“You must strictly follow the rules, regulations, and laws wherever you live,” instructed Dang Dinh Bach, a Vietnamese community lawyer and founder of an environmental policy advocate named Law & Policy Sustainable Development, during a conference held for young environmental ambassadors in April last year in Vietnam.
Bach continued by warning the young environmental activists against “violating the laws” and “going down the wrong path” in their environmental advocacy, adding that they should not entangle themselves and their activism with “reactionary and dissident elements.” About one month later, Bach was arrested and consequently jailed for five years on “tax evasion” charges. Independent observers believed that his prison sentence was politically motivated.
David Hutt, an analyst and journalist with a focus on Indo-Pacific affairs, wrote in an explanatory article published in The Diplomat shortly after the conviction of Nguy Thi Khanh, another environmental NGO leader, that the recent crackdown on environmental activism in Vietnam fundamentally results from the Vietnamese Communist Party’s (VCP) paranoia that climate advocacy can mobilize the general populace to challenge and undermine its political legitimacy.
“Because [the climate change] impact is universal, affecting everyone in society, there are naturally going to be more points of dispute between what citizens and the Communist Party think is the right way forward,” argued Hutt. “Because it won’t be solved in a few months or years, it’ll remain a perpetual issue for the Vietnamese people.”
Although Vietnam is an oppressive state, the imprisonment of Dang Dinh Bach, as well as other civil society leaders, such as Mai Phan Loi and Nguy Thi Khanh, have sent shockwaves across the NGO community in Vietnam. What’s astonishing is that, unlike other pro-democracy and human rights activists, Bach, Loi and Khanh have consistently demonstrated their close cooperation with the Vietnamese authorities and have diligently worked within the country’s legal system.
The VCP’s growing intolerance of the slightest form of opposition means that no segment of Vietnamese society is truly safe. The message is clear: you can’t criticize the regime, nor can you express your disagreement with how the country is run and managed. Clichéd catchphrases, such as “every Vietnamese citizen is a potential prisoner,” or “we’re simply living in an open-air prison,” have long been widely circulating within the dissident community in Vietnam.
A few weeks ago, Vietnamese authorities also arrested a beef noodle vendor, a music teacher, and a Youtube commentator under controversial Article 117 for “distributing anti-State propaganda.” They joined the long list of countless other journalists, land rights activists, religious leaders, and even former Communist Party members who are currently detained or constantly harassed and intimidated by the government.
The VCP’s comprehensive crackdown on dissent dates back to the 20th century with the brutal suppression and humiliation of Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm, a reformist movement initiated in the 1950s by a cohort of intellectuals and former Communist Party members in North Vietnam. The movement, which aimed at pushing for greater intellectual freedom and political reform in North Vietnam, took its name from two journals at the time, Nhân văn (Humanity) and Giai phẩm (Masterworks).
The political movement was short-lived. The two journals were shut down by Communist Party officials in December 1956. The Ho Chi Minh government also denounced and vilified members of the movement in official forums and media campaigns. Many activists were fired from their jobs and forced to perform ideological correction through self-criticism or hard labor. Others were given prison terms and subjected to surveillance, harassment, and intimidation by the police.
Vietnam’s social landscape changed significantly after the VCP opened the country’s economy and ramped up extensive economic reforms in the late 1980s. Nonetheless, economic liberalization did not accompany the emergence of political freedom or government respect for fundamental human rights.
While the VCP’s intolerance towards dissidents ensured its unchallenged rule as the dominant political entity throughout much of the past century, its overreaction, even to the slightest form of opposition, may tarnish Vietnam’s political agenda and can potentially endanger the Party’s grip on power in the new era.
The Communist Party’s legitimacy is markedly shifting from nationalist rhetoric and ideologies to its ability to raise the living standards of the general population. To achieve this goal, Vietnam is seeking to portray itself as a reliable trading partner and an attractive destination for foreign investors.
This effort is demonstrated by the country’s application to gain a seat at the UN Human Rights Council for the 2023 - 2025 term this October, even though Vietnam is one of the most oppressive states in Southeast Asia.
With the recent arrests and convictions of environmental civil society leaders, the Communist country is facing increasing scrutiny of its assumed role as a defender and torch bearer of universal human rights. The current worrisome situation could force Vietnam’s partners to rethink their relationships with the government, both diplomatically and economically.
On September 13, more than 50 Goldman Environmental Prize winners raised the case of Nguy Thi Khanh, a 2018 Goldman Prize laureate, in a letter to the members of the UN Human Rights Council, urging the council members to reconsider admitting Vietnam as a new member. Khanh was previously sentenced to two years in prison on the exact same tax evasion charges as Bach and Loi.
“These arrests have raised concern that more environmental defenders could face criminal prosecution and imprisonment,” the letter writes.
“We urge you to vote against the country's membership into your Council when it comes before the General Assembly.”
The prosecution of civil society leaders in Vietnam has also been met with criticisms from the United States, European Union, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
While the VCP's crackdown on dissent in the past was justified by its anti-colonialist agenda and the drive to gain independence from foreign forces, the same rhetoric carries significantly less influence for modern Vietnam’s population, especially among the younger generations who were born long after the Vietnam War.
On the other hand, environmental degradation, along with endemic corruption, land conflicts, and sovereignty-related issues, remains at the heart of modern Vietnam’s set of pressing challenges.
The Vietnamese youth is also growing concerned about their future and actively engaged in environmental activism. At the same time, the Party is also governing a country whose population is increasingly becoming pro-U.S. while turning skeptical towards its ideological relationship with China as a result of Beijing’s aggressive behavior.
The Vietnamese government certainly needs the cooperation of different segments of society to solve these problems. However, the recent arrests of influential environmental leaders demonstrate that, instead of listening and cooperating with the civil sector to address the perpetual challenges, Hanoi chooses to incarcerate them to maintain its political dominance. Along with this, it risks losing the support of the general public, which may result in more detrimental consequences in the long term.