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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. 

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Opinion-Section

Vietnam Should Stand In Solidarity With The People Of Myanmar

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Photo courtesy: Nikkei/Asia

On February 1 2021, the Myanmar military arrested and detained several prominent figures from the National League for Democracy (NLD), the ruling party of Myanmar prior to the recent coup. Among those arrested were Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. 

This was followed by a swift declaration of a state of emergency and the entrenchment of  military cronies in the Myanmar government. Min Aung Hlaing, the figurehead of this new budding dictatorship, stated that it was inevitable that the military would seize control; he alleged that last year’s election, which the military resoundingly lost, was fraudulent and that this coup was their way to ensure a smooth and stable transition towards “a genuine and disciplined demoractic system.” The actions of the Myanmar military have been met by both local and international backlash, criticism, and scrutiny despite their attempt to justify the coup.

Unprecedented numbers of Myanmar citizens have gathered to express their disapproval and anger towards the military through constant and relentless demonstrations and protests; some have even been arrested for their participation in these events. Even though the new regime has been attempting to quell these gatherings through the disruption of internet services, limiting telecommunications access, and through the enforcement of curfews, the Myanmar people have hardly faltered – they continue to remain steadfast and resolute in the face of escalating violence by Min Aung Hlaing’s fledgling dictatorship. 

On the international stage, the residents of other nations have organized demonstrations of their own in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Myanmar. Likewise, private citizens, NGOs, and various media outlets have been spreading awareness of the situation and have placed the actions of this dictatorship under the scrutiny of the rest of the free world. Some foreign countries, such as the United States, now under the Biden administration, have imposed economic sanctions to pressure the Myanmar military into compliance. 

The United Nations Human Rights Council, despite the dissenting voices of China, Bolivia, Venezuela, Russia, and the Philippines, has also made several demands of the current ruling power of Myanmar, such as a call for the immediate lifting of the declaration of the state of emergency and the release of all arbitrarily detained individuals.

Justice for Myanmar, a group of undercover activists that aims to improve the lives of all people in their homeland, has recently published a list of people, businesses, and organizations under the control and sway of the military junta. These entities provided the Myanmar military with assets and sources of revenue that aided it in its systemic takeover of the country that further lined the pockets of those in control. 

Justice for Myanmar calls on “the international community to impose immediate comprehensive and targeted sanctions against the Myanmar military in response to their Feb 1 coup and their continuing violations of international law, including their campaign of genocide against the Rohingya and war crimes and crimes against humanity in ethnic regions.” 

This published report lists 133 businesses fully or partially controlled by the Myanmar military, the names of 174 directors of those businesses, 112 other businesses which the military gets additional income from, and 32 state-owned enterprises that were formerly under the control of civilian institutions. While a majority of the businesses stated are based in Myanmar, there are a number which operate in other neighboring countries such as Vietnam, South Korea, and Japan.

Yadanar Maung, the spokesperson for Justice For Myanmar, states that the “brutal and illegitimate Feb 1 coup, is enabled by their business interests. The Myanmar military leadership uses business to enrich themselves at the expense of the Myanmar people and finance their brutal campaigns of repression….” He then adds that several international businesses such as Kirin Holdings and Viettel empowered the Myanmar military and that their continued operation in the country will only serve to further embolden the junta to commit further atrocities against its people. 

With money being an essential factor in the military takeover, one of the most effective ways to aid the struggle of the citizens of Myanmar is through severing relations with those institutions and companies that actively do business with the junta.

In Vietnam, as private citizens in our own country, something as simple as refusing to patronize businesses like Viettel is a start. Those with direct connections to organizations that work with the businesses on the list may take it a step further and call for these groups to distance themselves from the junta. With enough people, we could even petition our government to look into whether or not they actively do business with any of the corporations in the report in a bid to expose and terminate these agreements. 

Yet, something as simple and cliche-sounding as discussing this issue with family and friends serves this purpose as well. 

After all, the situation in Myanmar is not a story in a vacuum, but rather it is one of many tales regarding the struggle of freedom against the ever rising threat of authoritarianism in the world. It is merely one chapter in the anthology of human history, of the conflict between those who persevere for the betterment of all against those who would enrich only themselves at the expense of everyone else. 

As such, the events in Myanmar cannot be willfully ignored, and we have to stand as a unified front against tyranny, selfishness, and deceit. And thankfully, a few exceptions notwithstanding, the rest of the world seems to be on the same page. 

All in all, the Justice for Myanmar report, the words of its spokesperson, and all the corollary information derived from the available facts underscore the reality that this coup was not the result of grave injustice, nor the misplaced nationalistic sentiments of the Myanmar military; it is the result of the callousness and unending greed of those who would willingly choose to set their nation ablaze rather than let power slip from their fingertips through legitimate democratic mechanisms. 

It is the last resort of a delusional group of people destined to fade into the annals of history as nothing more than a footnote in a textbook. Times are changing and the people of Myanmar have spoken. True democracy will come to them in time as it has come to several other nations in the past. And while the fight rages in the streets of Naypyidaw all the way to the alleys of Kawthaung, the united people of the free world stand in solidarity, in kinship, and in brotherhood with the Myanmar citizens in their struggle for lasting democracy and freedom.

In Vietnam, we are hoping that our human rights and democracy activists will also take the opportunity to stand in solidarity with the people of Myanmar.

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Opinion-Section

Watching The US Presidential Election While Dreaming About Vietnam’s Free Election At The Commune Level

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Propaganda in Hanoi to encourage people to vote in the 2016 National Assembly election. Photo courtesy: Baotintuc.vn

This op-ed article was written in Vietnamese by Ly Minh and previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on November 6, 2020. The translation was done by Jade NG.

***

Although I am a Vietnamese citizen, I anxiously watched the US presidential election in November 2020. Many of my friends in Vietnam also did the same thing. We eagerly watched every turn of that election as if we were personally voting for our own head of state.

The Vietnamese public’s interest in the US presidential election every four years can be seen through the headlines of our newspapers. The mainstream media updates many Vietnamese readers on every step of the thrilling race to the White House.

Looking eagerly at the news every day about  the US presidential election, I cannot help but wonder whether or not the Vietnamese people earnestly wish to elect their own leaders.

In the political context of Vietnam, I understand that this question is a taboo. Needless to say, everyone knows that the current political regime in Vietnam does not allow the Vietnamese to exercise their voting right as in the United States.

Theoretically, the Vietnamese elect their National Assembly delegates through the National Assembly election once every five years. Then, on behalf of the Vietnamese people, the National Assembly delegates elect our national leaders.

Thus, elections in Vietnam ironically have been going on smoothly, albeit with many predictable results. Surprises rarely happen in those elections. Throughout my own monitoring of the National Assembly elections in Vietnam, I found the saying “the Party selects, the People elect” a very reasonable way to explain the development and the results of elections in Vietnam.

The secret desire of many Vietnamese people, including myself, is to have the freedom to make our decisions and to choose our state leaders, and even the National Assembly delegates who actually represent our voices when deciding the big decisions for the country.

That desire is expressed indirectly by many people through monitoring and discussing the US presidential election, as if we were voting for our own state leaders. A friend of mine lamented on Facebook: “I look at the US election and all I  can feel is pain for the Vietnamese people.”

It is impossible not to feel hurt.

Governance is democratic when each vote of the citizens decides who the leaders will be. Every vote influences the final result. The thrill of the US election right up until the last minute was because those of us who watched the election’s progress could see the importance of each ballot cast by the American voters.

Because each person’s vote is so important, the presidential candidates of the US must find ways to enlist the support of their voters, to specialize their campaigns for each state, to come up with policies that please local voters to gain support for the candidates, and even to try to entice the neutral voters.

Meanwhile, looking back at the political situation in Vietnam, my country’s people have no decisive voice in deciding who will become our leaders. Therefore, in Vietnam, many people are not excited about politics and are not interested in who will become the general secretary, the president of the country, the president of the National Assembly, and the prime minister. It is simply because Vietnamese citizens do not have the right, through their votes to influence the selection of these above positions.

Those who are knowledgeable about politics in Vietnam understand that the Party decides all the leadership positions in the country. Some three or four million members of the ruling Communist Party decide for almost 100 million Vietnamese people. Party members also decide all of the major issues of the country through their secret meetings, where the press is not allowed to cover any news. And the public? The public only knows about the results which are often announced by  Party officials after those meetings.

This is the reality about the Vietnamese political situation that I, a Vietnamese citizen, am forced to accept. But I personally think that many people who also accept that reality do not comprehensively support it.

Of course, I fully understand that some supporters of the current regime would argue that the Vietnamese people have the right to vote for the head of the country through the National Assembly delegates. However, I just want to ask two simple questions. First, do you remember who you voted for in a recent election? Second, do you feel happy when your delegate wins the election or sad when she or he fails?

Having an election such as in the United States is a distant dream for the Vietnamese. Nevertheless, I have only a small dream, which is that our local people can one day elect the leaders of their wards or communes, free and fair, by themselves. Hopefully, my dream will come true soon so that in the future I can proudly tell my children and grandchildren that I have elected our ward president in a past election.

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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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