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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.

Internet Freedom

Vietnam: The New Code Of Conduct On Social Media Is Not Legally Binding

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Decision 847 from the MIC. Photo: Luat Vietnam, The Independent. Graphic: Luat Khoa Magazine.

On June 17, 2021, Reuters reported that Vietnam announced a national code of conduct for social media. This new code would be the national guidelines on social media behavior in Vietnam, where users are encouraged to post positive content about the country. There are certain prohibitions for social media users and companies, requiring that social media providers in Vietnam follow Vietnamese law when “requested by authorities to remove content from their platforms.” 

This national code of conduct is Decision 847/QĐ-BTTTT (Decision 847), and it was issued by the Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC).

There are specific prohibitions throughout this decision, and it also lists the individuals and entities that are subject to the regulations. Yet, at the same time, the extent to which it is a legally binding document and how the government will enforce it is still ambiguous. 

Nevertheless, we can safely conclude that right now, under Vietnamese law, Decision 847 is NOT a legally binding document.

Why is it not legally binding?

This so-called national code of conduct on social media was issued as a decision from the minister of the MIC. These kinds of decisions in Vietnam are not legally binding documents under the Law on Promulgation of Legislative Documents 2015

Under its Article 3.1, the Law on Promulgation of Legislative Documents 2015 requires that legally binding documents should be “general rules of conduct, commonly binding, and applied repeatedly to agencies, organizations and individuals nationwide or within a certain administrative division, promulgated by the regulatory agencies and competent persons in this Law, the implementation of which is ensured by the State.” 

A minister of any ministry is deemed incompetent to promulgate legal documents if he or she issues only a decision, such as this Decision 847. Only a circular or a joint circular issued by a minister will be deemed legally binding documents. Therefore, Decision 847 cannot be treated as a legally binding document under Vietnamese law. 

Decision 847 cannot regulate social media users and providers.

Technically, only binding legal documents can regulate its subjects, but Decision 847 is quite ambiguous. 

Article 2 of Decision 847 clearly defines the subjects that are being regulated, including official departments, state employees and officials who use social media. It also states that organizations and individuals who use social media and social media providers are all subjected to its regulations.

Yet, under Article 8, which sets the implementation of Decision 847, it states, “the social users and companies are encouraged to fully execute the content of this decision and propagandize it to other organizations and individuals who are also on social media.” 

If Decision 847 only encourages its subjects to follow and propagandize it, it completely defeats the purpose of regulating users and companies on social media in Vietnam. Moreover, the vagueness and ambiguity of this decision reaffirm that it should not be a legally binding government document.

Does the MIC want to regulate all the people, companies, and other governmental agencies in Vietnam with Decision 847? 

Typically, a decision from a minister would only affect his or her ministry. However, in developing this national code of conduct on social media, is it the intent of the minister of MIC to instruct and direct how citizens and other government departments should act on social media according to his standards of positivity and morality? Is it his or the government’s duty to coach citizens on behaving in our everyday life? 

Who will regulate the ethical and cultural values for the entire Vietnam? This country already lacks an independent court system, and this decision does not have any judicial oversight. So who will get to decide what ethics and culture are if Decision 847 is enforced? Is it the government’s decision to dictate good ethics, and what is a positive culture for Vietnam on social media? What will be the meaning of our freedom of expression if we actually behave and live like this?

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Religion

Religion Bulletin, April 2021: The United States Proposes Putting Vietnam On The List Of Countries Of “Particular Concern.”

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The Vietnamese government is found to have systematically violated freedom of religion.

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Illustration: Luat Khoa

[Religion 360*]

United States Commission on International Religious Freedom: Proposal to put Vietnam on the list of countries of particular concern

In its latest report on religious freedom, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) proposed reinstating Vietnam onto the list of countries of particular concern (CPC).

Governments that engage in or tolerate severe violations of religious freedom are placed on the list of CPC. For countries on this list, the U.S. Congress will introduce non-economic policies before taking economic measures to stop violations.

USCIRF assessed that Vietnam’s religious freedom conditions in 2020 were as bleak as those in 2019. This is because the Vietnamese government enforces its Law on Faith and Religion, which contravenes international human rights standards and systematically violates religious freedom.

The organization listed numerous suppression and obstruction of religious freedom in Vietnam in 2020 involving independent religious groups and those recognised by the government.

Ethnic minority groups in mountainous areas that follow new religions and sects, Buddhist dignitaries, independent Cao Dai adherents, Protestants, Catholic clergy members, and prisoners of conscience are victims of the Vietnamese government’s strict religious policies. 

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The USCIRF’s 2021 report on religious freedom. Photo: USCIRF.

Specific instances of religious suppression in 2020 that USCIRF cited:

  • Suppressing religious activities conducted by ethnic minorities Hmong and Montagnard in the Central Highlands.
  • Limiting the religious activities of independent Hoa Hao Buddhists.
  • Interfering in the funeral of Venerable Thich Quang Do, the fourth patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church.
  • Obstructing the Unified Buddhist Church’s relief efforts in Thua Thien – Hue Province.
  • Harassing independent Cao Dai followers, attempting to take over their temples, and forcing them to unite with state-recognized churches. 
  • Harassing and attacking clergy members of Thien An Abbey over a land dispute.
  • Subjecting prisoner of conscience Nguyen Bac Truyen to poor prison conditions and limiting his access to medical care; refusing to provide the prisoner of conscience Le Dinh Luong a Bible.
  • Using Article 34 of the Law on Faith and Religion to interfere in the election affairs of a state-recognized religion. 

Deputy Minister of Home Affairs: “False religions” must be stopped

At the beginning of April 2021, Vu Chien Thang, deputy minister of the Ministry of Home Affairs and head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, affirmed the need to stop “false religions” from illegally operating and affecting social life.

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Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Home Affairs and head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, Vu Chien Thang, talks about stopping “false religions”. Photo: Xuan Thu / TTXVN.

The Ministry of Home Affairs deputy minister stated that factions, sects, and illegal religious phenomena had appeared in many locations.

Afterwards, the head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs presented two solutions to deal with new religions.

First, local religious committees have to coordinate with other organizations, such as the police, to stop illegal religious activities in a timely manner.

Second, state-recognized religions have a responsibility to direct citizens towards their organizations. 

That there is no place for new religions in Vietnam has been the government’s consistent message for many years.  

In April 2021, Tuyen Quang Newspaper also reported that Tuyen Quang Province was currently seeing many new religious activities of a superstitious nature. These religious activities were being used to oppose the government.

The activities of new religions are never presented from multiple viewpoints. Instead, the press covers these religious phenomena from the government’s vantage, which predominantly opposes religious activities not recognized by the state. 

New religions are multiplying in Vietnam by the day, but the government’s hardline view pushes many followers to practice surreptitiously and without legal registration. 

Vietnam has regulations regarding the registration of religious activities, but the majority of them are dependent on the subjective views of the government and their acceptance of the religion.

The government asserts three reasons for the abandonment of new religions. First, new religions contain superstitious activities. Second, new religions have different tenets and conceptions from state-recognized religions, ruining customs and distorting culture. And third, new religions (such as Falun Gong) have a political agenda.

Greater Unity Newspaper: Investigate party members and state cadres that participated in the Humanity Club

In April 2021, the state press continued to investigate the activities of the Humanity Club (HC), a spiritual organization operating as a private enterprise.

We summarized notable events related to this organization in a recent bulletin. The Government Committee accused the HC of Religious Affairs and other state organizations of propagating superstitions and defrauding members.

This time, the Greater Unity Newspaper (which belongs to the Vietnamese Fatherland Front and aligned with the Vietnamese Communist Party) confirmed that some Party members and low-level and high-level state cadres were members of this club.

“Information obtained by Greater Unity reveals that the list of HC participants includes the former vice chairman of Hanoi city and even leaders who currently hold important government positions,” the Greater Unity Newspaper claimed.

Furthermore, the paper stated that some lecturers and cadres (without naming specific individuals) from a roster of universities, academies, and schools have participated in the club. 

The paper also asked that Party and State organizations “quickly deal with offenders” who had participated in and had propagated a superstitious organization.

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A meeting of the Humanity Club. Photo: Greater Unity Newspaper.

Followers of the Ba-ni religion protest their merge with Islam

At the end of April 2021, the Ba-ni religious community strongly protested on social media the requirement that they list their religion to be Islam or “other” when applying for new ID cards.

The Ba-ni religion is not recognized by the state as Buddhism and Catholicism are. Those who follow the religion are lumped together by the State with those who follow Islam.

Ba-ni religious followers are ethnic Cham, a long-standing indigenous group in Vietnam. Cham Ba-ni practitioners state that their practices and rituals are different from those of Muslims. Thus, they do not accept the merging of their religion with Islam. 

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Two Cham Ba-ni clergymen prepare betel leaves to place at the foot of a gravestone in a gravesite cleansing ritual. Photo: Ninh Thuan Newspaper.

Government vague in requiring faith certifications when citizens declare their religion on new ID cards

Vietnam’s new identity cards do not indicate the religions of their owners. However, the government is requiring that people declare their religion on their ID applications.

At the beginning of 2021, the government began issuing citizens new ID cards fitted with chips. Police in several provinces and cities have mandated that citizens present their faith certifications when they declare their religions.

This mandate has alarmed many religious followers, who practice their religion without faith certifications.

On April 24, 2021, Ho Chi Minh City authorities announced that citizens could declare their religions when applying for new ID cards without faith certifications.

At present, other provinces have yet to make similar announcements.

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Citizens apply for new ID cards in Hai Ba Trung District in Hanoi on March 9, 2021. Photo: VnExpress.

Nguyen Phuc Nguyen, head of the Buddhist Department under the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, stated to  Giac Ngo Newspaper at the end of March 2021: “There is nothing troublesome about requiring Buddhist faith certifications.”

On April 14, 2021, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs confirmed that different locations had different requirements for religious declarations and new ID cards.

Nghe An: Government blocks two groups from the World Mission Society Church of God from operating

On April 12, 2021, Nghe An provincial authorities reported to the Government Committee for Religious Affairs that religious activities were still being exploited to oppose the government in the province.

The information above was brought up during a summary conference in Nghe An, marking three years since implementing the Law on Faith and Religion and its attendant 2017 decree.

Provincial authorities stated that the state’s management of religion was not tight enough, allowing some individuals to exploit religious activities to oppose the government.

The statement did not identify any religion in particular, but the situation on the ground reveals that the authorities were alluding to the dignitaries and followers of Catholicism. 

In 2020, Father Dang Huu Nam was transferred out of My Khanh Parish, and his pastoral duties were stopped. Father Nam is known for leading parishioners to sue the Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Company after the central coast environmental disaster. Authorities had long demanded his transfer and the cessation of his pastoral duties.

On April 7, 2021, VOV Newspaper reported that Anh Son suburban district police in Nghe An Province had obstructed proselytizing activities at a private residence in Phuc Son Commune. The activities involved six adults and six children from the World Mission Society Church of God, a religion the government fiercely suppresses. Police dispersed the meeting and confiscated exhibits, computers, and proselytizing materials.

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The children and adults of the World Mission Society Church of God blocked by police from proselytizing in Phuc Son Commune, Anh Son Suburban District, Nghe An Province. Photo: VOV Newspaper.

On April 19, 2021, the authorities blocked another group from the World Mission Society Church of God from conducting religious activities in an apartment in the city of Vinh. The People’s Public Security Newspaper reported that the police had brought approximately 11 adults and five children to the Hung Dung Ward police station for investigation. Religious documents and objects were confiscated, and local authorities were instructed by police to “supervise and educate” those involved.

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Followers of the World Mission Society Church of God were blocked from conducting religious activities on April 19, 2021, in the city of Vinh. Photo: People’s Public Security Newspaper.

This year’s commemoration of “Virtuous Master’s Disappearance Day” again interrupted by the authorities

In 2020, the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church reported that An Giang provincial authorities once again prevented followers from congregating to mark “Virtuous Master’s Disappearance Day”.

Beginning on April 4, 2021, authorities set up two checkpoints on the road leading to the headquarters of the Central Directors Committee of the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church in Long Giang Commune, Cho Moi Suburban District, An Giang Province.

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On April 5, 2021, police set up a checkpoint on the road leading to the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church’s commemoration site, one day before the event. Photo: Le Quang Hien.

After being blocked from their headquarters, many of the church’s dignitaries moved the prayer site to another location.

Furthermore, on April 5, 2021, the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church’s Communications Department reported that security forces had tailed the church’s directors.

Other Hoa Hao Buddhists celebrated at home by setting up altars and hanging flags and banners. There have yet to be any reports of police harassment and obstruction at private residences during this year’s commemoration.

The Hoa Hao Buddhist Church, the only Hoa Hao Buddhist organization recognized by the government, has never organized for this holiday, which is among three major holidays for Hoa Hao Buddhists. 

[Did You Know?]

The difference between the Ba-ni Cham and the Islamic Cham

According to researcher Inrasara, Islam began to influence the Champa kingdom in the 16th Century. During that time, Islam arrived by way of wealthy Arab merchants who had left China to spread the religion southward.

As it made its way into the kingdom, Islam entered into large and persistent conflict with indigenous Cham inhabitants who followed Hinduism. By the time of King Po Rome’s reign (1627 – 1651), Islam had indigenized to become the Ba-ni religion.

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The attire of Ba-ni Cham women (left) and Islamic Cham women. Photo (from left): Inra Jaya, Lam Vien Nui Cam.

Today, Cham people who follow Islam in the areas of An Giang, Tay Ninh, and Ho Chi Minh City; Cham people who follow Ba-la-mon (a Hindu religion) and the Ba-ni religion mainly reside in the two provinces of Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan. 

The 2019 census only recorded the number of followers of Islam and Ba-la-mon, providing no figures for the Ba-ni Cham.

According to statistics from April 1, 1999, Vietnam had a total of 152,132 ethnic Cham. [1] Among them, Ninh Thuan had 61,000 people; Binh Thuan 29,312; An Giang 30,000; Binh Dinh and Phu Yen 20,000; Ho Chi Minh City 5,000; Dong Nai 3,000; Tay Ninh 3,000; and Binh Phuoc and Binh Duong 1,000. According to the Nation and Development Newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs, there were approximately 31,000 Ba-ni Cham in 2018.

Ba-ni Cham has different religious activities from Islamic Cham. They believe in Allah, but they also worship the gods of rain, the seas, and the mountains, as well as their ancestors. They have lost the tradition of going on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Vegetarianism and daily prayer are carried out in September and only by laypeople. The influence of matriarchy has caused Ba-ni Cham to focus more on the karơh ceremony for women than the katat ceremony for men (both are initiation ceremonies the Ba-ni religion reserves for boys and girls when they reach puberty).[2]


References:

[1] Inrasara, Journeys and Home, page 16, Writers Association Publishing House.

[2] Inrasara, Cham Wisdom, page 106, Knowledge Publishing House.

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Environmental Rights

The Socialist Irony: Vietnamese Companies Exploit Labor And Damage The Environment In Cameroon

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Photo credit: La Carmina (background) and Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). Graphic: Son Nguyen/The Vietnamese

“…it is like destroying forest in other people’s backyards, not in ours.” – A quote from an informant working for a Vietnamese timber logging company, according to EIA. 

Various Vietnamese companies are damaging Cameroon’s forests and its economy through logging activities in the country, according to a new report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an international non-profit organization aiming to protect the global climate.

In an investigative report, the EIA said that these companies extracting timber to export back to Vietnam were violating export laws and were engaging in labor exploitation and discrimination, tax evasion, illegal logging, and other things. 

The Vietnamese socialist government has consistently condemned the imperialism and economic exploitation that has resulted from capitalism. In a recent article about socialism, Nguyen Phu Trong, the Secretary General of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), declared that the country should strive for “sustainable development… instead of usurping natural resources and destroying the environment.” A socialist government is regarded as the alternative to capitalist countries which have failed to address the problems of environmental damage and labor exploitation. 

However, this issue highlights that companies coming from a government of such ideology are perfectly capable of environmental, economic, and labor abuses – especially when it concerns less developed countries. 

Timber is largely used as the architectural materials for Buddhist temples and private houses in Vietnam. Previously, the market was dominated by timber extracted and exported from Laos and Cambodia; but the companies have moved to Cameroon due to its relaxed laws surrounding logging. 

Vietnam is now the second-largest timber processing hub in Asia, only after China. 

The total value of timber imports and exports from the prominent timber processing countries in Asia. Graphic: EIA. 

The private companies named in the report include Dai Loi Trading Co. Ltd., Xuan Hanh Wood Company, Thang Long Import-Export Company Ltd., Hai Duong Wood Import-Export Company Ltd., and an unregistered Vietnamese company represented by someone known as Le Jessan Tan. All of these companies are reportedly private companies, meaning no links with the government have been found. 

The EIA reportedly conducted this independent investigation for three years before releasing the report in late 2020. The report is titled “Tainted Timber, Tarnished Temples: How the Cameroon-Vietnam Timber Trade Hurts the Cameroonian People and Forests.

Environmental and labor abuses in Vietnam

In its ideological doctrine, the VCP consistently claims that the socialist government is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Land in Vietnam is also constitutionally “owned by the people,” and the private ownership of land is theoretically unconstitutional. The VCP’s socialism is understood as a way to uplift the common people by limiting the power of private businesses and corporations. 

Despite Vietnam’s commitment to socialism, stories about environmental and labor exploitation are not new in the country’s private sector. With various sources of natural resources and a large population providing cheap laborers, the country is ripe for exploitation.

The case of Formosa in 2016 is an example. During this time, Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh, Ltd., a Vietnamese private company, was heavily polluting the seas in central Vietnam, leading to massive fish and other marine life deaths. The primary investor of Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh, Ltd. is the Taiwanese Formosa Plastics Group.

Human lives have also been a loss. As the results of such massive fish deaths, some people died or became seriously ill, with others even believed to have developed cancer, from either diving in the sea, eating poisonous fish, or as the result of exposure to the company’s chemicals. 

For years, various cases of illegal timber trade in Vietnam have been reported. There have been 30,000-50,000 cases of forest violations per year, according to statistics provided by the international non-profit organization Preferred by Nature. The organization also regards Vietnam as one of the most high-risk countries regarding the illegal timber trade. 

Even state-controlled media outlets in Vietnam sometimes publish opinion articles criticizing the Vietnamese government’s handling of environmental issues. 

According to this graph, Vietnam is among the most high-risk countries in terms of the illegal timber trade. Graphic: Preferred by Nature. 

Workers in Vietnam also face tremendous hardships and, in many cases, outrageous exploitation. 

For example, cases of forced labor in drug detention centers have been reported, in which people struggling with drug addiction were not only forced to provide free labor but were also tortured. In the garment industry, child labor is among the common practices. Even among the “normal” workers – those who are non-criminal adults and are able-bodied-mistreatment, underpayment and lack of social security were also frequently reported. 

Because of this, it is not surprising that there are similar and even worse cases committed by Vietnamese companies abroad. 

Unethical activities in Cameroon

Vietnamese companies are accused of various unethical activities in Cameroon, including violation of export laws, tax evasion, illegal harvesting, disregarding the illegal origin of timber, and abuse of workers. 

In the name of profit, the companies casually commit these illegal activities. According to the report, to maximize profits, the companies hired workers for years without a proper contract or social security guarantees. They frequently discriminated against, underpaid, and abused Cameroon workers. 

The companies also avoided paying taxes in Cameroon by mostly conducting transactions with cash. From 2014 to 2017, around $300 million went unreported when timber was being exported to Vietnam, according to the EIA investigation.

Alongside these violations, the companies also turn a blind eye to illegal timber, even if such timber originated from terrorist organizations. In fact, according to EIA, the company Dai Loi was reportedly buying timber that originated from Hezbollah. 

One informant from one of the Vietnamese private companies compared the way Vietnamese and French companies inspect timber in Cameroon. According to the informant in the report, the French asked many questions regarding the origin of the timber, such as whether child labor was involved. But the Vietnamese only care about whether there is documentation to bypass the Vietnamese customs, even if the timber was harvested illegally. The informant said: 

“We wouldn’t care less about your wrongdoings. Just give me whatever papers that the customs require…”

Vietnamese customs also do not care about illegal logging because “it is like destroying forest in other people’s backyards, not in ours.”

Imports of logs from Cameroon to China, Vietnam, and the EU during the period of 1992-2018. A lot of Vietnamese timber companies moved from Laos and Cambodia to Cameroon due to its relaxed laws governing logging. Graphic: EIA.

Policy recommendations for Vietnam

The EIA report recommends the Vietnamese government do the bare minimum: official acknowledgments of the loopholes in importing timber, followed by more effective regulations regarding fraudulent paperwork and financial transactions of private timber companies. 

So far, half a year after the report’s release, no state-controlled media in Vietnam has reported on the situation. There have been no official statements and no apologies. 

Based on his article on socialism, Nguyen Phu Trong would argue that these flaws exist because the country is in the “transition period” to socialism. This means that existing exploitation is not the government’s ideology but rather the inevitable reality of the global capitalist, market-oriented economy. Furthermore, these companies are private and not government-affiliated, so it is not the system’s fault. 

Let us assume that this argument is true. If so, however, it is even more important and urgent for Vietnamese leaders and policymakers to acknowledge the unethical activities of these companies and come up with more effective regulations to demonstrate their commitment to socialism – which, according to their own arguments, is supposed to be healthier for the environment, the economy and workers. 

Or are we supposed to wait endlessly for an unambiguous date of a successful transition to socialism? 

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