As the ruling Communist Party in Vietnam prepares for its largest meeting in years, its leaders have presided over an intensified crackdown on dissent, according to rights groups, activists and data gathered by the Reuters news agency.
Record numbers of political prisoners, longer prison terms and increased harassment of activists in recent years have contributed to the crackdown ahead of this week’s Communist Party Congress, a rally to determine leadership and national policy which takes place every five years.
The crackdown has left some international human rights groups and lawmakers wondering whether Vietnam has violated the spirit of trade deals with Western countries – deals that have helped propel the country into a position of economic strength in South Asia. -East.
“I have been summoned by the police several times since December 9, 2020,” said Nguyen Quang A, a veteran activist in Hanoi, refusing to detail the circumstances, saying he was under investigation in Classes. He told Reuters that the Vietnamese Security Ministry had in recent weeks rounded up other criticisms of the government without saying why, citing its contacts with activists.
“They [the police] summon them and find reasons to convict them under these very vague articles of criminal law. It completely breaks the law, but they use it very regularly, ”said Quang A.
Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry, which handles requests from foreign media, did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment on the detentions of activists.
Despite reforms and growing openness to social change, the Communist Party of Vietnam, led by Nguyen Phu Trong, 76, tolerates little criticism and tightly controls the national media.
Vietnam drew international condemnation this month when it sentenced three independent journalists known for their criticism of the government to between 11 and 15 years in prison, finding them guilty of disseminating anti-state propaganda.
The country’s constitution affirms that it protects “freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of the press, access to information, to meet, to form associations and to hold demonstrations”.
In reality, public criticism of the party is not tolerated and groups that promote democratization are targeted by the authorities in a battle that is taking place online on platforms like Facebook, Vietnam’s first platform for e-commerce and the dissent.
A Reuters tally based on state media reports revealed that 280 people have been arrested for “anti-state” activities in the five years since the last party congress: 260 have been convicted, many of whom have been convicted. sentenced to more than 10 years in prison. In the five years leading up to the 2016 Congress, 68 arrests and 58 convictions were recorded.
Last year Amnesty International said it had registered the most “prisoners of conscience” in Vietnam since it started publishing figures in 1996 – 170, almost double the 97 registered in 2018. Of the 170, some 70 have been arrested for online activism, Amnesty told me.
In late 2017, Vietnam unveiled a 10,000-strong military cyber unit, Force 47, to counter what he said was “false” views on the internet. According to rights groups, the unit is also recruiting online volunteers to target dissidents and activists.
Reuters examined dozens of posts on several groups and Facebook pages from December and January claiming links to Force 47. Numerous activists attacked prominent activists, including Quang A, accused by a group of creating anti-state propaganda .
Some group moderators wore military uniforms in their profile photos while others posted pages for official locals of Communist Party organizations.
Last November, Vietnam threatened to shut down Facebook if it did not toughen the rules on local political content on the platform.
Facebook’s local servers were taken offline by the government earlier last year until it agreed to dramatically increase control of “anti-state” posts by local users, a request to which Facebook had previously said it was complying with.
A Facebook spokesperson said the company faced “additional pressure” from Vietnam to restrict content last year.
For some, the crackdown has to do with fluctuations in global trade relations with Vietnam.
“During the [former US President Barack] Obama administration, pressure on TPP rights [trade] the negotiations helped the cause of human rights activists and political dissidents, ”said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch.
“The Prime Minister’s first visit [Nguyen Xuan] Phuc in 2017 at Trump’s White House saw human rights completely dropped from the agenda, ”he said.
Robertson said trade tensions with China had also left Vietnam “in the driver’s seat” as US and European companies sought alternative supply chains, helping the Vietnamese economy to thrive.
“The EU has had an important opportunity to make real change through the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement,” said Robertson, referring to a pact that has been a boon to Vietnam. Instead, he said, the EU “has fallen short, settling for vague promises … instead of substantive changes”.
EU officials did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for comment.
After the three journalists were jailed earlier this month, the United Nations human rights office said: “Coming a few weeks in advance [of the party congress], the convictions and long sentences are not only a blatant suppression of independent journalism, but also a clear attempt to create a chilling effect among those who are prepared to criticize the government.
The United States described the convictions as “the latest in a disturbing and accelerating trend of arrests and convictions of Vietnamese citizens exercising rights enshrined in the Vietnamese constitution.”