Vietnam ramps up crackdown on dissent ahead of Communist Party congress
- The harsh jail terms given to Pham Chi Dung and two other prominent journalists are just the latest in a string of sentences handed out to critics
- Analysts and rights groups say Hanoi is stifling opposition before the January 25 congress, with many arrests taking place under a controversial cybersecurity law
Before his arrest, Dung was chairman of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, a group he founded that has advocated for press freedom in the country since 2014 yet is considered an illegal organisation by Hanoi.
Dung, a former member of the Communist Party, was for two decades part of the state department of internal affairs and security in Ho Chi Minh City. When he resigned from the party in 2013, he said it “no longer serves and represents the interests of the majority of the people”.
Seven years later, following years of outspoken criticism of the Vietnamese state, he and two other independent journalists have been handed severe jail terms. After a brief trial, Dung was given a 15-year sentence, while Nguyen Tuong Thuy and Le Huu Minh Tuan were each jailed for 11 years by a court in Ho Chi Minh City for spreading anti-state propaganda.
The court said the trio were trying to “fight and change the current political institutions of Vietnam”, and accused Dung in particular of writing for foreign media outlets with the intention of “fighting the political regime”.
“They have arrested not only individuals with a big influence on society but also Facebook users who just expressed their dissatisfaction with the state’s sociopolitical policies,” said Vu Quoc Ngu, director of NGO Defend the Defenders.
In October, police arrested Pham Doan Trang, one of Vietnam’s most prominent activists and journalists, for spreading anti-state propaganda. On December 16, poet Tran Duc Thach was handed a 12-year sentence for subversion, and two days later authorities detained popular Facebook user Truong Chau Huu Danh over social media posts they said “infringed upon the interests of the state”.
Rights groups and analysts say the authorities’ recent moves are primarily aimed at silencing dissent ahead of Vietnam’s quinquennial national congress.
The event, which runs from January 25 to February 2, will see the Communist Party of Vietnam draft a new five-year economic plan and overhaul most of its key leadership positions. The party’s “four pillar” leadership – comprising the general secretary of the Politburo; the president; prime minister; and the head of the national assembly, Vietnam’s parliament – could all face either promotion or the political axe.
Amid this backdrop of closed-door political jockeying and factionalism, little breathing space remains for those critical of the Vietnamese state. A November report by Amnesty International said there were currently 170 prisoners of conscience in Vietnam, 40 per cent of whom were in jail for their social media activity.
Emerlynne Gil, the rights group’s deputy regional director, told This Week in Asia that the times preceding a party congress in Vietnam had become an “open hunting season against activists and dissidents” due to the authorities’ intolerance of peaceful criticism.
“It is never safe to advocate for human rights in Vietnam today – but the stakes are clearly higher right now,” she said. “The bigger picture is of a dramatically worsening environment for anyone who dares express criticism of the authorities and the Communist Party. Whether it’s peaceful activists or foreign tech companies like Facebook, the Vietnamese authorities are sending one chilling signal after another that they aim to stamp out dissent wherever they think they see it.”
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch‘s Asia Division, said the crackdown on journalists in Vietnam had been worse under Trump than the administration of his predecessor, Barack Obama, “because the leaders in Hanoi knew that the State Department under Trump was only interested in trade, not rights.”
But after President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in November, Robertson said, “Vietnam is going to need to recalculate because the new administration will likely be much tougher on human rights”.
Carl Thayer, professor emeritus of politics at the University of New South Wales in Canberra and a Southeast Asia expert, said there was also an internal political angle to the arrests and trials regarding the Ministry of Public Security, which oversees police and intelligence agencies in the country.
“The minister of public security is given block representation on the party central committee, and the minister is usually given a seat on the Politburo. The party public security block may be positioning itself as the defender of socialism and a one-party state,” he said.
“Vietnam’s one-party state is especially sensitive to criticism on social media and uses arrests, trials and lengthy prison sentences as a deterrent to prevent others from joining in. It wants to project an image of national unity going into a national congress.”
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