Vietnam Briefing: Busy With The Pandemic, But The Government Still Cracks Down On Free Speech

The Vietnamese Magazine
The Vietnamese Magazine

COVID-19 in Vietnam: From Panicking to Pointing Fingers

For the past two weeks, Vietnam has been in a panic as it supposedly discovered a new COVID-19 variant in the country, which is the mixture of the variants found in the United Kingdom and India. As it turns out, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the virus found in Vietnam is not a “new hybrid variant” but rather a part of the existing strain found in India, according to Nikkei Asia.

WHO’s representative in Vietnam, Kidong Park, said that more observation and monitoring are needed for the next few weeks. For now, the WHO does not alert a new strain of COVID-19 in Vietnam.

How is the vaccination situation in Vietnam? As mentioned in previous briefings, Vietnam only has the AstraZeneca vaccine widely available in the country. It has been talking to Pfizer and Moderna to either import the vaccines or produce them domestically. Vietnam is also said to be producing the Russian vaccine Sputnik V, and the country is developing its own vaccine. Despite this effort, the country has a meager vaccination rate of only roughly 1 percent of the population so far. Most of those vaccinated have been health workers, diplomats, and the police and military.

New vaccination developments last week: After resisting China’s vaccine diplomacy for a while, the Chinese vaccine Sinopharm was approved for emergency use by the Ministry of Health this past week. However, public opinion, filled with anti-China sentiment, seems to be resisting the Chinese vaccine. In contrast, people prefer Western developed vaccines and Vietnam’s homegrown NanoCovax vaccine, which is still in trial.

This move by the Vietnamese government could be seen as a desperate effort to curtail the rising COVID-19 cases in Vietnam and expand the number of vaccinations done in the country. With the anti-China public opinion, however, the government will have a hard time popularizing the Sinopharm option for the Vietnamese people.

The Vietnamese government has also set up a COVID-19 fund to manage financial resources for buying and producing COVID-19 vaccines. The government aims to reach a $1.1 billion benchmark for the fund to either acquire or make at least 150 million vaccine doses for the country of 100 million people. The government has been fund-raising from people inside as well as outside the country. So far, this fund has received around 200 million dollars (6,600 billion dong) in direct donations and donation guarantees.

A new pandemic scapegoat? Since the outbreak in Vietnam became worse, a group of Vietnamese Christian missionaries has been at the target of accusations by the Vietnamese state media. The Protestant group, known as the Revival Ekklesia Mission (Hội thánh Truyền giáo Phục hưng), has been associated with at least 145 cases of COVID-19 infections. The Vietnamese state press reported that the group did not impose social distancing and failed to use masks in its gatherings.

With some inconclusive details, the state media and public opinion have been extremely harsh on the group, with people posting hateful comments all over the group’s social media. The situation leaves many wondering whether the state-controlled press was scapegoating the religious group as an easy target to blame for the new outbreaks, considering Vietnam’s stigmas surrounding non-Buddhist religious activities.

Vietnam has now banned gatherings of more than 10 people. This move is seen as a response to the religious group’s new infections.


The government is cracking down on another blogger

Last week, the Vietnamese government issued a warrant to search for blogger Le Van Dung, also known as  Le Dung Vova, under the charge of “making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents, and items against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” according to Article 117 of the Penal Code.

Le Dung Vova is a blogger who uses his independent platform CHTV to broadcast critical opinions about the government on social media. Previously, in 2019, he was detained by the government when he was live-streaming about the US-North Korea summit in Hanoi. He was detained again later in 2019 when he and his colleagues in CHTV were attending a workshop on the South China Sea. The blogger was eventually released on both occasions.

Recently, in late May, the police tried to arrest him again under the same charge but failed. The police are said to have gone to his residence to arrest him, but only met his wife and children. According to a report published by BBC Vietnamese, the police confiscated a laptop and two smartphones in his house.

Article 117 of the Penal Code is one of the typical charges that the regime uses against bloggers and political dissidents. Some other charges include “disrupting security” (Article 118), “abusing democratic freedoms” (Article 331), and “resisting officers in the performance of their official duties” (Article 330).


The Communist Party celebrates 110 years since Ho Chi Minh’s departure to “seek national liberation”

Occupied with the COVID-19 pandemic and cracking down on free speech, the government did not forget to continue its propaganda work. Last week, the state-controlled news in Vietnam was flooded with stories about Ho Chi Minh in foreign countries (France, China, Hong Kong, and Russia).

110 years ago, Ho Chi Minh was said to have left Vietnam to embark on a journey to other countries in order to find a way to liberate the nation. Saigon, now named Ho Chi Minh City, also held a ceremony in the Ho Chi Minh Museum to celebrate “110 years since the late leader’s start on a journey to look for ways to save the country from the colonial yoke,” according to the state-controlled Vietnam News Agency.

Ho Chi Minh, seen as the founding father of the socialist state and the nation’s liberator, has always been a prominent political figure used by the Communist Party for its propaganda efforts in order to retain power. The Vietnamese Magazine’s series on Ho Chi Minh and how his figure has been worshipped and utilized by the Communist Party can be found here and here.


Learn more about Vietnam

Coronavirus: Vietnam approves Sinopharm’s vaccine, but will people take it?

South China Morning Post/Sen Nguyen/June 05, 2021

“The news that theWHO has approved China’s Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines for emergency use, allowing them to be included in the global vaccine-sharing Covax initiative, did little to ease the resistance against Chinese-made vaccines in Vietnam.”

No Trade-Off: Biden Can Both Deepen U.S.-Vietnam Ties and Promote Human Rights

Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS)/Bich T. Tran/June 03, 2021

“To improve trust with Vietnam, U.S. policymakers should differentiate revisionist states like China from status-quo communist regimes like Vietnam. A revisionist state seeks to undermine the established international order for the purpose of increasing its relative power in the system. The concept, therefore, concerns a state’s behavior in international affairs. Meanwhile, a communist regime is a matter of domestic politics. China’s excessive claims, reclamation, and militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea; bullying of other claimants, including Vietnam; and engagement in unfair predatory economic practices are signs of a revisionist state. They are not necessarily characteristics of a communist regime. This distinction will help define and develop the U.S.-Vietnam relationship. Furthermore, the Biden administration should reaffirm its respect for Vietnam’s political system.”

Keeping Strategic Anxieties at Bay: Growing Japan-Vietnam Bonhomie

The Diplomat/Rahul Mishra/June 4, 2021

“As one of the fastest emerging regional economies, Vietnam holds a key position in the emerging Indo-Pacific dynamic. A robust and long-term trade and investment partnership with Japan is significant in that context. Both countries are according greater importance to each other, which is manifested in recent initiatives taken by Japan’s Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide. For one, his first foreign visit as Japan’s prime minister was to Vietnam (and then Indonesia) in October 2020, which is a testimony to Japan’s commitment to Vietnam (and the wider ASEAN region). Diplomatic exchanges between the two countries had become regular and more institutionalized under former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.”

Research: Anglo–Vietnamese diplomatic relationship in the seventeenth century: the case of the English East India Company

International Journal of Asian Studies (Cambridge University Press)/Ngoc Dung Tran/June 02, 2021

“Drawing on primary materials from the English East India Company (EIC) archives in the British Library (London, UK), this article investigates the early diplomatic encounters between England and Vietnam (Tonkin and Cochinchina) in the seventeenth century. Previous studies have mostly focused on the English trade in Vietnam in that period and their diplomatic missions from the late eighteenth century to 1858 but partly neglected their diplomacy in their first connections with Vietnam (1614–1705). This article thus investigates how the EIC adapted its gift-giving diplomacy to the diverse and shifting political landscape of the Tonkin and Cochinchina kingdoms. While the Trịnh Lords in Tonkin severely limited diplomatic and trade exchanges with EIC agents and other European traders, the Nguyễn Lords in Cochinchina welcomed relations with EIC representatives as it served their ambition to facilitate trade and establish military alliances with other powerful actors in the region.”

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