Watching human rights in Vietnam
14 Jul 2017|

The human rights issue in Vietnam has waxed and waned for a couple of decades now. Much of the Western focus remains on activists and those locked up for speaking out, rather than on many of the things the activists call out, like land grabs, pollution and police violence.

The US has been one of the strongest public critics, though the EU and its member nations have also issued statements when activists were locked up or tried. The US often links improvements in Vietnam’s human rights record to closer ties. It was one of the things holding back arms sales to Vietnam and underpinned the embargo that was only lifted in May last year, during Obama’s one and only visit.

That isn’t merely a public stance, either. A reading of the WikiLeaks embassy cables reveals the same thing: an American focus on human rights and religious freedom comes through in cables to Washington about visits to activists or to house chapels of Protestants in the northern mountains. One released activist, legal scholar Cu Huy Ha Vu, was sent to the US after his imprisonment ended. He wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post suggesting that Vietnam used the rights focus to its advantage, collecting up activists and then later releasing them in order to earn concessions it wanted:

 The Vietnamese government treats prisoners of conscience as commodities to barter with the United States and other Western countries for security and trade benefits as well as foreign aid. Vietnam has stocked a reserve of prisoners of conscience for future bargaining.

And just last week one of Vietnam’s stalwart bloggers, Me Nam (or Mother Mushroom), was sentenced to a 10-year prison stretch. Ms Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh earned an International Woman of Courage award from the US in March, but missed the ceremony because she’s been locked up since last year. Quynh has been pointing out corruption and environmental issues for over a decade and went in hard on the government last year over the Formosa fish kill scandal that left 100 tonnes of dead fish along Vietnam’s coastline and put fishermen out of work. Though she is again subject to official sanctioning, she has spoken out against reprisals against her family.

Vietnam has been cutting down on the number of interred activists, as a US embassy worker pointed out to a friend of mine recently. While that might sound like progress, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report that’s not the case.

The report points out that the government is now using different methods on many citizen journalists: it’s sending non-uniformed security force members, or simply thugs, to beat and intimidate many of them. The report details 36 incidents of attacks collected from varied data and cross-checked where possible. The report covers the period from January 2015 to April 2017.

The press release accompanying the report states:

By using informal thuggish attacks rather than formal court trials to repress dissent, Vietnam reduces the number of political prisoner cases it has, which is also an important metric for judging changes in a country’s human rights record.

It’s too much to say that this is a change in tack brought on by US political pressure. Such pressure has continued, though it’s likely not going to be a hallmark of Trump’s presidency. But the Human Rights Watch report suggests that the metrics used to measure a human rights situation in a nation often take more account of things like formal arrests and convictions than beatings by masked, un-uniformed people.

It says:

In 2015, the number of reported convictions continued to decrease, with only seven activists convicted throughout the year. On the other hand … roughly 50 bloggers and activists reported that they were assaulted in 20 separate incidents. In 2016, at least 21 rights campaigners were convicted while at least 20 physical assaults were carried out against more than 50 people.

Police are often reported as being present but doing nothing.

In September 2014, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing police brutality against citizens and people detained in custody. They were not activists. In one famous case that became a lightning rod in the country, and was widely covered in the local and international press, a middle-aged songbird merchant was detained by police for not wearing a helmet while riding pillion on a motorbike and was later beaten into a coma. That attack was perpetrated by uniformed police. The report noted that between 2010 and 2014 at least 24 people were killed by police, and the forces admitted culpability for 14 of those deaths.

I wrote in the Asia Sentinel then that ‘police corruption, brutality and inefficiency are a tedious, sometimes costly or even bloody, fact for the majority of Vietnamese citizens’, and that the justice system was fraught for many. A conference being organised at the ANU for November 2017 will explore the politics of life in Vietnam. The Vietnam Update says in its introduction, ‘Vietnamese today are questioning ends and means, particularly as they relate to human security; they thirst for transparency and reliable ways to assert control over life’.

The difference between the state’s approach to its ordinary citizens and to political activists is that, while police violence against the citizenry might be systemic, it isn’t part of a strategy designed to break down its subjects—unlike the step-by-step process of violence against activists, which is often preceded by initial interviews and intimidation. The former isn’t violence by design, and it causes headaches for the government when ordinary citizens protest murder. The authority of the party is chipped away when its uniformed representatives beat and extort others. But both forms of state-perpetrated violence stem from the same roots: insecurity felt by the populace, which the activists document and the state and its actors exacerbate at times.

A couple of months ago I wrote about the Dong Tam village siege, in which the populace took dozens of hostages, including police, to protest about land grabs. The mayor of Hanoi travelled to the village to negotiate the release of the hostages, and the government promised an investigation. I said that seemed like progress. But the villagers were protesting about their treatment by the state system, rather than questioning the legitimacy of the state. There’s a different and special treatment for those who protest about the system itself.