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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

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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.

Communist Vietnam released its 2019 defense white paper November 25, in both English and Vietnamese. It has released such reports irregularly, in 1998, 2004, and 2009. Photo: VNExpress

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.”

Disputed claims in the East Sea (also known as the South China Sea or the West Philippine Sea). Photo: The Economist

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.

Human Rights

Pham Doan Trang’s Indictment Is Public Today; What Do We Know About Her Case?

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Pham Doan Trang (Photo: Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera). Graphic: Luat Khoa Magazine.

The indictment against journalist and democracy activist Pham Doan Trang was made public on October 18, Vietnam time. We are summarizing the main issues from the 15-page indictment, which you can read here in Vietnamese.

The main points of the indictment are:

  • The indictment stated that the investigation was done between September 22, 2016 and October 7, 2020. October 7, 2020 was also the day that the authorities arrested Doan Trang.
  • The Department of Cyber Security and High Tech Crimes under the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), the national police in Vietnam, petitioned the investigation department to pursue legal proceedings against Doan Trang on May 4, 2020 and October 7, 2020 and included its documents and materials against her.
  • The Department of Information and Communications of Hanoi City also submitted two petitions with documents and materials to the MPS on December 26, 2017 and January 7, 2019, requesting legal proceedings against Doan Trang.
  • The Investigation Unit of Hanoi City’s Police formally opened the investigation on September 10, 2020.
  • The decision to initiate criminal proceedings against Doan Trang was issued on September 28, 2020.
  • Doan Trang was arrested under a warrant on October 7, 2020 in Ho Chi Minh City.
  • She refused to provide her laptop’s password to the police and accordingly, the police could not access its data.
  • She also refused to acknowledge the Facebook account of the name “Pham Doan Trang” belonged to her, and the investigative unit could not charge her for the information posted via that account on social media.
  • Doan Trang acknowledged that she was one of the authors of the “Report Assessment of the 2016 Law on Belief and Religion in relation to the exercise to Freedom of Religion and Belief in Vietnam” in both English and Vietnamese. This report was published on the website of Luat Khoa Magazine.
  • On February 19, 2021, the Authority of Information Security (under the Ministry of Information and Communications) submitted a document to the investigative unit which stated that it could not determine who owned and managed the domain name luatkhoa.org to pursue further legal proceedings against it.
  • The indictment stated that Doan Trang repeatedly committed unlawful conduct which can be used to increase her punishment.
  • The indictment also did not find any facts to reduce the punishment against her.
  • The investigation of her case was concluded on August 26, 2021.
  • The indictment stated that Doan Trang continued her unlawful conduct from 2017 to 2019 so both the 1999 Penal Code and the 2015 Penal Code (which took effect on January 1, 2018) could be used to prosecute her.
  • However, the indictment also stated that Doan Trang did not confess to any of these crimes and that the 1999 Penal Code would be more beneficial to the defendant since Article 88 of that penal code starts the sentence at 3 years imprisonment versus 5 years imprisonment under Article 117 of the 2015 Penal Code. Therefore, the government dropped charges under Article 117 and only prosecuted Doan Trang under Article 88.

The Evidence against Pham Doan Trang under the indictment:

  • English document named “Brief report on the marine life disaster in Vietnam”;
  • English document named “General Assessments of the human rights situation in Vietnam”;
  • English and Vietnamese versions of the “Report Assessment of the 2016 Law on Belief and Religion in relation to the exercise of the right to Freedom of Religion and Belief in Vietnam”;
  • Two interviews with Pham Doan Trang by BBC News  Vietnamese and Radio Free Asia – Vietnamese (RFA) in 2018.

Formal indictment:

The Hanoi People’s Procuracy Office prosecuted Doan Trang under Article 88, Section 1, subsections a, b, and c for “propagandizing against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam ” of the 1999 Penal Code. The sentencing for this crime will be 3 to 12 years imprisonment.

The indictment is dated August 30, 2021. However, it was only made public on October 18, 2021, in Vietnam, just more than two weeks before Pham Doan Trang’s trial. For almost two months, Doan Trang’s family and her attorneys, as well as the public, have been kept in the dark about the case Vietnam has against her. 

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Vietnam Briefing

Vietnam Briefing: Pham Doan Trang’s Trial Expected To Begin In November; Vietnam Slowly Reopening Its Economy After Long-Running COVID-19 Lockdowns

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Photo credit: Pham Doan Trang/ RFA. Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

Vietnamese court to try Pham Doan Trang and two farmer activists this November

The Vietnamese Magazine reports:

  • On October 14, 2021, attorney Dang Dinh Manh, one of Pham Doan Trang’s lawyers, posted on his Facebook that the People’s Court of Hanoi will try the prominent journalist and writer on November 4, 2021. Also, according to Manh, the same court will try two of the Duong Noi land activists, Trinh Ba Phuong and Nguyen Thi Tam, one day earlier, on November 3, 2021.
  • Earlier, on October 6, the Hanoi People’s Procuracy Office notified Doan Trang’s family that they had decided to transfer the case to the People’s Court of Hanoi after recommending her indictment on August 30, 2021. 
  • As of October 15, the government has not officially recognized or appointed any of the lawyers to be her legal representatives. As a result, both Doan Trang’s family and her attorneys have not received her indictment and still do not know what evidence the government has or the details of the charges against her. Doan Trang’s attorneys will file a motion to delay her trial so that they can better prepare for her defense
  • Pham Doan Trang marked her first year being held incommunicado last week. She is being charged with “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” which falls under Article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code. She faces the possibility of a 20-year sentence if convicted.

Jailed Vietnamese land activist tortured to extract a confession

RFA reports:

  • Jailed Vietnamese land activist Trinh Ba Tu was brutally tortured in detention as part of a bid by authorities to force him to plead guilty to charges of “anti-state activities,” according to his elder sister, Trinh Thi Thao. The alleged action by the Vietnamese authorities has prompted calls by human rights groups for an immediate investigation into his case.
  • On October 14, Thao told RFA Vietnamese that she met with her brother’s lawyers on Monday and learned that he had been badly beaten during an interrogation following his June 24, 2020 arrest. Tu laso reportedly required hospitalization for a kidney inflammation. “My brother Tu said that the prosecutor insulted him during the interrogation—the prosecutor’s name is Minh and he’s a prosecutor from Hoa Binh Province,” Thao said.
  • After receiving treatment, Tu was returned to detention and told to sign a false statement confessing to the crime of “creating, storing, disseminating anti-State materials” under Article 117 of Vietnam’s Criminal Code. The accusation is related to his online posts criticizing the government’s brutal handling of a long-running land dispute with Dong Tam villagers. “During the investigation process, investigators promised Tu that if he pleaded guilty, he would be jailed for only six years, but that otherwise he would have to serve eight,” Thao added.
  • Tu and his mother, Can Thi Theu, who was arrested the same day and similarly charged, were both sentenced on May 5 to eight years in prison and three years on probation. His brother Trinh Ba Phuong and land activist Nguyen Thi Tam were separately arrested on June 24 on the same charges of “propagandizing against the state.” Phuong and Tam remain in detention pending trial, which is expected to begin on November 3.

A Protestant follower in Vietnam was arrested for “insulting” the Communist leader Ho Chi Minh

VOA Vietnamese reports:

  • On October 14, Tra Vinh Province police arrested Thach Rine, a Khmer Protestant, for posting an edited portrait of late Communist leader Ho Chi Minh on his Facebook account, which was regarded as “defamatory” by the Vietnamese authorities.
  • However, according to some observers, the alleged arrest of Thach Rine was due to his religious beliefs and his activism for the human rights of indigenous Khmer Krom people. The local police had reportedly been watching Thach’s online political activities and periodically harassed and detained him. 
  • On July 1, 2021, the Belgium-based Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) criticized the Vietnamese government for the detention of Thach Rine for wearing a T-shirt with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals logo advocating for indigenous people’s rights.

Vietnam arrested and charged another member of the U.S.-based Provisional Government of Vietnam

RFA reports:

  • On October 15, Vietnamese authorities arrested and charged a man with “carrying out activities to overthrow the government,” making him at least the fourth person this year apprehended for joining the Provisional Government of Vietnam, a U.S.-based exile Vietnamese organization branded by Hanoi as an overseas terrorist group.
  • Nguyen Doan Quang Vien, 39, of Lam Dong Province and Ho Chi Minh City, had asked to join the Provisional Government of Vietnam after learning of its existence on social media in 2017, according to a police investigation.
  • Authorities have this year arrested and convicted at least three people for allegedly joining the political group. In August, the court sentenced Tran Huu Duc of Nghe An Province to three years in prison and Ngo Cong Tru from Phu Yen Province to 10 years. Police detained another member, Le Thi Kim Phi from An Giang Province in September, but she has not yet been sentenced.

COVID-19 situation in Vietnam

  • Several Vietnamese cities began to relax the months-long strict lockdowns and reopen their economies, while citizens were required to continue to follow pandemic preventive guidelines: Starting from 6 a.m., October 14, Hanoi will allow on-site dining and reopening of parks, hotels and public transportation as companies, offices and businesses resume operations as normal. Meanwhile, from October 6, the city of Da Nang will resume almost all of its production, tourism and service businesses, including indoor activities such as museums, cinemas, sports centers and amusement venues. The slow reopening takes place amid Vietnam switching from its zero-COVID policy to “living with the virus.”
  • Ho Chi Minh City police summoned members of Revival Ekklesia Mission, a Protestant organization, including juveniles aged from 11 to 13 years old, over its alleged accusation of “transmitting dangerous infectious diseases.” According to RFA and VOA Vietnamese, the church founders and its members were summoned on October 14 for further investigations regarding the incident on May 26, when a coronavirus cluster in the religious group was detected and believed to infect a large number of people. The local authorities later indicted the group for failing to follow health guidelines and causing the virus to spread, but its founders said that they had always properly complied with antivirus measures.
  • South Korea to donate over 1.1 million vaccine doses to Vietnam, writes The New York Times: “South Korea plans to ship almost 1.6 million doses of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine to Vietnam and Thailand this week, the foreign ministry announced Tuesday, as the Southeast Asian nations struggle to contain the spread of the virus. […] About 1.1 million doses will go to Vietnam and 470,000 to Thailand, South Korea’s government said.”
  • Vietnam received nearly another two million Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines from the United States, bringing the total number of doses that the country received from the United States to 9.5 million. The U.S. Department of Defense also provided Vietnam with 111 ultra-low temperature freezers for vaccine storage, according to a statement by the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi.
  • Vietnamese factory workers hesitate to return to work amid the COVID-19 pandemic, worsening the problem of global supply chains, writes Bloomberg: “Now staff-starved companies are imploring workers like My to return for what would normally be peak production for winter clothing and Christmas gifts. The government is offering transportation back and companies are upping pay and benefits, but little is working.” It was estimated that around 1.3 million migrant workers had returned to their hometowns between July and September due to the COVID-19 pandemic and harsh lockdown mandates.

Vietnam’s coal-fired electric generation may double by 2030 under draft power plan

Reuters report:

“Vietnam may double the amount of coal-fired electric generation it installs by 2030 under a draft power development plan submitted to the prime minister for approval this week.

The draft plan guarantees that Vietnam will become more reliant on coal to power its fast-growing economy at a time when financiers and insurers are refusing to back new projects because of fuel’s large climate change impact.

Coal-fired power plants will account for up to 31.4% of as much as 143.8 gigawatts (GW) of installed generation capacity planned in 2030, according to a copy of the so-called Power Development Plan 8 (PDP 8) reviewed by Reuters.”


Vietnam Insight: Learn more about Vietnam

COVID-19 Made Life Even Worse for Japan’s Foreign Trainees

The Diplomat/ Moeka Iida/ October 15

“The trainee program depends upon the recruitment of young people from less developed economies who are desperate to work in advanced environments and eager to earn Japanese yen. However, there is a risk of exploitation even before these young recruits leave for Japan. Vietnamese trainees must pay a slew of pre-departure fees to brokers and sending organizations that push many to secure loans and mortgage assets. Although this amount varies, trainees can pay up to 1 million yen (around $9,000), plunging them into substantial debt.”

How Asia’s Rice Producers Can Help Limit Global Warming

The Diplomat/ Oliver Frith, Reiner Wassmann, Bjoern Ole Sander/ October 13

“There are already several validated management options to mitigate methane emissions in rice, which maintain or improve yields, enhance profitability, and increase climate resilience. For example, integrating locally adapted best management practices with water-saving techniques, such as Alternate Wetting and Drying (AWD), reduces methane emissions by 30-70 percent. In Vietnam, this has also improved farm profitability by up to 13 percent (around $100 per hectare).”

Time is right for Vietnam’s digital transformation

Asia Times/ Minh Ha Truong/ October 7

“The timing couldn’t be better. With a population of 97 million, the Internet penetration in Vietnam is high, standing at 70% and increasing by 6.2 million in a single year. The nation is set to see its mobile transactions increase by 300% between 2021 and 2025 due to the strong growth anticipated in mobile payments.”

Vietnam and Economic Reopening: Roadmap Needed

Fulcrum/ Tuan Ho/ September 16

“Facing economic slowdown pressures while still unable to control the pandemic, Vietnam is currently at a crossroads regarding its pandemic fighting strategy. While Prime Minister Chinh has suggested that Vietnam is shifting away from a ‘zero Covid’ strategy and preparing to ‘live with it’, the delay in reopening Ho Chi Minh City implies that some Vietnamese leaders are still embracing the idea of completely suppressing the pandemic, out of both public health concerns and possibly considerations about their political prospects. Their decision was also based on concerns that reopening the economy prematurely may be counter-productive.”

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Human Rights

Vietnam To Try Pham Doan Trang For Propagandizing Against The State On November 4, 2021

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Pham Doan Trang. Graphic: Luat Khoa Magazine.

On October 14, 2021, attorney Dang Dinh Manh, one of Pham Doan Trang’s lawyers, posted on his Facebook that the People’s Court of Hanoi will try the prominent journalist and writer on November 4, 2021. Manh further indicated that the same court will also try Trinh Ba Phuong and Nguyen Thi Tam – two of the Duong Noi farmers – on November 3, 2021.[1]

Furthermore, sources informed The Vietnamese Magazine that the authorities have yet to officially approve any of Doan Trang’s attorneys to be her legal representatives. Attorney Manh confirmed that the government informed him of the information about Doan Trang’s trial via telephone. 

On October 6, 2021, Pham Chinh Truc, Doan Trang’s brother, received a notice from the Hanoi People’s Procuracy Office regarding his sister’s case status. That day also marked one year since the Vietnamese authorities arrested Doan Trang in Ho Chi Minh City. During this entire time, she has been held incommunicado. Her lawyers also received minimal information from the authorities about her case. 

Hanoi People’s Procuracy notified Truc that they had decided to transfer the case to the People’s Court of Hanoi after recommending her indictment on August 30, 2021. 

The Procuracy, however, did not specify what its recommendations are and what have been her conducts that fall under its possible charges against Pham Doan Trang. It is charging her with “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” which falls under either Article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code; she faces the possibility of a 20-year sentence. The Procuracy also failed to provide any evidence that it may have found during the year-long investigation leading up to the case being transferred to the Court. 

However, because none of her attorneys have yet to be officially recognized by the government, they did not receive the government indictment. In other words, both her family and her attorneys still do not know what evidence the government has against Doan Trang or the details of the charges against her. In the next few days, her attorneys will file a motion to delay her trial so that they can better prepare for her defense, The Vietnamese Magazine has learned.

Trinh Huu Long, the co-director of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam (LIV) and one of Doan Trang’s closest colleagues told The Vietnamese:

“It’s highly unusual that an activist is held completely incommunicado until just before the trial such as has happened with Doan Trang. This is nothing less than an extremely severe violation of both domestic and international laws. It is also ironic. The government wants to punish Doan Trang because she made it look bad, and Vietnam calls this is the rule of law, while the government itself has long gotten away with all sorts of inhuman treatment and violations of its own laws.”

Notes:

[1] Our previous version of this article has stated that Pham Doan Trang’s trial will be on November 3, 2021. However, Attorney Dang Dinh Manh since then has corrected his earlier statement and her trial will be on November 4, 2021.

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