Vietnam Briefing Nov. 21, 2022: Blogger Bui Van Thuan Sentenced to 8 Years Imprisonment on Anti-State Charges

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

Vietnam Briefing Nov. 21, 2022: Blogger Bui Van Thuan Sentenced to 8 Years Imprisonment on Anti-State Charges
Vietnamese Facebook user Bui Van Thuan received eight years in jail on “anti-State” charges (left); Thien Quang Pagoda, a Buddhist church affiliated with the Unified Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam, says they continually face harassment by local authorities (right). Photo: Bui Van Thuan/ Thien Quang Pagoda Facebook page.

CPJ Awarded Journalist Pham Doan Trang with its International Press Freedom Award

  • Vietnamese journalist Pham Doan Trang was honored in the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)’s 2022 International Press Freedom Awards ceremony, along with three other journalists from Cuba, Iraqi Kurdistan, Ukraine, and an editor from Russia. CPJ’s 32nd award ceremony happened on November 17 in New York City.
  • Last year, Pham Doan Trang was sentenced to nine years on charges of “distributing anti-State propaganda” under Article 117 of Vietnam’s Penal Code. Three other journalists awarded this year are currently living in exile. According to the press release of CPJ, these journalists “have withstood immense challenges, including government crackdowns, aggression, and imprisonment to bring the public [their] independent reporting amid rampant disinformation and war.”
  • Kurtulus Bastimar, an international human rights lawyer representing Doan Trang, believes the Vietnamese government uses the legal case against his client to stifle her freedom of expression.
  • “In order to silence Pham, the government is trying to give the impression that her detention is related to state security issues and making ‘anti-state propaganda,’ when this is not true,” Bastimar said in a phone interview with VOA News. “She was persecuted and arrested for exercising her right to freedom of expression, freedom of opinion and freedom of association.”
  • Independent media has been severely restricted in Vietnam. As of December 1, 2021, at least 23 Vietnamese journalists are imprisoned for their work, with many being indicted on the charge of “distributing anti-State materials,” according to CPJ data. Vietnam also has a poor press freedom record, ranking 174 out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2022 Press Freedom Index.

Phan Van Thu from the Bia Son Case Passed Away at Gia Trung Prison

  • On November 20, 2022, the wife of political prisoner Luu Van Vinh - Le Thi Thap - announced on her Facebook that political prisoner Phan Van Thu of the Bia Son case passed away at 9:30 a.m. on that day. Thu was born on June 25, 1948.
  • From The 88 Project's database, Thu was the founder of An Dan Dai Dao, a Buddhist sect founded in 1969 but outlawed after the Communist regime took over South Vietnam in April 1975.
  • Vietnam arrested Thu and 22 members of the An Dan Dai Dao Buddhist sect in February 2012. He was tried under Art. 79 of the 1999 Penal Code by Phu Yen People’s Court in January 2013. The case is known as the "Council for the Laws and Public Affairs of Bia Son." From The 88 Project, Thu and the Bia Son group were “charged with subversion and accused of writing documents critical of the government, setting up two companies and investing in an eco-tourism park as a cover for recruiting supporters.”
  • Thu was sentenced to life in prison under Art. 79. This is the heaviest sentence ever given in this article. He has suffered from poor health since then, and his family requested that he needed to get treatment, but the government did not respond. On the day he passed away, other prisoners - such as Luu Van Vinh - repeatedly requested that he be moved to a hospital. However, the request was not approved, and he died in prison.

Face-booker Bui Van Thuan was Sentenced to Eight Years under “anti-State” Charges

  • After a two-day trial, a Vietnamese court in Thanh Hoa Province on Nov. 18 sentenced Bui Van Thuan, a chemistry teacher and online honey salesman who published content critical of the ruling Communist Party on his Facebook account, to eight years in jail and five years of probation under Article 117 of the Penal Code. Article 117 criminalizes “making, storing, and distributing materials against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”
  • Thuan, 41, was arrested on Aug. 30, 2021, after United States Vice President Kamala Harris concluded her visit to Vietnam on August 26, where she said the United States would not “shy away from difficult conversations,” regarding the human rights discussions with Hanoi. The Thanh Hoa teacher has been held incommunicado since his arrest.
  • According to his indictment via Reuters, Thuan had regularly posted articles spreading “distorted information to defame Ho Chi Minh and other State and Party leaders of Vietnam.” The indictment also claimed that he had criticized the Vietnamese government for their controversial COVID-19 policies and their call for financial donations to help fight the pandemic. Most of the evidence was collected on Thuan’s social media account.
  • “The sentence for my husband may have met the authorities’ expectations, but it is utterly unconvincing to me,” Thuan’s wife, Trinh Thi Nhung, told RFA in a text message. Nhung added that her husband didn’t appeal the verdict because “No political prisoners have appealed successfully so far.”. Only one out of 12 witnesses called by the prosecution to the court showed up for the trial, RFA reported.
  • Vietnam has been known for its intolerance of regime critics and opposition voices. In an op-ed published in The Washington Post by its editorial board after the conviction of Bui Van Thuan, the newspaper argued that the Vietnamese secret police “are no longer hiding behind lampposts,” while “a Facebook post can lead to swift arrest and punishment” if you are an outspoken critic who dares to condemn the one-Party police state of Vietnam.
  • On November 16, one day before Thuan’s trial, New York-based rights advocate Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the Vietnamese authorities to “immediately release” Bui Van Thuan and “drop the politically motivated charges against him.”
  • “The Vietnamese government’s baseless prosecution of Bui Van Thuan for Facebook posts demonstrates the extent of its disregard for free expression,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW. “The Vietnamese government, despite controlling all radio, television, and print media in the country and regularly pumping out official propaganda, still feels threatened by independent minds like Bui Van Thuan,” Robertson added.

United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention calls on Vietnam to release dissident poet Tran Duc Thach

  • The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD), in a report published on November 4, has called on the Vietnamese government to immediately release Tran Duc Thach, a dissident poet and writer, stating that his arrest and detention was arbitrary and that he has the right to be compensated for his wrongful conviction “in accordance with international law.”
  • Thach, 71, is also a war veteran and a co-founder of the Brotherhood for Democracy, a now-defunct pro-democracy group. He was arrested in April 2020 and sentenced to 12 years on charges of “conducting activities aimed at overthrowing people’s administration” under Article 109 of the Penal Code. The UN working group said that criticizing the regime and co-founding an organization does not violate national and international law.
  • The WGAD report noted that Tran Duc Thach was also held incommunicado for several months, constituting a violation of Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in which Vietnam is a party member. The group added that the law used to convict political activists in Vietnam, such as Article 109, “is so vague as to be meaningless” and it “cannot support the basis for Mr. Thach’s detention and conviction.”
  • Several human rights and freedom of expression advocates, including HRW, have requested Hanoi drop all charges and release Tran Duc Thach after he was arrested and charged with subversion. John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at HRW, said that the Vietnamese government wants to punish Thach “for his work promoting human rights and justice,” and that he won’t receive a fair trial “because Vietnam doesn’t have an independent and impartial judiciary.”

Protests erupt amid the government launching of a fraud probe of the Van Thinh Phat Group

  • Vietnamese bond investors have staged protests in different cities in Vietnam after they failed to withdraw money from previously purchased corporate bonds, which An Dong Investment Group, a subsidiary of Van Thinh Phat Group, and Tan Viet Securities Company, a financial service provider, issued.
  • Saigon Commercial Bank (SCB), Vietnam’s fifth-largest bank, issued An Dong bonds on behalf of Van Thinh Phat Group, a real estate developer. On October 7, Vietnamese authorities arrested Truong My Lan, chairwoman of Van Thinh Phat, on “bond fraud” allegations. The arrest of Lan has sent shockwaves across Vietnam’s financial sector and prompted large scores of bank depositors to flood SCB branches to pull out their savings.
  • According to VnExpress, many investors said at the meeting that SCB employees had persuaded them to buy the An Dong bonds without providing honest instructions.
  • On November 7, An Dong bond investors were seen protesting in front of the SCB headquarters located in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, chanting “SCB, a fraudster,” while demanding the bank reimburse their bond interest payments and investment. Local authorities didn’t suppress the protest but sent a car with loudspeakers playing blaring songs to inundate the chanting.
  • Similar demonstrations occurred in front of the State Securities Commission of Vietnam in Hanoi on Nov. 7, and at a local SCB branch in Nha Trang on Nov. 8. Tan Viet Securities on Nov. 9 declared that they are “working with issuers to ensure investors are paid the principal and interest when their bonds mature.” The company also said it would stop advising bond issuances and cease providing advance payment for stocks, VnExpress reported.

Local authorities continue to harass Thien Quang Pagoda to pressure adherents to join the State-run Buddhist Church

  • RFA reported that on November 10 and 11, Vietnamese authorities in Ba Ria - Vung Tau Province, sent workers and forklifts to Thien Quang Pagoda, a local Buddhist temple located in the Xuyen Moc District, to forcefully dismantle an unfinished guesthouse project built inside the temple’s own land.
  • Thien Quang is a pagoda affiliated with the Unified Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam, an independent Buddhist organization founded before the fall of Saigon in 1975 that the current government does not recognize. The Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha, founded and controlled by the state, is the only Buddhist organization allowed to operate legally in the country.
  • According to the news report, Thien Quang Pagoda has been pressured by the local government several times to dismantle building projects that are now under construction. At the end of 2021, the Buddhist pagoda received an order from the People's Committee of Xuyen Moc District, asking them to eliminate all the structures it had built since 2000.
  • The most Venerable Thich Thien Thuan, the head monk at Thien Quang, told RFA Vietnamese that a group of plainclothes workers came to enforce the dismantling of the temple’s unfinished guesthouse not provide any official documents or decision from the authorities of Xuyen Moc District. They only claimed the construction needed dismantling because it was not granted a permit.
  • Thich Thien Thuan believed the Vietnamese government harassed his temple because it refused to join the State-sanctioned Buddhist Sangha. “[The government] finds every way to suppress the construction work or the missionary activities of Thien Quang Pagoda to pressure ourselves into joining the State-owned Vietnamese Buddhist Church,” he told RFA.

Vietnam abstains from UN resolution calling on Russia to make reparations to Ukraine

  • Vietnam once again abstained from a resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on November 14 calling on Russia to be responsible for making reparations to Ukraine following its invasion of a sovereign state. China also voted against the resolution. Hanoi previously opposed another resolution calling for Russia to be suspended from the UN Human Rights Council for its alleged war crimes committed in Bucha, Ukraine.
  • According to Reuters, the resolution, supported by 94 of the UNGA’s 193 members, said that Russia “must bear the legal consequences of all of its internationally wrongful acts, including making reparation for the injury, including any damage, caused by such acts.”
  • Vietnam’s vote was in contrast to the country’s repeated appeal to end the conflict, restore peace, and protect the people and civilian infrastructures in Ukraine.
  • At the 11th emergency special session of the UN General Assembly, the Vietnamese Ambassador at the UN, Dang Hoang Giang, said, “parties need to continue dialogues and negotiations to look for long-term peaceful solutions in accordance with international law, the UN Charter and legitimate interests of all sides,” the Vietnam News Agency reported.
  • “Vietnam is deeply aware of the importance of resolving war consequences to rebuild countries and maintain peace and stability. As such, Vietnam believes that in every conflict, relevant parties and international partners should try their best to resolve war consequences in accordance with international law,” Giang added.

Vietnam Insight: Learn more about Vietnam

The Unintended Consequence of Vietnam’s Anti-Corruption Drive

Asia Society/ Mike Tatarski/ November 17

“Perhaps the most visible sign of this is an ongoing failure across levels of government to disburse public funding, meaning money that has been set aside is not being used.

In Ho Chi Minh City, 100 public projects had received no planned funding as of the middle of the year due to delays related to land valuation and compensation. Land is an incredibly complex issue in Vietnam, and mistakes are easily made. Projects ranging from metro lines and bridges to airports and hospitals have stalled across the country due to land acquisition challenges.”

Why the Current Stall in US-Vietnam Relations is Necessary for Vietnam’s Security

The Diplomat/ Khang Vu/ Nov. 17

“For Vietnam, the goal has always been to increase its net security in service of domestic economic growth, and net security can be achieved in two ways. First, Hanoi can directly remain on good terms with China to avoid war, a move that Vietnamese leaders have been too familiar with since Vietnam regained its independence from China in 938. Even the staunchest anti-China leaders would send tributaries to China shortly after defeating it to affirm Vietnam’s deference to the Celestial Empire. To be clear, Vietnam’s deference does not mean that its leaders want to compromise the country’s security. On the contrary, only when China-Vietnam relations are amicable can Hanoi manage its territorial disputes with Beijing peacefully and avoid unnecessary conflict.”

Vietnam’s maritime imperative

The Strategist/ Nguyen The Phuong/ November 16

“A maritime blockade of Vietnamese outposts in the Spratly Islands is another scenario. A large-scale border war like what happened in the 1970s and 1980s is extremely unlikely (although cannot be ruled out). Vietnam’s relationship with its three neighbors in today’s interconnected and interdependent world is defined by different principles, priorities, dynamics and mindsets compared to the Cold War era. The borderland has been increasingly shaped by peaceful economic cooperation and the idea of common prosperity.

Due to limited resources, it’s completely logical and understandable that Vietnam must prioritize investing in the maritime domain in both economic and military terms.”

No, Russia’s Invasion Ukraine is Not the Same as Vietnam’s War in Cambodia

The Diplomat/ Nguyen Quoc Tan Trung/ November 15

“Russia’s genocide rhetoric, with millions of lives at risk, was never supported by independent reports or acknowledged by international organizations.

In contrast, by the time of Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in December 1978, the atrocities of the Pol Pot regime, whether committed in Cambodia or Vietnam, were well known by the international community. As early as April of that year, the U.N. Human Rights Commission held public hearings, initiated investigations, and produced reports on conditions in Cambodia. Mass deportations, arbitrary killings, destruction of religious sites, and other crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge were all made known to the world.”

What is Slowing Down Vietnam’s Transport Infrastructure Projects?

The Diplomat/ James Guild/ November 15

“But the bigger issue is that Vietnam’s land law needs work. Although it establishes the state’s right to acquire land for socio-economic development, the process remains opaque and hard to appeal. Compensation is not based on market pricing but is calculated by the state. The executive branch of government – at the national, provincial, or municipal level depending on the project – has most of the power to set the terms and decide the outcome of disputes. As a consequence, people are being offered less than the market value and the law does not provide a clear way to contest these outcomes.”

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