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With the controversial actions of the Trump administration in the weeks since the inauguration, many are wondering what four years of Trump means for minority groups and the future of the US and other nations alike. The 88 Project explores what impact Trump could have on Vietnam, US-Asia relations, and human rights in the region. Under one scenario, Trump disengages from Vietnam, and Vietnam human rights violations escalate under decreased scrutiny. Disengagement from the US could also mean more regional engagement for Vietnam and China.  There is really no scenario under which the US engages Vietnam on human rights for the sole sake of human rights promotion, but a brighter scenario could see the US pushing Vietnam on human rights, even if only minimally, to remind them that other countries are still taking notes– and to provide Trump with domestic leverage. Another possible reality, though, is that regardless of what the US under Trump or any other countries do, Vietnam’s human rights situation will continue on its current course– or worsen.

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Up until now, the US and Vietnam have been somewhat of “frenemies,” slowly moving past their troubled history together. The warming of their relationship was strong under Obama, perhaps reaching a peak in 2016 with Obama’s visit to Vietnam and ending of the decades-long ban on the sale of US weapons to the country. As lackluster as Vietnam’s human rights improvements were under Obama’s leadership, pressure from international visits and deals has helped publicize prisoners of conscience and environmental issues. But now, Trump’s “America First” rhetoric leave many wondering if Trump will have much of a relationship with or impact on Asia, and Vietnam, at all. In the following sections, we explore the complicated potentials for involvement- or lack thereof- between the U.S. and Vietnam.

The US turning inwards does not necessarily mean it will scratch out the last several years of progress it’s made in courting Vietnam, at least not intentionally. An inward-focused US could maintain friendly ties with Vietnam without being invested in outcomes there, as it is important for both countries to remain allies in their efforts to counterbalance Chinese influence. In fact, despite their outward differences, Vietnam and the US under Trump share many priorities: economic growth, fostering a pro-business environment, and orchestrating a crackdown on institutions and people that allegedly  jeopardize national security. In the US, this has been exemplified in Trump’s travel ban and increasingly forceful immigration actions. In Vietnam, this often takes the form of quelling public protest, arresting outspoken critics of the government, and silencing independent media.

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In its newest report, Freedom in the World 2017, Freedom House has once again decided that Vietnam is “Not Free.” 

Many other Asian countries, including all of Vietnam’s neighbors, received the same designation, reflecting the larger trends of repression of freedom of expression and the violations of human rights seen in Asia and other regions in recent years. Thirty-six percent of people on Earth are living in nations labeled “Not Free,” and Freedom House noted that world freedoms have been falling for more than a decade now.

Screenshot of Asia map, with green indicating “Free,” yellow “Partly Free,” and purple “Not Free.” Source: Freedom House, 2017, Freedom in the World 2017.

 
Vietnam scored 7/7 for political rights and 5/7 for civil liberties, with seven being the worst score. It’s aggregate score was also very low, at 20/100, with 0 being the worst score. 
The report also speaks to the questions arising from the US elections in late 2016, and the rise of populist and nationalist sentiments in the US, Europe, and elsewhere, and their potential impacts on world freedom. 

For the full report, visit: https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2017

The media has been buzzing lately with news about Vietnam– the protests of the large-scale fish deaths, President Obama’s visit (and the question of lifting the arms ban), and the much-welcomed release of Father Nguyen Van Ly from his fourth, and hopefully final, prison sentence. We also want to make sure that news circulates about Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, who is starting a hunger strike on May 24th, during the President’s visit and on the anniversary of his arrest.

Thuc, an entrepreneur and blogger, is currently serving a 16-year sentence. He is less than halfway through the sentence. On May 5, Thuc was moved from Xuyen Moc prison to Prison 6, which is located in central Vietnam. The reason for the transfer is unclear, and this means he is now further away from his family. This distancing tactic has been seen in other cases of prisoners of conscience as well.

Thuc’s family visited him at the new prison on May 14th and reported that he looked sleep-deprived and thinner. Thuc told his family that the authorities proposed to release him, but only on the condition that he be exiled in the U.S.. This was an approach also used by the authorities in the releases of Dieu Cay and Ta Phong Tan. Releases, while positive, when coupled with forced exile, further silence activist voices and give off a false international image that Vietnam is complying with international requests for improved human rights.

Thuc turned down the proposition, saying he would rather die than be exiled from Vietnam. His hunger strike aims to promote government adherence to the rule of law and the right to democratic governance by the people in Vietnam. We are deeply concerned about Thuc’s treatment in prison, as well as the health risks that a hunger strike can pose. He has committed no crime and for far too many years has awaited justice. Please take action with us, below. For more background on Thuc’s case, visit his profile.

Take Action
Send an Urgent Action, from Amnesty International, on behalf of Thuc and other imprisoned activists.
Sign a petition on change.org, set up by his family.
Tweet at President Obama, asking him to press for the release of Thuc permanently and not conditioned on exile. You can Tweet @POTUS, @BarackObama, or @State_DRL (Human Rights @ State).
Sample Message: Take action for Tran Huynh Duy Thuc on #Vietnam visit.Serving 16 years, soon to be on hunger strike. #FreeThuc.

The U.S. State Department’s latest report on human rights in Vietnam notes the lack of female and minority participation in national decision-making, despite the introduction of quotas. According to the report, less than one quarter of the National Assembly is made up of women, and only two out of 28 cabinet positions are held by females.

The United Nations Development Programme partially attributes this inequality in representation to persistent negative gender stereotypes in Vietnam. It is challenging traditional gender roles through its #HowAbnormal campaign to show what the roles would look like if they were swapped.

Vietnam’s gender inequality is also evident in its repression of dissent. Many of the activists currently imprisoned in Vietnam are women, including Bui Thi Minh Hang, a blogger and land and religious rights activist serving three years, and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, who was also sentenced to three years in prison, just last month. Also in March, three female protesters were sentenced to 3 to 4 years each for a peaceful act of resistance– waving flags.

Bui Thi Minh Hang is currently being held at a prison 1,000 km away from her family and has previously been denied access to them. Her current sentence marks the second extended period of time that she has been separated from her family in just five years. In a recent letter to her youngest son, she encouraged him to focus on his studies and not let her imprisonment distract him from his schooling. “Several years are nothing, right my son?,” she wrote.

Womens’ imprisonment is often biased against their needs and may also have different societal impacts. Imprisonment of female activists can have especially destructive consequences for families when one considers the traditional care work that women in Vietnam perform. This may be especially true where the women  is the sole parent or is caring for relatives. Further, as more and more women enter the workforce and support their families financially, the disruption of women’s contribution to the social and economic realms due to imprisonment, harassment, and injury to suppress dissent may become even more important to explore.

In a series of interviews with The 88 Project, Pham Thanh Nghien also spoke about unfair treatment in prison towards female prisoners. This includes disregarding feminine hygiene needs, like the need for adequate sanitary pads, and needs for extra privacy. Watch the interview.

Moreover, women are still afforded far less visibility in most international circles than are men. While this may be changing slowly, one must question whether women’s stories are told with the same vigor and support as men– and how women’s stories are told as well. Representing women activists in honest and powerful ways will surely honor their legacies more than portraying them as merely victims. Though framing women as victims may assist in fomenting international support for their release and assistance, it does little to dismantle oppressive gender roles that will affect women whether they are in prison or walking freely down the streets.

Often, organizations focus on aid and support for women who are in needed of healthcare, education, or other basic needs fulfillment. While this is no doubt important, and still greatly needed in Vietnam, so are organizations and advocates for Vietnamese women that focus on supporting local organizing, freedom of expression, and judicial system reform. Together, the two approaches can have a powerful impact on women and society as a whole.

Violence against and repression of activists affect everyone in a community. However, we need to consider the specific effects on women, as repression of their voices by the Vietnamese state only adds to the marginalization of their voices that they already face in the world at large.

Amnesty International has released an Urgent Action on behalf of jailed activist Bui Thi Minh Hang. The organization reports that she is suffering from several ailments including an ulcer, acute headaches, and blackouts, at times, and is being denied the medical services that she needs. A prominent land rights/human rights activist, she is serving a three-year sentence for alleged traffic obstruction. She has also been involved in peaceful protest against Chinese claims in the South China Sea.

Please call upon Vietnam’s Minister of Public Security and Minister of Foreign Affairs to give Bui Thi Minh Hang access to medical treatment and to release her from prison altogether. You can find the Urgent Action, here: https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/ASA4133682016ENGLISH.pdf.

For more information on Bui Thi Minh Hang, please visit her profile: https://the88project.com/2015/06/25/profile-of-bui-thi-minh-hang/

In Hanoi this month, police detained ~30 people in a protest over land grabs. The entire protest drew about 100 participants and 200-300 police. Radio Free Asia notes that, “Land grabs in which government officials use their authority to confiscate and sell land to developers are a common cause of social unrest across Southeast Asia, sparking small- and-large scale protests on an almost weekly basis.” Just days before the protest, Hanoi police had participated in a public gathering “anti-terrorism” scenario.

On January 15th, Ho Thi Bich Khuong was released after serving a 5-year sentence. However, even after gaining her freedom, the government is still interfering with her human rights. The government seized her land and house. Read about her life and activism, here.

In Human Rights Watch’s recent World Report, the organization highlighted Vietnam’s changing, but ever-present, methods of cracking down on dissent.

“Vietnam tried to minimize political trails and convictions in 2015 to gain favor during the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, but repression against activists remained firm, with beatings increasing. –Brad Adams, Asia director, Human Rights Watch

In 2015, attacks on activists rose, the National Assembly passed a revised penal code further targeting activists, and land grabs and civil organization repression continued. Several were arrested in 2015, including environmental protester Nguyen Viet Dung, former political prisoner Tran Anh Kim, and activists Ngueyn Van Dai, charged under Article 88, and Le Thu Ha. Several were also released, including labor activist Do Thi Minh Hanh. However, countless others remained imprisoned, including Tran Huynh Duy Thuc and Bui Thi Minh Hang. Small steps of progress were made on other fronts, including criminal procedure and gender recognition. Read more from the 2015 report, here.

Additionally, Freedom House termed Vietnam as “Not Free” in its Freedom in the World 2016 report.

On the political side, Vietnam’s General Secretary has promoted one-party Communist rule over “authoritarianism disguised as democracy.” General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong has been re-elected to another five-year term at the head of the Party, alongside new Prime Minister (former Deputy Prime Minister) Nguyen Xuan Phuc and new President (former Minister of Public Security) Tran Dai Quang. The Jakarta Post noted that “The party has 4.5 million members in a country of 93 million people, who have no direct say in how their leaders are elected.” With no change in leadership or the leadership structure, business-as-usual is likely, with little change in the direction of the country expected.

January 20th marked 6 years since Tran Huynh Duy Thuc was sentenced to prison under Articles 79 and 88 of Vietnam’s Penal Code. The blogger and entrepreneur is serving 16 years.

Other January anniversaries include the following:

On January 7, 2015, Tran Anh Kim, former military officer, was released from prison after serving 5.5 years for his pro-democracy work. However, he was re-arrested later in 2015.

Also on January 7, 2015, newspaper Nguoi Cao Tuoi had its license taken away for its coverage of corruption; the editor, Kim Quoc Hoa, has been targeted by authorities.

On January 9, 2013, fourteen bloggers, writers, and activists were convicted under Article 79 of Vietnam’s Penal Code and sentenced to between three and 13 years in prison (they were originally arrested in 2011); among those convicted were Ho Duc Hoa, Paulus Le Van Son, Dang Xuan Dieu, Nguyen Van Duyet, and Nong Hung Anh.

On January 28, 2013, the twenty-two members of a religious environmental group, arrested in February of 2012, were tried under Article 79 of Vietnam’s Penal Code. They received sentences ranging from a minimum of 10 years to life in prison (for the founder).

On January 29, 2011, Pham Thanh Nghien was sentenced to four years in prison with three years of probation.

Please see our timeline for more information on arrests, trials, releases, civil organization and political events, and other human-rights related events.

It seems like Vietnam’s New Year’s resolution for 2016 is the same as it was in 2015: find new ways to intimidate, harass, and otherwise abuse the human rights of activists. Recent events in the country demonstrate the increasingly non-traditional and interconnected ways by which the government cracks down on dissent.

During a protest in Hanoi last week over land grabs, Radio Free Asia reports that the police detained 30 participants. There were 100 participants in total. There were at least double that amount of police officers present. They also report that police had recently been trained in “an anti-terrorism drill,” including one training situation involving a confrontation with the public over land rights issues.

Bui Thi Minh Hang, a land rights activist, is currently serving a three-year sentence in Vietnam. Her arrest in early 2014 was on the charge of a traffic violation, not a charge related to her activism– a tactic used by authorities in the case of Le Quoc Quan, who was arrested for tax evasion, and Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, who was originally arrested for theft of telephone wires, as well. All three prominent human rights advocates went on to serve time in prison, and Thuc still has ten years left of his sentence.

Sometimes, authorities also pair arrest with physical assault. Human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai was arrested in late 2015 under Article 88 for conducting propaganda against the state. Amnesty International notes that just a week and half before, he and three others were attacked by plain clothes assailants after conducting a human rights workshop.

And in other circumstances, the government inflicts wounds on activists that are not visible to the naked eye. Tran Huynh Duy Thuc continues to be targeted in prison for continuing to advocate for what he believes in. Most recently, the structure of Thuc’s one-hour, monthly family visits were changed. Instead of meeting with his family in person, Thuc must now meet with them from behind a glass divider, using a phone. His family believes this meant to facilitate recording of family interactions and so that Thuc can be deprived of direct contact with his family. January 20th marks six years since his arrest.

In addition, Vietnam cuts off activists from community and family by forcing them into exile after their release from prison, such as in the case of Dieu Cay and Ta Phong Tan. In a recent Committee to Protect Journalists interview, Tan, who was released early in September 2015, reflected on the forced necessity of leaving home.

“It was not hard because I had no other choice. Either I stayed in Vietnam and spent another six years in prison plus five years of probation on release, or I went to America. If you were in my position, you would decide as quickly as I did.”

Source: Committee to Protect Journalists, https://www.cpj.org/blog/2015/12/exile-the-price-of-freedom-for-vietnamese-blogger-.php.

Tan did not have a chance to say goodbye.

The international community can no longer use just numbers of arrests and releases as a measure of progress with the human rights situation in Vietnam. Instead, it must look at the myriad of smaller, less visible human rights violations used to wear down and torment activists. While some recent news has given attention to the physical attacks on activists, more attention must be given to those attacks in the context of, and often in connection with, other abuses. It is only through this method that international policymakers and organizations can see the full picture of what Vietnamese activists endure on a daily basis in their fight for freedom of expression and other human rights.

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Please follow the links within the text for more information and the articles cited here.