Vietnam Briefing: Land Rights Activists Jailed Ahead Of Election

Trinh Huu Long
Trinh Huu Long

The Vietnam Briefing, which is released every Monday morning Vietnam time, is a look at Vietnam’s political developments of the past week.


The general election enters the final stage

The general election is two weeks away and will be held on May 23, 2021. Here are the key developments in the election thus far:

  • The National Election Council announced the final list of candidates on April 27 after a long vetting process (we have briefly explained this here). There are a total of 868 candidates running for the 500 seats in the National Assembly.
  • Only 74 non-party candidates made it to the final list, which is approximately 8.5 percent of the total. The Council planned to have 25-50 non-party members who will serve in the next term of the National Assembly.
  • Only nine out of 76 self-nominating candidates survived the vetting process. Among them, surprisingly, is a prominent LGBT activist named Luong The Huy.
  • From now on, candidates can campaign, including meeting with voters and media campaigning. However, campaigns are strictly controlled by the government and are primarily organized by the government.
  • All four members of the leadership (the Communist Party’s secretary general, the state president, the prime minister, and the chairperson of the National Assembly are running.

Two prominent farmer activists sentenced to 8 years each in prison

Since this briefing was initiated in early February, not many weeks have passed without a dissident being persecuted. Last week, on May 5, this happened to two prominent land rights activists, Can Thi Theu, 59, and her son, Trinh Ba Tu, 32, during a trial in Hoa Binh Province.

They both received an eight-year sentence for “making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents, and items against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” an activity that is criminalized under Article 117 of the Penal Code. Human rights groups, both inside and outside of Vietnam, have long condemned the criminal provision as an undemocratic and anti-human rights provision that is used to silence critics.

Context:

  • The conviction is based on the two defendants’ live streaming videos on Facebook that were deemed to be anti-government, according to the indictment and state media.
  • Can Thi Theu is a longtime and prominent land rights activist who leads a group of farmers in Duong Noi (Ha Noi). The group claims that they are victims of forced land eviction. Her two sons, Trinh Ba Tu and Trinh Ba Phuong are both involved in her activism and are currently detained with Trinh Ba Phuong while awaiting trial.

Talk about land rights in Vietnam:

  • The 2013 Constitution states that all land belongs to the people and is managed by the government. This is a legacy of the Soviet-influenced 1980 Constitution that was adopted during the height of Vietnam’s era of the centrally planned economy. Since 1986, the ruling Communist Party has adopted a capitalist economic model while still maintaining the old land regime.
  • Land disputes and land evictions have become a major part of Vietnam’s political and economic developments since then, leading to riots, protests, and widespread anger among the public. The most prominent incident was the deadly Dong Tam raid following a land dispute between farmers and the military.
  • Other prominent cases in recent history include Dang Van Hien (2016), Van Giang (2012), Doan Van Vuon (2012), Central Highlands (2001 – present), and Thai Binh (1997).

Vinfast reports customer complaint to … the police

The biggest story of last week is probably not the resurging of COVID-19. It’s the story of a major domestic automaker, Vinfast, reporting a customer’s complaint to the police.

That’s what Vinfast announced in a statement after Tran Van Hoang, a customer who bought a car from the company, posted a video on Youtube complaining about technical errors of the car and how the company had dealt with it.

“Although Mr. Tran Van Hoang proactively removed those clips, we saved all the evidence and have sent our complaints to the police. The police have received our submission and have scheduled a time to work with Mr. Hoang,” the statement said, according to Reuters.

Vinfast’s statement created a huge backlash from social media users who say the company’s action is to silence critics using their good connections with the government. Their report to the police might result in criminal conviction of Hoang.

Context:

  • Vinfast is a member of Vingroup, the biggest private corporation in Vietnam, which is led by Pham Nhat Vuong, the first Vietnamese billionaire, who is worth approximately US $10 billion.
  • Vingroup is the dominant player in the real estate industry in Vietnam, something that is not possible to achieve without extremely good connections with the government, given the fact that Vietnam is still ruled by the political monopoly of the Communist Party. Little transparency is practiced in terms of how land is distributed.
  • This is not the first time a Vingroup company has asked police to intervene in one of its conflicts with customers.
  • Such actions by Vingroup are condemned as examples of crony capitalism and potentially result in criminal charges and free speech violations in Vietnam. The Financial Times published one of the most popular and comprehensive accounts of the rise of Vingroup in 2019 that provides further details.

New report on Vietnam’s religious freedom released by the US government

Quote from the Annual Report 2021 by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom:

“In 2020, religious freedom conditions in Vietnam generally trended the same as in 2019. The government actively enforced the Law on Belief and Religion, which, as written and implemented, contravened international human rights standards and systematically violated religious freedom, particularly of independent religious groups but also of government-recognized groups.”

Five articles published by The Vietnamese are cited in this report.


Learn more about Vietnam:

Independent Journalists in Vietnam: The Clampdown Against Critics Continues

The Diplomat | May 3, 2021

“Vietnam’s independent journalists are under siege, and there is little cause for optimism.”

The economic agenda taking shape under Vietnam’s new leader

Le Hong Hiep/Nikkei Asia | May 4, 2021

“Chinh’s idea is to create new growth centers supported by economic policies and administrative reforms beyond tax or land incentives that will drive the national economy toward sustainable and innovation-based growth. The goal is to help Vietnam escape the middle-income trap and achieve high-income status by 2045.”

New research: The salience of the Northern and Southern identity  in Vietnam

Asian Politics & Policy/Mai Truong

“Abstract: This paper explores the salience of the north-south identity in Vietnam. Using focus groups and survey data, we argue that Vietnam is characterized by asymmetric ingroup bias, where southerners hold higher levels of ingroup favoritism and outgroup discrimination than the north. However,  while north-south identity exists, its salience is limited because it crosscuts with other social identities. Survey data show little difference between the north and the south regarding nationalism, support for redistribution, trade,  authoritarian values, and traditional values. There are differences with the south exhibiting lower trust in the government and generalized trust. Also, within Ho Chi Minh  City (HCMC) and Hanoi more specifically, we find lower support for China and higher support for the United States in HCMC than in Hanoi. However, these differences are  relatively muted, and combined with focus group evidence,  suggest that while identity differences exist, they are asymmetric and not as salient as often presumed.”

New research: Vietnam and the search for security leadership in ASEAN

Asian Security/Ralf Emmers and Huong Le Thu

Abstract: Indonesia has traditionally been viewed as a de facto leader of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the regional body remains the cornerstone of Indonesian foreign policy. The paper addresses the question of whether other member states have become influential actors or even sectoral leaders in their own right by playing a direct role in a particular aspect of ASEAN affairs. This question is addressed by examining the regional policies of Vietnam, a country that has been mostly neglected in the existing ASEAN literature despite its strategic weight. The paper focuses on the evolving role of Vietnam in ASEAN and highlights its diplomatic initiatives, as well as various conditions to evaluate its potential to take up a leading security role in the regional body in the years to come.”

Vietnam BriefingCan Thi TheuLand Rightspicks

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.