Vietnam Briefing Dec. 19, 2022: Vietnam Ranks Fourth Worldwide In Imprisoning Journalists

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

Vietnam Briefing Dec. 19, 2022: Vietnam Ranks Fourth Worldwide In Imprisoning Journalists
Vietnam currently ranks fourth worldwide in terms of imprisoned journalists, according to the latest report (left) from Reporters Without Border (RSF); Vietnamese authorities of Kon Tum Province sent police and officials to dismantle the worship place of Linh Son Pagoda, a temple of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (right). Photo: RSF report/ Tue Dang, Facebook via RFA.

Vietnamese activist and war veteran Tran Bang faces a continued investigation into his “distributing anti-State propaganda” charges

  • Vietnamese activist and war veteran Tran Bang, who previously participated in multiple anti-China protests in Vietnam, faces a new investigation into his Facebook posts that local authorities allege contain “anti-State propaganda,” RFA reported, quoting two of his lawyers.
  • Bang was arrested last March and was subsequently charged with “making, storing, and distributing information aimed at opposing the State” under Clause 1 of Article 117 of Vietnam’s Penal Code. The initial investigation concluded that Bang had uploaded 31 articles containing anti-State information on his Facebook account between March 2016 and August 2021. However, the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Procuracy returned the investigation file back to the police in November, demanding further investigation into his case within two months.
  • RFA reported that Bang was not allowed family visits until seven months after his arrest. Bang’s family is also worried about his declining health in prison. During a visit last November, he told them he had a tumor growing in his abdomen, while his ears were leaking yellow fluid and his eyes were dry. Bang added that the prison authorities had not approved his requests to be treated at a specialized hospital.

Protesters against road demolition in Nghe An Province receive prison sentences

  • A court in Nghe An Province on December 1 convicted seven Catholic residents of Binh Thuan Parish Church, Nghi Loc Village, of “resisting officers on official duty” for protesting against the demolition of a road that ran through their parish, RFA reported. These villagers were previously charged with “resisting officers on official duty” and “disturbing public order.” They were found guilty under Article 330 of the Penal Code, which carries sentences of up to seven years of imprisonment.
  • According to State-run media, Bui Van Canh, 44, received one year in prison. Ha Van Hanh, 42, Tran Thi Hoa, 52, and Tran Thi Thoa, 58, were each sentenced to eight months. Tran Thi Nien, 38, and Ha Thi Hien, 35, were both sentenced to six months in prison. Bach Thi Hoa, 70, was sentenced to four months and 17 days, but she has been temporarily detained since July 2022. The court determined that Hoa fully served her sentence and released her after the trial concluded.
  • On July 13, the villagers of Nghi Loc held a demonstration near the destruction site of an old public road, which local authorities began to dismantle to clear land for an industrial project. Hundreds of riot police reportedly arrived at the village to stop protesters from removing the fence surrounding the destruction site. A clash broke out between the villagers and riot police after several protesters forced their way past the police line.
  • Some villagers had never been consulted about the plan to replace the old civil road with a new route. Although an alternative road has been built by the industrial zone’s management, local residents expressed concerns that the project manager would be able to arbitrarily force the road to close at any time to serve their own interests.

ASEAN and EU parliamentarians raise concerns over the human rights situation in Southeast Asia

  • In an open letter published on Dec. 12 by Frontline Defenders, former and current parliamentarians from several member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union (EU) have called for the release of imprisoned human rights defenders in Vietnam, Indonesia, and Laos ahead of the inaugural ASEAN - EU Summit, which occurred in Brussels on December 14.
  • According to some EU parliamentarians, human rights and democracy issues often take a back seat when it comes to strengthening the bilateral partnership between the two regional blocs. “Boosting trade ties and connectivity are on the main agenda both blocs are keen to push,” Charles Santiago, chairman of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), told German news channel DW.
  • Three Vietnamese political prisoners mentioned in the letter are the prominent journalist Pham Doan Trang, activist Nguyen Lan Thang, and the former businessman Tran Huynh Duy Thuc.
  • The letter noted that the situation of human rights defenders in the region has worsened in recent years and that they are still subject to political reprisals for their work. Meanwhile, digital surveillance technology, produced and exported by authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia, has increasingly been used to target local human rights defenders and pro-democracy protesters.
  • The ASEAN and EU parliamentarians have also requested ASEAN authorities to publicly reiterate the valuable role played by human rights defenders in society, refrain from making statements or declarations stigmatizing their work, stop using libel and defamation laws to silence government critics, and immediately release and drop charges against all human rights defenders and political activists arbitrarily imprisoned for their advocacy.

Reporters Without Borders: Vietnam ranks fourth for the number of imprisoned journalists

  • According to an annual report released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a Paris-based advocacy group for press freedom, as of December 1, a total of 533 journalists are being detained worldwide, which is 13.4 percent higher than last year’s figure of 488 journalists. Meanwhile, more than half of them are currently jailed in only five countries, including Vietnam. Female journalists now account for nearly 15 percent of detained journalists, the report says, compared to fewer than seven percent five years ago.
  • RSF reported that Vietnam had imprisoned 39 journalists, ranking fourth worldwide. The country only ranks behind China, Myanmar, and Iran regardings the number of imprisoned media workers. Vietnamese journalist Pham Doan Trang, who won the RSF Prize for Impact in 2019, is serving a nine-year sentence for “propagandizing against the state” Three other female Vietnamese journalists are also behind bars, according to RSF.
  • A total of 57 journalists and media workers worldwide were killed in 2022, an increase of 18.8 percent compared to the previous year, RSF noted. Do Cong Duong, a Vietnamese citizen-reporter, died in prison on August 2 while serving his eight-year sentence on charges of “disturbing public order” and “abusing democratic freedoms.” Duong gained popularity for his reports and live streamings exposing the authorities’ illegal land seizures and forced evictions.
  • “This 58-year-old journalist had suffered from heart problems and recurrent pneumonia that worsened as he continued to be held,” said the RSF report. “Despite his family’s repeated protests, the prison authorities never granted him the necessary care and it wasn’t until he was near death that he was transferred to the prison infirmary. But by then it was too late.”
  • The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide, underscored how suppression of independent journalism in Asia continued to increase in 2022. Vietnam, which continuously shows little tolerance for independent journalism, has imposed harsh sentences for those convicted of anti-State crimes.
  • For example, Le Manh Ha, a Vietnamese citizen journalist reporting on corruption and land seizures, was sentenced to eight years in prison and five years of probation last October on charges of “distributing anti-State propaganda.” Last August, an independent blogger, Le Anh Hung, also received a five-year sentence for “abusing democratic freedoms.”

Hanoi cancels World Press Photo Exhibition 2022, possibly due to political reasons

  • According to BBC News Vietnamese, Hanoi authorities canceled World Press Photo Exhibition 2022 just a few hours before its opening date on December 9. The event was scheduled on a pedestrian street near Hoan Kiem Lake.
  • The Hanoi authorities claim that several photos from the exhibition violated sections 5.3 and 5.5 of the government-issued Decree 72/2016/NĐ-CP on photography. According to these sections, exhibited photos shall not “incite wars and enmity between nations and people,” “distribute reactionary propaganda,” and “promote violence and social evils,” among other things.
  • Andre Davies, media director of the World Press Photo Foundation, which organizes the event, told BBC News that he had not been informed which photos from the exhibition allegedly violated these regulations. But Davies said he believed the censorship might result from including photos depicting protests and political unrest worldwide in this year’s exhibition.
  • “It is hugely disappointing that after four years of allowing our annual exhibition in Hanoi the authorities decide to block it on opening day,” said executive director of World Press Photo Foundation, Joumana El Zein Khoury, in a press release. “Seeing stories that matter from around the world helps us understand each other better. It is shameful that some authorities in Vietnam cannot see the benefit in that.”
  • Vietnam imposes tight regulations on the arts. The Vietnamese government previously canceled public events deemed politically sensitive at the last minute. Last month, a musical show performed by Che Linh, a Vietnamese singer who fled South Vietnam following the takeover by Communist forces in 1975, was canceled after the Ho Chi Minh City authorities refused to grant permission for his performance to be staged.
  • Last September, another musical performance by the overseas-based Vietnamese singer Khanh Ly was canceled at the last minute in Hanoi. The Hanoi Opera House, where the show was scheduled to perform, said the cancellation was due to the regular examinations of the electricity at the venue. However, some activists believe that the cancellation was politically motivated since Khanh Ly was known for her anti-Communist sentiments.

Vietnam rescues 154 Rohingya refugees but returns them to Myanmar’s junta regime

  • Two Vietnamese oil and gas service ships rescued 154 Rohingya refugees on December 7 but later returned them to the Myanmar military government, according to an RFA report. Previously, VTC News, a State-owned news agency, reported that two Vietnamese ships, Hai Duong 29 and Hai Duong 38, rescued the refugees off the coast of Myanmar’s Andaman Sea. HADUCO Co., a Vietnamese marine services provider manage these ships. Around half of the refugees were women and children.
  • After bringing the refugees safely onto their ships, the Vietnamese crew members contacted and worked with Vietnamese and regional authorities to resolve the incident. Myanmar’s maritime forces reportedly came and received them. International human rights organizations criticized the repatriation of Rohingya to the Myanmar junta. Many fear that the junta-controlled courts could punish these refugees upon returning to Myanmar.
  • “The [HUDACO] company and the Vietnamese government are completely irresponsible in handing these refugees over to the [Myanmar] army,” Wai Wai Nu, director of the Women’s Peace Network, an organization advocating for the protection of human rights in Myanmar, told VOA News. “[The Myanmar army] is the same organization that committed genocide against the Rohingya people and caused the situation in Myanmar. [...] That’s the top reason why these people have to leave their homeland.”

Freedom of Religion in Vietnam: What happened last week?

  • Vietnamese authorities destroyed a pagoda of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam

RFA reported that on December 13, local authorities in Ngoc Hoi District, Kon Tum Province, sent police and dozens of local officials to destroy Son Linh Pagoda, a local Buddhist temple belonging to the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. The Unified Buddhist Sangha is an independent religious organization which is not recognized by the government. The State-sanctioned Vietnamese Buddhist Church is the only Buddhist organization legally operating in Vietnam.

Son Linh Pagoda, located in Plei Kan Town, Ngoc Hoi District, was established as a monastery in 2009. In 2018, the pagoda’s monks built a temple on the monastery's land. But the Ngoc Hoi District authorities later demolished the temple, alleging that it had been illegally built on cultivated land. The monks and practitioners at the temple had to construct another makeshift structure made of wood and corrugated iron.

The head monk of Thien Quang Pagoda in Ba Ria - Vung Tau Province, another member of the Unified Buddhist Church, later bought the land and asked his disciple, Thich Nhat Phuoc, to look after it. Thich Nhat Phuoc renovated the temple and turned it into a place of worship. But local authorities once again claimed the renovation had been done illegally, and they refused the pagoda’s petitions to rebuild the temple.

On October 27 this year, the People’s Committee of Ngoc Hoi District ordered the head monk to dismantle the building within 45 days. It claims that “the illegal construction of houses on agricultural land […] causes difficulties for land management, affecting security and social order in the area.” The local authorities sent police and officials to clear the site on December 13. By 11 a.m. on the same day, the temple was demolished.

Thich Nhat Phuoc, the head monk at Son Linh, told RFA that Vietnamese authorities “suppress and destroy independent pagodas that do not follow the Vietnamese Buddhist Church.” “They do not recognize independent Buddhist institutions as temples,” he said.

  • Religious activist Thach Soong settled in the United States after facing decades-long persecution by the Vietnamese government

VOA News reported that Khmer religious activist Thach Soong, who endured decades-long persecution by the Vietnamese authorities due to his advocacy for religious freedom in Vietnam, settled in the United States on December 1. Thach was interviewed by VOA a few days after he arrived in Portland, Oregon.

Thach, 63, has advocated for the freedom of religion of his Khmer Krom community in Soc Trang Province, in the Mekong Delta, since the 1980s. The Vietnamese authorities have accused the Khmer Krom religious practitioners of “sowing hatred” among the Khmer community and “inciting radical opposition, conducting activities promoting secession and self-rule.” The religious practitioners have denied these allegations.

“In 1985, I was arrested and detained in Long Phu District for about a month. After releasing me, [the police] still kept a close eye on me. I couldn’t stay in the locality and had to leave home,” Thach told VOA News, adding that he had to move to other provinces in the Mekong Delta to escape persecution. Thach eventually left for Cambodia in 2001 when the government intensified its crackdown on the Khmer Krom religious community.

Venerable Son Yeong Ratana, chief information officer of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Federation (KKF), an organization advocating for the freedom of the Khmer Krom people, affirms that a large number of Khmer Krom asylum seekers like Thach Soon are subjected to Vietnamese government suppression due to their advocacy for human rights, religious freedom, and land ownership.

A member of KKF told VOA Khmer that around 205 Khmer Krom people from Vietnam are now living in Thailand while awaiting political asylum from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Vietnamese bond buyers stage another protest in front of the headquarters of Vietnam’s Ministry of Finance

  • A video circulated on social media showed that Vietnamese bond investors staged a mass protest in front of the country’s Ministry of Finance in Hanoi on December 15, demanding Finance Minister Ho Duc Phoc, resolve the issue and reimburse their lost funds. Mass protests are rare in one-party Communist Vietnam, where the police retain tight control over the population.
  • Earlier, Vietnamese bond investors staged protests in different cities in Vietnam after they were unable to withdraw money from previously purchased corporate bonds, which were issued by An Dong Investment Group, a subsidiary of the Van Thinh Phat Group, and Tan Viet Securities Co., a financial service provider.
  • Saigon Commercial Bank (SCB) issued An Dong bonds for Van Thinh Phat Group, a real estate developer. The financial shock happened after Vietnamese authorities arrested Truong My Lan, chairwoman of Van Thich Phat, on allegations of “bond fraud.”
  • The mass protests in Vietnam related to SCB and Van Thinh Phat occurred amid the breakout of public demonstrations in China in defiance of the government’s draconian zero-COVID policy. Vietnamese police also started to suppress bank demonstrators. A video published on November 30 showed plainclothes agents and security forces brutally forcing peaceful protestors rallying in front of an SCB branch in Danang City onto a bus. A similar rally occurred in front of another SCB branch in Ho Chi Minh City on December 1 and was also met with police suppression.

Vietnam carries out ‘substantial’ expansion in the South China Sea, U.S. think tank finds

The Guardian:

“Vietnam has conducted a major expansion of dredging and landfill work at several of its South China Sea outposts in the second half of this year, signaling an intent to significantly fortify its claims in the disputed waterway.

Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said on Wednesday that the work in the Spratly Islands, which are also claimed by China and others, had created roughly 170 hectares (420 acres) of new land and brought the total area Vietnam had reclaimed in the past decade to 220 hectares.”

Vietnam Insight: Learn more about Vietnam

Vietnam’s Shaky Crusade Against Online ‘Trash Culture'

The Diplomat/ Le Nguyen Duy Hau/ Dec. 15

“Working with these vague concepts means that cultural watchdogs like ABEI will have to enforce the will of the country’s leader without a clear moral compass or set of criteria. It leads to them strategically appealing to public sentiment when a particular case creates a controversy. When public sentiments are outraged, or there are calls for a boycott, the authority often steps in. In cases where the outcry was non-existent or insufficient, there is no intervention no matter how similar the cases may be.”

The View from Vietnam

Australian Foreign Affairs/ Thuy Do/ Dec. 14

“Hanoi and Canberra share concerns about China’s rise and its growing assertiveness, but both need to take into consideration that China remains their largest trading partner. In October, Vietnam’s Communist Party general secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, was the first foreign leader to visit China after the conclusion of the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress, showing that Hanoi’s top foreign policy priority is maintaining strong ties with Beijing. Therefore, Hanoi may welcome signs of rapprochement between Australia and China following the recent meeting between Albanese and China’s president, Xi Jinping, at the G-20 summit in Bali.”

With Arms Expo, Vietnam Seeks to Diversify Its Defense Procurements

The Diplomat/ Nguyen The Phuong/ Dec. 13

“Two events played an important role here. The lifting of the U.S. arms embargo in 2016 gave Vietnam greater leeway in expanding its current pool of defense partners. The military would have the chance to officially interact with Western defense contractors without the fear of being pushed back by any embargo. Technological transfer, or the buying of spare parts, no longer faced the risks of being compromised by the legacies of the past. Also, for the first time, at the 12th National Congress, the VCP laid out policy to develop a dual-use defense industry, with a strong defense-industrial complex at its core. “Dual-use” is a term with two implications: the future of greater participation of the private sector in the defense-industrial complex; and efforts to find a market for the nascent industry, both domestic and international.”

Great Expectations as Australia and Vietnam Ponder ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’

The Diplomat/ Hai Hong Nguyen/ Dec. 12

“This is underpinned by the many ways in which Australia stands out as “the first” and “the only” on matters relating to Vietnam. It was among the first Western nations to establish diplomatic ties with Vietnam (1973) before the Vietnam War ended. Australia is among the only Western countries that supported Vietnam to become a member of the United Nations (1977). After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the Australian diplomatic mission in Hanoi became the only bridge of communication between Vietnam and other Western nations that did not have their diplomatic representatives in the communist state’s capital.”

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