During a state diplomatic trip to attend the ASEAN-US Special Summit in May 2022, a three-minute behind-the-scenes video of high-ranking Vietnamese government officials was circulated, which provided the public with a rare glimpse into the inner workings of Vietnam’s political leadership.
Video recordings, similar to the one mentioned above, have long been valuable resources for students and researchers interested in the art of diplomacy and politics, though they often spark debates on transparency, privacy, and diplomatic norms.
In their reaction to the video, most Vietnamese netizens zeroed in on the prime minister’s use of curse words and generally took two sides. On the one side were those who deemed the Vietnamese leaders’ language discourteous and unfit for a diplomatic mission, even in private, and on the other side were those who considered the language endearing as it is close to that of the ordinary people.
To some keen observers of Vietnamese politics, however, what is more revealing (and less entertaining) in the video is the presence of the Minister of Public Security (MPS) To Lam, among Vietnam’s most powerful political circles.
In the footage, some high-ranking government officials, such as Minister of Industry and Trade Nguyen Hong Dien, Governor of the State Bank of Vietnam Nguyen Thi Hong, and Deputy Minister of Defense Pham Hoai Nam, line up on one side and speak to the prime minister in a subservient manner. However, it appears that the Minister of Public Security To Lam considers Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh as his equal.
Thus, we would like to examine whether the dominance of Vietnam’s minister of MPS in the power dynamic with other top-ranking government officials signals a securocratic turn in Vietnamese politics and its implications for the future of the Vietnamese government.
Securocracy is commonly used to refer to a political system under which securocrats, or individuals who formerly held security positions or are closely linked to the state security apparatus, permeate public institutions, occupy key government positions, and overtake policy-making platforms. An example is present-day Russia, where securocrats are more often referred to by the Russian term siloviki.
In 2006, a study examined more than 1,000 key Russian politicians and top government officials and found that 26 percent had held official ranks in the KGB and/or post-Soviet successor agencies. However, that figure could go up to 78 percent if one started to count unofficial links and affiliations with security services.
Under the presidency of Vladimir Putin, siloviki refer to a few individuals within Putin’s closed circle of political elites who were former officials of the Soviet Union’s KGB or one of its successor agencies - such as the Federal Security Service (FSB) - which now occupy key government posts and managerial roles in state-owned enterprises.
The most notable of those include Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Russia’s Security Council, former Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, former Chairman of the State Duma Sergey Naryshkin, Justice Minister Konstantin Chuychenko, Chairman and Chief Executive of Rosneft Igor Sechin, and Chairman of the Management Board of Gazprombank Andrey Akimov.
This group of siloviki not only hold top government positions, but their political power, provided by their direct line of communication to President Vladimir Putin, allows these security elites to have their political agenda prioritized over other government functionaries and even outright dictate other policy-making domains, namely regarding energy, foreign affairs, fiscal policy, and others. 
Securocracy in Vietnam
Before 2016, each Politburo, the de facto most powerful political body of Vietnam, consisted of only one member with a security background, namely the heads of the MPS or its precedent - the Ministry of Home Affairs. Starting with the 12th Politburo (2016-2021), the number of members with security police backgrounds soared to four.
The current 18-member Politburo (2021-present) consists of five members who previously held positions and rose politically from the MPS, namely Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, Minister of Public Security To Lam, head of the Party Central Committee Internal Affairs Commission Phan Dinh Trac, Chief Justice of the Supreme People’s Court Nguyen Hoa Binh, and Secretary of Ho Chi Minh City Party Committee Nguyen Van Nen.
Most notably, current Prime Minister Chinh, an ex-intelligence officer and former deputy minister of the MPS, is the first Vietnamese prime minister who spent most of his political career in the MPS. (This argument intentionally excluded former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who joined the security forces in 1995 and only held a security position for less than two (2) years between 1995-1996.)
The milestones in Chinh’s political career within the MPS are noticeably parallel to those of its current minister, To Lam.
At the lower level of government, there has also been a noticeable rising number of cases in which career security officials are parachuted from the police force to top public managerial positions for which they did not have substantial prior experience.
The consequences of the trend are worrisome.
First, it increasingly opens up potential corruption. It incentivizes people to join the security forces for later opportunities to seek non-security government seats, Communist Party-governance offices, or management positions in State-owned enterprises.
Second, the security forces in Vietnam have already operated mainly in the shadows, hidden from public scrutiny. Internal accountability for violations within the MPS is compromised due to widespread practices of mutual cover-ups. A few other stakeholders, such as parliamentarians or provincial government officials, cannot fully hold security forces accountable; at most, they can only publicly demand security officials explain and elaborate on their policies.
The effectiveness of these accountability mechanisms will be severely compromised if an increasing number of former security personnel occupies these positions.
For example, during a heated debate in the National Assembly on the draft Law on Public Security Forces in 2018, a few elected parliamentarians were the rare voices of protest against the apparent inflation of the general ranks among security personnel, particularly within the police.
Ironically, counterarguments in the parliament during the debate came from members of parliaments who were heads of provincial police departments at that time. Among the synchronized chorus in support of promoting even higher numbers of provincial police chiefs to general ranks was another former security official, Prime Minister Chinh, who at the time was the head of the Communist Party Organizing Commission.
Securocratization of Governance
Another sign of securocratization of Vietnamese politics is the growing dominance of the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) in the overall policy agenda of the government, overwhelming other policy domains. In 2021, Minister To Lam and Spokesperson To An Xo of the MPS got caught on camera enjoying a luxurious meal at a celebrity chef’s restaurant in London.
The image of high-ranking security ministry officials gobbling gold-covered tomahawk beefsteak during the most critical world conference on climate change, in which they are official delegates of Vietnam, right after a theatrical visit to Karl Marx’s grave, created all sorts of disastrous political optics, requiring domestic forces of the MPS to cover up the aftermath awkwardly.
But the Salt Bae scandal also drew attention to another fundamental question: why do these security officials need to participate in a climate change conference, to begin with? And this was not a question only related to those who got caught at the London restaurant. At the COP 26 Conference in Glasgow between October to November 2021, 19 members of Vietnam’s delegation were officials of the MPS.
In comparison, most delegation members of other ASEAN countries, such as Thailand and Indonesia, are public officials, university lecturers, and researchers on areas concerning climate change without any member of the security forces taking part.
There are arguably relevant roles of law enforcement in combating climate change, such as protecting natural habitats or fighting environmental-related crimes. However, those roles may only prove that the situation in Vietnam could be more cynical since, starting from the end of 2021, Vietnam targeted and arrested several of the country’s most vocal and active environmental leaders, including a leading figure of the public campaign against coal development, Nguy Thi Khanh.
Cases of securocracy worldwide have proven that de-securocratization of governance is a remarkably difficult and often violent process. Therefore, the rise of the state of securocracy in Vietnam should be an alarming issue for Vietnamese citizens and the government. Securocracy is also a critical key concept for observers and researchers of Vietnamese politics in the near future.
- Julie Anderson (2006) The Chekist Takeover of the Russian State, International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, 19:2, 237-288, DOI: 10.1080/08850600500483699 To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/08850600500483699