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The Pleasant Lies Told About the Vietnam War, in Place of Unpleasant Truths

“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.”

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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.

A combination of the flags of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam, left) and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). Photos: Wikimedia Commons, image created by Deník N.

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.

“After Saigon fell, my mother escaped to America. By good fortune, I was born in the States, where I was provided better opportunities. I recognize that my upbringing was ultimately a privilege—one which I want to pay forward by helping native Vietnamese fight for their own freedom and independence of thought. This doesn’t necessarily mean slandering communists.” Photo: Gabriel Kuchta, Deník N.

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.

November 1955: President Diem speaks with standard-bearing members of the Civil Guard during a ceremony marking a denunciation of communism. On November 1st, 1955, America officially begins participating in the conflict in Vietnam by establishing the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG). Photo: PhotoQuest / Getty Images, Flickr, CB BY 2.0.

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.

On the Saigon River, Viet Cong take turns on the lookout, October 1966. Photo: Manhai, Flickr, CB BY 2.0.

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.

Rosy history

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.

A propaganda poster marking 60 years since Hanoi threw off the yoke of French colonialism. Photo: Vuong Tri Binh, Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0

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.

Why?

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.

How?

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.

https://twitter.com/will_nguyen_

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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. 

 

Politics

Vietnam: Citizens Must Pay Trillions Of Dong For The Party Congress, Regardless Of Party Membership

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The 8 Party Congress (2020-2025 term), Party Bureau of the Bac Ninh Province People’s Committee, February 2020. Photo Source: baotintuc.vn.

By the most conservative estimates, the amount of money citizens pay to fund Party congresses at just the local level is enough to keep the Government Inspectorate running for more than 25 years. 

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Local party committees throughout the country have begun organizing party congresses to elect “elite” representatives to attend the 13th National Party Congress, an event which occurs every five years. They will elect members to the Party’s Central Committee, from which the Secretariat and the Politburo will be drawn, as well as those positions seen as stepping stones to Vietnam’s top leadership posts. 

However, these strictly party affairs actually draw from the government’s budget, tapping into taxpayer money that could be used for state administration or policies supporting people’s livelihoods. 

This article will summarize a number of counter-intuitive but actual political realities that Vietnamese citizens have faced for decades and will most certainly continue to face if fundamental changes do not occur. 

Total expenditures undisclosed, possibly quite large

Before diving deep into legal issues, we’ll provide a general overview on how budgets are used for Party congresses. Currently, costs associated with organizing Party congresses remain ambiguous. 

The general scope of regulations in the Law on Access to Information excludes transparency regarding the operational finances of political and socio-political groups.

On the other hand, the State Budget Law contains Article 15, which stipulates responsibility for publicizing the state budget.  However, the law only regulates this responsibility in regards to governmental bodies rather than political organizations.

Finding information on the costs of organizing the Party Congress specifically, and the costs of running party organizations more generally, forced me to try my luck with reports from the Ministry of Finance, the state management body directly responsible for the budget and national expense.

Accordingly, we found that the Ministry of Finance established a separate website that was quite easy to navigate and use. However, the detailed budget information provided was not helpful for readers, regardless of what they were looking for. 

Take this example from April 15, 2020:  the Ministry of Finance issued an estimated implementation of the 2020 Quarter I budget, that is, the time period during which finance plans and preparation costs for Party congresses are laid out beginning in May. 

However, the roster of expenditures only lists three accounts: normal costs (the highest, at 343 trillion dong, or US$14.7 billion), interest and debt costs, and salary reform costs. The estimate clearly is of no use to citizens who want to inspect and oversee financial transparency. 

Because of this opacity, I’m forced to look for sources of information at lower levels and with broader scope. Such a manner of research will reduce the ability to generalize regarding the financial “voraciousness” of Party congresses. However, this seems to be the only way to actually get an understanding of such expenditures. 

For example, this past April, official correspondence from the Lang Son Province People’s Committee sent to the Ministry of Finance asked for financial support in organizing the province’s Party congresses for the 2020-2025 term. The amount requested ran upwards of 85 billion dong for these fleeting party events.

More specifically, the provincial People’s Committee requested nearly 10 billion dong for the provincial Party Congress and 66 billion dong for district-level congresses. There were even expenditures totaling more than 10 billion dong to “renovate and repair service projects for the Party Congress at all levels” (these fixed expenses should have been calculated separately according to the law; it is unknown how this is permissible). 

More importantly, it must be remembered that Lang Son is a mountainous and sparsely populated province, with few party members and a cost of living that ranks among the lowest in the country.

In another document that I found from the Quang Tri Township People’s Committee (a district-level body), promulgated on February 28, 2020, the amount of money this committee requested that the provincial Finance Office send to the Central government in Hanoi for approval for its locale reached 5.7 billion dong.

According to the document, money spent to cover the expenses of representatives and guests for the two-day Party Congress at the commune-level alone would amount to almost 800 million dong, propaganda work in service of the congress would be 150 million dong, and money “for direct supplement payment” would be nearly 300 million dong.

Another district, Huong Hoa, requested 2.5 billion dong in funds for district-level Party congresses and 5.1 billion dong for commune-level ones, totaling approximately 7.6 billion dong.

Quang Tri Province has 10 district-level administrative units, Lang Son has 11. The population of Quang Tri is about 600,000 and Lang Son about 800,000; both provinces have among the smallest populations in the country, and both economies perform below the national average.

Therefore, if I use the figure for Lang Son (85 billion dong) as the average for each province, then I can extrapolate that the total costs for organizing Party congresses in all 64 cities and provinces is nearly 5.5 trillion dong, not including the central Party organizations and the National Party Congress. And this is a conservative estimate.

According to the data Luat Khoa Magazine has gathered in previously articles, this amount is enough to keep the Government Inspectorate and the Government’s Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs operating for more than 25 years, with enough left over to fund the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development—one of Vietnam’s pivotal ministries—for up to a year (the 2020 estimate is 5.3 trillion dong.

Laws about the Party’s funding are regulated by the Party’s Central Office.

This is not some kind of sensational headline to attract readers; it’s the truth. 

In the State Budget Law mentioned above, Articles 36 and 38 tell us that both local and central budgets are also responsible for funding the activities of political organizations (i.e. the Communist Party of Vietnam). 

In Items 7 and 8 of Article 8, which covers the state budget’s principles of operation, the operational expenses of sociopolitical-industrial organizations, social organizations, and socio-industrial organizations are handled according to principles of self-sufficiency; the state budget only covers tasks the government assigns. The state budget was created to help political and socio-political organizations balance their operational books. 

That’s the extent of what the State Budget Law says about the Communist Party of Vietnam’s coffers.  

Government Decree 163/2016 provides a bit more detail to the State Budget Law, stating in Article 9 that the government “entrusts the Ministry of Finance to lay out specifics in the management and use of the state budget for Vietnamese Communist Party bodies.”  

The Ministry of Finance’s Circular 40/2017 has regulations on business expenses and conference organizing fees which give us a bit of hope in understanding how the budget is used for Party activities more generally and Party congresses at all levels more specifically, by providing us a legal basis on paper.

But right in the circular, the Ministry of Finance affirms that the use of the budget for “the National Party Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Party congresses at all levels up to the national level, conferences of all bodies under the Vietnamese Communist Party” will be implemented separately according to levels of jurisdiction, but it does not specify which levels. 

So  we’re left to ask, which level or levels of jurisdiction ultimately decide the budget for the Party congresses?

I gradually realized that it was difficult to find any kind of legal basis managing how the budget is used for Vietnamese Communist Party activities.  

The “legal” basis often cited in related documents mostly stems from Decision #99-QĐ/TW, issued May 30, 2012 by the Party Central Secretariat, promulgating regulations on Party business expenses, of Party organizations at the fundamental level and those directly above (“Decision 99”). 

Expenses of all Party congresses up to the 13th National Party Congress this year are regulated by Decision 3989-QĐ/VPTW, issued August 16, 2019 by the Central Party Office. 

As of now, I haven’t been able to find the entire text of Decision 3989, possibly because it was only circulated internally. But this, perhaps, demonstrates best the contradictory manner in which the Vietnamese Communist Party handles budget transparency.

Particularly with Secretariat’s Decision 99, we can see that this document contains regulations that seem to carry more force than even legal documents issued by the National Assembly.

In essence, Party organizations have jurisdiction over establishing and assigning expense estimates, as well as allocating funds and also regulations for balancing the books – all while using the state budget; this decision also regulates tasks by the people’s committees at all levels, as well as other government bodies responsible for ensuring funding for Party activities.

A concrete example in Item 1, Article 5 of Decision 99, states: 

“Based on approved estimates, people’s committees in communes, wards, and townships are responsible for guaranteeing operating expenses at the committee level, must balance the books according to regulations in the State Budget Law, and must report to their committee level and the committee level directly above.”

As such, when speaking of jurisdiction and general scope, documents issued by Party organizations are no less valid than laws passed by the National Assembly or decrees issued by the government.

***

The problems that I’ve expounded on above are not new. They’ve existed in this political system over the whole of Vietnam for more than 40 years. However, when trillions of dong are spent simply for the Communist Party to pick its own board of leaders, then taxpayers all over the country should accelerate discussions on why this phenomenon keeps occurring.  

One budget nurturing two states—how can this be seen as the only way to manage Vietnam’s public finances?

The original Vietnamese version of this article was written by Bui Cong Truc and published on Luat Khoa Tap chi. Translated by Will Nguyen.

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Politics

Hong Kong’s Next-door Ally

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Photo courtesy: ADN Chronicles

The Vietnamese Magazine would like to thank the Asia Democracy Chronicles under the Asia Democracy Network for kindly giving us the permission to re-publish this article. 

Why Vietnam strongly supports the former British colony’s fight for freedom

Many Vietnamese citizens hold Hong Kong freedom fighters Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Agnes Chow Ting in high regard. The Vietnamese cheer when a government expresses support for the former British colony’s fight for freedom. And they mourn whenever there is a crackdown—or a pro-democracy activist gets arrested or dies.

Many Vietnamese consider Hong Kong’s young activists (from left to right) Nathan Law, Joshua Wong, and Agnes Chow Ting as icons of democracy.

One might ask, why does Vietnam support Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement? The answer lies in the two country’s shared history and similar political movements.

Bloody battles

Vietnam’s long history of battling China spans more than 2,000 years. It’s fair to say that the country’s history is basically one of surviving next to China. After all, Vietnam was colonized by China for about 1,000 years before it finally gained its independence in 938 AD. Most national heroes worshipped as gods in Vietnam today are those who fought China over the past 200 decades, such as Hai Ba Trung (1st century, fought the Han dynasty), Ba Trieu (3rd century, fought the Eastern Wu dynasty), Ly Nam De (6th century, fought the Liang administration), Phung Hung (8th century, fought the Tang dynasty), Ngo Quyen (10th century, fought the Southern Han dynasty, ended China’s 1,000-year domination over Vietnam), Ly Thuong Kiet (11th century, fought the Song dynasty), Tran Hung Dao (13th century, fought the Yuan dynasty), Le Loi and Nguyen Trai (15th century, fought the Ming empire, ended a 20-year domination over Vietnam), Nguyen Hue and Bui Thi Xuan (18th century, fought the Qing dynasty).

Today, some of the most central and important avenues in major cities of Vietnam are named after these national heroes.

In 1979,  Chinese troops invaded Vietnam, waging a two-month bloody strike along the 600-kilometer border that the two nations share. This was followed by battles along the borders for another 10 years. Not many countries in the world have had such a long and complicated history with China as Vietnam does. As a result, the anti-Chinese sentiment seems to be deeply rooted in Vietnam’s culture.

Fast forward to today: The territorial dispute over the South China Sea—which also involves Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei—is also a factor behind this sentiment. China claims almost all of the area bounded by its nine-dash line. Vietnam claims sovereignty over islands in the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands, as well as an exclusive economic zone that overlaps with China’s claims.

In 1988, China and Vietnam clashed in the South China Sea when China’s warships attacked and killed 64 Vietnamese soldiers and seized the Johnson Reef. Another battle in recent history was in 1974, when South Vietnam’s navy lost some islands in the Paracel Islands to China’s hands after a bloody battle that left 74 casualties and dozens of others injured. Skirmishes still break out between the two countries, something the Vietnamese frown on.

Vietnam’s long history of battling China spans more than 2,000 years. Its ongoing territorial dispute with the latter over the South China Sea also explains the Southeast Asian nation’s anti-China sentiment and partly accounts for its support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

Amid territorial disputes over these islands, Vietnamese people bear the brunt of China’s economic activity in their country. Poor-quality products from China (electronics, clothes, food, etc.) are being sold in Vietnam, and while people complain about shoddy goods from the mainland, they have not found a way to stop the sales of these goods within their borders. More than 91,500 Chinese workers were also living across the country as of January 2020, sometimes making up China towns and clashing with local people.

A Chinese-built section of Hanoi’s new urban railway “has come under fire after reports of deferred deadlines, cost overruns, and dangers to passers-by from falling materials,” reports the Financial Times. Given these trouble at sea, some people even suspect China of wanting to destroy Vietnam’s economy.

Pro-democracy sentiment

Although Vietnam is no longer a communist country and has a market-driven economy, the Communist Party remains the only legal political party. The party requires all Vietnamese to study communism and to worship communist leaders such as Ho Chi Minh, Karl Marx, and Vladimir Lenin.

The society created by the communist regime is marked by corruption and inequality. Yet by an ironic twist of fate, it saved the Vietnamese people from the starvation that the party itself created before it began an economic reform program called Doi Moi in 1986. It abandoned the centrally planned economy model to open up the country to private businesses and foreign investments – a system which it eventually called the “socialist-oriented market economy”. Although Vietnamese people acknowledge that the country has improved significantly economically, severe corruption and deep inequality are among the biggest threats to the regime’s legitimacy. Vietnamese people are well aware that bad governance is the root cause of a slew of major challenges afflicting their lives such as unsafe food, land disputes, low wages, heavy pollution, low-quality education and healthcare, poor infrastructure, wrongful convictions, and a wide range of other human rights abuses.

The state of public governance in Vietnam is similar to China’s – a combination of a communist one-party rule that suppresses human rights and a party-controlled market economy that favors members and sympathizers of the party. It is a system that puts a premium on economic development at the expense of fundamental freedoms.

But while the pro-democracy bias may seem to overlap with the anti-communist sentiment, these are not exactly the same for Vietnamese people. Some of them oppose the communist regime but embrace other authoritarians at the same time. Many Vietnamese admire South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee, Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, and Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who was known for his authoritarian leadership style. This, while they lean toward democratization and support democratic movements such as the ones in Hong Kong, Burma, and Venezuela.

Mass movements

Mass protests introduced a radical change in a repressive regime like Vietnam. More than 30 years after the Vietnam War, joining a mass protest had been taboo in Vietnam, with the attendant risk of going to jail for decades. Few people dared to gather in the streets. Society had been frozen by fear.”

However, reports that China established administrative units in disputed areas in the South China Sea in late 2007 angered the Vietnamese public. Suddenly, mass protests against the Chinese government broke out in the capital city, Hanoi. More protests followed in Ho Chi Minh City in early 2008.

This confused the Communist Party. They had dealt with protests before, but those involved economic issues. These protests were about protecting the country’s territorial integrity, which was at the core of the nationalism that the party had spent its whole history building. Decades of fighting—from the independence struggle with the French before 1945, the Dien Bien Phu victory in 1954, the Vietnam war with the United States, and 10 years of conflict with China starting in 1979—helped build the communist party’s legitimacy.

Eventually, the party cracked down on the protests. Party members could not tolerate any form of social mobilization that could potentially challenge their power.

However, the lamp of freedom had already been lit in the hearts of many Vietnamese. They realized that they must have the right to demonstrate, the right to speech, the right to participate in politics to protect their country, all of which are being suppressed by the Communist Party. For the first time in the country’s history since 1975, Vietnam saw a protest movement in 2011, which lasted for almost three months, from June to August.

In 2014, more anti-China protests flared up across the country, involving not only activists but also workers, farmers, and students, due to China’s deployment of the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig to Vietnamese waters. A similar mass movement happened in June 2018 when the Parliament attempted to pass a special economic zones bill that were seen to open up three strategic areas in Vietnam for China.

In 2014, Vietnamese people took to the streets to protest China’s deployment of an oil rig in the disputed South China Sea.

It is significant to note that most of the mass protests in Vietnam for at least the last decade have been anti-China. All protests have been severely suppressed by the government.

Movie magic

The silver screen has also influenced Vietnam’s perspective on Hong Kong. Hong Kong films have been overwhelmingly popular in Vietnam for decades. These include “The Legend of Condor Heroes” (1994), “Detective Investigation” (1995), “Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils” (1997), “Triumph in the Skies” (2003), among others. It’s not easy to find a Vietnamese over 30 years old that has never watched a Hong Kong film or is unfamiliar with Hong Kong film stars.

Beyond movies, Hong Kong is also a popular tourist destination among Vietnamese, especially during summer and New Year’s holiday.

Until the late 1980s, Hong Kong played the role of a “port of first refuge” for Vietnamese people fleeing political persecutions and abject poverty in their country following the end of the Vietnam War.  In 1989 alone, more than 300 Vietnamese boat people landed in Hong Kong daily. The peak of the migration wave was when Hong Kong became home to 200,000 Vietnamese asylum seekers.

Supporting the democratic movement in Hong Kong came naturally to these refugees, who feel forever indebted to the now beleaguered city.

Hong Kong served as the “port of first refuge” for Vietnamese people fleeing political persecutions after the Vietnam War.

There’s no doubt that Hong Kong pro-democracy movement fits perfectly into the Vietnamese people’s worldview, which has been shaped by the latter’s long and complicated history of dealing with China and communism, as well as nationalist and anti-government fervor.

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Human Rights

Legal Briefing On Democracy Activist Pham Thi Doan Trang’s Arrest

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Photo Courtesy: Pham Doan Trang Facebook.
Photo Courtesy: Pham Doan Trang Facebook.

Pham Thi Doan Trang, a leading democracy activist and a prominent Vietnamese journalist, was arrested on October 6, 2020 in Ho Chi Minh City by Vietnamese police.

Here is a legal briefing updated on the morning of October 9, Vietnam time.

What allegations has the Vietnamese government made against Pham Thi Doan Trang?

Doan Trang is charged with “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under Article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code, and “making, storing, spreading information, materials, items for the purpose of opposing the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under Article 117 of the 2015 Penal Code (revised in 2017).

This is a bit complicated. Why are they charging her with two crimes under two separate penal codes? Here is the context:

The 1999 Penal Code (revised in 2009) was replaced by the 2015 Penal Code. The 2015 Penal Code went into effect on January 1, 2018 after being revised in 2017.

The two crimes that Doan Trang is charged with are almost the same. Here is the text:

Article 88. Conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam

1. Those who commit one of the following acts against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam shall be sentenced to between three and 12 years of imprisonment:

a) Propagating against, distorting and/or defaming the people’s administration;
b) Propagating psychological warfare and spreading fabricated news in order to foment confusion among the people;
c) Making, storing and/or circulating documents and/or cultural products with content against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

2. In the case of committing less serious crimes, the offenders shall be sentenced to between 10 and 20 years of imprisonment. 

Article 117. Making, storing, spreading information, materials, items for the purpose of opposing the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam

1. Any person who for the purpose of opposing the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam commits any of the following acts shall face a penalty of five to 12 years’ imprisonment:

a) Making, storing, spreading information, materials, items that contains distorted information about the people’s government;
b) Making, storing, spreading information, materials, items that contain fabricated information that causes dismay among the people;
c) Making, storing, spreading information, materials, items to cause psychological warfare.

2. An extremely serious case of this offence shall carry a penalty of 10 to 20 years’ imprisonment.

3. Any person who makes preparation for the commitment of this criminal offence shall face a penalty of 1 to 5 years’ imprisonment.

What does this mean?

Here is the date you need to remember: January 1, 2018. That’s the day the new and current penal code took effect.

The only reason Doan Trang is charged with the same crime under both the old and current penal codes is that the government has been “investigating” her activities both before and from January 1, 2018.

Some people suspect that Doan Trang is linked to the Dong Tam case as she authored and distributed two Vietnamese-English reports on Dong Tam (in February and September 2020). Some others think her case is mainly about her role at the Liberal Publishing House, a samizdat publisher founded in February 2019. But the two charges suggest that the police take the case further than that.

What did Doan Trang do before 2018?

Her famous book titled “Politics for the Common People” was published in 2017, and there was a report on the environmental disaster in central Vietnam in 2016. She has been involved in international advocacy work since 2013 and she also played a role in the environmental protest movement in Ha Noi in 2015, as well as other activities

Who is in charge of the investigation?

The Investigation Bureau of the Ha Noi Police. 

Although the arrest was jointly conducted by Ha Noi Police, the Ho Chi Minh City Police, and the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), the lead agency is the local government of Ha Noi.

According to the MPS website, the Investigation Bureau of the Ha Noi Police was the organization that opened the case and filed charges against Doan Trang. The People’s Procuracy of Ha Noi later approved these motions. It is unclear when the motions were filed and approved.

Where is Doan Trang now?

The latest information from the mainstream media is that Doan Trang has been transferred to Ha Noi. Ha Noi Police confirmed the information with the Tuoi Tre newspaper.

Where exactly is Doan Trang being detained? Her family told us that they were informed by Ha Noi Police in the evening of October 8 that she is being detained at Detention Center No. 1 (also known as the new Hoa Lo Prison) in Tu Liem district of Ha Noi.

How long is the pre-trial detention expected to be?

According to Article 173 of the Criminal Procedure Code, as the crime Doan Trang is charged with falls under either the very serious or extremely serious categories of both penal codes, the time limit for detention is four months, and can be extended once for three months.

However, if Doan Trang’s case is categorized as an extremely serious type, the procuracy can extend the detention twice, for four months each time.

The process may be prolonged due to requests for further investigation from the Procuracy or the provincial-level court of Ha Noi. In this case, it could become very complicated as with the case of blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh, who was detained for 22 months before going to trial.

When will Doan Trang be allowed to meet with attorneys and receive family visits?

It’s unclear whether or not Doan Trang will be allowed access to legal representation and to receive family visitation.

According to Article 74 of the Criminal Procedure Code, “the head of the Procuracy is authorized, when confidentiality of investigations into national security breach is vital, to sanction defense counsels’ engagement in legal proceedings after investigations end.”

Articles 88 and 117 fall under the national security chapter of the Penal Code, and therefore access to lawyers is not guaranteed. Even if a lawyer is granted permission to assist Doan Trang, his or her access to the accused, in practice, is not always guaranteed.

Family visitation, according to Article 22 of the Law on Temporary Detention and Custody, depends on the decision of the head of the detention facility. If the investigative agency requests the detention facility not allow the detainee to meet with relatives, the facility head may accept the request, and Doan Trang will not be able to see her family before trial. It’s highly unlikely the facility head would reject such a request by the police.

Here is what the law says:

Article 22. Meetings with relatives, defense counsels and consular access of persons held in custody or temporary detention

[…]
4. The head of a detention facility may not allow a visitor to meet a person held in custody or temporary detention in the following cases, for which he/she shall clearly state the reason:

a. The visitor, who is a relative of the person held in custody or temporary detention, fails to produce his/her personal identity papers or papers proving his/her relationship with such person, or the case-settling agency has requested in writing the detention facility not to let such person meet with his/her relatives for the reason that such a meeting may seriously affect the settlement of the case; the visitor, who is a defense counsel, fails to produce his/her personal identity paper or paper on the defense for the person held in custody or temporary detention;
[…]

If visitation is granted, Doan Trang’s family can visit her once a month, with each visit lasting no longer than one hour.

What’s next?

We don’t know when the investigation will be completed or when Doan Trang will be presented before the court. However, here is what we can expect:

  • The People’s Procuracy of Ha Noi will issue an indictment prosecuting Doan Trang.
  • The trial will be conducted by the People’s Court of Ha Noi, a provincial-level court.
  • After the trial, if Doan Trang appeals, the case will go up to the People’s High Court in Ha Noi, a tribunal higher than provincial level and lower than the supreme level. Usually, political cases stop after the appellate.
  • There is no chance that the case will be brought to the People’s Supreme Court, the highest tribunal of the land, as it requires motions filed by either the prosecutor general or the chief justice, both controlled by the very ruling Communist Party that wants to silence critics to protect their monopoly.

Contact Trinh Huu Long: long.trinh@liv.ngo.

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