Human rights

Vietnam’s government locks down dissidents, report says

A review by Human Rights Watch describes tactics used in a crackdown on activists with padlocks, police intimidation and travel bans

Written By:
February 23, 2022
Vietnam’s government locks down dissidents, report says
Protesters display placards as they march towards a courthouse during the trial of a prominent lawyer and five other activists in Hanoi on April 5, 2018. Several protesters were hauled off by plainclothes police as they marched to the trial of high-profile lawyer Nguyen Van Dai and five others charged with "attempting to overthrow the state". Photo: Jenny Vaughan/AFP

“Eating guard soup” is a term colloquially used among Vietnamese activists to describe their homes being monitored by plainclothes police officers. 

“This is perhaps the clearest example of the patterns of daily harassment and abuse that these activists and their families suffer,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s become a running joke almost, except the actual punchline is not funny.”

Human Rights Watch held a virtual press conference on 17 February to introduce the organisation’s new report, “Locked Inside Our Home: Movement Restrictions on Rights Activists in Vietnam.” 

The report documents cases of abuse between 2004 and 2021. During the timeframe, activists were locked inside their homes with new padlocks and existing locks secured with superglue, found security agents stationed outside their dwellings, faced roadblocks, suffered intimidation by neighbourhood “thugs”  and were prevented from international and domestic air travel.

Prior to the report, Robertson said, little attention has been paid to this form of “day-to-day harassment,” which can be considered an afterthought in comparison to beatings, arrests and long prison sentences. 

However, the systematic and pervasive restrictions on freedom of movement documented by the rights group showcase how the Vietnamese government violates both their own laws and international human rights conventions ratified by the country, said Robertson, who hosted the event from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand in Bangkok. 

There also has been a crackdown on Vietnamese activists during the Covid-19 health crisis, Robertson said.

“The government has taken advantage of the global distraction of the Covid-19 pandemic to really go after what remains of the dissident movement in Vietnam,” Robertson said. “We’re seeing more movement restrictions of the sort that we’ve documented today. We’re seeing more arrests in more kangaroo court style trials and we’re seeing longer prison terms.”

Vietnam dissident musician Mai Khoi, also known as the ‘Lady Gaga’ of Vietnam, was locked in her home by plainclothes police on 11 November 2017 after she flashed a sign reading “Piss on you Trump” as the US president arrived in town for a state visit. Photo: Stringer/AFP

During the Vietnamese Communist Party’s 13th National Congress in January last year, rights campaigner Nguyen Thuy Hanh was placed under house arrest for 10 days.

This did not come as a surprise. As outlined in “Locked Inside Our Homes,” there is a predictable calendar for activist detainment. Dissidents regularly see their movements blocked during what the government considers sensitive dates: national holidays, protest anniversaries, commemoration of conflicts between Vietnam and China, national political events, international human rights day, religiously significant days for unsanctioned Hoa Hao buddhists and foreign dignitary visits. 

“There is a method to this madness,” Robertson said. “Authorities are focused very clearly on preventing protests and disturbances and blocking access for activists visiting foreign leaders and government officials who are trying to learn and discuss about the dire human rights situation in Vietnam.”

Human rights activist Nguyen Quang A has been detained 24 times. In 2016 he was stopped from going to a public protest in Hanoi, as shown in a video accompanying the Human Rights Watch report. The same year, Quang A was invited to meet with former U.S. President Barack Obama during his visit to the country’s capital, Hanoi. Before the meeting, the activist was shoved into a car and driven around for hours until the meeting ended. 

More than half of the civil society activists invited to meet with Obama were blocked by security forces, according to Human Rights Watch.

Pham Doan Trang, Vietnam’s most prominent human rights activist, was also arrested on her way to the Obama meeting. Trang had been recouping at a hospital in Ho Chi Minh City after being injured when security forces broke up an environmental protest the year prior. 

All of the people who stand up for human rights or talk about freedom… they will be followed and they will be treated badly.”

Mai Khoi, Vietnamese pop singer and activist

Fearing she’d be detained if she flew the approximately 1,137 kilometres (706.5 miles) north to meet Obama, Trang and two fellow activists, Vu Huy Hoang and Tran Thu Nguyet, decided to drive cross country. The trio was stopped and detained about 100 kilometres (62 miles) south of their destination and released after Obama left Hanoi. 

Trang was sentenced late last year by a Hanoi court to nine years in prison for disseminating anti-state propaganda. In January, she became the first Vietnamese to receive the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.

“All of my activist friends are in jail now,” said Vietnamese activist and singer Do Nguyen Mai Khoi. She attended the 2016 Obama event, but four policemen were waiting when she returned to Ho Chi Minh City. She was taken to a police station and questioned for five hours before being released. 

“That’s just one of the thousands of ways the government and police control dissidents,” said Mai Khoi, who became known as ‘Vietnam’s Lady Gaga’ for her outfits and outspoken views. “All Vietnamese activists have the same experience.”

Mai Khoi described living under constant surveillance, being followed by “secret police,” and police pressuring landlords to evict her. After spending a night at a friend’s house, she said her friend was called and told, “If he wants peace he shouldn’t have me [over] the next time.”

Mai Khoi was interrogated at Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport for eight hours by anti-terrorism police after returning to Vietnam from a European music tour in 2018. From her perspective, police wanted to create a file on her to justify a future jail sentence. She does not currently live in Vietnam.

“After many interrogations and detainments that is enough proof to put you in jail,” she said. “All of the people in Vietnam who stand up for human rights or talk about freedom or have political opinions [different] from the government, they will be followed and they will be treated badly and they will be detained and they will be arrested.” 

Sitting behind his laptop in Bangkok, Robertson described how the Covid-19 pandemic has been used by Vietnamese authorities to crack down on dissidents while the world was preoccupied with the health crisis. 

The majority of the country’s prominent activists are now in jail or under pretrial detention, he said. Activists are often charged with breaking Article 117 of Vietnam’s penal code, which imposes penalties for “creating, storing, and disseminating information, documents, items, and publications opposing the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” Radio Free Asia reported. 

“The last several years have been very, very bad for Vietnam,” Robertson said. “It is in our view a rapidly declining situation. A situation which urgently demands the attention of the international community.”

Mai Khoi agreed with Robertson about the Covid clampdown. 

“Vietnam always wanted to arrest all activists but before Covid the world was still watching the Vietnamese government,” she said in an interview this week with the Globe. “During the pandemic, the government knew that no one cared about Vietnamese activists now so they should arrest them as soon as they can.”

Responding to questions during the news conference, Robertson commented on the worrisome arrests of NGO heads on tax-related charges.

Executive director of Green ID (Green Innovation and Development Centre), Nguy Thi Khanh, during an interview in Hanoi. Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP

The award-winning founder of the Green Innovation and Development Centre, Nguy Thi Khanh, was arrested in January on tax-evasion charges. Dang Dinh Bach, head of the Law and Policy of Sustainable Development, was given a five-year sentence for tax evasion and the leader of the Center for Media in Educating Community, Mai Phan Loi, received four years in prison for tax fraud, The Guardian reported.

“Our concern, frankly, is that this is the next step in their campaign of control,” Robertson said. “They’ve gone after the human rights and democracy activists. They’ve largely wiped out that movement… Now they can turn their attention to the next target and the next target appears to be NGOs.” 

Robertson gave recommendations for the Vietnamese government to clean up its human rights record and for actions to be taken by the international community. 

Along with stopping human rights abuses aimed at activists, the government should amend laws violating international human rights standards. While the constitution grants freedom of movement, other laws contradict this right with malleable terminology on the protection of ’community well-being,’ ’social morality’ and ’national security,’ among others. 

Meanwhile, the international community needs to stop giving Vietnam a “free pass,” he said, and address Vietnam’s rights abuses at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

“Vietnam is the only country in Southeast Asia I can’t go to. They won’t grant me a visa,” Robertson said. “It is an outlier in human rights abuses. For some reason it is getting away with it.”

Read more articles