Vietnam Briefing: High-Profile Officials Arrested Over COVID-19 Corruption Scandal

Vietnam Briefing: High-Profile Officials Arrested Over COVID-19 Corruption Scandal
Vietnamese former health minister Nguyen Thanh Long and Hanoi City mayor Chu Ngoc Anh (left;) Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk Province, Cambodia, pictured in 2019 (right.) Photo: VnExpress/ Vietnamese Ministry of Health/ CNN.

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

Vietnamese high-profile officials arrested over COVID-19 test kit scandal

  • Vietnamese authorities on June 7 arrested Nguyen Thanh Long, Vietnam’s health minister, and Chu Ngoc Anh, mayor of Hanoi City, in an expanding investigation into their alleged mismanagement of the country’s massive COVID-19 test kit scam. Pham Cong Tac, a deputy science minister, was also arrested and accused of mismanaging state assets.
  • As of June 9, more than 60 suspects, including government officials, state-run hospital managers, and provincial leaders, have been arrested or investigated for their alleged involvement and wrongdoings in the procurement of medical supplies in Vietnam’s COVID-19 preventive programs. The detention of Long and Anh were the latest in a string of high-profile arrests amid an anti-draft drive that was launched in 2016.
  • According to earlier investigations, Viet A Technology Corp., a local medical equipment manufacturer, had inflated the price of COVID-19 test kits by 45 percent and bribed provincial officials to purchase their medical supplies at the overpriced cost.
  • It was reported that Viet A earned a total of US$172 million for its contract supplying COVID-19 test kits in 62 Vietnamese localities. The company also reportedly sent around $35.2 million in kickbacks to its partners.
  • Nguyen Thanh Long and Chu Ngoc Anh were sacked from their earlier positions as health minister and chairman of the People’s Committee of Hanoi. Long and Anh were also expelled from the Vietnamese Communist Party during an extraordinary meeting of the Party’s Central Committee on June 6. The Party leaders concluded that their political ideology and morality “had become degraded” and that they “had violated Party and State rules.
  • Reuters reported that government sources said Vietnam’s Ministry of Health had assigned its Deputy Minister Do Xuan Tuyen as the acting minister. Meanwhile, Hanoi City’s deputy chairman, Le Hong Son, will temporarily lead the city.

U.S. Department of State report on religious freedom: Vietnamese government has significant control over religious practices

  • The Office of International Religious Freedom of the State Department on June 2 released an annual report monitoring the state of religious freedom around the world. In the introduction to the report, the office states that “We monitor religiously motivated abuses, harassment, and discrimination worldwide, and recommend, develop, and implement policies and programs to address these concerns.”
  • In the Vietnam section, the report writes that although the Constitution states that all individuals have the right to freedom of belief and religion, the Vietnamese government still maintains a tight control over religious practices with “vague provisions that permit restrictions on religious freedom in the stated interest of national security and social unity.”
  • The report also highlights the reported cases of the Vietnamese government’s physical abuse and intimidation of religious minority groups, especially those in the Central Highlands and Northern Highlands.
  • For example, in December last year the Tuyen Quang Provincial authorities “detained at least 56 members” of the ethnic Hmong Duong Van Minh group when they gathered at the funeral of the group founder and leader, Duong Van Minh, to pay respects after his death.
  • Meanwhile, local authorities in several parts of Vietnam’s Central Highlands reportedly “intimidated and threatened violence” against members of some of the region’s unregistered Protestant groups.
  • It is noted in the report that Vietnamese security forces in Dak Lak Province arrested “at least 21 individuals” on July 16, many of whom “had participated in civil society training organized by a U.S.-based human rights NGO and were members of two ethnic minority Protestant churches, the Evangelical Church of Vietnam and the Vietnam Good News Mission Church.”
  • In interviews with RFA, church leaders in Vietnam agreed with the State Department’s report and said that their freedom to practice religion, as enshrined in Vietnam's Constitution, is “being undermined” by the 2016 Law on Belief and Religion.
  • “Some places consider parishes to be religious organizations or at least ‘affiliated religious organizations.’ They consider the registration or change of places of concentrated religious activities under the jurisdiction of the parish priest,” said Catholic priest Dinh Huu Thoai of the Redemptorist Church, one of the church leaders interviewed by RFA. “And, if they are rigid in considering only the diocese as a religious organization, they ask for the bishop’s text even if he is at the bishop's house, not in the locality,” he added.

Freedom House report: Vietnamese government carries out transnational repression

  • In a report titled “Defending Democracy in Exile: Policy Responses to Transnational Repression,” released June 2, the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization Freedom House detailed how governments around the world are using tactics of transnational repression to stifle the voices of exiled activists.
  • According to Freedom House documentation, the Vietnamese government has carried out overseas abduction and indirectly deployed cyberattacks against foreign-based organizations advocating for human rights in Vietnam.
  • For example, Vietnam abducted Trinh Xuan Thanh, an official and businessman wanted by Vietnam, in Berlin in 2017. The abduction was reportedly ordered by the Vietnamese government.
  • The report also underscored the cyberattacks against the Philippines-based Vietnamese Overseas Initiative for Conscience Empowerment (VOICE), which were carried out on behalf of the Vietnamese government in response to the organization’s cooperation with UN human rights bodies.
  • In conclusion, Freedom House proposed recommendations for democratic governments, technology companies, and civil society organizations for what they can do to hold perpetrators accountable for transnational repression, increase resilience within democracies, and better protect vulnerable individuals and groups. They include the improvement of awareness of transnational repression, delivery of accountability for these acts, and support for the victims of transnational repression.

Vietnamese Facebook user sentenced to 5 years in jail for “distributing anti-State materials”

  • A court in Vietnam’s Ben Tre Province on June 9 held a trial for Nguyen Duy Linh, a local internet user, and sentenced him to five years of imprisonment and five years of probation on the charge of “making, storing, or distributing anti-State materials and information” under Article 117 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.
  • In an update on Facebook, Nguyen Ngoc Tuyet, Linh’s wife, wrote that the trial started at 7.30 am and concluded at 11.25 am on the same day. Tuyet previously said in an interview that her husband denied hiring a lawyer and said that he would defend himself at the trial. In another update after the trial, Tuyet wrote that she believed her husband was “not guilty.”
  • Vietnam’s state media reported that Linh allegedly used his personal Facebook account “to share and post articles, videos and pictures that defame Party and State leaders.” A local newspaper from Ben Tre Province also reported that the Facebook user was previously fined 5.5 million dong (US$237) for distributing and circulating defamatory materials.
  • Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter that the prison sentence given toNguyen Duy Linh was “outrageous and unacceptable” and he demanded pressure be applied on Vietnamese authorities for his “immediate and unconditional release.”

U.S. Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman visits Vietnam

  • According to Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman will begin a four-day visit to Vietnam starting June 10.
  • Vietnamese foreign affairs spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said during a press conference that Sherman and the accompanying U.S. delegation would meet Vietnamese representatives “to discuss issues regarding bilateral cooperation, as well as certain global and regional issues of mutual interest.”
  • In a media note the Department of State said that Deputy Secretary Sherman would travel to the Republic of Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Laos in her Indo-Pacific trip from June 5 to 14. It said further that the deputy secretary’s visit to the region “reflects the United States’ continued commitment to the Indo-Pacific and follows last month’s U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit.”
  • During her Vietnam visit to Ho Chi Minh City, Deputy Secretary Sherman will meet with municipal Party Secretary Nguyen Van Nen and deliver remarks at Fulbright University Vietnam. In Hanoi, she will meet with Vietnamese officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Le Van Thanh, Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son, and Vice Foreign Minister Ha Kim Ngoc.
  • Deputy Secretary Sherman’s working agenda in Vietnam includes the announcement of the U.S. government’s additional support for addressing war legacies, discussing supply chains resiliency with private sector representatives, and launching a USAID project to counter wildlife trafficking in Vietnam.

China’s newly unveiled naval base in Cambodia worries Vietnam and U.S. allies

  • The ground-breaking ceremony at Ream Naval Base, a military development project in Cambodia with Chinese assistance, got underway on June 8 amid Vietnam and other regional U.S. allies’ serious concerns given the facility’s sensitive location. The new Cambodian naval base will be located in Sihanoukville Province on the Gulf of Thailand, RFA reported.
  • “Vietnam is of course worried because Ream is extremely close to Vietnam’s own naval base in Phu Quoc island,” an unnamed Vietnamese analyst told RFA.
  • Traditionally, Cambodia is one of Hanoi’s historical partners and a crucial ally in the region. The new Chinese-assisted project, which will help Cambodia renovate and upgrade naval facilities at Ream, underscores the fact that the Cambodian government has increasingly favored its partnership with China while Hanoi has been losing leverage over its once important ally in recent years.
  • In a live broadcast on state media, Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh said that Cambodia approved the project because it wants to enhance its defense capacity for self-defense to secure peace and security, and to be able to contribute to building regional peace and the world.
  • Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing on June 8 that “the renovation of the base serves solely to strengthen the Cambodian naval capacities to protect its maritime integrity and combat maritime crimes.”
  • When asked about Vietnam’s response to the coordinated Cambodia-China naval project in Sihanoukville, Vietnamese foreign ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said that “Vietnam always wishes to maintain and consolidate good cooperative ties with countries around the world” and that “cooperation between countries needs to make positive contributions to peace, security, stability, and prosperity in the region and the world.”

Vietnam Insight: Learn more about Vietnam

Novel India-Vietnam axis emerging in Indo-Pacific

Asia Times/ Swaran Singh/ June 10

“​​Apart from building known naval facilities from Djibouti in Africa to Solomon Islands in the Pacific, and leasing the ports of Gwadar and Hambantota or exploring naval access to ports in Bangladesh and Myanmar in South Asia, China has been secretly building naval facilities in Vietnam’s neighbor Cambodia, though officials both in Beijing and Phnom Penh have denied it.

This is where New Delhi and Hanoi find their larger visions – like the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and India’s Act East policy or Indo-Pacific Ocean’s Initiative – synergizing their rapidly transforming defense-centric partnership that promises to make this novel axis an influential factor in emerging Indo-Pacific dynamics.”

The COVID-19 Pandemic Provided Fertile Ground for Corruption

The Diplomat/ Catherine Putz/ June 8

“The pandemic, officially declared by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020, cratered economies as borders slammed shut. It also sparked massive public spending across the world, which only intensified as vaccines became available and necessary to chart a course back to some kind of normalcy.

With speed a top priority, the race to develop and procure COVID-19 tests and vaccines proved a fertile medium for corruption to blossom from the very top of ministries charged with protecting public health to average citizens abusing the systems established to help people and business survive.”

App-based Drivers in Vietnam: More Workers than Contractors

Fulcrum/ Joe Buckley/ June 6

“The topic of legal status, rights and protections for app-based drivers in Vietnam have become hotly debated over the past few years, and are only set to become more urgent as increasing numbers of people move into the gig economy. The scales seem to be tipping in favor of treating drivers as employees, as they should be, given that they are entirely dependent on the platform companies, who decide which jobs drivers get, how much they will be paid, and other conditions of work. Classifying drivers as employees would also give them access to minimum wages and standards, reducing the precarity and anxiety associated with never knowing if or how much you will earn each day.”

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