by Pham Doan Trang
The 12th Vietnam Communist Party Congress – one of the country’s biggest political events – in late January 2016 saw party conservatives take control over senior positions in the government over the more liberal previous leadership.
Among the new leaders elected by the party was Police General Tran Dai Quang, the then-minister of public security, who became President of Vietnam. Another high ranking police officer, Nguyen Duc Chung, became the mayor of Hanoi. Three or four other political leaders also had their careers built in the police.
However, 2016 later saw continuous harassment of political bloggers, rising violence against peaceful demonstrators, and successive arrests of human rights defenders in the following months.
The first half of 2016 saw the election to the 14th National Assembly of Vietnam, second only to the party congress as a major political event for the country, with a relatively high number of independent candidates contesting the 2016 legislative elections through self-nominations.
Such candidates faced state-sponsored campaigns to demean their character as soon as the self-nomination campaign began. Many became targets of police harassment. For example, the so-called “outraged mass,” allegedly hired by the police, threw pungent shrimp sauce at supporters of independent candidate Hoang Van Dung of the Vietnam Path Movement and one of the first independent candidates to be rejected by a tough vetting process controlled by the Communist Party.
In the end, the vetting process approved its lowest number of independent candidates since self-nomination was allowed in 1997. Needless to say, none of the self-nominated, non-communist candidates stood for elections they were all rejected by the vetting procedures.
Meanwhile, weeks before the May 22 polling day, a coastal disaster broke out in the central provinces of Vietnam. From early April, tons of dead fish washed up along hundreds of kilometers of coastline in Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri and Hue provnces. The fish kill is attributed to a suspected mass discharge of toxic chemicals from an industrial plant owned by the Taiwanese conglomerate Formosa. The massive fish kill quickly became the biggest environmental disaster in Vietnam in decades.
Concerned with the disaster, thousands of people joined mass demonstrations on May 1 in major cities, especially Hanoi and Saigon. They demanded government action for accountability for the environment disaster. Clashes broke out sporadically between the protesters and law enforcement forces, including police officers, civil order defenders, and the so-called “youth volunteers” and “urban management body.”
One week later, protests were brutally suppressed. Attacks seemed to target fresh activists and women with children. Hoang My Uyen, a young woman, who is a popular Facebook personality and owner of a celebrity café in Saigon, was brutaly attacked while she was still carrying her little daughter. Her photo, with injuries as she was hugging her child in terror, provoked online public indignation. At the same time, pro-government Facebook users blamed the victim, saying Uyen deserved punishment for taking her little child to a demonstration.
Violence, including verbal attacks, has long been used by the authorities as an effective tool of suppression. Hate speech against political bloggers and human rights activists have been escalating in the recent years.
“It is always tough for political bloggers and writers,” human rights lawyer Trinh Huu Long said in an interview conducted in March by PEN America. “Very often you can’t even leave your house because there will be a group of plainclothes police sitting in front of your house, not letting you go anywhere. Sometimes, police will even pour glue into your house’s lock to destroy it.”
“But the torment does not stop there. If you can’t go outside, fine, you go back to your computer to check your blog or Facebook, and what you would see are many degrading and foul comments attacking you, written by Internet trolls possibly sponsored by the government.”
Many people, however, were still trying to speak out in the strictly limited and controlled online space left in Vietnam.
The continuing specter of Articles 79 and 88
In the later part of the year, a series of arrests of political bloggers began with the detention of prominent human rights defender Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (a.k.a. Mother Mushroom) on October 10. Founder of the Vietnamese Bloggers Network, Quynh was charged under Article 88 of the Penal Code for “conducting propaganda against the state.” The Police-sponsored ANTV (Public Security Television) reported that the evidence against Quynh included some placards demanding that Formosa be taken to court and a report on police brutality that she wrote based on mainstream media sources.
Three weeks later, on November 3, the HCMC security force arrested Ho Van Hai, a 52-year-old medical doctor widely known for his criticisms of the government. Two other Facebook users, Luu Van Vinh and Nguyen Van Duc Do, were detained just three days after Ho Van Hai’s arrest and were charged with “conducting activities to overthrow the people’s administration” under the repressive article 79 of the Penal Code.
Arrests continued with in early 2017 with the arrest of prominent human rights activist, Thuy Nga just before the Vietnamese lunar new year. Nga is a labour activist and is well known for her video footage denouncing power abuse and police violence.
Both Nga and Quynh are single mothers of very young children.
Less popular Facebook users also became targets under these repressive laws. Nguyen Van Hoa, a 21-year-old Catholic working as Radio Free Asia correspondent, was arrested in mid-January. Reportedly, Hoa was quite active in reporting on the Formosa coastal disaster. His arrest was soon followed by the detention of Bui Hieu Vo, 55, and Phan Kim Khanh, 23, on March 17 and 21, respectively, under article 88. Police accused Phan Kim Khanh of being the founder and editor of several “anti-corruption” and “pro-democracy” blogs. But with the blogs apparently limited readership these are far from being a real threat to the government.
In 2016, the police-dominated courts also imposed a sentence of five years in prison on prominent blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh (a.k.a. Ba Sam), who was charged under Article 258 for “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the state’s interest.”
Persons arrested under article 258 are treated less strictly that those charged with the public security articles 79 and 88 of the Penal Code. Ba Sam was able to meet his lawyers six months after his arrest, while those charged under Article 79 and 88 are denied access to legal counsel. Lawyer Nguyen Van Dai and his assistant Le Thu Ha, for example, are still unable to talk with their lawyers after more than one year in preventive detention while awaiting trial.
Also, nothing has been heard from Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, Thuy Nga and other newly-arrested blogger.
Vietnamese bloggers have good reasons to believe that 2017 will continue to be a dark year for media freedom in the country.
The state is expected to continue its tight grip in civil society because of the stagnating economy and increasing support for environmental issues. With the Trump administration’s scrapping of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the government has lost opportunity to expand trade and stimulate the economy. Meanwhile, the general retreat of democracy in most parts of Southeast Asia also means that pressure on Vietnam to comply with their human rights obligations will be decreased.