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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.

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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Vietnam Briefing

Vietnam Briefing: Dong Tam And The General Election

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One of the defendants in Dong Tam trial, Bui Thi Noi, at her appellate hearing. Photo courtesy: Lao Dong newspaper. Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

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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