Vietnamese Communist Party’s Patriotism Called Into Question

Posted on August 6, 2012

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When Dang Thi Kim Lieng set herself ablaze in a self-immolation to protest the local communist administration in Vietnam on July 30, the country’s dismal human rights records once again caught the world’s attention.

But, unlike other dictatorships before them, the Hanoi rulers’ oppression of their citizens is increasingly being viewed as something even more ominous: More and more, the Communist Party is seen as unpatriotic, as selling out the national interest to secure their own grip on power.

Shown are, front row from left, Ta Phong Tan, Dieu Cay, Phan Thanh Hai. Image taken by Nguyen Tien Trung, also a prisoner of conscience currently serving a seven-year sentence.

Appeasing Beijing?

That suspicion of near treason is very specific. As China became more aggressive in what Vietnamese call the East Sea—that is, the South China Sea–Hanoi is accused of appeasing Beijing in an effort to retain the support of the last remaining communist power in the world. To the extent that human rights activists imprisoned by Vietnam are the same people calling for a strong resistance against China, the government finds itself less and less able to shake that accusation.

Ta Phong Tan, 44, Lieng’s daughter, is just one such person. A former party member and police officer, Tan is a journalist and blogger, who has been charged with propaganda against the state. (Full disclosure: I am a friend of Tan’s and my former employer Nguoi Viet Daily News has published articles by her.) Her writings appeared on the blog of the Free Journalist Club, and ranged in topics from life of peasants, corruption and wasteful spending in government, to issues of Vietnam-China relations.

In particular, she and other Vietnamese bloggers are much more vocal than the government in asserting Vietnamese sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands.

In 1974, as the Vietnam War neared its end, China fought a brief battle with the South Vietnamese navy and wrested control of the Paracels. And in 1988, China attacked the Vietnamese garrison and took several islands of the Spratlys.

Then came 2007: News spread that China was planning to officially establish a district-level administrative unit on the islands. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese took to the streets of Hanoi and Saigon in protest. Among the thousands gathered in front of the People’s Republic of China Consulate General in Saigon were Tan and two of her friends, Dieu Cay and Phan Thanh Hai.

Phan Thanh Hai, 43, is a lawyer. His license, however, was never issued and the Ministry of Justice has never given a reason for the refusal, but everyone thought for sure it was because Hai participated in the 2007 protests. Hai’s writings were posted on the blog of the Free Journalists Club, mostly on finer points of Vietnamese laws like the right to strike, the rights of an accused.

Dieu Cay, 60, is a founder of the Free Journalists Club and was accused of being the main administrator for its blog. On the day of the 2007 protests, Dieu Cay held an impromptu teach-in in the park on the conflicting interests of the two countries. Apparently fearing trouble with the giant neighbor, the Vietnamese government arrested Dieu Cay on the day the Beijing Olympics torch passed through Saigon.

This 1904 map by the Qing Dynasty shows China’s southern maritime border stops at Hai Nan island. No mention of the Paracel & Spratly archipelagos.

He was convicted on trumped-up charges of tax evasion, and when that sentence was completed, he was immediately accused of anti-state activities and imprisoned anew. He has been held since 2010.

On World Press Freedom Day this year, U.S. President Barack Obama mentioned Dieu Cay by name and said, “We must not forget others like blogger Dieu Cay, whose 2008 arrest coincided with a mass crackdown on citizen journalism in Vietnam.”

Trial for “Propaganda” Starting This Week

Dieu Cay, Hai and Tan are scheduled to be tried this week starting Tuesday (August 7) on charges of propaganda against the state. All three have been in detention for months while awaiting trial; Tan, the last one arrested, has been imprisoned since last year.

It was in reaction to Tan’s arrest, the resulting harassment of the family, and the confiscation of her land, that Lieng immolated herself.

Dieu Cay, Hai and Tan are not the only participants in the 2007 protests that were prosecuted or otherwise hounded by the authorities. Numerous others were threatened at work and at school. One teacher told me the police came to her school and advised the principal to keep her in line. Then they went to her husband’s workplace in another province and told him to restrain his wife if he wanted to keep his job.

Others were not so lucky to get off with a warning. I personally know of at least five people who lost their jobs and one person who was expelled from college.

In May 2011, a Chinese patrol vessel in the South China Sea cut a submerged cable towed by an oil and gas survey ship belonging to state-owned PetroVietnam in the South China Sea. (China said the ship was in its waters.) More protests ensued, and more protesters were badgered and harassed.

In Hanoi, protesters were rounded up and taken on buses to the police station. One woman, Bui Hang, was later sent to a rehabilitation camp where prostitutes were held. In Saigon, police dispersed the protest by force. A widely circulated photo showed one young man being grabbed at his neck and carried upside down by a plainclothes policeman.

“Unfamiliar Ships, But Familiar Cowardice”

That incident raised in everybody’s mind a vital question: Why? Why would the Vietnamese government go against the people who are not opposing them? After all, they’re opposing the same Chinese government that cut the government ship’s cable.
The inevitable conclusion was drawn that the communist rulers were either afraid of China, or, worst case, acting on China’s behest.

Other acts by the government didn’t help their case. For several months, whenever skirmishes happened at sea, state-controlled media were not allowed to specify that Chinese ships were involved, but could only say that the ships were “unfamiliar” – prompting a now widespread comment, “the ships are unfamiliar, the cowardice is familiar.”

Contrary to earlier times when the Vietnamese Communist Party claimed the mantle of national liberation, this time the party’s oppression of free speech runs counter to the people’s patriotism. And there does not seem an easy way for Hanoi to get out of the quagmire they’ve dug for themselves: It would be too much of a paradigm shift for the communist rulers to allow the people to freely express themselves.

Hao-Nhien Q. Vu is a blogger and former newspaper editor in Southern California. Many of his friends in Vietnam are on trial or in prison for exercising their right to free speech.

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