Vietnam Briefing: Dong Tam And The General Election

Trinh Huu Long
Trinh Huu Long

It’s a new week and Vietnam Briefing’s mission is to keep our readers up to date on developments in Vietnam. As we missed the briefing last week, here is the key news of the past two weeks.


Vietnam has started to roll out COVID-19 vaccines

The Vietnamese government started administering the first COVID-19 vaccinations doses on March 8. Frontline workers, including doctors, nurses and technicians at designated hospitals combatting COVID-19 are among the first to receive the vaccines produced by Oxford University and AstraZeneca.


High court affirms verdict on Dong Tam case

The appellate trial of the Dong Tam case (March 8-9) went just as everyone expected: no overturning of any sentences and no amendment to the lower court’s verdict. The sentences of the six defendants remain the same, including two death penalties.

A fair trial? It’s hardly a thing in Vietnam. Take the word of Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch:

“There are still many unanswered questions about what happened during the Dong Tam raid that authorities have never been willing to clarify.”

“We are also deeply troubled by the information brought out in the defense lawyers’ report, stating that police used torture on some defendants to force them to confess, raising fundamental concerns about the fairness of the entire trial.”

A historic case, yes. The Dong Tam case is undoubtedly one of the most important and consequential events in Vietnam’s post-1975 history. Those who wish to study the country’s history of land struggles and party-controlled judiciary should take a very close look into the case as it is among the most well-documented events and it provides an intensive account of the issues.

Learn more about the case:


The National Assembly is in the final days of its current term. Yet, it may elect new state leaders just before the election.

In an unexpected, but not unprecedented, move, the Communist Party’s Central Committee is sending three candidates to the National Assembly’s last session of the term for confirmation of three top state positions: president, prime minister, and chair of the National Assembly.

The Party and state media provided no information about who the candidates are, but you don’t need them to name names in order to know who these people are. Vietnamese people often read between the lines and listen to internet influencers – some they believe have inside information – to know what’s going on.

So who are they? Current Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc for president, Pham Minh Chinh for prime minister, and Vuong Dinh Hue for National Assembly chair. VCP General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong is not seeking reelection for the presidency, although he is now running for a National Assembly seat.

What’s special about that? It’s not about who for what, it’s about timing. If elected in April during the last session of the current National Assembly, which is almost certain, the candidates will only serve a few months until the end of the current term. After the general election on May 23, the new National Assembly will convene in July and repeat the same process of electing the same people to the same positions. That’s what happened in April 2016, right before the last general election, which was held more than a month later. And we don’t think there are many people who can explain why the VCP has to rush to do such a repetitive process. The logic behind this remains a mystery to the public.


Man arrested after declaring intention to run for office

This is not something that happened the last time we had an election in 2016 (yes, I know how hard it is to call it an election, but let’s use the word for now). A 61-year-old man named Tran Quoc Khanh was arrested on March 9 and accused of “making, storing, spreading information, materials, items for the purpose of opposing the State of Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under Article 117 of the Penal Code.

He is known for his frequent Facebook activities including live-streaming on human rights and corruption in Vietnam. The arrest was conducted by Ninh Binh Provincial Police shortly after Mr. Tran declared his intention of running for a National Assembly seat.

Something to note: Unlike the exciting election season in 2016 when dozens of activists and independent candidates campaigned for office, despite all failing, there are almost no independent candidates running for office this time.


Here is what the incoming National Assembly may look like

Remember what we mentioned about this two weeks ago? Here is an infographic from the state news agency’s article titled “Expected structure of deputies of the 15th National Assembly.” Yes, the election is more than two months away, but the government has already “expected” the results.


Freedom House drops Vietnam’s freedom score

This time every year, the US-based human rights group Freedom House announces its widely-cited work: Freedom in the World Index. And unlike the recent years, Vietnam’s score dropped 1 point in the 2021 index, down to 19/100 and remains in the “Not Free” group of countries.

What was Vietnam’s response to this? Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Le Thi Thu Hang said on March 11 that Vietnam has consistently protected and promoted human rights. That’s the government’s usual way of dealing with such queries from reporters who work for the international media. We have no knowledge of any reporter from the Vietnamese media asking about such issues, and we doubt anybody ever does.


Vietnam joins China, Russia and India to block UN Security Council’s condemnation of Myanmar’s coup

The United Nations, especially its Security Council, has been reluctant to make any strong statements on the military coup in Myanmar. On March 9, they failed to agree on such a statement, and Vietnam, as a non-permanent member of the council, jointly blocked the effort with China, Russia, and India.

Context:

  • Vietnam is the fourth biggest foreign investor in Myanmar as of January 2021, with 19 projects and approximately US$1.5 billion invested there.
  • Vietnam’s military has close ties to Myanmar’s military businesses, such as Mytel.

Vietnam commemorates the 33rd anniversary of the Gac Ma incident

March 14 has been a sensitive date in Vietnam over the past 12 years since the public started to learn about the bloody incident of Gac Ma.

The Gac Ma incident happened on March 14, 1988, when Chinese warships fired on a group of mainly unarmed Vietnamese troops in Gac Ma Reef (Johnson South), killing 64 of them. Gac Ma (Johnson South Reef), Colin and Len Dao (Lansdowne) Reefs are part of the Truong Sa (Spratly) Islands where the two countries both claim sovereignty. It’s rumored that Vietnam’s then-Minister of National Defense ordered that there be no resistance to the Chinese.

Why sensitive? Not many things in Vietnam are as sensitive as the country’s relations with China. The Vietnamese government censored information about the Gac Ma incident for over 20 years until the early 2010s. Even now, many state media outlets do not mention China in their stories about Gac Ma Reef, although the government has increasingly tolerated open discussions about the topic.

What to watch? Citizens, mostly dissidents and activists, spread information about the Gac Ma incident on social media, criticizing the government’s handling of China, and they also go to cemeteries and temples to commemorate the soldiers who lost their lives on that day. They often face government harassment due to these activities.

Go deeper: Here is some useful material to understand more about the issue, including a video clip of the 1988 incident.


French warship visits Vietnam

Shortly after completing a patrol in the South China Sea in February, the French Navy sent a warship to Vietnam on March 9, where it spent four days in Cam Ranh Port (southern Vietnam) for helicopter repairs.

The South China Sea is certainly a place global superpowers can’t afford to ignore due to its strategic position in terms of security and trade, especially when China has aggressively claimed sovereignty over most parts of the sea with its nine-dash line.

Cam Ranh Port is a familiar name to those who study security in the region. It is a strategic deep water bay in the south of Vietnam and it played a crucial role in the Vietnam War. This is where the Soviet Union, and later Russia, stationed troops from 1979 to 2002.


Events to watch:

Mainland Southeast Asia: power, protest and participation

March 23, 2021 3 pm, Auckland, Wellington

Three expert scholars will contextualise developments in Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam, followed by a discussant response and Q&A

Speakers: Thitinan Pongsudhirak (Thailand), Wai Wai Nu (Myanmar), Nguyen Khac Giang (Vietnam). Discussant: Natasha Hamilton-Hart. Chair: Emeritus Professor Roberto Rabel

Hosted by the Centre for Strategic Studies: NZ


Learn more about Vietnam:

Vietnam: Successfully Navigating the Pandemic | IMF, 10 March 2021:

Despite COVID-19, Vietnam’s economy has remained resilient, expanding by 2.9 percent in 2020—one of the highest growth rates in the world—and with growth projected to be 6.5 percent in 2021, thanks to strong economic fundamentals, decisive containment measures and well-targeted government support, according to the IMF’s latest annual assessment of the country’s economy.

How Economic Reforms of the 1980s Changed the Face of Vietnam | National Interest, 12 March 2021:

“Back when the Heritage Foundation published its first index [of Economic Freedom] in 1995, Vietnam scored 41.7 points. By 2005, this had risen to 48.1 points and in 2010 it climbed further to 49.8 points. What is remarkable is the huge increase in economic freedom since 2015, when Vietnam was awarded a score of 51.7. Since then, Vietnam has added another 10 points to reach 61.7 points today—an increase of 20 points since 1995!”

Vietnam, ASEAN, and the US-China Rivalry in the Indo-Pacific | The Diplomat, 13 March 2021:

“China may not feel comfortable if Vietnam pursues stronger security ties with the U.S. and its allies, but it is China’s aggressive behaviors in the South China Sea that have pushed Vietnam into this course of action. China should adjust its approach or risk pushing Vietnam and other regional countries further toward the United States.”

“Politically, certain reforms may also be explored, but mainly to streamline and increase the efficiency of the political system, not to democratize it. Vietnamese leaders believe that political stability is a precondition for economic development, and they will not tolerate any developments that may destabilize the political system.”

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Trinh Huu Long

A journalist and democracy advocate at @luatkhoatapchi and @thevnmesemag magazines. He's also a co-director of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam, a nonprofit organization that runs The Vietnamese.