By Magdalena Slezáková
Will Nguyen (age 34) is a Vietnamese-American public policy specialist and an activist for the Vietnamese democracy movement. He was born in Houston, Texas to a refugee family from South Vietnam. He graduated with a Bachelor in East Asian Studies from Yale University and a Master in Public Public Policy from the National University of Singapore. Last June, for participating in an anti- government protest, he was imprisoned in Vietnam; after international pressure, he was released one month later and deported from the country. Photo: Gabriel Kuchta, Deník N.
Wikipedia says the Vietnam War started November 1st, 1955. Of course, that’s according to the Americans. The Vietnamese know well that the long, hellish days lasted much longer than the 20 years before Saigon fell (1975). How could it be otherwise – after all, the vast majority of lives lost in this war were Vietnamese. “In America, the Vietnam War is seen as a strictly American affair. I’d like to remedy that,” Will Nguyen, activist and descendent of South Vietnamese refugees, says in an extended interview with Deník N.
A passage in Michael Herr’s Dispatches reads: “We took a huge collective nervous breakdown, it was the compression and heat of heavy contact generated out until every American in Vietnam got a taste. Vietnam was a dark room full of deadly objects, the VC were everywhere all at once like spider cancer, and instead of losing the war in little pieces over years we lost it fast in under a week. After that, we were like the character in pop grunt mythology, dead but too dumb to lie down. Our worst dread of yellow peril became realized; we saw them now dying by the thousands all over the country, yet they didn’t seem depleted…”
The book written by Herr, an American military reporter, has become symbolic. It cuts like a knife, and it is hard to come by another work that describes as sharply what the Americans experienced in the Vietnam War.
But what did the Vietnamese experience? After all, it was their country. Unfortunately, for nearly its entirety, few saw the war as belonging to the Vietnamese, to their loss. And to this day, the wounds have not healed.
Will Nguyen knows this all too well. He was born in the United States to a woman who fled the communists—a South Vietnamese woman, to be more precise. Except Will doesn’t agree with black-and-white divides, even in his direct experiences with the Vietnamese Communist Party: last year, he was arrested for participating in protests in Ho Chi Minh City. Or is it Saigon? They’re the same city, with two different names; one was used before the communists took over, the other is the name used today. Current maps clearly label the city Ho Chi Minh City, but try using that name with South Vietnamese refugees!
So which is it: Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon?
Nguyen: (Laughs) You tell me. I grew up with Saigon; it wasn’t until later that I found out on-paper, it was Ho Chi Minh City. I currently use both, depending on whom I’m talking to. With southern Vietnamese, I’ll use Saigon; in other contexts, Ho Chi Minh City is more appropriate. For me, either name is fine; I let the person across from me decide.
Yellow star, red stripes
You were born in Houston, as part of the South Vietnamese diaspora – you didn’t spend your childhood in Saigon, right?
When I was young, I didn’t really pay attention to politics. The first time politics hit me in the face, however, when I was doing a school report on my country of origin. I didn’t know what the flag of Vietnam looked like, so I opened up an encyclopedia and drew a pretty red flag with a yellow star. My mother saw it and immediately told me that flag wasn’t the “correct” one! I had to then draw the yellow flag with three red stripes, the one that Vietnamese in the US still use, the flag of South Vietnam.
It was until later that I began slowly putting together the pieces of the puzzle. I learned how my aunt fled Saigon on April 29th, 1975, a day before the city fell to the communists; how after she arrived in the States, she helped my mother escape when war broke out between China and Vietnam in 1979. During that time, Vietnam was expelling all those of Chinese origin, so my aunt was able to sponsor my mother and helped her find forged papers claiming Chinese ancestry. My mother reached a refugee camp in Indonesia and from there, traveled to Houston.
In Texas, how did you put together the fragments of war? Americans, and the West by way of the Americans, tend to see the war as a nightmare for themselves. Oftentimes, the Vietnamese are seen as mere accessories, like decoration on military garb, or puppets in the hands of their masters.
I read whatever I could find around me. And the more I read, the more I understood that the majority of books I could find were written by Americans, about Americans; regarding South Vietnamese and the difficulties they faced during the war, you’d be hard pressed to find anything. So I began searching for books written by South Vietnamese. There aren’t very many [in English] and they aren’t very easy to find.
Luckily, I was fortunate enough to study at Yale, with its excellent libraries–whatever books they didn’t have, you could request by order. I read at least 20 or so books written by South Vietnamese authors – government figures, refugees, memoirs of life in South Vietnam before and after the revolution (1975). Similarly, I began researching sources of information from North Vietnam. Generals, spies, and figures in the North Vietnamese politburo.
Because you hit the nail on the head. In America, the Vietnam War is seen strictly as an American affair. Whatever the Americans carried out…
… would have to be suffered.
Exactly! Americans lost about 60,000 lives in Vietnam, a terrible number, but on the Vietnamese side, deaths numbered several million, and this disproportionality is never mentioned. American lives lost is still center-stage. I would like to remedy this. And I believe the first step is researching the war thoroughly from all sides, in order to shed this problematic “black-and-white” framework.
You know, it’s not just the Americans who are guilty of black-and-white thinking. We Vietnamese have a similar tendency. It’s north or south—nothing in between. But its hard to be surprised at such an ideological divide, solidified as it was by a devastating civil war. It’s still a sensitive topic. Moreover, this north-south division has historical roots. Hanoi, in the north, is seen as the cradle of Vienamese culture; as you go further south, its influence weakens. This is still true today; the Vietnamese Communist Party has a stronger base and more faithful party members in the north.
It’s like with the two Koreas, especially in the older generations. The division between right and wrong, good and bad. And sometimes even in the Czech Republic: in the north the evil communists; the south, the righteous democrats. But South Korea had a period of authoritarianism, and in Vietnam, communism went hand-in-hand with the anti-colonial struggle for independence.
The interesting thing is the communists weren’t always the only players in Vietnam. Especially in the south, there was a strong nationalist movement spearheaded by non-communists. And in the 1940s, they worked with the communists for the sake of a common goal (Under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh and the Indochinese Communist Party, the Viet Minh – a coalition of northern and southern nationalists formed during the second half of the 1930s in Nanjing, China, was officially re-established in Vietnam in 1941).
Only, the communists had their own vision of an independent Vietnam. They had greater numbers, were better organized, and were more ruthless, so in the end, they swallowed whole the other nationalists, completely obliterated them. Vietnam in the 40s and early 50s was a tumultuous time. French rule followed by the Japanese invasion, famine, then the First Indochina War, then the Viet Minh defeated France in 1954 and the French withdrew. The struggle between Vietnamese communists and Vietnamese non-communists played out against this backdrop and continued through the Cold War era—and it would be this civil struggle that would ultimately determine Vietnam’s fate.
A heavy-handed government
When peace talks began in Geneva in April 1954, Vietnam was de-facto divided: the Democratic Republic of Vietnam declared by Ho Chi Minh in September 1945 ruled the north; the State of Vietnam, aligned with the French, ruled the south. Both Vietnamese states saw themselves as the only legitimate government; the Geneva Accords de-jure recognized this division, establishing a border at the 17th parallel.
Yes, with a plan for nationwide elections in 1956 to determine Vietnam’s fate and unify the country. But the south, led by prime minister Ngo Dinh Diem, knew that they could not win the election. And because the south technically did not sign the Geneva Accords, they refused to hold the elections, claiming that the elections would be rigged by the communists. Instead of the general election, the south held a referendum declaring the establishment of the Republic of Vietnam, with Diem elected president (with a spectacular 98.2% of the vote. In Saigon, President Diem received 600,000 votes out of a total 450,000 registered, according to reports). In Geneva, the US also refrained from signing the accords, which Ngo Dinh Diem counted on.
In the north during that time, the Chinese had convinced Ho Chi Minh to abandon plans for military action in the south and to wait for the election to resolve the big questions. The communists conducted a land reform campaign that killed thousands, while the south pursued its own brutal anti-communist campaign. The CIA embarked on a psychological war, sowing fear and panic among Catholics in the north, convincing perhaps more than a million to flee south.
The Americans encountered the South Vietnamese at the right time. They helped the South Vietnamese in many respects, most obvious of all, financially. I would assert that despite all this assistance, there was one decisive factor: the South Vietnamese had no idea what it meant to be a good citizen in a functioning democracy. To the majority of Vietnamese, the ideals of democracy were in reality, something completely unfamiliar, and as the Vietnamese tried to advance towards democracy…
In short, it was like a circus. Corruption was endemic, clientelism, and on top of that, war with the north. Imagine trying to build a healthy democracy in that environment! The South Vietnamese government was quite heavy-handed and far from resembling any kind of democracy; it was closer to autocracy. During the second republic at the end of the 1960s, after several coup d’etats, things calmed down a bit, elections were conducted properly, and prospects for democracy were looking up. If there was no war, who knows how far it would have progressed. You mentioned South Korea – the path to democracy for them took several decades. Same with Taiwan.
But in South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem’s heavy-handed government only lasted until 1963, when the opposition assassinated him. How were the Americans involved?
Formally, Ngo Dinh Diem was President, but in actuality, he was a dictator. He was a symbol of everything we discussed earlier: authoritarianism, corruption, and nepotism. He came from a well-known family, and his relatives held many high positions of power in a type of oligarchy. There was nothing surprising about him facing powerful opposition.
In the end, a group of South Vietnamese generals decided to test the waters with the Americans. If we wanted to get rid of Diem’s government, the generals probed in a meeting with the CIA, would you support us? Kennedy’s administration gave the green light. But my god! The generals got rid of President Diem in such an awful manner. The Americans didn’t imagine it that way. They thought Diem would live a life in exile, and the government would proceed to reform.
Instead, President Diem’s assassination opened up Pandora’s box. The ironic thing is some of Kennedy’s advisors warned about this very outcome: while Diem was a dictator and corruption was rampant, there existed no viable alternative to him. And it was true; the country was wracked with one coup d’etat after another. South Vietnam not only became enfeebled, but it endured continuous pressure from North Vietnam and communist insurgents in its own territory. The country’s ability to deliver its people from northern communism weakened by the day.
Up until April 30th, 1975, when Saigon was taken over by the communists. To North Vietnamese, that event was a “liberation”, but for Southerners, it was a “fall”. Is this still true?
Definitely. In the memoirs of South Vietnamese diaspora, they remember April 30th, 1975 and the “Fall of Saigon” with anguish, and not just figures from the older generations, but the majority of the diaspora’s descendents also see the event as an invasion.
And in Vietnam, where the communists have ruled for 45 years now?
The current propaganda is powerful. I believe many Vietnamese see April 30th in a positive way, a victory over colonialism, a liberation, a unification of the country. But the interesting thing is, in the south, when you speak with older people—and obviously this doesn’t happen right away because there are dangers in doing so—but when they trust you enough… my mother and I would often encounter more “sensitive” views when we were traveling around southern Vietnam. For example, taxi drivers would often reminisce positively about what life was like before 1975, as they drove us around the city.
In your travels around Vietnam, you were able to absorb a lot of literature and messaging, especially propaganda posters. These displays tap a lot into the past, right?
Most of them do. But that’s logical because the Vietnamese Communist Party derives its legitimacy from history and regularly reminds the people what it has achieved—1945 and the [August] Revolution, the defeat of the French, Ho Chi Minh, and of course, the greatest achievement of all: the liberation and unification of the country in 1975 [the latter technically occurring in 1976]. It’s like a broken record-player, stuck repeating myths.
And because these pages of history bear the hallmarks of the communist party, most people don’t pay it any heed. Is it a heroic story with a fortunate ending, or is it a happy lie? For some, either case is better than the sad truth. More easily stated, one way or another, many people realize the history is suspiciously rosy. But to find the truth, one must put in the work. It takes effort, and most people simply don’t feel the need.
Because they’ve directly experienced in their daily lives that the regime they live under doesn’t give them a voice. So the result is political apathy. This is especially true with young people, who have their whole lives ahead of them. They have no desire to rehash the past; they desire a comfortable future, with a high standard of living.
But of course, not all young people are like this; I’ve gotten to know quite a few young activists from Vietnam who feel the truth is worth pursuing. A lot of it has to do with the fact that it’s easier now to find information online. It only takes a little research to reveal why the yellow flag with three red stripes is banned in Vietnam. And why the Vietnamese diaspora numbers millions across the world.
To search for truth, to absorb information and then decide for oneself – that is true independence. Not the propaganda that the regime mouth-feeds the people to maintain its grip on power. Protecting the regime is the government’s number one goal. The Party has to make sure the boat doesn’t rock too much under its feet, and along with propaganda, it must also ensure that the economy develops while it conducts a balancing act between opposing China and allowing Chinese influence.
How are relations between the Vietnamese Communist Party and the Chinese Communist Party?
Very close, in an existential way. Vietnamese communists owe much to their Chinese counterparts, but at the same time, they have to be extremely careful not to be seen as Chinese puppets. This demands sufficiently independent behavior, opposing China in moderation, and at the same time, making sure not to offend their Chinese patrons.
Are they really patrons?
You know, Vietnamese leaders are slowly realizing they’re skating on the thinnest of ice. While I was imprisoned in Saigon, I spoke with police investigators about the situation in the South China Sea, and it was hard to miss the frustration written on their faces. They have to oppose China because that’s part of the Vietnamese national mythology: China is our hereditary enemy, and it’s forever finding ways to swallow Vietnam. If they don’t oppose China, then they face the danger of public opposition. That’s why Hanoi tries to find international support in their case against Chinese aggression. But it’s all one big act. No vociferous pronouncements will change the fact that China currently has the upper-hand in the South China Sea. China is several times larger and stronger than Vietnam, and Hanoi is fully cognizant of this, as well as the fact that Vietnam is economically dependent on China. And besides, the Vietnamese Communist Party imitates the Chinese Communist Party on a fundamental level. Their historic consolidation of power, their land reforms, and more recently, the cybersecurity laws.
And the general secretary? The similarities between Xi Jinping and Nguyen Phu Trong, the head of the Vietnamese Communist Party, can’t be ignored: a strong, hard-line leader, pursuing an anti-corruption campaign.
Of course; if you observe down to a minute-enough level, you’ll always find differences, but the truth is the Vietnamese and Chinese models of rule are quite similar – including the issue of Trong becoming both General Secretary and President. Though for most of its history, the Vietnamese Communist Party has followed the path of collective leadership, Trong has spearheaded an anti-corruption campaign very similar to that of Xi: sure, you’re cleaning up the ranks, but you’re also inserting your own allies into positions of power.
The two parties [and their historical trajectories] are not exact replicas. But there are more than enough similarities to remind us of Mark Twain’s observation: “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
Prison bars and television screens
You actually mentioned something I wanted to ask you about: last year, you were incarcerated in Vietnam. You went straight to prison after an anti-government protest in Saigon, right?
I had graduated [from my master’s program] in May and after that, had flown to Vietnam. When I found out [a few days prior] that there would be protests, I decided to attend because I also believed the two proposed laws were harmful to the Vietnamese people.
I walked the streets with protestors, cell phone in hand, recording as much as I could and uploading it immediately onto social media. It wasn’t an easy thing to do because the internet was slowed. The government often finds ways to prevent the spread of information. After a couple of hours, we ran up against a formation of police officers who stopped us and tried to get us to turn away from the city center. But I could tell that the officers were ill-at-ease; they were young, and looked just as worried and fearful as the protestors. It seemed like all it would take was one person to push through to break the line.
So I did it, and they ultimately let us through. But after a few intersections, the police parked a row of pick-up trucks across the road to block it. I wanted to help the people cross the barrier – I knew I could take on a little more risk because I wasn’t a Vietnamese citizen and I didn’t face as serious of punishment as they did. I knew I could be arrested, but to be beaten in the middle of the streets was definitely something I did not expect.
How many people were there around you?
Hard to say, but the streets were impassable, surging with people. They charged me not only with “disturbing public order” but added on the aggravating factor “causing serious traffic congestion”. They blamed me for making 14 people miss their flights.
And what were you facing?
Up to 7 years in prison.
At least you confessed on TV! And that’s yet another similarity between China and Vietnam: a recorded confession broadcast on national television…
It was all for show. In order to maintain their hold on power, the Party choreographs one performance after another and forced televised confessions are just one part of it. I had known about this “song-and-dance” prior to being captured, so I wasn’t surprised when they made me participate. But mostly, nobody was particularly enthusiastic about doing it. It was all pretty tiring: the security officers and I didn’t want to do it, but because the orders were coming from above, we wanted to just get it out of the way.
And you participated?
If I didn’t, it would only complicate things. Not just for me, but also for the investigators, the people who were in charge of (processing) my case. They treated me well enough, though obviously I knew it was related to the fact that I was American and that my case was receiving widespread international attention.
Moreover, I refused to lie. When they wanted me to apologize for causing traffic congestion or for making my friends and family worry, that wasn’t a big deal. But there was a part where they said I tried to flip a police truck and other things. I refused to read that. They accepted it and moved on.
As in there was a script?
The whole thing was so surreal. First, I wasn’t wearing the appropriate clothing, because I was a prisoner, so one of the police officers gave me the button-down shirt off his back to wear. Then, they styled my hair and had me sit down in front of the camera – we did around 5 takes, until I read the script convincingly enough.
The banality of evil
It all sounds like a joke, but in actuality, it’s nothing to laugh at right? Especially those with Vietnamese and not American citizenship.
Exactly. Suddenly, I had fallen into the belly of this oppressive regime I had researched for so many years; it was there that I was able to fully realize that the system ran on fear. It doesn’t have to be the kind of fear that stops your heart or takes your breath away. But as long as that fear becomes an abided part of your life, like an old coat, mundane and commonplace, then the system remains in place.
Like Hannah Arendt has written of, it’s all about the diffusion of responsibility: “I was just following orders!” You’re sitting behind bars, observing how police officers observe you. And you realize that they’re just cogs in the machine. But it’s precisely all of these small cogs that keep the machine going. If they weren’t there, the entire system would collapse. At the same time, they’re all just normal people. Outside of work hours, when they weren’t interrogating me, we would talking to one another like normal people.
With the small detail that you were behind bars and the police officers were in front.
Of course. You know, dehumanizing the other side doesn’t help anyone; don’t even get me started on caricaturing them as demons. I grew up in an environment where people spoke of communists as man-eating devils, and dissident propaganda often depicts Ho Chi Minh with horns. What is this good for? The more you put pressure on them in this way, the more they will dig in their heels in siege mentality. And that mentality leads to an increasingly oppressive regime. I believe in doing the opposite. Jettison the black-and-white paradigm and fracture an otherwise monolithic ideology.
By treating these individuals like human beings. By convincing them that those who want to reform the system are not their enemies. As long as overseas Vietnamese communities across the world continue to demonize the communists as they do, then nothing will change. The banality of evil works both ways: people mold the system, but the system also molds the people. We have to work to fill the gap between the two sides, or at the very least, build some kind of bridge. I’m purposefully avoiding the word “reconciliation” because the communists used it after 1975, and then ultimately sent southerners to re-education camps.
This reminds me of the situation in the Czech Republic after the Velvet Revolution. It’s a shame how the party and corruption went hand-in-hand, but enough people were able to “change outfits” after the transition [to continue their behavior]; some didn’t even bother to change. What’s going to happen if the same people are able to survive reform efforts in Vietnam?
I believe the Vietnamese Communist Party has a right to exist – this is something anti-communists have excluded me for saying, even accusing me of Stockholm Syndrome. But then there are anti-communists who are impressed with Trump and openly support him, and that’s something that’s completely absurd to me.
But most importantly: the Vietnamese Communist Party has four million party members. Their numbers are decreasing, and the Party itself is purifying in an ideological sense, getting smaller and older. But four million is still a lot. What are we going to do with them? Vietnam has suffered several decades of war. Millions have lost their lives, several more million have had to flee their homeland, and hundreds of thousands have lain their corpses at sea in pursuit of freedom… is this not enough? I understand your question, and I can’t say it doesn’t worry me. But what other way do we have to pursue reform but this?
I’m not so naïve as to think that we only need dialogue to reform a totalitarian regime. Obviously you can extend your hand across the table, but if the other side is not willing, then there has to be something to push them to the table. The people must speak up for themselves; they have to march if need be. Reform can’t be achieved without it. And in a similar vein, I also hope that young people reconsider joining the Party.
The economy plays a huge role: Vietnam’s labor productivity is quite low because the regime robs people of their initiative. Those with enough drive, those who can overcome the apathy find happiness overseas, where they go to work or study. But a number return with open eyes. For others, the internet opens their eyes. And people are slowly realizing, it doesn’t pay to be politically apathetic – if you don’t want to decide politics, then someone else will decide for you.
The above article is an English translation of https://denikn.cz/222401/o-valce-ve-vietnamu-se-siri-stastna-lez-namisto-smutne-pravdy/ and was originally published on October 31st, 2019, in the Czech newspaper Deník N.
Ranked 32nd Most Powerful Country in the World, Communist Vietnam Set to Assume Greater International Role in 2020
Ranking comes on heels of defense white paper release detailing foreign policy, assumption of ASEAN chairmanship and UN seat
U.S. News and World Report ranked Communist Vietnam the 32nd most powerful country in the world in 2019, placing it ahead of nearly all of its peers in the region, with the exception of Singapore, which came in 20th. Of the 80 countries included in the survey, Indonesia ranked 47th, the Philippines 51st, Myanmar 53rd, Thailand 54th, and Malaysia 58th.
The magazine defines powerful countries as those who “consistently dominate news headlines, preoccupy policymakers and shape global economic patterns” and forms its rankings “based on an equally weighted average of scores from five country attributes that related to a country’s power: a leader, economically influential, politically influential, strong international alliances and strong military.”
Communist Vietnam rose two spots in the rankings from 2018, bolstered in particular by its high score for “strong military”. The country’s weakest attribute was its lack of “strong international alliances”, an area which is unlikely to improve, according to the country’s recently released defense white paper.
The paper was the first of its kind released in more than a decade, and at its official launch November 25, Deputy Minister of National Defense Senior Lieutenant General Nguyen Chi Vinh highlighted the “4 No’s” that would guide Communist Vietnam’s foreign policy: “Vietnam will not join any military alliances, will not associate with one party to oppose another, will not allow foreign countries to set up a military [base] in the country…” and “will not use force or threaten the use of force in international relations” unless it is under attack.
In an interview with VNExpress, Vinh defended the country’s policy of no military alliances, stating that “Being a part of such an alliance means you have to completely align with one side and possibly have to confront the other, which means more enemies. Vietnam does not stand by any side but peace, reason, justice, and international laws.”
In writing the white paper, the Central Military Commission (CMC, the highest party organ in Communist Vietnam on military policy) and the Ministry of National Defense (MND) said they consulted with representatives of former senior military leaders, as well as with members of the public who expressed reservations about non-alignment.
The CMC and the MND defended their position, equating non-alignment with independence: “Countries that are members of such an alliance will be placed under the leadership of one country, normally a large and powerful one, and will have to adhere to that union’s principles, even when they are not entirely compatible with the country. Member nations of such a bloc will no longer be independent and have the autonomy to decide things on their own.”
Vietnam watchers have acknowledged that the country’s one-party regime is in a difficult position politically, and an active alliance with either the US or China would bring about its own set of challenges, some existential.
The country’s policy of pacifism, self-defense, non-alignment, and multilateralism, however, belies the strong language it uses against encroachment in the East Sea and even stronger language wielded against “hostile forces” in the domestic realm.
Without explicitly calling out China as the culprit of “unilateral actions” and “power-based coercion”, a section in the white paper makes Vietnam’s opposition clear:
New developments in the East Sea, including unilateral actions, power-based coercion, violations international law, militarisation, change in the status quo, and infringement upon Viet Nam’s sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction as provided in international law, have undermined the interests of nations concerned and threatened peace, stability, security, safety, and freedom of navigation and overflight in the region.
Communist Vietnam uses even less-restrained language for its domestic opponents, whom it considers to be at virtual war with:
The hostile forces who conspire with reactionaries and political opportunists inside the country have no given up their plots against the Vietnamese revolution. They focus on destroying political, ideological foundation with a view to eliminating the leading role of the CPV and the socialist regime in Viet Nam, “depoliticising” the VPA, sowing division in the entire nation’s great unity, and driving a wedge between the people and the CPV and the VPA.
“Hostile forces” and “reactionaries” “against the revolution” are blanket phrases that the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP or CPV) reserves for those who seek to end the Party’s monopoly on power. State media routinely uses these terms to describe activists, dissidents, and those who advocate multi-party democracy and liberal values. That the Vietnamese communist revolution ended in 1986 with capitalist market reforms has not abated the usage of these anachronistic and binary terms.
The VCP also implicitly acknowledges the threat social media and online sources of information pose to “national defense”, and similar to other authoritarian, one-party states, conflates Party security with national security. A cybersecurity law that sparked nationwide protests in 2018 went into effect at the beginning of 2019, and the end of 2019 has seen an upsurge of Vietnamese citizens arrested for writing Facebook posts critical of the communist regime.
According to the white paper, Communist Vietnam’s defense spending totaled approximately 5.8 billion USD in 2018, equivalent to 2.3 percent of GDP, an increase from 2.23 percent in 2010. For comparison, the United States spends 3.2 percent of GDP on defense, while China spends only 1.9 percent.
The full English copy of Communist Vietnam’s 2019 defense white paper can be found here, courtesy of Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor at The University of New South Wales, Canberra.
Communist Vietnam is also set to assume the rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) from 2020-2021, where according to Thayer, the country will be “in a position to exert strong leadership on Code of Conduct issues [in the East Sea] through bilateral consultations with other ASEAN members and by setting the agenda and issuing the Chairman’s statement at all relevant ASEAN meetings and at all ASEAN Plus meetings.”
Though ideologically aligned with China, Communist Vietnam has often been the lone member of ASEAN to speak up forcefully against Chinese activities in the East Sea, a trend which looks to continue. Vietnam’s deputy foreign minister, Nguyen Quoc Dung, commented at a lecture at The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore that he “hope[s…] during our chairmanship China will show restraint and refrain from these activities [that violate Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone],” adding that “it wasn’t that other ASEAN countries supported China’s actions, but that they did not protest in the same way.”
The ASEAN chairmanship rotates through its ten members annually, in alphabetical order. Communist Vietnam last served in the position in 2010.
Concurrently, 2020 will also see Communist Vietnam serve as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC), a position which it bid on and won by unanimous vote. The two-year term will begin in January 2020, and joining the country on the UNSC will be Estonia, Niger, Saint Vincent and Grenadines, and Tunisia.
According to The Diplomat, “during [Vietnam’s] campaign for the seat and in comments thereafter, officials have indicated that [their goals] would generally include areas such as promoting sustainable development and advancing preventive diplomacy, drawing on Vietnam’s own historical experience with war and peace as well as contemporary events such as its hosting of the second Trump-Kim summit.” Communist Vietnam last held a seat on the UNSC in 2008-2009.
Minister of Propaganda Says Vietnam’s Press Should Serve Party, Prevent “Self-Evolution”
At a conference on “Strengthening Party-building Work in Press Organizations” last Friday, Mr. Vo Van Thuong, head of Communist Vietnam’s Central Propaganda Committee, reminded attendees that the press must serve the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and the revolution in order to function “stably” and “without error”.
Referring to a government plan ratified earlier in the year to develop and manage press throughout the country until 2025, Thuong stated that the time for debate had passed and that strict implementation was now key. According to state media and in sentiment echoed by Thuong, the press serves as “an important channel to fight against incorrect information, fake news, news critical of the regime, and that which makes people lose trust in the Party-State.”
In his remarks at the conference, Thuong stressed the importance of ideological work in press organizations and making sure Party cadres and Party members guard against signs of political, ideological, and moral decay. In particular, Thuong warned against signs of “self-development” and “self-evolution”, negative terms that refer to the shift towards liberal democratic values–values which are anathema to the ruling Communist Party.
In this vein, Thuong took to admonishing journalists who lacked “proper training” and were critical of society but not sufficiently critical of themselves. He also stressed the importance of proper training for leadership and suggested greater oversight of the Party committees and organizations involved in press organizations, particularly when it comes to adherence to Party regulations.
“In order to help press organizations develop self-awareness and a more proper nature, we should do as a number of comrades have stated: ‘Sometimes those who educate [Party members and cadres] must themselves be educated’,” Thuong stated.
Thuong reminded attendees that Vietnam’s journalists were journalists of the revolution, journalists of the Party, and journalists of the state; as such, they should work closely with the Central Propaganda Committee, the Ministry of Information and Communication, various central Party committee blocs, and the Vietnamese Journalists Association, in order to strengthen the leadership of the Party.
The plan approved April 2nd of this year also seeks to streamline Communist Vietnam’s press environment, limiting government bodies to one newspaper and one magazine, with a shift to electronic rather than print forms, and with the “Vietnamese Communist Party E-Newspaper” and the Central Propaganda Committee serving as the “core” of the country’s press structure.
Along with head of propaganda, Thuong is also currently a member of the Politburo (short for “Political Bureau”, the leading body of the Vietnamese Communist Party), and the secretary of the Central Committee (from which members of the Politburo are chosen). In the past, Thuong was deputy secretary of the Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) Standing Committee, first secretary of the Central Committee of the HCMC Communist Youth Union, and secretary of the Quang Ngai Provincial Party Committee.
According to Reporters Without Borders, Vietnam ranks 176th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom. Although freedom of the press is guaranteed by Article 25 of the 2013 Vietnamese Constitution, Communist Vietnam is a one-party, authoritarian state that does not tolerate challenges to its power. It controls all official media, newspapers, and publishing houses in the country and regularly censors material that does not conform to sanctioned historical or political narratives.
New Visa Rules Make It Easier for Foreigners to Work, Invest in Vietnam’s Coastal Economic Zones
On November 25, the National Assembly (NA) of Vietnam passed amendments to its Law on Entry, Exit, Transit, and Residence of Foreigners that would allow visa-free entry into coastal economic zones, as well as enable visa status changes from inside the country. The amendments were approved with 83.6% of the vote and go into effect July 1, 2020.
The amendments stipulate that in order for a coastal economic zone to quality for the visa-free exemption, it must be separate from the mainland, possess clearly defined territory and boundaries, have an international airport, and must not compromise national security or national defense.
Of note in the amendments is the alternate phrasing “special administrative-economic unit” used to refer to areas affected by the new law. The phrase “special economic zone” (SEZ) is considered sensitive after nationwide protests broke out in June of 2018, in opposition to a Special Economic Zones (SEZ) law that was being considered before the NA. The law would have established SEZs in Van Don, Bac Van Phong, and Phu Quoc, but widespread concern that the SEZs would be overrun by Chinese investors prompted the NA to shelve the law.
Some Vietnamese have noted that Van Don and Phu Quoc of the previously-shelved SEZ law both qualify for visa-free entry under the new amendments, sparking concerns that the government is attempting to circumvent popular opposition. Representatives of the NA themselves have expressed concerns that opening up these areas to visa-free travel may pose a national security threat and have requested greater government regulation.
But Vo Trong Viet, chairman of the NA Committee on National Defense and Security, has argued that “the amendments would make it easier for foreigners to stay in Vietnam to learn about the market, and look for jobs and investment opportunities without wasting time and money on immigration procedures.”
Also included in the amendment is a stipulation allowing foreigners to change or renew their visa status while inside Vietnam, instead of having to leave the country entirely, as was previous practice. The amendment allows for visa changes by individuals in specific circumstances: “visitors who can prove they are investors or representatives of foreign organizations that make legal investments in Vietnam” and their family members, as well as foreign workers who receive job offers or enter with e-visas (provided they have the requisite work permit or work permit exemption).
Vietnam’s National Assembly, elected in 2016 and currently in its 14th session, consists of 496 members, 475 of which belong to the Communist Party (the remaining 21 are independents). Though largely considered a “rubber stamp” parliament due to a lack of public consultation and debate, discussions over pieces of legislation have increased in recent years, and the NA has begun to assume a larger political role in the eyes of the public. The NA meets twice a year to formally ratify laws, with individual members serving five-year terms.
Elections for the 15th session of the NA are set to take place in 2021.
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