Vietnamese NGOs Demand Vietnam Respond to Suspicious Deaths of Political and Religious Prisoners

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

Vietnamese NGOs Demand Vietnam Respond to Suspicious Deaths of Political and Religious Prisoners

Vietnamese NGOs Demand Authorities Respond to Recent Deaths of Political and Religious Prisoners

  • A coalition of domestic and international Vietnamese NGOs on Jan. 30 issued a joint statement concerning the recent suspicious deaths of several imprisoned political and religious activists. The activists had been serving long sentences due to their alleged “anti-State” activism.
  • The statement lists five Vietnamese prisoners of conscience who died in prison in the past five years.
  • They include Pastor Dinh Diem, a religious prisoner serving a 16-year sentence due to his alleged crime of “overthrowing the people’s administration,” who died on Jan. 5 this year at Prison Camp No. 6 in Nghe An Province. Another religious leader, Phan Van Thu, founder of An Dan Dai Dao, an independent Buddhist sect, died on November 20, 2022, in Gia Trung Prison, Gia Lai Province, while serving a life sentence. Do Cong Duong, a citizen journalist convicted of “abusing democratic freedoms,” died on August 2, 2022, in Prison Camp No. 6, Nghe An Province.
  • On November 10, 2019, former teacher Dao Quang Thuc, convicted of “overthrowing the people’s administration,” also passed away at the Nghe An prison. Previously, in October 2019, Doan Dinh Nam, a religious prisoner adherent of An Dan Dai Dao, died in Xuyen Moc Prison, Ba Ria - Vung Tau Province.
  • According to the statement, many current and former prisoners have reported substandard living conditions and maltreatment in Vietnamese prisons, including forced labor, corporal punishment, malnutrition, and a lack of access to healthcare. The health of prisoners has declined rapidly as a result. On August 9, 2022, 27 families of prisoners of conscience in Vietnam issued an open letter calling on international human rights organizations to urge the Vietnamese government to respect the rights of prisoners of conscience to have clean water, safe food, and timely medical care.
  • The Vietnamese NGOs, in their joint statement, requested Vietnam clarify the causes of mysterious deaths of political prisoners, redress the grievances of families, and improve the living conditions of other prisoners of conscience. It urged democratic governments worldwide with diplomatic and economic relations with Vietnam to address those human rights violations in their dialogue with Hanoi. The statement also called on international human rights organizations to continue monitoring the human rights situation in Vietnam closely and to firmly condemn cases of serious violations committed by the Vietnamese government.

Environmental Groups Call on the G7 to Pressure Vietnam to Release Civil Society Leader Dang Dinh Bach

  • A coalition of international environmental groups on Jan. 24 issued a joint statement calling on G7 nations to put pressure on the Vietnamese government to release civil society leader Dang Dinh Bach. The statement's release marked one year since Bach was sentenced to five years in prison on “tax evasion” charges. A new campaign, called #StandwithBach, was also launched concurrently by the civil society coalition to advocate for his immediate release.
  • “Bach is one of several environmental leaders to be charged with tax offenses that are increasingly being used to silence civil society in Vietnam,” said Maureen Harris, senior advisor of International Rivers, one of the participant organizations. “The growing criminalization of environmental leaders in Vietnam must end.”
  • Other prominent environmental leaders in Vietnam, including anti-coal advocate Nguy Thi Khanh, have been convicted of similar tax-related charges. Vietnam is a developing country with an economy heavily dependent on fossil fuels, especially coal. These civil society leaders have been proactively campaigning to reduce the country's coal use and carbon emissions.
  • Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch, told RFA that the Vietnamese government “does not understand that the work of civil society groups is critically important if countries want to persuade people to tackle climate change.” “Dang Dinh Bach and his colleagues were advising and helping the government create a just transition, but their good faith efforts were betrayed by paranoid and totalitarian leaders that see enemies everywhere,” he said.
  • Tran Phuong Thao, wife of Bach, recently wrote an op-ed regarding the arrest of her husband for FairPlanet, a news organization that focuses on solutions journalism for human rights and environmental matters. “The work of civil society leaders like Khanh and Bach have paved the way for Vietnam’s commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 and the subsequent $15.5 billion Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) recently announced between G7 nations and Vietnam,” Thao wrote.
  • In a tweet published on Jan. 24, Mary Lawlor, a Dublin-based UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, wrote that her thoughts “are with #Vietnam environmental rights defender Dang Dinh Bach, who was sentenced to a 5-year prison term in connection with his human rights activities exactly one year ago.”

UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions Urges Vietnam to Release Political Prisoner Nguyen Ngoc Anh

  • The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) has issued an opinion regarding the case of political prisoner Nguyen Ngoc Anh, urging Vietnam to release him since he has been arbitrarily detained and wrongfully convicted. The opinion further said that Anh was arrested for his activism and status as a human rights defender.
  • Nguyen Ngoc Anh, 43, is a Vietnamese blogger and engineer living in Ben Tre Province. Anh became actively engaged in issues such as environmental disasters and human rights abuses in Vietnam following the Formosa incident in 2016. In 2018, he was arrested and imprisoned for six years on the charge of “distributing anti-State propaganda” under Article 117 of Vietnam’s Penal Code. The WGAD argued that Article 117 “violates the principle of legality and cannot constitute a legal basis for detention.”
  • The Vietnamese authorities violated several principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights after they arrested Anh, wrote the WGAD. He was held incommunicado and denied family visitations. Meanwhile, Anh’s right to be tried without undue delay was also violated since his trial took place 10 months after his arrest. The engineer also faced discrimination and harassment in prison.
  • In their conclusion, the UN group said that his immediate release is the most appropriate remedy for Anh’s case.

International Advocacy: What Happened Last Week?

  • The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, the U.S. Congress’ human rights advocate, on Jan. 20 called on Vietnam to release prisoner of conscience Tran Huynh Duy Thuc in a statement published on Twitter. He was imprisoned in 2010 on a charge of “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the government” under Article 79 of the former 1999 Penal Code. Thuc has now served 13 years of his 16-year prison sentence.
  • A group of 32 international parliamentarians and activists has signed a letter sent to Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh urging his government to release political prisoner Chau Van Kham. Kham, 73, is an Australian citizen and a member of Viet Tan, an opposition political party promoting democracy in Vietnam. The Ministry of Public Security has designated Viet Tan as a terrorist organization. Still, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights describes the political party as a moderate activist group advocating for democratic reform.
  • “Therefore, we add our voices to urge your government to respect international conventions on human rights by immediately releasing Mr. Chau Van Kham,” the letter said. “The place of this 73-year-old activist is not in prison but with his family, in Australia, particularly in this period of the Lunar New Year.”

Vietnamese Human Rights Defender Vo Van Ai Passes Away at 88

  • Vo Van Ai, a Vietnamese human rights defender, journalist and poet, who has dedicated his life to defending religious freedom and human rights in Vietnam, died on Jan. 26 in Paris, reportedly due to complications from heart surgery. He was 88.
  • Ai was born on October 19, 1938, in Central Vietnam. In 1964, he became an overseas representative of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV). He was also the founder of Que Me (Homeland), a magazine which writes about culture, democracy, and human rights circulated clandestinely in Vietnam and among the Vietnamese diaspora worldwide after the Vietnam War concluded in 1975.
  • The human rights defender also documented and produced the first comprehensive map of “reeducation camps” containing around 150 camps and 800 thousand prisoners, established by the revolutionary authorities in South Vietnam to punish those who worked for the Saigon government. In 1978 he helped launch the “Ile de Lumiere,” the first rescue ship deployed to save Vietnamese people fleeing the communist repression by boat in the South China Sea.
  • “He dedicated his life to fighting for freedom in Vietnam and inspired today’s young generation of civil society,” the World Movement for Democracy, a pro-democracy organization, tweeted. Ai was named its Democracy Courage Award Recipient at the organization’s 4th Global Assembly.
  • Besides his numerous articles and reports on human rights, Ai’s publications also include 17 books of poetry and philosophy, essays, and studies on Buddhism and Vietnamese history, according to Democracy Digest.

The U.S. pushes Vietnam on union rights, Xinjiang forced labor

Nikkei Asia:

“Hanoi agreed to give up its monopoly on labor unions to join what was then the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. The U.S. secured this pledge from Vietnam but pulled out of the deal itself before it took effect.

The U.S. also is stepping up warnings over the use of forced labor, especially for garment and solar panel manufacturing, in Xinjiang, China, a country that provides key materials for much of Vietnam's supply chain.”

‘Prison after prison’: Foreign prisoners face protracted incarceration in Vietnamese jails

Al Jazeera:

“Vietnam’s treatment of inmates has come under scrutiny in recent years, with guards filmed using electric shocks against inmates and imprisoned activists reportedly tortured and shackled, while beatings and forced labour remain commonplace in drug detention centres.”

Vietnam political shakeup weakens technocrats and puts focus on security


“Moreover, with the ouster of Phuc, Pham Binh Minh and Vu Duc Dam–three of the country’s most competent leaders–Trong has effectively won the war against technocrats, and still maintained a degree of party unity.

Finally, two of the top four leaders would be from the public security ministry. Five members of the now 16-member politburo also came out of the ministry. If Senior Lieutenant General Luong Tam Quang is elected to the politburo, as is the historical norm following his expected election as the next minister of public security, then six of the 17 members would hail from the MPS. That is institutional capture and really tells you all you need to know about the regime’s priorities: security above all else.”

Vietnam Insight: Learn more about Vietnam

Vietnam’s social insurance dilemma

East Asia Forum/ Tu Phuong Nguyen/ Feb. 2

“Besides low pay and long working hours, jobs in light manufacturing industries are exposed to disruptions in the global market, forcing supplier factories to cut costs and reduce their labour force in response to short-term trends. Massive job losses during the COVID-19 pandemic and those resulting from weak consumer demand in export markets are striking examples. Therefore, despite being in formal employment, many factory workers’ jobs and lives remain precarious.

Many people who joined the queues at local offices to withdraw their social insurance premiums lost their jobs during the pandemic. Other factors concerning workers’ evaluation of their job prospects, future plans, and trust in the social insurance system (or lack thereof) could also be at play in their decision-making.”

U.S.-Asia Law Institute/ Mark Sidel/ Jan. 31

“Of even more concern for Vietnamese domestic civil society organizations is the renewed push to adopt new restrictions on associational life. In summer 2022, the Vietnamese government released for public comment a new draft central government decree that would promulgate the Regulation on the Organization, Operation and Management of Associations.  As early as  the 1990s, nascent Vietnamese NGOs  began pressing for a rights-enhancing Law on Associations. But for years such legislation was blocked by those in the ruling party and government who opposed the growth of civil society. Now, the pendulum in this long battle is on the side of the restrictive forces, and the draft that was released would codify some of the recent restrictive measures.”

The Myth of Doi Moi in Vietnam

The Diplomat/ David Hutt/ Jan. 31

“The real credit, though, goes to the Vietnamese people, who through their own effort pushed the communist authorities belatedly to accept these market changes. It was the Vietnamese who lifted themselves out of poverty, mostly in spite of communist policy. Farmers and workers in state enterprises began engaging in market activities well before 1986, even as early as the 1960s in North Vietnam, meaning market reform was a bottom-up development, not a top-down transformation imposed by the CPV in 1986.”

Why Vietnam’s Political Shake-Up Will Not Affect Its Foreign Policy

The Diplomat/ Khang Vu/ Jan. 25

“To put it briefly, Vietnam as a unitary actor lacks agency at the international level, while Vietnam’s diplomats themselves lack agency at the domestic level. Recent domestic political events may suggest that Vietnam’s domestic politics is becoming more uncertain, but counterintuitively, the CPV must have been structurally strong enough to be able to get rid of senior officials with so few repercussions for regime stability. With China-Vietnam relations stable and the Politburo firmly in charge, Vietnam’s external relations will not see any radical change for the foreseeable future.”

Anti-American Propaganda in Vietnam

The Diplomat/ Christelle Nguyen/ Jan. 19

“For frequent followers of Vietnamese media outlets, this narrative is all too common: The United States is behind “reactionary forces” or “hostile forces” that constitute decentralized democratic movements. These groups attempt to deny the revolutionary achievements of the CPV, destroy the Vietnamese state, and disrupt the national solidarity. The capitalistic United States is supposedly motivated in these efforts by its deep-rooted shame over its defeat to Vietnam, as well as Washington’s ever-lasting ambition to erase the remaining socialist states from the global map. “

Vietnam is losing appeal as a land of stable, competent leadership

Nikkei Asia/ Zachary Abuza/ Jan. 17

“Since the last party congress in January 2021, Prime Minister Chinh's government has been hobbled by corruption and policy stasis. The sheer volume of foreign investment coming into the country, however, has given the government breathing room.

But the ongoing purge is bound to rattle foreign investors, especially since the leading victims have been administrators seen as competent and honest. Given the intense competition around Asia and beyond to attract foreign investors looking for an alternative to China, Vietnam will begin to lose out if the authorities are no longer seen as stable and capable.”

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