The Vietnam Briefing, which is released every Monday morning Vietnam time, looks at Vietnam’s social and political developments of the past week.
Family of Vietnamese land rights activists petitions the international community for the release of their detained members
- In a petition released on social media on April 30, family members of the detained land activists Can Thi Theu, Trinh Ba Phuong, and Trinh Ba Tu called on international human rights advocates and foreign embassies in Vietnam to pay attention to the detention of these activists and urge Hanoi to drop all charges against them.
- Theu and her two sons, Tu and Phuong, are land rights activists in Duong Noi Commune, Hanoi City. In 2021, Theu and Tu were each sentenced to eight years in prison while Phuong was sentenced to 10 years for their alleged activities involving “making, storing, and distributing propaganda and documents against the State.” They became land and human rights activists after the local authorities seized their farmland in 2008 without paying just compensation.
- Do Thi Thu, wife of Trinh Ba Phuong, who wrote the petition, said that although the Duong Noi farmers had peacefully and lawfully advocated for their legitimate rights to land usage over the years, the Vietnamese authorities had “repeatedly threatened, assaulted, detained, and imprisoned” them. Thu added that the arrests and detention of her family members violate international conventions on freedom of expression, which Vietnam has signed.
- The petition also highlighted the abuses and mistreatment by correctional officers against the detained activists. According to the petition, Trinh Ba Phuong was reportedly beaten while in custody while Trinh Ba Tu suffered kidney failure due to being tortured in prison; Can Thi Theu was kept in pretrial detention with HIV-infected prisoners.
- Meanwhile, Trinh Ba Khiem, Theu’s husband, received a police summons on May 11 and May 12 because of his live-streaming on Facebook criticizing the Vietnamese government for the imprisonment of his wife and two sons. In an interview with RFA, Khiem said that the police threatened to arrest and prosecute him if he did not stop live-streaming his criticisms.
- Khiem also visited Trinh Ba Tu on May 9 and Can Thi Theu on May 12 in prison. Tu said that his health remains in good condition despite being previously tortured while in custody; he added that the police illegally cracked his phone’s password and accessed his personal accounts without the lawyer’s presence.
- Meanwhile, Can Thi Theu’s current imprisonment condition is much more preferable to her previous pretrial detention, according to Trinh Ba Khiem. Theu also said that she sent her gratitude to those who stood by her family’s activism over the past years.
The 88 Project’s latest report: Vietnam stepped up arrests in 2021
- In the latest report released on May 9, The 88 Project, a nonprofit organization advocating for the freedom of expression in Vietnam, highlighted the Vietnamese government’s increasing persecution and crackdown of media professionals and civil society leaders in Vietnam.
- According to The 88 Project’s database, Hanoi arrested 12 media professionals in 2021, a significant increase from just three arrests in 2019. The organization noted that this trend represented the government’s “desperate attempt to stamp out fledgling efforts to promote press freedom in [Vietnam.]”
- Another worrying issue is the Vietnamese government’s suppression of civil society with the detention and imprisonment of leaders of registered civil organizations. Civil society leaders such as Mai Phan Loi, Dang Dinh Bach, and Bach Hung Duong have been arrested and imprisoned on “tax evasion” charges. Earlier this year, environmental leader Nguy Thi Khanh was arrested under the same allegation.
Vietnamese Prime Minister arrives in Washington D.C. for the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit
- On May 11, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh arrived in Washington D.C. to attend the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit, an event hosted to mark the 45th anniversary of the bilateral relationship between the United States and other ASEAN countries, state media reported. The event took place from May 12 to 13.
- Chinh’s agenda during his official visit to Washington includes the promotion of U.S.-Vietnam cooperation in economic development, trade, national defense, healthcare, and energy. According to State media, the two countries are also expected to reaffirm their bilateral commitments to support “a strong, independent and prosperous Vietnam,” according to State media.
- During his speech at the Center For Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Pham Minh Chinh emphasized crucial elements such as sincerity, trust, and responsibility and their essential role in fostering healthy international relations. Chinh also promoted the need to strengthen international cooperation by “respecting each other’s independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, political institutions, and international law.”
- However, Vietnam’s public commitment to uphold international law and the UN Charter stood in contrast to its failure to publicly condemn Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Since the war broke out in Ukraine, Hanoi twice abstained from the United Nations’ resolution condemning the act of aggression and voted against the U.S.-led attempt to suspend Moscow’s membership in the UN Human Rights Council.
- Meanwhile, Vietnam’s social media exploded last week after a diplomatic scandal happened before Prime Minister Chinh met with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington D.C. on May 13.
- In a video live-streamed on the State Department’s Youtube channel, Chinh and other members of the Vietnamese delegation to the summit were heard making imprudent comments regarding the two countries’ relationship and diplomatic affairs. The video is no longer accessible on Youtube.
- Many netizens have criticized the country’s leaders for their lack of courtesy while on diplomatic trips abroad. In November 2021, a video recording of Minister of Public Security To Lam’s luxurious meal in London at the restaurant of Nurset Gokce, popularly known as Salt Bae, also attracted enormous public attention and widespread criticism.
- The video was later deleted from Salt Bae’s personal account, but netizens in Vietnam downloaded it and republished it on social media.
Human Rights Watch sends a letter to President Joe Biden to address human rights issues in the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit
- On May 6, Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) in an open letter called on U.S. President Joe Biden to “feature robust discussion” on human rights, democracy, and rule of law both among Southeast Asian countries and the United States in the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit on May 12.
- The letter also urged the Biden administration not to ignore problematic human rights violations in many ASEAN countries as it seeks to shore up alliances with members amid China’s growing influence in the region. The worsening situation and severe human rights abuses in Southeast Asia “threaten to corrode US efforts to strengthen ties” with the region’s nations.
- HRW wrote that “Vietnam’s one-party authoritarian state has imprisoned more than 150 people for exercising their right to free speech and peaceful assembly.” The country’s penal code also “criminalizes criticism of the government,” the rights advocate added.
- Hanoi on May 11 released Ho Duc Hoa, a Vietnamese journalist, and rights activist, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison, ahead of the special summit between the United States and ASEAN countries. Hoa was released after serving 11 years in jail, and he later boarded a plane to the United States with Tran Thi Thuy, another land rights activist who was sentenced to eight years in prison.
- According to RFA, Vietnam has previously released high-profile political prisoners ahead of diplomatic meetings with U.S. leaders. During Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to Vietnam in August 2021, Hanoi also released detained Vietnamese-Americans Angel Phan and James Han Nguyen. Phan and Nguyen were convicted of allegedly attempting to overthrow the State in 2018 and were both sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Vietnam responds to the UN Commission on Human Rights’ mandate on the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association
- On April 27, the permanent mission of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam at the United Nations responded to the UN Special Rapporteurs’ mandates concerning the Vietnamese government’s restrictions on the freedom of expression, assembly, and association.
- Previously, the Special Rapporteurs in an open letter expressed their “serious concerns” over a number of the Vietnamese government’s amended decrees and decisions. According to the rapporteurs, these updated legislations are allegedly used to restrict the activities and funding of national and international nonprofit organizations (NGOs) and further control public meetings and seminars in Vietnam.
- In its response, Vietnam said that these regulations are used to “ensure transparent and effective operations” and do not “contain any provisions relating to restrictions on freedom of association and assembly.” “Vietnam always respects, protects, and ensures citizens’ rights to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and access to information according to the 2013 Constitution and laws,” the letter stated.
- However, the Vietnamese government’s latest suppression of registered NGOs and civil society leaders shows that Hanoi has zero-tolerance for anyone challenging its one-Party rule. According to The 88 Project, there are currently 206 activists in prison and another 334 at risk in Vietnam.
Imagery shows China still building on Subi Reef in the South China Sea
- “Recent satellite imagery shows that China continues to actively develop its facilities on the disputed Subi Reef in the South China Sea, two months after a top U.S. commander said Beijing had “fully militarized” the reef.
- Simularity Inc., a U.S. geospatial intelligence company, said that an analysis of satellite imagery from May 5 revealed new structures and seven active construction sites on Subi, the coral reef occupied by China since 1988 but also claimed by the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
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Parsing the News About the Vietnam-Russia Joint Military Drills
The Diplomat/ Hai Hong Nguyen/ May 12
“However, Vietnam is also aware that any public sign of taking sides with Russia while the latter’s troops and tanks are still occupying Ukraine could expose it to consequences and cost it much-needed U.S. support in the South China Sea. Surely, Vietnamese diplomats would not be so naïve as to take this risk to Vietnam’s national interests at a time when the West is [closely] watching those countries who are continuing to do business with Russia at a time of increasing international tension.”
US will have to work hard to win over Vietnam’s conservatives
Nikkei Asia/ Dien Luong/ May 11
“As public sentiments in Vietnam on the Ukraine crisis suggest, America's much-touted role as a global security guarantor has yet again been thrown into question. At least, that is how the conservatives are portraying it. Still, suspicions of the U.S. agenda by Vietnamese hard-liners are not utterly groundless.
Against this backdrop, the million-dollar question for champions of U.S.-Vietnam rapprochement is how to advance bilateral ties forward without ruffling conservative feathers, a treacherous line to straddle.”
Why Vietnam Might Want to Reconsider its Russia Policy
ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute/ Derek Grossman/ May 11
“Economic ties between Russia and Vietnam, however, are minimal. In 2020, for example, their two-way trade turnover was less than US$5 billion. For comparison, Vietnam’s combined trade with China and the United States during the same year reached US$153.4 billion and US$87.2 billion, respectively. Russia’s accumulative investment in Vietnam also remains modest, at only US$944 million across 144 projects by the end of 2020. A significant component of economic cooperation is joint energy extraction operations. For example, Vietsovpetro, a joint venture established in the 1980s between Russia’s Zarubezhneft and PetroVietnam, had by the late 2010s produced approximately 242.7 million tonnes of crude oil and 37.3 billion cubic meters of gas from the South China Sea.”
Vietnam Relations Are a Quiet U.S. Victory Already
Foreign Policy/ Brian Eyler/ May 9
“Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh is making his first visit to the United States later this week for the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit. Since the mid-1990s, when U.S. President Bill Clinton and a cohort of bipartisan allies reestablished relations with Vietnam, the two countries have achieved remarkable things. Hanoi is now one of Washington’s top trading partners in the region, and the United States has invested billions of dollars in Agent Orange remediation and other remaining war legacy issues, showing how, with persistence and trust, former adversaries can turn into partners.”
Viet Premier’s Delicate Pilgrimage to Washington
Asia Sentinel/ David Brown/ May 6
“Chinh and his colleagues must tread very carefully in Washington. Attention there is riveted on the Ukraine crisis. Many who are directing the proxy confrontation with Russia lack a nuanced appreciation of America's Asia-Pacific interests. In support of Ukraine, Vietnam (though for its own good reasons) has been out of step with the rest of America's friends, and that does not sit well with the Eurocentrists in the US foreign policy establishment.
The Vietnamese prime minister's very presence in Washington may prompt negative comment. Aggressive interlocutors may ask why the US shouldn't sanction Hanoi's purchases of Russian weapons systems and decry Hanoi's failure to join UN votes condemning Putin's war.”
Vietnam’s Peacekeeping Contributions: Drivers and Prospects
ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute/ Phan Xuan Dung, Nguyen Cao Viet Hung/ April 29
“In the coming years, boosting peacekeeping contributions will remain a major diplomatic and defense task for Vietnam. The Political Report of the 13th CPV National Congress in 2021 reaffirms the Party’s vision for national defense and foreign policy priorities, which emphasizes a peaceful external environment, protection of the Homeland from afar, enhanced defense diplomacy, and effective and proactive participation in multilateral organizations, including the UN. It specifically notes that Vietnam should step up international cooperation and integration on defense and security, and contribute positively and effectively to UN PKO. President Phuc, who is also Chairman of the National Defense and Security Council, has asked the VPA to study and participate in more peacekeeping fields, enlarge the number of peacekeepers, and explore more operating geographical areas.”