Vietnam Free Expression Newsletter No. 19/2022 – Week of May 9-15
Greetings from The 88 Project. We bring you news, analysis, and actions regarding human rights and civil society in Vietnam during the week of May 9-15. Two political prisoners were allowed to emigrate to the United States on the eve of Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh’s trip to Washington. There was another arrest in the case of the Zen Temple in Long An. A political prisoner who’s been in pre-trial detention for almost four years without a trial is back in jail after spending time in a mental hospital. The director of an NGO charged with “tax fraud” will have his appeal trial this week. An approved exhibit to commemorate the battle of Dien Bien Phu was canceled at the last second due to its content. Read an article on four reasons why Vietnam remains a hotbed for misinformation, as well as Vietnam’s delicate PR dance around its decision to hold military drills with Russia. Conservatives in the Politburo holding sway over the Vietnam-US relationship could complicate human rights efforts. In Washington, Prime Minister Chinh says Vietnam will prioritize U.S. investments that create new technologies such as green energy. President Joe Biden hosts the first U.S.-ASEAN summit since 2016 at the White House.
Read our annual report on the situation of political prisoners and activists at risk in Vietnam.
HUMAN RIGHTS & CIVIL SOCIETY
Ho Duc Hoa
Journalist and political prisoner Ho Duc Hoa was put on a plane bound for the United States on May 11, just as Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh was about to depart for Washington for the U.S.-ASEAN special summit. A Catholic member of a diocese in Vinh Province, Hoa was arrested in 2011 and charged with conspiracy to overthrow the government under Article 79 of the 1999 Criminal Code. He had served 11 years of his 13-year sentence when he was released early.
Tran Thi Thuy
One day before Hoa was freed, a former political prisoner also was sent to the United States. Tran Thi Thuy was a land rights activist who was arrested in 2010 and sentenced to eight years in prison for conspiracy to overthrow the government. She had served out her sentence and was released in August 2018. The fact that Hoa and Thuy were allowed to go to the United States around the time of Prime Minister Chinh’s first trip to the United States suggests this was not a coincidence, but rather a result of deliberation and negotiation between the two governments.
A fifth person has been arrested in the case of Bong Lai Zen Temple in Long An Province. Cao Thi Cuc, 62, is the owner of the property that houses the temple. She is being investigated for possible violations of Article 331 — “abusing democratic freedoms.” In January, the non-state sanctioned Buddhist sect’s leader, Le Tung Van, 90, was arrested along with three other men and charged under Article 331 as well. However, Van was later released from jail while the other men had their pre-trial detention extended. It is not known when any trials will take place.
Le Anh Hung
Le Anh Hung was moved from the National Psychiatric Ward in Hanoi, where he was admitted in April 2019, and returned to prison last week so that the criminal prosecution against him could resume. A member of the Independent Journalist Association of Vietnam, Hung was arrested in July 2018 and charged with “abusing democratic freedoms.” However, he has yet to be tried. During his unusually long pre-trial detention period, now entering its fourth year, Hung has often complained of physical and psychological abuse and has had to go on several hunger strikes to protest the abuse.
Mai Phan Loi
Mai Phan Loi will have his appeal trial on May 17. Founder and executive director of the nonprofit Center for Media in Educating Community (MEC), Loi was arrested in June last year. In January he was sentenced to four years in prison on “tax fraud” charges and ordered to pay nearly two billion dong ($90K USD) in fines. Before his arrest, Loi was working to build a network of NGOs as allowed for and stipulated by Vietnam’s free trade agreement with the European Union — the EVFTA.
This week, we think of the birthdays and arrest anniversaries of the following political prisoners:
Nguyen Van Dien and Tran Ngoc Son
- Democracy activist Nguyen Van Dien, birthday May 19, serving six and a half years in prison for conducting “propaganda against the state”
- Montagnard Christian activist Rah Lan Hip, arrested May 15, 2019, and sentenced to seven years in prison for “undermining the unity policy”
- Hoa Hao Buddhists Vuong Van Tha, Vuong Van Thuan, Nguyen Nhat Truong, and Nguyen Nhat Thuong, arrested on May 18, 2017, and sentenced to between six and 12 years in prison for spreading “propaganda against the state”
- Online commentator Tran Ngoc Son, arrested May 20, 2021, and awaiting trial on charges of “abusing democratic freedoms”
- Journalist Pham Chi Thanh, arrested May 21, 2020, and sentenced to five and a half years in prison for conducting “propaganda against the state”
- Protesters Pham Thanh and Dang Ngoc Tan, tried on May 21, 2019, and sentenced in multiple trials to a collective 15 years and 6 months and 24 years in prison, respectively
Activists at Risk
Artist Mai Duy Minh was summoned to meet with Ministry of Culture officials to discuss his paintings about the victory at Dien Bien Phu. The exhibit to commemorate the 68th anniversary of the battle on May 7, 1954, had been approved by the ministry but was canceled at the last moment due to concerns that “the main painting of the Dien Bien Phu Exhibition had a tattered national flag and a soldier that was not handsome and not anatomically correct.” Mai Duy Minh often paints about social issues such as poverty and corruption; he even has a painting about the Dong Tam police raid in 2019 that resulted in several deaths.
NEWS & ANALYSIS
Four Reasons Why Vietnam Is A Hotbed Of Misinformation. Lee Nguyen, The Vietnamese; May 13, 2022: In March 2020, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published a list of the 20 biggest Internet enemies, including the Force 47 of the Vietnam People’s Army.  These government internet commentators are comprised of tens of thousands of soldiers and have been repeatedly named as a source of government propaganda.  With almost unlimited resources from the State budget, Force 47 can manipulate the information environment in Vietnam’s social networks. While producing rumors and fake news to serve its own interests, the government leaves the door open for other kinds of misinformation to spread online, as long as they do not affect the interests of government officials and the power of the State.
Parsing the News About the Vietnam-Russia Joint Military Drills. Hai Hong Nguyen, The Diplomat; May 12, 2022: Reading between the lines, there are a number of conclusions that can be drawn. First, the two virtual meetings between representatives from the Vietnamese and Russian defense ministries were real, but Russia did not announce the second meeting, which focused on the Army Games. However the Vietnamese tactically and wisely combined the contents of the two meetings into one common news report, aiming to explain the meaning of “joint military exercise,” as reported by the Russian media. A possible interpretation was that the Vietnamese did not intend to publicly speak about the meetings given the sensitivity of the issue given the background of the war in Ukraine, but it then had to do so in response to public reactions and concerns both at home and abroad following Russia’s media announcement. …With the combined news report, Vietnam sent a message to the U.S. that the so-called joint military exercise was merely a game in which it has participated since 2018…
U.S. will have to work hard to win over Vietnam’s conservatives. Dien Luong, Nikkei Asia; May 11, 2022: As public sentiments in Vietnam on the Ukraine crisis suggest, America’s much-touted role as a global security guarantor has yet again been thrown into question. At least, that is how the conservatives are portraying it. Still, suspicions of the U.S. agenda by Vietnamese hard-liners are not utterly groundless. Against this backdrop, the million-dollar question for champions of U.S.-Vietnam rapprochement is how to advance bilateral ties forward without ruffling conservative feathers, a treacherous line to straddle. One approach to winning over conservatives to closer U.S.-Vietnam ties would be a relationship characterized by a more discreet and sensitive approach to differences in human rights, a serious treatment of America’s war legacy and where the regime’s security is guaranteed.
Vietnam will prioritize US-invested projects with new technologies. Hoang Thuy, VN Express; May 12, 2022: The Vietnamese government commits to creating a fair and transparent business environment and U.S. companies can have assurance in their Vietnam investment and expansion, Chinh said Wednesday at a meeting with U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo as part of his working trip in the U.S. ahead of the ASEAN–U.S. Summit. The Vietnam economy is growing and needs partnership from developed countries, including the U.S., in green finance, technology and human resources. Vietnam prioritizes projects with advanced and new technology that are clean and have high added value. The country also seeks projects with green transformation and digital transformation that contribute to the global supply chain.
Biden touts ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific in summit with ASEAN rulers. RFA Staff; May 13, 2022: Experts describe “ASEAN centrality” as the concept that the 10-nation bloc serves as the driver and architect of institution-building and of relations with and among outside actors in the Asia-Pacific region. “We’re committed to a future where the rules and norms that have made possible so much growth and prosperity and stability in the Indo-Pacific are upheld and strengthened, including respect for the rule of law and for human rights,” Biden added. In a gesture seen as significant in a region that often feels neglected by Washington even as governments seek a counterbalance to China’s extensive presence, he nominated a close advisor, Yohannes Abraham, as U.S. ambassador to ASEAN, filling a post in Indonesia that has gone without a confirmed envoy for more than five years.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
On May 9, 2022 The 88 Project released its annual report on the situation of activists and political prisoners in Vietnam. The report is informed by the organization’s database – the most comprehensive and up-to-date of its kind – and details the latest chapter of the Vietnamese government’s crackdown on political dissent. Vietnam’s one-party state stepped up arrests of both media professionals (bloggers, journalists, and authors) and online commentators in 2021. In total, Vietnam arrested 12 media professionals in 2021, up from seven in 2020, and three in 2019, representing a desperate attempt to stamp out fledgling efforts to promote press freedom in the country. Read the full report, here.
A deeper look into Vietnam’s complicated relationship with Russia and why the government might want to change its stance.
Can Thi Theu