Vietnam Free Expression Newsletter No. 7/2021 – Week of February 15-21

Greetings from The 88 Project! We are bringing you news, analysis, and actions regarding human rights and civil society in Vietnam during the week of February 15-21. After the Lunar New Year, political prisoner Le Anh Hung was denied visits from friends in the hospital where he’s being held for forced mental health treatment. Dissident musician Mai Khoi is working on a new project as a fellow in residence at the University of Pittsburgh. Read a recap on developments in religious freedom in Vietnam in December 2020 from The Vietnamese. Vietnam has finally issued its controversial Draft Decree on Personal Data Protection, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Nguyen Hoa Binh, has been elected to the Politburo, raising more questions about the country’s judiciary system. In international advocacy, read Vietnam’s response to the latest letter from UN Special Rapporteurs concerning the cases of several political prisoners and a report from the Congressional Research Service on US-Vietnam relations. In the news and analysis section, read a brief on Vietnam and cybersecurity, and check out a podcast about Vietnam’s new leadership after the January 2021 Party Congress. Take action this week for journalist Phan Bui Bao Thy, bureau chief of a state-run magazine, who is being held on charges of “abusing democratic freedoms” for accusing local leaders of corruption on Facebook.


Political Prisoners

Journalist Le Anh Hung was denied New Year visits from his supporters at the hospital where he’s being held. A member of the outlawed Brotherhood for Democracy, Hung was arrested in July 2018 for “abusing democratic freedoms.” In April, 2019, he was transferred to Hanoi’s Central Mental Hospital allegedly for “observation and treatment.” He’s been transferred between prison and the facility several times and has been subjected to forced medication. He has yet to be tried, but if convicted, he could face up to seven years in prison. Hung is being held under strict supervision. His mother said he told her he was “severely beaten and tortured by hospital’s officials, but now he does not argue with him anymore.”
This week, we remember the arrest anniversary of online commentator Le Van Sinh, who was arrested on February 15, 2019, and sentenced to five years in prison for “abusing democratic freedoms” for his posts.
Activists at Risk

The Vietnamese has published its December 2020 report on religious freedom in Vietnam. Highlights include: suppression of Falun Gong members and their activities in Kontum, Hai Duong, Bac Ninh, Quang Ninh; harassment of Hoa Hoa Buddhists in Can Tho; and vandalism at Thien An Catholic Monastery in Thua Thien, Hue. One rare bright spot was the government’s return of properties belonging to several Catholic parishes in the South.

Mai Khoi, Source: Mai Khoi via The Pitt News

Vietnamese pop star and democracy activist Mai Khoi is now a fellow in residence at University of Pittsburgh as part of the Artist Protection Fund. Mai Khoi became an activist several years ago to protest the censorship of artists. She later ran as an independent (non-party affiliated) for a seat in the National Assembly but did not win. At Pitt, she has been working on a performance piece called “Bad Activist”. She has plans to take this show on the road once the pandemic ends.

Domestic Political Developments 

Three years after the controversial Cybersecurity Law was passed, Vietnam’s Draft Decree on Personal Data Protection has finally been issued. As expected, the proposed implementation of the law leaves open several important loopholes which would allow certain government agencies to retrieve and process personal data from citizens without going through required procedures. These exceptions to the rule can pose significant danger to activists as they can easily be abused by the authorities. The Decree is planned to go into effect in December 2021.

In another clear sign that Vietnam does not yet have an independent judicial system, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Nguyen Hoa Binh, has been elected to the Politburo during the 13th Central Committee meeting in January 2021. If Hoa Binh can stay in this position for the next five years, it will be the first time the Supreme People’s Court has held such a powerful seat in the Politburo, the highest political organ in the land. Nguyen Hoa Binh presided over several high-profile corruption cases in the past few years as part of Chairman Nguyen Phu Trong’s political purge. But perhaps he’s best known for his role in the death penalty case against Ho Duy Hai, who many people believe is innocent but being scapegoated to protect certain high-ranking officials. The outcome of that case is still pending. However, last week a popular social media influencer in Vietnam with many thousands of followers posted on Facebook (probably falsely) that Hai will be exonerated — without providing any evidence.

International Advocacy

Trinh Ba Tu and Trinh Ba Phuong holding signs for their mother, land rights activist Can Thi Theu, who has previously been imprisoned. Tu, Phuong, and Theu were all arrested in June 2020 and now await trial. This is Theu’s third arrest. 

On February 4, 2021, the government of Vietnam finally responded to the UN regarding their concerns over the Dong Tam trial and for political prisoners Trinh Ba PhuongTrinh Ba TuCan Thi TheuNguyen Thi Tam, and Pham Doan Trang. Not unexpectedly, Vietnam said that “the allegations made in the Joint Communication were not accurate, mostly drawn from unverified sources and did not reflect the nature of these cases.”

The Congressional Research Service has published its latest report on US-Vietnam relations. Its main themes are: “The pace and extent of the improvement in bilateral relations is limited by several factors. First, Vietnam usually does not undertake large-scale diplomatic moves— especially with the United States—without first calculating China’s likely reaction. Second, though opinion polls show the Vietnamese public holds positive views of the United States, many Vietnamese officials remain suspicious that the United States’ long-term goal is to see an end to the Vietnamese Communist Party’s monopoly on power through ‘peaceful evolution.’ Third, U.S. concerns about Vietnam’s human rights record, which has deteriorated in recent years, remain a barrier to improving the bilateral relationship.”


Vietnam Appoints Military General Country’s New Propaganda Chief, Radio Free Asia, February 19, 2021: “Senior Lieutenant General Nguyen Trong Nghia was appointed Friday as head of the Commission for Propaganda and Education of the ruling Communist Party’s Central Committee. He had formerly served as Vice Chairman of the General Department of Politics of the Vietnam People’s Army. Nguyen, 59, had previously overseen the creation in 2017 of a 10,000-member army cyber unit, Task Force 47, which monitored political comment online, countering statements opposing Vietnam’s ruling party. Speaking to RFA on Friday, independent journalists in Vietnam said Nguyen’s appointment may mark the beginning of a tighter control of articles about the politically sensitive relationship between Vietnam and China, with others predicting a harsher crackdown on political dissent.”

Vietnam Briefing: Tet, COVID-19, Journalists, And The South China Sea, Trinh Huu Long, The Vietnamese, February 19, 2021: “China, Xi added, is willing to work with Vietnam to accelerate the synergy of the Belt and Road Initiative with the ‘Two Corridors, One Economic Belt,’ promote the construction of cross-border economic cooperation zones between the two countries, and explore exchanges and cooperation in such fields as healthcare, digital economy and humanities. The two sides should strengthen coordination and cooperation on international and regional issues, firmly uphold the international system with the United Nations at its core, oppose protectionism and unilateralism, and support a fast entry into force of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement, Xi noted.”

Idle leadership at Vietnam’s 13th Communist Party Congress, Hien Do Benoit and David Camroux, East Asia Forum, February 18, 2021: “Since the seminal 6th Party Congress of 1986, which heralded the policy of Doi Moi, the CPV’s congresses attract increasing international attention. They are seen as providing guidelines for future policies as well as designating the key actors in the Vietnamese regime. The 13th Congress was a disappointment then for those seeking significant changes. What emerged is an interim arrangement to mark time, so as to ensure the CPV’s grip on power. It remains to be seen whether this hiatus impacts other bodies in Vietnam — notably at the provincial level and, for example, on the ‘consultative authoritarianism’ of the Vietnamese National Assembly.”

How US-Vietnam Ties Might Go Off the Rails, Derek Grossman, February 1, 2021: “President Biden, however, has also pledged to convene a ‘Summit of Democracies’ in 2021 to ‘renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the Free World.’ As a socialist authoritarian regime, Vietnam presumably would not be invited to such an event. But the event itself is not the problem, rather what it might signal about Biden’s worldview: that the U.S. seeks less cooperation with authoritarian partners and more cooperation with democratic ones to counter them than has been the case in the past. As part of this effort, Biden created a new senior director at the National Security Council for democracy and human rights, once again signaling that a shift is imminent. Vietnam is probably concerned that its poor human rights situation makes it a ripe target for louder U.S. criticism than was the case under the Trump or even Obama administrations.”

Vietnam and Cyber Security, Carlyle A. Thayer,  February 20, 2021: “The OceanLotus Group has demonstrated it has the resources and capacity to pursue targets for spear phishing for a prolonged period. In 2017, the director of FireEye revealed that APT32 spent at least three years targeting ‘foreign corporations with a vested interest in Vietnam’s manufacturing, consumer product and hospitality sectors’ in Asia, Germany and the United States. Three types of groups have been identified as APT32 targets: (1) Vietnamese dissidents including civil society and human rights activists and foreign journalists living in Vietnam and abroad, and non-governmental organisations, (2) commercial enterprises in Germany, the Philippines, Vietnam, and the United States (agriculture, hospitality, hospitals, information technology, mobile services and retail outlets), and foreign car manufactures (BMW, Hyundai and Toyota), and (3) governments (Cambodia, China, Laos) and multilateral institutions (ASEAN).”

Podcast: What to Expect from Vietnam’s New Leaders. AsiaMattersPod, February 19, 2021: “Our presenter in this episode is Bill Hayton, Associate Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House. His guests are Nguyen Phuong Linh, Vietnam analyst with Control Risks in Singapore and Nguyen Khac Giang, researcher at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.”


Phan Bui Bao Thuy, Source: Phan Bui Bao Thuy/Facebook via RSF

Reporters Sans Frontière has called on the Vietnamese government to release Phan Bui Bao Thy, bureau chief of a state-run magazine in Quang Tri province. Thy is being held on charges of “abusing democratic freedoms” for accusing local leaders of corruption on Facebook. He was arrested on February 10 and will be detained for the next two months for investigation. Share the statement calling for his release. You can also share the Committee to Protect Journalists’s call for his release.
© 2021 The 88 Project