5 Influential Political Figures in Vietnam in 2022

5 Influential Political Figures in Vietnam in 2022
Graphic: Luat Khoa Magazine.

The year 2022 is probably the first of the post-COVID time. Five figures have colored Vietnam’s political landscape over these past 12 months. These individuals and the groups they represent provide insights into the current state of Vietnamese politics, society, and government.

1. Thich Nhat Hanh


It only took a few weeks into 2022 for Vietnam to encounter its first political controversy.

On January 22, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh died in Thua Thien - Hue Province, in the same temple where he began his religious journey when he was just 16. [1] He left behind a great legacy of thought for the practice of Buddhism for the betterment of the world. However, there are also several conflicting views regarding his teachings.

Thich Nhat Hanh was born in 1926 in Thua Thien Province. He was born into the same era as other famous monks such as Thich Tri Quang and Thich Quang Do. During the Vietnam War, Thich Nhat Hanh was known as an anti-war monk of the An Quang group led by Thich Tri Quang. [2] He is also remembered as a poet, writer, journalist, and social activist.

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh was a committed, determined and ambitious man. In 1966, he went to the US to campaign for the end of the Vietnam War and was forbidden by the government of the Republic of Vietnam from returning home. [3] He was only permitted to return nearly 40 years later, in 2005, just as the United States put Vietnam on the list of countries with the worst religious persecution in the world. [4]

Not long after, Thich Nhat Hanh vehemently criticized the Vietnamese government's harsh religious policy and also the weakness of the monks of the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha in the face of heavy control by the government. [5] This statement caused his disciples to be banned from publicly exercising their faith. [6]

Thich Nhat Hanh founded Plum Village in 1982. According to him, Plum Village's Buddhist traditions help learners achieve immediate happiness. His students practice Buddhism by eating rice in silence, walking leisurely, pacing their breathing, smiling, washing dishes, and sweeping the house in peace. [7] He once said that the essential thing in achieving happiness is a mind of happiness.

Plum Village held Buddhist meditation retreats, not only for monks but also for hundreds of thousands of people all over the world. Forty years after its establishment, Plum Village became a monument for doing mindfulness exercises, and Thich Nhat Hanh became one of the most influential monks in the world.

Despite this, he was condemned by a considerable part of Vietnamese society, who believed that his anti-war activism during the Vietnam War contributed to the fall of Saigon in 1975. For many people who still long for the Republic of Vietnam - whether in their home country or abroad - he is a traitor or, at the very least, a politically naive monk.

After his death, Plum Village was still not permitted by the Vietnamese government to be established appropriately. [8] Regardless of public opinion, Thich Nhat Hanh has done something that the state monks of the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha – the only Buddhist organization that the government allows to operate legally in the country – could not: he opened Vietnamese Buddhism to the world and made Plum Village comparable to the temples of Tibet, Thailand, Korea, and Japan, where many Westerners practice Buddhism. [9]

2. Nguy Thi Khanh


Environmental activist Nguy Thi Khanh's nearly two-year prison sentence for tax evasion was a shock in many ways. [10]

Few expected that the director of a legally registered non-governmental organization (NGO) in Vietnam, who worked closely with high-level government agencies and frequently appeared in state newspapers for many years, would be entangled in such a politically colored case.

Few would have thought that calling for a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and increasing the use of clean energy would result in her imprisonment.

And few would have guessed that the reason for sending Khanh to prison was her alleged failure to pay personal income tax on prize money she received for being awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Many Vietnamese thought the state would target only “reactionary” organizations. Her situation proves otherwise.

Nguy Thi Khanh has a squeaky-clean political background. As director of GreenID and president of the Vietnam Sustainable Energy Alliance, [11] she remained a respected leader in civil society and state-owned media until her arrest.

Environmental protection was once considered a non-political and non-sensitive area. It is consistent with the socio-economic development goals the Vietnamese government has set for decades. [12] It is also in line with Vietnam's external discourse and helps bring in vast amounts of foreign aid that the government needs.

Environmental protection movements are, in fact, the most popular social movements. For its events, in ranking, they were only behind the political activities organized by the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP). They also enjoy the participation of all state agencies, departments, and organizations. However, the Party's decision to permit environmental activities in Vietnam has always been a very calculated political decision.

To put it bluntly, tax evasion cases often show many vagueness and arbitrary legal codes involving personal income tax in Vietnam. It is very likely that everyone in Vietnam has been trying to avoid paying their personal income tax. The VND 456 million that Nguy Thi Khanh allegedly owes is minimal if we compare it to the amounts others need to pay. More than that, tax evasion charges in Vietnam are often used against political dissidents in recent years.

Tax laws and regulations in the country are also haphazardly implemented and inconsistently applied. Supposing these laws were implemented consistently, Khanh would know to pay these taxes as soon as she received the award money. It should also be noted that although tax evasion is an economic crime, the case of Nguy Thi Khanh was investigated by the Investigation Security Agency (Hanoi City Police Department) - indicating that her case is an issue of national security; tax evasion is used to hide this fact.

Nguy Thi Khanh’s situation is just one of a series of cases targeting legally registered NGOs in the past two years, creating an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of politics in Vietnam after 1986. The registered NGOs have often been thought of as if they were in a safe group that the government would not arrest and imprison them, unlike the “reactionary forces” from the independent civil society organizations in Vietnam. However, the definition of the "political dissident case" concept in Vietnam has changed and now includes registered NGOs. The message from the VCP is clear: no one can be safe in this regime, and our iron fist extends further than anyone would expect in Vietnam’s society.

3. Various Entrepreneurs and Government Officials Arrested

After the COVID-19 pandemic, the Vietnamese anti-corruption “blazing furnace” campaign heated up again in 2022. This time, there was one difference: it extended to the private business, affecting several “super-giants” in the industry and commerce sectors.

The prosecution of Phan Quoc Viet - chairman of the Board of Directors and general director of Viet A Technology Joint Stock Company (Viet A) - for "manipulating the price" of COVID-19 test kits in mid-December 2021 was just the beginning of a series of events that saw the imprisonment of many entrepreneurs and officials in 2022. [13]

Since then, a wave of arrests has spread across the country. So far, the number of defendants prosecuted has reached nearly 100. However, the figures provided by the Ministry of Public Security differed from those reported by the Judiciary Committee to the National Assembly. [14] [15]

Among the officials prosecuted for their involvement in the Viet A case were high-ranking leaders such as Nguyen Thanh Long, [16] Chu Ngoc Anh, [17] and Pham Xuan Thang. [18]

The Viet A scandal shook the prestige of the entire Vietnamese political system. It revealed the truth behind the state-owned media's deceptive coverage of the "fast growing" economy, but in reality, those businesses operated with high kickbacks involving government officials. It showed the vast and unnecessary losses that ordinary Vietnamese suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic while also portraying the dominance of the state and its interest groups. It described an atmosphere of suffocation and resentment amidst political arrogance in Vietnam.

While the Viet A scandal was fresh in people’s minds, Trinh Van Quyet (FLC Group), [19] Do Anh Dung (Tan Hoang Minh Group), and [20] Truong My Lan (Van Thinh Phat) were also arrested for their economic crimes. [21] Many mysterious deaths surrounding the Truong My Lan case caused the social atmosphere to become even tenser. Likewise, the case of Nguyen Thi Thanh Nhan (AIC Group), who fled abroad and the government issued an arrest warrant against her, added more fuel to the fire [22] [23].

The Vietnamese people have rarely seen the party's iron fist shake the private economic sector since the Doi Moi era began. And yet, amidst this political storm, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong declared: “You, comrades, have to wait and see that we will crack down more corruption cases in the future. Several of these cases have been thoroughly investigated for a very long time. Even if the suspects tried to escape, they could not run away. Just sit there, wait, and see if they can get away.” [24]

The fight against corruption and the interest groups involving the officials and entrepreneurs has, so far, only relied on Trong's efforts and the so-called "political determination" of some officials in the Vietnamese Communist Party. An analysis by Luat Khoa Magazine has shown that these efforts are no longer mere purges among government factions but have become the Party's self-purification campaign for prestige and survival. [25] This campaign makes the VCP stronger. Still, suppose it wants to be successful in this anti-graft war, it must improve its strategy. In that case, the VCP needs to develop proper corruption control institutions, which require a radical change in the governance philosophy rather than removing cancerous corruption tumors.

In the end, the Vietnamese people see the partially transparent arrests, and only the Party members understand what is happening behind the scenes. No one knows where the independent prosecutors and judges are. They have yet to learn exactly what their elected representatives are monitoring. Only the white hair of the Party's general secretary still looms in state-owned media - a reminder to the public that despite all the scandals and controversies, the Party's absolute leadership is unquestionable.

4. Nataliya Zhynkina


In 2022, few foreigners reminded Vietnamese people of the value of their nation as much as Nataliya Zhynkina, charge d'affaires of the Embassy of Ukraine in Vietnam.

History placed her in Vietnam during one of the most challenging times in her country: the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24, 2022.

Zhynkina has a uniquely personal connection to Vietnam. Her LinkedIn profile shows that she studied the Vietnamese language at three universities in Hanoi between 2001 and 2008, worked in several companies, and even opened a restaurant there. [26] She worked as an interpreter for the Ukrainian Embassy in Vietnam from 2004 to 2008 and returned to Vietnam in 2019.

Perhaps she did not expect that she would - one day - be at the center of Vietnamese public opinion and the press for many months.

Many Vietnamese were confused about choosing sides in the Ukraine-Russia war, and even the Vietnamese government was as bewildered as the public.

When the war broke out, state-owned media in the country contacted her for an interview. [27] Nowadays, Vietnamese media still quotes her in referring to Putin as the one who started the conflict.

She expressed her views on the war with Vietnamese media in Zing News for the first time and declared: "Putin caused both Ukrainian and Russian casualties." [28]

In early March, the invasion became a "special military operation" when mentioned in Vietnam. By this time, Nataliya Zhynkina no longer appeared in state-owned media. However, she still interacted with the foreign press and civil society organizations, many of which the Vietnamese government considers unfriendly and hostile. [29]

Replying to VOA Vietnamese, she emphasized: “I would like to urge Vietnam to name the invader by name, not only in the statement of the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs but also in other international forums.” [30]

Vietnam repeatedly abstained and voted against resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly to oppose Russia's invasion of Ukraine. [31] [32] On March 3, she shared on her personal Facebook profile: “Among all ASEAN members, only Vietnam and Laos abstained. My Vietnam, my second home, I am very disappointed.” [33]

Nataliya Zhynkina used social media to influence Vietnamese public opinion during the war. Her posts were short but created an extraordinary spread; Vietnamese on all sides were concerned, and they read and commented despite their different views. This was very different from the Embassy of Russia in Hanoi, as it did not publish any posts until the summer of 2022.

With the Embassy of Ukraine in Vietnam, Zhynkina actively organized cultural events, and humanitarian fundraisers, [34] participated in fairs, competitions, marathons, [35] and the like to build an optimistic image in the eyes of Vietnamese people. She was in Vietnam to send a message of peace from Ukraine.

As one who knows and understands Vietnamese history, Zhynkina probably realized that she is doing exactly what half of Vietnam did just a few decades ago: a call for peace. The people who used to go around the world shouting about anti-Americanism are now silently watching Ukraine being torn apart by Putin's Russia. But Zhynkina is not alone; the Vietnamese people see the war differently from the Vietnamese government.

5. Tinh That Bong Lai Members

Thich Nhat Hanh was not the only monk who attracted the attention of the press and the public over the past year. The members of Tịnh That Bong Lai were much more persistent than he was. [36]

As a result, they were prosecuted under Article 331 of the Penal Code for abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, the legitimate rights and the interests of organizations and/or citizens. Although they were not found guilty of these allegations, this did not stop the state-owned media and many of the public from branding the Tinh That Bong Lai members as incestuous or fraudsters.

In July 2022, the court convicted six Tinh That Bong Lai members under Article 331 of the Penal Code. Each was sentenced to between three and five years in prison. [37] Article 331 is the perfect law to convict anyone who dares to express their views about the government or an organization protected by the State.

The Tinh That Bong Lai monks condemned the government's unfair treatment and criticized the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha for its monopoly on Buddhism; the Sangha did not want any other religious group to be established as a public Buddhist organization. The Tinh That Bong Lai members fought for their case and were also pushing to widen existing restrictions on freedom of speech, association, and religion in Vietnam.

The Tinh That Bong Lai members are fighting for a right we all need: a fair trial. At the beginning of November 2022, the police decided to prosecute the case of fraudulent appropriation of property against Tinh That Bong Lai. [38] Previously, its members were forced to give their DNA samples to the state. [39] While this DNA collection was happening, the police also prevented Tinh That Bong Lai’s lawyers from entering the premises.

The Tinh That Bong Lai case is no longer an ordinary lawsuit because the government is now a stakeholder with many interests. It is easy to see the government’s two goals in this case: 1) to warn the public about the use of freedom of speech outside the framework allowed by the state and 2) to prevent the opening of public Buddhist establishments outside of the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha. The only crime that the Tinh That Bong Lai members committed is that they fought for their rights in a place that does not respect any human rights.

This article was written in Vietnamese and was previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on December 22, 2022.


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26. See: ​​https://www.linkedin.com/in/nataliya-zhynkina-464bab27

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36. Văn Tâm. (June 22, 2022). Vụ án Tịnh thất Bồng Lai: Rốt cuộc họ phạm tội gì? Luật Khoa Tạp Chí; Luật Khoa tạp chí. https://www.luatkhoa.com/2022/06/vu-an-tinh-that-bong-lai-rot-cuoc-ho-pham-toi-gi

37. Sơn Lâm. (July 21, 2022). Vụ “tịnh thất Bồng Lai”: Tòa tuyên bị cáo Lê Tùng Vân 5 năm tù. TUOI TRE ONLINE. https://tuoitre.vn/vu-tinh-that-bong-lai-toa-tuyen-bi-cao-le-tung-van-5-nam-tu-20220721200802299.htm

38. Văn Tâm. (November 30, 2022). Khởi tố tội lừa đảo tại Tịnh thất Bồng Lai: Vụ án thông thường hay trù dập chính trị? Luật Khoa Tạp Chí; Luật Khoa tạp chí. https://www.luatkhoa.com/2022/11/khoi-to-toi-lua-dao-tai-tinh-that-bong-lai-lan-ranh-nao-giua-tru-dap-chinh-tri-va-tu-do-ton-giao

39. Vụ Tịnh thất Bồng Lai: Luật sư yêu cầu công an làm đúng luật trong việc lấy mẫu ADN. (2022). Radio Free Asia. https://www.rfa.org/vietnamese/news/vietnamnews/peng-lei-buddhist-church-case-lawyers-say-they-requrst-police-to-take-adn-samples-properly-09302022074412.html

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