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Vietnam Briefing

Vietnam Briefing: Tet, COVID-19, Journalists, And The South China Sea



Celebration of Tet in Vietnam. Photo courtesy: TL/


The COVID-19 situation continued to worsen throughout the Lunar New Year and serious measures have been put in place.

  • Hanoi has decided to temporarily close coffee shops, street restaurants, and historical sites from midnight, February 16.
  • Students in Hanoi will have to study online until February 28, following similar decisions by Hai Duong, Binh Thuan, Thanh Hoa, Binh Dong, and Binh Phuoc provinces.
  • Ho Chi Minh City’s students will continue to study online until February 28.
  • The chairperson of the Hanoi People’s Committee proposed that Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc close universities located in the capital until the end of February. These universities are under the authority of the central government, and not the local government.
  • Hai Duong, a northern province near Hanoi, will be locked down from February 16 for 15 days and citizens have been ordered to stay home. Only essential movements and businesses are allowed. Schools are closed until at least February 28.

Vietnam – one of Asia’s top-performing economies during the pandemic

Report from CNBC on February 10:

“Vietnam was one of Asia’s top-performing economies in 2020 and among the few countries that managed to record growth last year as authorities globally scrambled in their battle against the coronavirus pandemic. It saw 2.9 percent growth in 2020, narrowly edged out by the Taiwan economy’s 2.98 percent growth.”

A state-owned media journalist arrested for defaming provincial officials

It’s not unusual hearing news stories about journalists being arrested in Vietnam. Mr. Pham Bui Bao Thy (Phạm Bùi Bảo Thy) – the head of the representative office of Giáo dục và Thời đại (Education and Era) newspaper in central Vietnam – was arrested and charged by Quang Tri provincial police with “abusing democratic and freedom rights to infringe on the State’s interests and rights and the interests of organizations and individuals” under Article 331 of the Penal Code, according to Tuoi Tre and the Vietnam News Agency.

The provincial police have accused him of using anonymous Facebook accounts to spread baseless information and to defame some top government officials in the province.

The police have put him under a two-month detention order. 

Another person named Le Anh Dung (Lê Anh Dũng) was also arrested in the same case. Voice of Vietnam (VOV) reported that Mr. Dung, 56, lived in Ho Chi Minh city and he is accused of administering the accounts.

Article 331, previously Article 258 of the Penal Code, is widely condemned by rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Several human rights defenders and dissidents have been arrested and convicted of the crime, including well-known journalists such as Nguyen Huu Vinh, also known as Anh Ba Sam (2014), and Truong Chau Huu Danh (2020).

Is a government-backed hacking group targeting dissidents?

The lotus is seen as a symbol of Vietnam. Look at the national flagship airline’s logo and you will see it. And now, technology experts believe that a hacking group named OceanLotus, potentially linked to the Vietnamese government, is targeting dissidents and human rights organizations.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, an international rights group, released an interview with Steven Adair, president and co-founder of Volexity, a US-based cybersecurity company that has studied OceanLotus, on February 1. Below is a part of the interview:

“Question: Is it possible to say whether state actors are behind OceanLotus?

Answer: We definitely believe it’s out of Vietnam, but whether it’s a government agency, a contractor working for them, or something else, we don’t claim that we know that. We look at the immense level of effort and resources to maintain all the infrastructure and identify the victims. It’s not something anyone’s going to do in their spare time.”

Human Rights Watch: Vietnam among countries using COVID-19 to justify free speech violations

A report released on February 11 by Human Rights Watch lists Vietnam among countries taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to advance the governments’ agenda of suppressing human rights, especially the right of free speech.


“Authorities in at least seven countries have blocked individual news reports or ordered online media or social media users to remove or edit Covid-19 related content. Vietnamese authorities summoned 650 Facebook users between January and March to question them about publishing false information relating to the pandemic, forced all of them to remove their posts, and fined over 160 of them. Vietnamese law does not only target incorrect information, but information that is deemed to defame or insult others’ reputation or honor.”

France’s nuclear attack submarine patrols in the South China Sea

On February 17, a lot of Vietnamese people inside and outside of Vietnam, as well as the state-owned media, will be speaking about the border war with China that started exactly 42 years ago. Anti-China sentiment has been strong in Vietnam, and many people wanted to see world superpowers harshly confront China on issues such as trade, human rights, security, and so on. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea are among them. Vietnamese people are desperate to see the United States and other countries on their side. Last week, France seemed to make a strong statement on the issue.

Quoted from AFP:

“The French nuclear attack submarine SNA Emeraude recently conducted a patrol in the South China Sea, Defence Minister Florence Parly announced this week, sparking questions over the timing and tensions in Asia’s hotly contested waters.”

Xi Jinping urges Vietnam to “stand against the instigation of external forces” on the South China Sea issue

It was Lunar New Year in Vietnam and China last week. The two countries’ top leaders, Nguyen Phu Trong of Vietnam and Xi Jinping of China, had a phone conversation on February 8 to exchange wishes and to discuss various issues, according to Xinhuanet, China’s state-owned media agency. Here are a few things to note from this conversation.


“China, Xi added, is willing to work with Vietnam to accelerate the synergy of the Belt and Road Initiative with the ‘Two Corridors, One Economic Belt,’ promote the construction of cross-border economic cooperation zones between the two countries, and explore exchanges and cooperation in such fields as healthcare, digital economy and humanities. 

The two sides should strengthen coordination and cooperation on international and regional issues, firmly uphold the international system with the United Nations at its core, oppose protectionism and unilateralism, and support a fast entry into force of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement, Xi noted.

China and Vietnam, he said, should properly manage the maritime differences and stand against the instigation of external forces to promote the development of regional peace and stability.”

Vietnam’s major mainstream media outlets, such as The Government’s Portal, Nhan Dan, VOV, and Tuoi Tre, didn’t report the above-mentioned points of the conversation.

Vietnam Briefing

Vietnam Briefing: A Busy Week Of Cracking Down On Freedom Of Speech



From left to right: Doan Kien Giang, Nguyen Thanh Nha, Nguyen Phuoc Trung Bao. Graphics: RSF

We release the Vietnam Briefing every Monday morning, Vietnam time.

Three Vietnamese journalists arrested over reporting on ‘toll booth’ schemes

Quote from RFA:

“Police in southern Vietnam’s Can Tho City on Tuesday arrested three independent journalists connected with the publishing of articles online last year criticizing toll booths set up under a controversial infrastructure funding program, state media sources said.  

Nguyen Thanh Nha, Doan Kien Giang, and Nguyen Phuoc Trung Bao—all writers for the popular Facebook page Clean Newspaper, which discusses Vietnamese social issues—were taken into custody in connection with an investigation into the activities of journalist Truong Chau Huu Danh, who was arrested in December.”

Vietnamese journalist gets eight years for ‘anti-state’ writings

Quote from RFA:

“A court in Vietnam sentenced a journalist to eight years Friday for writing anti-state stories and sharing them on social media, her lawyer told RFA.

The People’s Court in the south-central coastal province of Phu Yen convicted Tran Thi Tuyet Dieu of violating article 117 of the Vietnamese penal code for ‘creating, storing and disseminating information and materials against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.’”

Vietnamese Facebook user jailed for two years for ‘abusing democratic rights’

Quote from RFA:

“A court in southern Vietnam’s Can Tho City on Thursday sentenced a Facebook user to two years in prison for posting articles and livestream videos criticizing Vietnam’s communist government online, family members and media sources said.

Le Thi Binh, born in 1976, was arrested in December and charged with ‘abusing the rights to freedom and democracy to threaten the interests of the state’ under Article 331 of Vietnam’s 2015 Penal Code. Her elder brother, Le Minh The, had completed a two-year jail term on the same charge in July.”

International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) filed new submission to the UN, detailing the government’s use of laws to suppress freedom of expression

Quote from ICJ:

“The ICJ highlighted in particular how new laws have been enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that aim at or can be used by State authorities to control information about the pandemic. These laws contain provisions incompatible with human rights law and standards as their vague language makes them prone to abuses. In addition, some   prescribe excessive sanctions, including severe criminal penalties, which are incompatible with the principles of necessity and proportionality.”

Read the full text here.

On foreign affairs

PM wraps up working trip to attend ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting (April 25): “On the Myanmar situation, Chinh affirmed that Vietnam, as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for 2020-2021. and the Council’s president for April 2021, has worked to create favorable conditions for the ASEAN member nations to collaborate closely at UN forums in mobilizing support for the bloc’s efforts in approaching and finding suitable solutions to the Myanmar issue.”

Vietnamese President chairs UNSC’s high-level open debate (April 19): “In his capacity as President of the United Nations Security Council in April 2021, Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc on April 19 chaired a High-level Open Debate on ‘Cooperation between the UN and regional organizations in enhancing confidence-building and dialogue in conflict prevention and resolution’, which was held in both online and in-person formats.”

Japan targets Vietnam for first ASEAN oil-sharing deal (April 21): “The deal is part of Japan’s attempt to build oil-sharing arrangements with Associations of Southeast Asian Nations members. Under one proposal, each participant would build up individual reserves of crude oil, along with gasoline, diesel fuel and other petroleum products, to prepare for disruptions in supplies.”

A busy week of the South China Sea issue, too

Vietnamese, Chinese defence ministers hold talks in Hanoi (April 25): “ Both sides agreed that the year of 2020 witnessed complicated developments in the world and regional situation with great risks of instability, creating new challenges to the trend of peace, cooperation and development and greatly impacting the security and development environment of all countries.”

China, Vietnam agree to boost trust amid South China Sea tensions (April 25): “China and Vietnam have agreed to work together to improve trust amid simmering tensions between the two neighbours over their territorial claims in the South China Sea.”

Vietnam building up its maritime militia (April 25): “Vietnam is building up its maritime militia in the South China Sea in an apparent challenge to Chinese efforts to dominate the disputed waterway, according to a Chinese military magazine.”

Indonesia, Vietnam renew calls to finish EEZ negotiations (April 25): “Indonesia and Vietnam have renewed calls to finish ongoing negotiations on the delimitation of the maritime boundary between their exclusive economic zones (EEZ) near the South China Sea to provide clarity and avoid incidents in the waters.”

Japanese destroyer in Vietnam on friendly visit (April 20): “The visit is part of efforts to boost defense and security cooperation between Vietnam and Japan and maintain the countries’ strategic partnership, officials said.”

India offers help to Vietnam in warship-building & maintenance (April 20): “India on Tuesday offered all possible help by its defence and other shipyards to Vietnam in construction and maintenance of warships, build.”

New research on Vietnam’s politics

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Vietnam Briefing

Vietnam Briefing: VCP Has Finalized The List Of Candidates In The Very Election They Are Running For



The Vietnam Fatherland Front held their third round of hiệp thương in Hanoi on April 15, 2021. Photo:

We release the Vietnam Briefing every Monday morning, Vietnam time.

The Vietnamese Communist Party is finalizing the list of eligible candidates for the  upcoming general election

The way elections in Vietnam work is to pre-determine the results, and the way to achieve that is to determine the list of candidates.

Vietnamese citizens can’t just register themselves as candidates and expect their names will go straight to the candidate listings on the ballots. If they want to be candidates, they have to go through a vetting process called hiệp thương, which is conducted by the Vietnam Fatherland Front, the extended political arm of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP). After the third and final round of hiệp thương, the list of candidates will be released and voters can vote for only these candidates.

The Fatherland Front’s local committees of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city did exactly that just last week. Similar events were held in other provinces as well.


  • At least two independent candidates have been arrested before the third round of hiệp thương.
  • Dozens of candidates in Hanoi withdrew before the final list was adopted.
  • Almost no dissidents or activists are running for election this year. This is a major change compared to the last election in 2016, when at least 30 of them ran (and failed to make it to the final list).

A prominent activist, Nguyen Thuy Hanh, was arrested

Quote from VietnamPlus:

“Hanoi’s police have taken a woman into custody as they investigate allegations of ‘making, storing, distributing, or disseminating information, documents, and items against the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’ under Article 117 of the 2015 Penal Code.  

The Investigation Security Agency under the municipal Department of Public Security said on April 8 they had arrested Nguyen Thuy Hanh, born in 1963 and living in Thuong Dinh ward, Thanh Xuan district.”


  • Nguyen Thuy Hanh has been a prominent advocate for democracy and human rights in Vietnam since 2011. She also participated in several anti-China movements.
  • Hanh ran for election in 2016 as an independent candidate but failed to make it through the VCP’s vetting process.
  • She founded and managed a well-known charity called the 50k Fund (Quy 50k) to assist family members of political prisoners financially for several years before shutting it down in late 2020.

Read her profile in The 88 Project’s database and an op-ed about her.

Vietnam unveils tools for taxing and tracking big tech

Quote from Nikkei Asia:

“Vietnam is proposing a pair of regulations that would compel global tech players such as Alibaba and Google to hand over more taxes and data, in a move to increase government oversight in one of the world’s fastest-growing digital markets.”

US stops short of branding Vietnam a currency manipulator

Quote from Reuters:

“The U.S. Treasury Department on Friday said Vietnam, Switzerland and Taiwan tripped its thresholds for possible currency manipulation under a 2015 U.S. trade law, but refrained from formally branding them as manipulators.”

US names new ambassador to Vietnam

Quote from VnExpress:

“U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday nominated Marc Evans Knapper as the new ambassador to Vietnam.  

The Senior Foreign Service member, who will succeed Daniel J. Kritenbrink, is currently serving as the deputy assistant secretary for Japan and Korea in the State Department.  

He has previously served in the U.S. embassies in Seoul, South Korea, Baghdad, Iraq, and Tokyo, Japan, and the State Department’s Office of India Affairs and Office of Japanese Affairs.”

What’s special about April for Vietnamese?

April is a special month not only in Vietnam but also in Vietnamese overseas communities. It marks the end of the Vietnam War on April 30, 1975. The event widely divides Vietnamese people around the world with the winning side, which is the ruling Communist Party, celebrates and the losing side mourns. The losing side is millions of people in the South and Vietnamese former refugees as well as their families now settled in countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia. Discussing the loss of the losing side and the nature of the fall of Saigon is still largely taboo in Vietnam.

However, this day is not only about the war, it is also the end of the first and the only Vietnamese democracy in history thus far, the Republic of Vietnam.

Curious about it? Here are the books you might be interested in:

Learn more about Vietnam

Why the #MilkTeaAlliance movement has little appeal to Vietnamese youth

Dien Nguyen An Luong/South China Morning Post | April 16, 2021

“Against that backdrop, outsiders may wonder why Vietnam’s internet-savvy youth have remained an outlier in the #MilkTeaAlliance. How have Vietnam’s leaders afforded to stave off such a movement? Will anti-government sentiment materialise any time soon in the country? A closer look at how social media and geopolitics have become increasingly interwoven provides some clues.  While some observers have talked up its role, there has been a growing body of evidence that social media alone could not have fanned the likes of Arab Spring-style uprisings.”

Vietnam’s Great Debate Over Democracy

Trien Vinh Le/The Diplomat | April 15, 2021

“Inspired by the development stories of East Asian countries that have experienced the benefits of embracing democratic principles, there are official and informal opinions that Vietnam needs a second Doi Moi centered around political reform. If new political institutions and practices are allowed to emerge and lead to new ways of governing and fresh policy ideas, the economy can pivot to more open and more innovative activities based on science and technology. It is appropriate to ask how the current government system can usher in a new era of economic transformation when so many at the top benefit from the old model based on exploitation of labor and natural resources.”

Vietnam restores regional balance to top leadership

Le Hong Hiep/Nikkei Asia | April 14, 2021

“In an attempt to address southern politicians’ grievances, the party appears to be taking steps to gradually restore the regional balance.  Soon after the 13th congress, the party installed Vo Van Thuong, a politician from the southern province of Vinh Long, as the standing member of its secretariat, the No. 5 position in the party’s hierarchy. Last week, the National Assembly also elected three southerners into senior state and government positions, including Vo Thi Anh Xuan from An Giang Province as vice president, Tran Thanh Man from Can Tho city as deputy chair of the National Assembly, and Le Minh Khai from Bac Lieu Province as one of the deputy prime ministers.”

How a Vietnam-Malaysia Fishing MOU Could Ease the Wider South China Sea Dispute

Ralph Jennings/VOA News | April 16, 2021

“Malaysia and Vietnam intend to sign a memorandum of understanding that experts say could eventually help ease a decades-old, six-party dispute over sovereignty in the resource-rich South China Sea.  Maritime law enforcement agencies from the two Southeast Asian countries aim to sign the memo this year and resolve at least 15 years of trouble over the movement of Vietnamese fishing vessels, the official Bernama news agency in Malaysia reported in early April. Bernama quoted the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency director-general saying he’s confident the deal, now in its final stages, will solve the issue of Vietnamese fishing boats that enter Malaysian-claimed waters.”

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Vietnam Briefing

Vietnam Briefing: Meet The New State Leadership



Pham Minh Chinh and Nguyen Xuan Phuc. Photo Courtesy: Nhu Y/

We release the Vietnam Briefing every Monday morning.

The rumors were right. Meet the new state leadership

We reported correctly in our first briefing on February 8 that there were rumors that current Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Pham Minh Chinh, the head of the Party Central Committee’s Organization Commission and Vuong Dinh Hue, the secretary of the Hanoi Party Committee, would be named president, prime minister, and chairperson of the National Assembly, respectively.

What is happening in the last session of the National Assembly is proving the rumors are right.

Vuong Dinh Hue took over the chairperson position of the National Assembly on March 31 after his predecessor, Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, was released from duty the previous day by the legislative chamber’s resolution. The Communist Party quickly appointed the then-minister of finance, Dinh Tien Dung, to replace Hue as the party chief of Hanoi on April 3.

The National Assembly also relieved Nguyen Xuan Phuc from the prime minister post and Nguyen Phu Trong from the president post on April 3, paving the way for elections of Nguyen Xuan Phuc to be president and Pham Minh Chinh to be prime minister this week. Phuc was already nominated to the post on April 2.

When this entire process ends tentatively by the end of April 5, the political tradition of having a “gang of four” sharing four top seats of the party and the state will be restored.

Another journalist is arrested

Nguyen Hoai Nam, a former investigative journalist working for the mainstream media, was arrested on April 2 in Ho Chi Minh City. He is currently under pre-trial detention and is charged with “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, lawful rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens.”

Who is Nam? VnExpress says he was a former reporter at Thanh Nien (Youth), Phap Luat TPHCM (HCMC Law), Vietnam Television and Phap Luat Viet Nam (Vietnam Law). The news agency added that Nam had posted on his Facebook account several articles challenging police investigations into violations at Vietnam Inland Waterways Administration, which it said had  resulted in the arrest of its former deputy head Tran Duc Hai in 2019.

According to VnExpress: “The reporter implicated 15 people who had allegedly committed violations regarding the case, 12 more than determined by police. He went on to accuse the investigators of ‘letting the criminals off the hook.’”

The nature of the charge: 

  • The charge is based on Article 331 of the 2015 Penal Code, previously known as Article 258 of the 1999 Penal Code.
  • The criminal provision is widely condemned by both domestic and international human rights groups as vague and as used by the government to silence critics.
  • Activists ran a campaign called the “258 Campaign” to advocate for the abolition of the provision.

Four citizens convicted of spreading anti-state propaganda

Publicly saying bad things about the Communist Party might well result in being imprisoned for years in Vietnam. That’s what happened to four citizens in Khanh Hoa Province on March 30.

Nguyen Thi Cam Thuy, 45, was sentenced to  nine years in prison, Ngo Thi Ha Phuong, 25, to seven years and Le Viet Hoa, 59, to five years, VnExpress reported.

Another person, Vu Tien Chi, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in Lam Dong Province.

Just like Article 331 and Article 258, this criminal provision has received a high degree of criticism from human rights groups inside and outside of Vietnam.

Read more about Vietnam:

The US Department of State’s human rights report on Vietnam

“The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is an authoritarian state ruled by a single party, the Communist Party of Vietnam, and led by General Secretary and President Nguyen Phu Trong, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and Chairwoman of the National Assembly Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan. The most recent National Assembly elections, held in 2016, were neither free nor fair; there was limited competition among Communist Party-vetted candidates.”

Drinking coffee in the US? Worry about forests in Vietnam, study says

Mongabay | April 2, 2021

“The U.S.’s thirst for coffee drives forest loss in central Vietnam, while Germany’s craving for cocoa is doing the same in West Africa, a landmark study that tracks the drivers of deforestation across borders found.”

Vietnam Should be More Proactive in Global Governance

The Diplomat | March 30, 2021

“After its COVID-19 successes, Vietnam is well positioned to play a more energetic role on the global stage.”

The Vietnamese Recovery Is Made in America

Wall Street Journal | March 30, 2021

“Vietnam’s economy is growing again, on the back of a strong rise in exports. The Southeast Asian nation looks to be one of the most clear-cut international beneficiaries of the U.S. stimulus package.”

How The Vietnamese State Uses Cyber Troops to Shape Online Discourse

ISEAS | March 3, 2021

  • The operations of Vietnam’s public opinion shapers and cyber-troops reveal that the online discourse is manipulated to enforce the Communist Party’s line. 
  • Vietnamese authorities constantly grapple with the vexing question: How to strike a delicate balance between placating critical public sentiment online while ensuring that it does not spill over into protests against the regime. 
  • When it comes to methods, targets and motives, there appears to be significant crossover between public opinion shapers and the government’s cyber troops. 
  • The Vietnamese state cyber-troops have been encouraged to use real accounts to massreport content. This helps explain why it is the only Southeast Asian state to publicly acknowledge having a military cyber unit. 
  • The lack of political and technological wherewithal presents an uphill battle for these cyber-troops in influencing Vietnam’s online information environment.

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