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On This Day

June 16, 1954: Ngo Dinh Diem Appointed Prime Minister Of The State Of Vietnam

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Photo credit (from left to right): Unknown, Ebay, BBC Vietnamese. Wikimedia Commons (background), Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine

The “On This Day” series introduces contemporary Vietnamese history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by explaining political events that occurred today in the past.


What happened? 

On this day, 67 years ago, Ngo Dinh Diem was tapped to be the prime minister of the State of Vietnam. His appointer was Bao Dai, the chief of state, who also was the last emperor of Vietnam under the Nguyen Dynasty, which ended before the formation of this regime. 

This event could be considered one of the most significant political developments in South Vietnam in the post-colonial era. It was the foundation of a political entity that would later become a fierce rival to the Communist regime in the north. 

What was the State of Vietnam? 

The State of Vietnam was the predecessor of what would later become the Republic of Vietnam. 

Because of the famous Battle of Dien Bien Phu, in which the Communist regime in the north launched a massive offensive against the French colonial government[1], the French decided to sign an agreement to transfer their administrative powers to a government headed by a Vietnamese, the former Emperor Bao Dai [2], who was chosen by the French. 

This move by the French colonial administration is called the “Bao Dai solution,” which presented the French and the Americans with an opportunity to retain their influence in the region amid the rising power of the Communists. [3] 

This new State of Vietnam had been  under the French Union since 1949. However, this regime lived a short life as Bao Dai was stripped of power only a few years later by his own appointee as prime minister. 

Who was Ngo Dinh Diem? 

Ngo Dinh Diem is best known for his role as president of the Republic of Vietnam, the regime in the south of Vietnam that ceased to exist when the Vietnam War ended in 1975. He was a Catholic politician in a country with a Buddhist majority, which many say was one of the prime reasons for his downfall. 

The Communist regime often portrayed Ngo Dinh Diem as an American puppet who led an imperial regime controlled by the United States. [4] The Communist regime also saw Diem’s rise to power as undemocratic and illegitimate. However, it also unexpectedly ignored the ironic parallels between such complaints compared to North Vietnam’s own pile of undemocratic practices. 

However, many foreign-based scholars agree that Diem was much more complicated as a political figure than how the Communist regime portrayed him. Some even argued that Diem was as concerned with American intervention as the Communists were and attempted to create an alternative anti-colonial movement to the Viet Minh, leading by the Communists.[5] 

Prior to being made president of South Vietnam, Diem held a role that was lesser known: prime minister of the State of Vietnam. 

Diem was appointed because Bao Dai believed that the newly formed State of Vietnam would need American support and that Diem’s Catholic and anti-Communist background would be an appealing advantage. This was done despite Bao Dai’s alleged awareness that Diem was fond of Cuong De, a Nguyen Dynasty’s royal descendent who had challenged Bao Dai’s legitimacy. [6] 

Later, Diem would overthrow Bao Dai in a referendum in October 1955, which designated Diem as the new head of state and established the Republic of Vietnam. Though the transition was not violent, it did not happen without smear campaigns against Bao Dai, who was viewed as a collaborator with the French colonialists.[7] 

This is not to praise Diem and his administration. On the contrary, the scholarly consensus seems to agree that Diem’s referendum in October 1955 was staged and undemocratic [8], and many have pointed out the shortcomings of his administration. The shocking self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc was one illustration of the Diem regime’s failure to handle religious affairs, making many Buddhists feel discriminated against compared to Catholics. [9]

However, it is important to remember that Ngo Dinh Diem was a politician and leader of Vietnam in an important historical chapter, and someone who remains a crucial historical figure to study and discuss. To completely demonize him, and to only study him from the viewpoint of the “winning side,” is to ignore a chapter of Vietnamese history that is scarcely discussed in an equitable manner. 

Bibliography 

[1] Battle of Dien Bien Phu. (2019, September 23). History. https://www.history.com/topics/france/battle-of-dien-bien-phu

[2] French Indochina/Vietnam (1941–1954). (n.d.). University of Central Arkansas | Political Science. Retrieved June 15, 2021, from https://uca.edu/politicalscience/dadm-project/asiapacific-region/french-indochinavietnam-1941-1954/

[3] Hess, G. R. (1978). The First American Commitment in Indochina: The Acceptance of the “Bao Dai Solution”, 1950. Diplomatic History (Oxford University Press), 2(4), 331–350. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7709.1978.tb00441.x

[4] Nghiem, K. H. (n.d.). Khái quát về Việt Nam lưu trữ Cộng hòa (1955–1975), Phần 1. Faculty of Archival Studies | University of Social Sciences & Humanities. Retrieved June 15, 2021, from http://luutru.hcmussh.edu.vn/?ArticleId=4939505b-d8e6-43d2-b673-f53151a00181

[5] Miller, E. (2004). Vision, Power and Agency: The Ascent of Ngô Đình Diệm, 1945–54. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 35(3), 433–458. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0022463404000220

[6] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (n.d.). Cuong De | Vietnamese prince. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved June 15, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cuong-De

[7] Chapman, J. M. (2006). Staging Democracy: South Vietnam’s 1955 Referendum to Depose Bao Dai. Diplomatic History, 30(4), 671–703. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7709.2006.00573.x

[8] Chapman, J. M. (2006). Staging Democracy, 671-703. 

[9] Nguyen, S. (2021, June 11). June 11, 1963: The Internationally Shocking Self-Immolation Of Buddhist Monk Thich Quang Duc. The Vietnamese Magazine. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2021/06/june-11-1963-the-internationally-shocking-self-immolation-of-buddhist-monk-thich-quang-duc/

On This Day

October 15, 2008: Two Journalists Worked For State-Owned Media Sentenced After Exposing Major Corruption

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From left to right: Nguyen Viet Chien on trial and portrait of Nguyen Van Hai (credit: AFP/Tuoi Tre). Background: BBC News Vietnamese. Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

What happened? 

On this day, 13 years ago, journalists Nguyen Viet Chien and Nguyen Van Hai were sentenced by the Hanoi People’s Court under Article 258 of the Penal Code for “abusing democratic freedom to infringe upon the interests of the state.” Nguyen Viet Chien was sentenced to two years imprisonment, and Nguyen Van Hai was given 24 months of probation.

The two had written about a prominent million-dollar corruption scandal related to the Ministry of Transportation. The scandal (abbreviated PMU-18), which started in 2006, involved state funding to gambling on football games, resulted in the arrest of many senior Communist Party members. Chien and Hai were arrested after the Transportation Deputy Minister was cleared of all charges due to a “lack of evidence.” 

The unique part of this story is that both of the journalists worked for the state-controlled press. Chien worked for Thanh Nien, while Hai worked for Tuoi Tre. Their sentences were considered “light” since charges under Article 258 could lead to 7 years imprisonment. In January 2009, Chien was released early as a part of presidential amnesty celebrating Lunar New Year. 

After they were arrested in May 2008, a lot of state-controlled press sided with the two journalists. For example, Thanh Nien News posted an article titled “Phải trả tự do cho các nhà báo chân chính” (“Free the innocent journalists”), directly advocating for the release of Chien and Hai. Cong An Nhan Dan (The People’s Police), a platform infamous for its antagonizing depiction of jailed journalists, though not directly advocating for their release, wrote a neutral article about Chien and Hai and expressed positive comments about the two, for example, calling them “leading writers in anti-corruption.” 

Reportedly, the state ordered state media to stop commenting on the case, though the articles mentioned were not deleted. This is one of the rare cases where the state-controlled media sided with convicted journalists, exposing a conflict between journalistic ideals and the authoritarian state’s orders. Compared with other cases of dissident journalists during the same time, Nguyen Viet Chien and Nguyen Van Hai received much lighter sentencing. 

Though the two journalists received very light punishment compared to other dissident journalists, the case still shows that Vietnam is willing to punish journalists who speak out against authority, even if they have enormous public support and tell the truth. 

The public outcried and supported the jailed journalists during this period. However, their sentencing also showed that the hard-line anti-corruption narratives in recent years among Party’s senior officers, such as Secretary-General Nguyen Phu Trong, could only be a farce. 

Citations

  1. BBC News. (2006, April 4). Vietnam ministry hit by scandal. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/4874600.stm
  2. BBC News Vietnamese. (2008a, May 26). Bác đơn bảo lãnh phóng viên. https://www.bbc.com/vietnamese/vietnam/story/2008/05/080526_reporterarrest_update
  3. BBC News Vietnamese. (2008b, August 15). Tuyên án đối với hai nhà báo. https://www.bbc.com/vietnamese/vietnam/story/2008/10/081015_trial_latest
  4. Công An Nhân Dân Online. (2008, May 12). Hai nhà báo viết về vụ PMU18 bị bắt. https://cand.com.vn/thoi-su/Hai-nha-bao-viet-ve-vu-PMU18-bi-bat-i126647/
  5. International Federation for Human Rights. (2008, October 6). Arbitrary detention of journalists and bloggers. https://www.fidh.org/en/region/asia/vietnam/Arbitrary-detention-of-journalists
  6. Nguyen, S. (2021, October 10). October 9, 2009: Six Peaceful Activists Sentenced For Pro-Democracy Activities. The Vietnamese Magazine. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2021/10/october-9-2009-six-peaceful-activists-sentenced-for-pro-democracy-activities/
  7. PEN America. (2009, January 26). Journalist Released. https://pen.org/rapid-action/journalist-released/
  8. Thanh Niên. (2008, May 14). Phải trả tự do cho các nhà báo chân chính. https://thanhnien.vn/phai-tra-tu-do-cho-cac-nha-bao-chan-chinh-post197670.html 

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On This Day

October 9, 2009: Six Peaceful Activists Sentenced For Pro-Democracy Activities

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Photo credit: BBC News/AFP. Graphic by The Vietnamese Magazine.

What happened? 

On this day, 12 years ago, a group of six democracy activists was sentenced to prison, with sentences ranging from two years to six years in prison, in addition to various months or years of house arrest. Their sentences prompted criticism from many international organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders

These activists were arrested earlier in 2008 for hanging pro-democracy banners on a bridge along the Hanoi-Hai Phong Highway. The government accused them of “spreading propaganda against the government and Communist leaders” under Article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code. Article 88 was one of the most frequently used charges to silence political dissent in Vietnam during the last decades. 

The group of six activists includes well-known activist and novelist Nguyen Xuan Nghia, activist Nguyen Van Tinh, land rights activist Nguyen Kim Nhan and Nguyen Van Tuc, ex-Communist member Nguyen Manh Son, and Ngo Quynh, a university student. Nghia and Tuc are alleged to be members of Bloc 8406, a pro-democracy organization that used to be prominent but was violently suppressed during the early 2010s. At the time of the arrests, most of the activists were already in their 60s, but Ngo Quynh was only 25 years old. 

Following the trial of these activists, other democracy activists were also sentenced in 2010, including teacher Vu Hung, blogger Pham Thanh Nghien, and activist Pham Van Troi. According to the BBC Vietnamese, the intensified crackdown of pro-democracy activities was due to the approaching Communist Party Congress in 2011. 

While it has been more than a decade since the sentencing of the above activists, it is essential to remember that the Vietnamese government continues to crack down on peaceful pro-democracy activists and give them unjust sentences for their political longevity. 

Where are these activists now? 

The six activists detained in 2009 were all subsequently released when their prison terms ended between 2011-2014.  

However, Nguyen Kim Nhan was arrested again in 2011, almost immediately after he was released from prison upon completing his 2-year sentence; he received another nearly six years in prison. 

Nguyen Van Tuc, released in 2012, is currently in prison after being accused of “aiming to overthrow the government” in 2018 under Article 79 of the 1999 Penal Code. Tuc received a sentence of imprisonment for 13 years, and his family members have spoken out about his deteriorating health behind bars. 

Nguyen Xuan Nghia, the activist who received the longest sentence of six years in 2009, was again harassed by the police in 2018 for “storing banned books.”

Examining the life of the democratic activists who have served years in prison shows us that the government has never treated them with respect despite how peaceful, intellectual or patient. It is as if the government is sending a clear political message: you have to be on our side, or we will eliminate you. 

While the article today is about the sentencing of activists from twelve years ago, we keep seeing similar treatment patterns with democracy activists or writers throughout recent years. 

Citations:

  1. BBC News Tiếng Việt. (2011, June 8). Ông Nguyễn Kim Nhàn bị bắt. https://www.bbc.com/vietnamese/vietnam/2011/06/110608_nguyenkimnhan_arrest
  2. BBC News Tiếng Việt. (2012, September 10). Nhà bất đồng chính kiến ra tù. https://www.bbc.com/vietnamese/vietnam/2012/09/120910_dissident_released
  3. BBC News Tiếng Việt. (2018b, April 10). 13 năm tù cho nhà hoạt động Nguyễn Văn Túc. https://www.bbc.com/vietnamese/43710106
  4. B.T. (2009, September 7). Tổ chức Phóng Viên Không Biên Giới (RSF) kêu gọi Việt Nam trả tự do cho các blogger. RFI Tiếng Việt. http://www1.rfi.fr/actuvi/articles/118/article_5213.asp
  5. Human Rights Watch. (2009, August 19). Vietnam: Release Peaceful Democracy Advocates. https://www.hrw.org/node/237562/printable/print
  6. Human Rights Watch. (2020, October 28). Vietnam: Free Political and Religious Detainees. https://www.hrw.org/news/2011/04/07/vietnam-free-political-and-religious-detainees#
  7. Nhân Dân. (2012, November 2). Y án sơ thẩm đối với bị cáo Nguyễn Kim Nhàn và đồng bọn trong vụ án tuyên truyền chống Nhà nước. https://nhandan.vn/thoi-su-phap-luat/y-an-so-tham-doi-voi-bi-cao-nguyen-kim-nhan-va-dong-bon-trong-vu-an-tuyen-truyen-chong-nha-nuoc-387812/
  8. Pham, N. (2009, October 9). Six Vietnamese activists jailed. BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8299406.stm
  9. Radio Free Asia. (2020a, October 11). Cựu tù chính trị-nhà văn Nguyễn Xuân Nghĩa bị bắt đi làm việc. https://www.rfa.org/vietnamese/news/vietnamnews/Former-political-prisoner-summoned-05232018100346.html
  10. Radio Free Asia. (2020b, October 11). Sức khỏe tù chính trị Nguyễn Văn Túc tồi tệ thêm. https://www.rfa.org/vietnamese/news/vietnamnews/ailing-political-prisoner-nguyen-van-tuc-health-worsened-in-prison-03152019083039.html
  11. Radio Free Asia. (2020c, October 11). Tù nhân lương tâm Nguyễn Kim Nhàn được trả tự do. https://www.rfa.org/vietnamese/news/vietnamnews/conscience-prisoner-nknhan-get-early-release-2-months-10072016085459.html 

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On This Day

July 24, 2012: China Establishes Sansha City, Intensifying The Maritime Conflict With Vietnam

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Photo credit (from left to right): Str/AFP, Xinhua, Stringer/Reuters. Background: Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).

What happened?

On July 24, 2012, China established a prefecture-level city called Sansha City (in Vietnamese: Thành phố Tam Sa) under Hainan Province, the most important strategic location for China to push territorial claims in the South China Sea [1]. 

Sansha City covers 800,000 square miles of China’s nine-dash line map of claimed territories in the South China Sea, and it is 1,700 times the size of New York City, even though it mostly covers seawater. [2] According to China analyst Zachary Haver in a US Naval War College report: “through Sansha’s system of normalized administrative control, China is gradually transforming contested areas of the South China Sea into de facto Chinese territory.” [3] In other words, through the establishment of Sansha City, China is signaling that it is here to stay. 

The establishment of Sansha City has been extremely controversial in Vietnam because the city includes the Paracel and Spratly Islands, which Vietnam also contests as its rightful territory, along with other countries such as Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. 

What did Vietnam say? 

As expected, Vietnam did not take the news lightly. In 2020, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman said that Vietnam wholeheartedly rejected the “so-called Sansha City” as it violates the sovereignty of Vietnam. [4] 

The presidents of the People’s Committees in Khanh Hoa and Da Nang provinces, which Vietnam claims govern the Spratly and Paracel Islands, respectively, also had the same talking point. [5] They further affirmed that the two islands are under the administration of Khanh Hoa and Da Nang provinces and not the Sansha City of Hainan Province. 

Territorial conflicts and rising anti-China nationalism

This event was just one among many others that intensified maritime conflict between China and Vietnam. Both countries have tried to establish both legal and historical claims to the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Because of the fierce conflict, many people in Vietnam have developed a unique version of nationalism: anti-China nationalism. 

Such nationalism is rooted in the reality of many Vietnamese who have held a deep-seated Sinophobic resentment towards a millennium of Chinese domination [6]. Still, this nationalism has proved to be more than about China’s military aggression. In fact, anti-China nationalism in Vietnam has been useful in anti-authoritarian mobilizations and call for better governance and democracy. Read more about the nuances around anti-China nationalism in Vietnam here

Bibliography 

[1] Li, M. (2019). Hainan Province in China’s South China Sea Policy: What Role Does the Local Government Play? Asian Politics & Policy, 11(4), 623–642. https://doi.org/10.1111/aspp.12495 

[2] Coy, P. (2021, February 19). China Has An 800,000-Square-Mile ‘City’ in the South China Sea. Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-02-19/china-has-an-800-000-square-mile-city-in-the-south-china-sea 

[3] Haver, Z. (2021, January). China Maritime Report No. 12: Sansha City in China’s South China Sea Strategy: Building a System of Administrative Control. U.S. Naval War College. https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1011&context=cmsi-maritime-reports 

[4] M.Q. (2020, October 15). Việt Nam phản đối Trung Quốc mở rộng hoạt động tại cái gọi là “thành phố Tam Sa.” Báo Thế giới và Việt Nam. https://baoquocte.vn/viet-nam-phan-doi-trung-quoc-mo-rong-hoat-dong-tai-cai-goi-la-thanh-pho-tam-sa-126319.html 

[5] Phản đối Trung Quốc lập cái gọi là “thành phố Tam Sa.” (2012, June 24). Tạp Chí Xây Dựng Đảng. http://xaydungdang.org.vn/Home/vankientulieu/Bien-dao-Viet-Nam/2012/5207/Phan-doi-Trung-Quoc-lap-cai-goi-la-thanh-pho-Tam-Sa.aspx 

[6] Lam, V. (2018, June 29). Vietnam: A month of mass protests. Lowy Institute. https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/vietnam-month-mass-protests 

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