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Vietnam Briefing

Vietnam Briefing: 2021 Is Going To Be A Busy Year Of Elections

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Vietnam National Assembly Hall. Photo courtesy: Reuters.

We release the Vietnam Briefing every Monday, Vietnam time, with an emphasis on politics and foreign affairs. The briefing today is mainly about the different kinds of elections Vietnam is going to have this year.


COVID-19:

  • COVID-19 vaccinations will be rolled out this month.
  • Hai Duong Province will end lockdown from March 3.
  • Hanoi’s closure order for street vendors, cafes and historical sites has remained unchanged, but just as we briefed last week, many places are still open.

We are starting to know what the next National Assembly will look like

It’s true. We don’t need to wait until the general election ends on May 23 or for the results to be released in June. The National Assembly’s Standing Committee revealed in early February and last week the “tentative proportion” or “tentative allocation,” of seats for Parliament’s next term (2021 – 2026).

This means we can now see which government and Communist Party bodies will tentatively hold how many seats in the National Assembly.

The tentative number of seats is officially stated in the Standing Committee’s Resolution 1185/NQ-UBTVQH14, which is dated February 5, 2021 and which was debated again last week during the committee’s session that ended on February 23.

More details: 

  • Approximately 95 members of the National Assembly are members of the Communist Party of Vietnam’s (CPV) Central Committee, including 12-14 members of the Politburo and the Central Secretariat.
  • Outside-of-the-party members: 25-50 (5-10 percent).
  • Members from the central government: 207 (41.4 percent).
  • Members from the military: 12 (excluding the minister of national defense).
  • Members from the police: 2 (excluding the minister of public security).
  • Other seats are also planned to be allocated to other government and party bodies.

Context:

  • The general election will be held on May 23 for both the National Assembly and local legislative bodies at all three levels (province, district, and commune). The results are expected to be released in June. The first National Assembly session will be held in July, mainly to elect top officials of all three branches of the central government.
  • General elections are held every five years, shortly after the Communist Party congresses.
  • Free and fair elections? That’s what the government says, but it’s not the view of Freedom House, a human rights organization, in its 2020 report: “Elections to the National Assembly are tightly controlled by the CPV, which took 473 of the body’s 500 seats in the 2016 balloting. Candidates who were technically independent but vetted by the CPV took 21 seats. More than 100 independent candidates, including many young civil society activists, were barred from running in the elections.”

Curious about how this election works? Pay close attention to two things: the role of the Fatherland Front – the Communist Party’s external arm – as a vetting agency and how the government deals with independent candidates.


Vietnam to run for a seat at the United Nations’ Human Rights Council

That’s what the Deputy Prime Minister announced last week before a United Nations’ session in Geneva, Switzerland.

Vietnam apparently doesn’t have a good record on human rights. But just like other authoritarian states such as China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia, it has a chance to win one out of 47 seats on the United Nations’ Human Rights Council’s 2023-2025 term.

Context:

  • Vietnam was elected to the very council once in 2013, serving a two-year term from 2014 to 2016.
  • Government persecution targeting dissidents and human rights defenders has been increasingly harsh over the past five years, according to the data collected by The 88 Project.
  • Vietnam has consistently been categorized as a “Not free” country by the international rights group Freedom House.
  • Vietnam is currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, and it will serve until the end of this year.

Vietnamese ambassador runs for re-election to International Law Commission

It seems Vietnam is actively seeking more influence on the international stage. Here is another election at the United Nations that Vietnam is campaigning for, according to VietnamPlus:

“Vietnam’s permanent missions to the United Nations (UN) in New York and Geneva have recently sent diplomatic notes to the UN and member countries informing them of the candidacy of Ambassador Nguyen Hong Thao to the International Law Commission (ILC) for the 2023-2027 term, marking the official start of the Vietnamese candidate’s campaign for re-election to the UN’s important law organ. 

In 2016, Ambassador Thao became the first Vietnamese to be elected as an ILC member. During the 2017-2022 term, he actively promoted ILC’s research results, delivered speeches and joined discussions at the ILC.”


The Dong Tam appellate trial will be held on March 8

Remember the high-profile Dong Tam trial in September? The appellate trial opens on March 8 and will last until March 10.

Six defendants have appealed their sentences to the People’s High Court in Hanoi.

What should we expect? 

  • The trial will very likely result in the affirmation of the lower court’s verdict with little or no adjustments to the defendants’ convictions and sentences.
  • Similar to the trial in September, the appellate trial is expected to be closed to the public, with no independent and international media, and no independent observers allowed to attend; even family members of the defendants may be refused permission to observe the trial.

Learn more about the Dong Tam case:


Amnesty International’s new investigation into hacking group Ocean Lotus

Two weeks ago, we mentioned the hacking group Ocean Lotus in our briefing, indicating that the Vietnamese government is likely behind the effort to target dissidents and foreign entities.

Last week, another report on the matter was released by Amnesty International. Here is what it says:

“Our investigation was not able to attribute Ocean Lotus’ activities to any company or government entity. However, the extensive list of people and organizations targeted by Ocean Lotus over years shows that it has a clear focus on targeting human rights and media groups from Vietnam and neighbouring countries. This raises questions about whether Ocean Lotus is linked to Vietnamese state actors. The consistent evidence linking Ocean Lotus to Viet Nam should trigger the Vietnamese authorities to undertake an impartial, thorough and independent investigation into the group’s unlawful activities and human rights abuses.”

Context: 

  • The Vietnamese government has kept silent on the issue.
  • The Vietnamese government also has accused Amnesty International of “distorting Vietnam’s reality” and of “intervening in Vietnam’s internal affairs.”

Read more about Vietnam:

Where to now for Vietnam after Trong? (East Asia Forum – Feb 27): “Events over the past year have brought major long-term trends in Vietnam’s domestic and foreign policy to the surface. The country will be less aligned with China. In the next decade, it will likely have its first non-conservative leader since the Cold War’s end but its leaders continue to value the Leninist state model.”

Vietnam’s unresolved leadership question (East Asia Forum, Feb 25): “Pham Minh Chinh emerged as a new star. […] Chinh is also a potential candidate to succeed General Secretary Trong when Trong vacates his position. In that case, Chinh will have reached a position his predecessors — Nguyen Tan Dung and Nguyen Xuan Phuc — wanted but did not get. The question is whether Trong wants and has enough time to groom Chinh to handle the roles of general secretary and state president.”

Supply chain bottlenecks in Vietnam (Bangkok Post, Mar 1): “Vietnam’s economy has fared better than that of almost any other country except China during the Covid-19 crisis. It grew by 2.9% last year while most other countries fell into recession. One consequence of the crisis was that manufacturers realised the importance of diversifying supply chains, and many accelerated the China Plus One policies that they had initiated because of the US-China trade war. This led to a surge of investment in Vietnam from global manufacturers last year.”

Capital meant for Myanmar may seek havens in Vietnam and Cambodia (Nikkei Asia, Feb 27): “The military coup in Myanmar has forced investors who had earmarked capital for the country to look for nearby alternatives. Delta Capital, Anthem Asia and other funds that have solely focused on Myanmar are adopting a wait-and-see approach, and those with a wider geographic footprint are funneling money to destinations like Cambodia and Vietnam. Vietnam is especially frothy.”

Mitsubishi pulls out of Vinh Tan 3 coal project in Vietnam (Reuters, Feb 26): “Mitsubishi Corp has decided to pull out of the Vinh Tan 3 power plant in Vietnam, two sources familiar with the company’s thinking on the matter told Reuters, as it shifts away from carbon intensive businesses in the face of climate change. Mitsubishi’s move to exit the estimated $2 billion project shows how willing Japanese companies and financiers are to drop their once-strong support for coal amid pressure from shareholders and activists.”

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Vietnam Briefing

Vietnam Briefing: Meet The New State Leadership

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

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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Vietnam Briefing

Vietnam Briefing: Another Congressional Candidate Arrested While Congress Elects New Leaders

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Nguyen Phu Trong and Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the commencement of the National Assembly Session on March 24, 2021. Photo courtesy: Vietnam News Agency

The Vietnam Briefing is released every Monday.


Another congressional candidate arrested

Independent journalist Le Trong Hung, a candidate for the National People’s Congress, was arrested on March 27 by Hanoi local police, VOA cited his family.

He had filed his candidacy earlier this year and his application was approved by election officials. 

Hung is known for running his social media-based TV channel called Chan Hung TV, that broadcasted information about victims of injustice, including  farmers who had lost their land and people who had been wrongfully convicted.

Besides Hung, another person arrested after declaring his candidacy is Tran Quoc Khanh, as we reported two weeks ago. The general election will be held on May 23, 2021.


The National Assembly is convening to decide top state positions

If things go as planned, Vietnam will have a new president, a new prime minister and a new chairperson of the National Assembly potentially by April 7.

Some other top seats of the National Assembly and the cabinet will also be considered.

It’s now officially announced that current Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc will be nominated to be president of the state. 


Tension in the South China Sea

Not only has China sent warplanes into Taiwan’s air space over the past week, but also hundreds of Chinese vessels have also massed in disputed areas in the South China Sea.

From Reuters:

“Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang on Thursday said the Chinese vessels at the reef, which Hanoi calls Da Ba Dau, had infringed on its sovereignty. 

‘Vietnam requests that China stop this violation and respect Vietnam’s sovereignty,’ Hang told a regular briefing. 

A Vietnamese coastguard vessel could be seen moored near the disputed area on Thursday, according to ship tracking data published by the Marine Traffic website. 

Hang said Vietnam’s coastguard was ‘exercising its duties as regulated by laws’, including international law.”


Rapping Vietnam Ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink tapped as Joe Biden’s top Asia envoy

He made headlines last month in Vietnam by rapping in both English and Vietnamese. Now he’s nominated for one of the top seats in the US State Department.

From The South China Morning Post:

“The US ambassador who made a splash in Vietnam by making a rap video may soon get a promotion – to be the top diplomat for Asia under President Joe Biden. Daniel Kritenbrink, a career diplomat who speaks Chinese and Japanese, was nominated by Biden to be the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, a White House statement said.”


Learn more about Vietnam:

Vietnam proves immune to China’s vaccine diplomacy campaign

March 27, 2021 | Nikkei Asia

“It would be a stretch to accredit that one comment as an accurate measure of public sentiment in Vietnam toward the Chinese-made vaccine. But in Southeast Asia, Vietnam has remained a prominent outlier to China’s fanfare vaccine diplomacy campaign.”

Biden can address Vietnam’s currency valuation without Section 301

March 27, 2021 | East Asia Forum

“While there were intense talks during the Trump administration — including a call between Trump and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc — there are no reports suggesting any ongoing talks with the Biden administration.”

China, Vietnam Lead Three-Speed Asian Recovery, World Bank Says

March 26, 2021 | Bloomberg

“A three-speed recovery is taking hold across East Asia and the Pacific, with China and Vietnam already beating their pre-pandemic levels of economic growth while other countries could take years more to heal, according to World Bank projections.”

Vietnam’s New Government Election: The Sooner the Better?

March 23, 2021 | Fulcrum

“There is little reason for the Community Party of Vietnam to repeat its “fast track” procedure to get a new government in place. The Party’s reputation is best served by its playing by the rules.”

Why Biden Sends Warships to the South China Sea, Just as Trump Did

March 22, 2021 | VOA News

“U.S. President Joe Biden is keeping pace with his predecessor in the frequency of American warships sent to Asia, analysts believe, a way to get a foothold in contested seas and routinize warnings aimed at the region’s strongest maritime force, Beijing.”

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Vietnam Briefing

Vietnam Briefing: A Prominent Writer Dies, Sparking Discussions Of His Works And Censorship

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Writer Nguyen Huy Thiep. Graphics: The Vietnamese Magazine

The Vietnam Briefing is released every Monday.

Last week, we had a new chief of external relations of the Communist Party, a detained activist being transferred to an unknown facility, and a prominent writer passed away.


Police transferred a detained land rights activist to another facility without informing his family of the details of the sudden move

Detained land rights activist Trinh Ba Phuong’s family says they were informed by officials of Hanoi No 1. Detention Center on March 19 during a prison visit that Phuong had been transferred to another detention facility. The officials have given them no further information about the move.

Who is  Phuong? He is a prominent land rights activist who is part of a group of farmers in Duong Noi, a rural area of Hanoi, who have been evicted from their land by the government since 2008. They claim the land acquisition was illegal and the compensation was extremely low. Phuong’s mother, Can Thi Theu, and father, Trinh Ba Khiem, have been imprisoned several times since then. Theu, and Trinh Ba Tu – Phuong’s brother, were arrested and detained again in June 2020 in the same case with Phuong. They are all charged under Article 117 of the Penal Code, which is “making, storing or disseminating information, documents, materials and items against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”

One thing to note: In Vietnam, the government agency in charge of detention facilities and the investigative agencies are both under the authority of the Ministry of Public Security.


Prominent writer Nguyen Huy Thiep passes away at 72

If you talk about Vietnam’s literature and censorship, Nguyen Huy Thiep is the name you need to pay attention to. He is one of the most prominent Vietnamese writers since the Vietnam War. His death sparked discussions on social media on his work and how he suffered from heavy censorship.

Scholar Thomas Bass wrote:

“Thiep began his meteoric career in 1987, and already by 1988 he had published his collected works and celebrated what everyone was calling ‘the year of Nguyen Huy Thiep’. In 1989, the film of ‘The General Retires’ was released, and by 1990 Thiep was being installed as a member of the Writers’ Association. But this is also the year that copies of his works began disappearing from book stores. Nhan Dan, the party newspaper, published two essays attacking Thiep, claiming that he had ‘betrayed the Vietnamese Revolution by toppling sacred heroes in Vietnamese history’ and that he was ‘deceived by the chimera of pre-1975 Saigon’. The denunciation campaign continued until 1991, when the police raided Thiep’s house, carried off his books and manuscripts, and provoked a turning point in his life. This also marks a turning point in Vietnamese literature, when the country’s brief, five-year experiment with Renovation ended in the dark age that persists today.”


VCP has a new chief of external relations

Following the Party Congress in January-February, the Politburo continued to  appoint new personnel to top Party positions. On March 19, Le Hoai Trung was appointed head of the Commission for External Relations.

Who is he? Trung served as deputy minister of foreign affairs since 2010, and Vietnam’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York (2011-2014). He was elected to  the Party’s Central Committee in 2016 and 2021.


Learn more about Vietnam:

Should Vietnam become a member of the UN Human Rights Council?

ASEAN Today | 19 March 2021

“The UNHRC should push Vietnam to implement existing action plans to improve human rights conditions in the country, rather than offering it a place in the forum. If Vietnam becomes a member of the UNHRC, it will not only discredit the UN body’s standing but will also legitimize Vietnam’s policies of oppression.”

Vietnam Must Be Pleased With the Biden Administration… For the Most Part

The Diplomat | 16 March 2021

“…the Biden administration appears to emphasize not only shared national interests, but values as well, such as democracy, freedom, and human rights. For Hanoi, there is likely a certain amount of trepidation regarding the potential consequences of engaging with a more vocal Washington on these issues, which are extremely sensitive for Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) leaders. Additionally, Hanoi likely has concerns about whether the Biden administration will take action against Vietnam for Trump-era allegations that it is a currency-manipulator as well as potential U.S. sanctions against Vietnam for purchasing Russian military equipment under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.”

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