded By A Deficit Of Trust In The Government

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A locked down area in Saigon, Vietnam. Photo: Zing News. Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

Vietnamese people are no strangers to natural disasters or political calamities that demand personal sacrifice and collective effort. Yet, why is the government’s‘COVID-19 Vaccine Fund’ being met with so much public backlash? A closer look into these criticisms reveals a deficit of trust in the government, in more ways than one, with nobody taking the initiative to deal with this problem.     


June 2021 saw Vietnam facing a massive COVID-19 outbreak, especially in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). By the end of the month, the number of cases remained relatively high. The implications of the government’s difficulty in containing COVID-19 in Saigon are considerable. 

First, it is the largest city in Vietnam and the economic flagship of the country. Thus, placing the entire city of Saigon under lockdown is arguably not an option the government would want to entertain. This is evidenced by government officials still stubbornly clinging to their “double target” goal [1] of attempting to suppress COVID-19 while at the same time maintaining economic activities. Time will tell if Vietnam will pull through or if this “double target” will turn into a “double failure.” 

Second, the bitter history between Saigon, South Vietnam’s former capital during Vietnam War, and the Communists from Hanoi often resurfaces at times like this. This has cultivated a persistent lack of trust between many Saigonese and government leaders in Hanoi. Thus, it is not surprising to see many angry comparisons by Saigonese. They speak of the government’s unfair treatment of Saigon, as they perceive that less support has been given to the city to cope with the outbreak than was the case with northern provinces. When economic and political concerns are put together, they believe that Saigon is merely seen by the government as a cash cow – heavily milked yet poorly treated by Hanoi leaders.

However, this troubled past between the north and south regions is far from being the only reason for the lack of trust between the state and the people in Vietnam. With the unprecedented high number of daily cases and deaths, the Vietnamese finally realize the urgency of acquiring vaccines. Yet, the government’s COVID-19 Vaccine Fund, which calls for voluntary donations from individual citizens and the corporate sector to buy vaccines from overseas, has been met with strong criticism. 

As expressed on social media, these objections seem to boil down to “I can’t trust the government with my money” or “I don’t trust the government to act in my best interest.” This lack of faith in the state is situated against a backdrop of multiple corruption scandals and a lack of transparency throughout the 2010s and taxpayers’ increasing scrutiny of public spending in recent years, which has resulted in their frustration. 

To wit, the government announced in late June its plans to build more public statues, with the one in Thanh Hoa province alone costing approximately 255 billion dong (US$11 million).[2] The government could not have chosen a better time, or a better way, to add fuel to the fire.[3]

In a country where anti-China sentiment runs high, the government’s approval of the Sinopharm vaccine and putting it into use only worsens the situation.[4] Skeptics of the VCP and China have every reason to be worried about the money in the COVID-19 Vaccine Fund being used to purchase only the Sinopharm vaccine.

With this perfect opportunity for public intellectuals to speak truth to power, economists Vu Thanh Tu Anh (from the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management) and Vu Tu Thanh (deputy regional managing director and Vietnam representative for the US-ASEAN Business Council), regrettably miss the point. Tu Anh’s Facebook post on June 8 rightly explained that the COVID-19 Vaccine Fund is a way to correct “government failure.” [5]

However, he mainly focused on the technical workings of the government’s budgeting related to COVID-19. Likewise, Tu Thanh’s post on his own Facebook page, posted on the same day, defends the COVID-19 Vaccine Fund, stating that no vaccine manufacturer in the world can sell its vaccines to non-state actors at the moment and that the government is still responsible for the lion’s share of the amount used to purchase them.[6] 

Mistaking politics for policy, both Tu Anh and Tu Thanh fail to address the issues underlying the criticisms of the COVID-19 Vaccine Fund, which are the deficit of trust between Saigon and the north, the lack of confidence of the Vietnamese people towards their government, the bitter irony of billions of Vietnamese dong going to statue-building amidst a pandemic, and concerns about China’s vaccine. They also miss how the government should be held accountable for the “failure” Tu Anh mentioned, a failure of the government’s own making. While these issues are not dealt with, the deficit of trust remains and could worsen over time.

June 2021 has seen Saigon’s neighbourhoods barricaded, one after another, as more and more new cases emerged. A local man poetically, but sadly, called the city, “Thương thành” (City of Pain).[7] Meanwhile, other cities and provinces are nervously watching. The shortage of vaccines alone is challenging to deal with. Yet this summer sees the Vietnamese government running short of both vaccines and the trust of many of its people.  

Bibliography:

[1] T.H. (2021, June 3). Sáng tạo trong thực hiện “‘nhiệm vụ kép.’” Hanoi Moi. https://hanoimoi.com.vn/tin-tuc/Doanh-nghiep/1001503/sang-tao-trong-thuc-hien-nhiem-vu-kep

[2] L.H. (2021a, June 25). Thanh Hóa chọn mẫu xây tượng đài, khu lưu niệm 255 tỷ đồng. VNExpress. https://vnexpress.net/thanh-hoa-chon-mau-xay-tuong-dai-khu-luu-niem-255-ty-dong-4299756.html

[3] Facebook user’s criticism of the government’s handling of COVID-19 in Saigon, including its spending on building statues amidst. (2021, June 25). [Status]. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/manhcuongvu/posts/10208783322656000

[4] Facebook user’s criticism of the Ministry of Health’s approval of the Sinopharm vaccine. (2021, June 4). [Status]. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=4596848240329511&set=a.121001917914188

[5] Có nên lập quỹ vaccine phòng covid-19. (2021, June 7). [Status]. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=5787526994651583&id=100001830205620

[6] Hiểu đúng về Quỹ vắc xin phòng chống COVID-19. (2021, June 8). [Status]. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/vututhanh/posts/10222662130960010

[7] Thương Thành (2021, June 13). [Status]. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/le.h.lam/posts/10220397389070232

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The Power Of Your Ballot

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

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

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

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

A History of Fraud and Deception

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Vote or Not to Vote 

Hence, we are faced with a conundrum.

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

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

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

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

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

Rays of Hope 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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