Vietnamese protestors against the proposed Special Economic Zone law, June 2018. Photo: Twitter
Vietnamese protestors against the proposed Special Economic Zone law, June 2018. Photo: Twitter

The right to demonstrate is enshrined in Vietnam’s constitution, as are the inalienable rights of freedom of assembly, association, speech and the press. Indeed, the right to demonstrate was recognized in the 1980 Constitution, the first charter enshrined after the political unification of the country’s north and south regions following the communists’ victory at the Vietnam War.

Thirty eight years on, the Communist Party-led government has failed to pass enacting laws to protect those rights. In that vacuum, the regime has recently unleashed another of its frequent harsh crackdowns on dissent, rounding up scores of those who participated in recent massive nationwide demonstrations against a special economic zone (SEZ) draft law, a repressive cyber-security law and, most importantly, China’s rising influence in the country.

But the right to demonstrate is one of the rare issues where the monolithic one-party regime that rules by consensus seems to disagree. In 2011, the National Assembly raised the issue of a demonstration law. Four years, later, the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) was scheduled to submit a proposed draft law to then-prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s government but requested to withdraw it due to sensitivity and complexity.

The issue could be brought up again if there is a request from a majority of the National Assembly. It’s not clear that motion will be in the offing any time soon after the recent protests, which the stability-obsessed government clearly saw as a threat to national security and public order. Protests in Vietnam often start on a specific issue only to quickly morph into anti-government agitations, including nationalistic rally cries that the Party is too beholden to China.

Vietnamese protesters shout slogans against a proposal to grant companies lengthy land leases during a demonstration in Ho Chi Minh City, June 10, 2018. Photo: AFP/Kao Nguyen

Yet the recent street convulsions, where by various counts hundreds of thousands protested in various cities in June and July, have also exposed rifts at the Communist Party’s apex, namely between Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong and President Tran Dai Quang.

That has been expressed in Vietnam’s inimitably repressed way: through Party-controlled, yet highly factionalized, state media. On July 16, Tuoi Tre Online, a prominent local newspaper, was suspended from publication for three months by the Ministry of Information and Communication for a June 19 report that said Quang agreed that a demonstration law was necessary.

The story also aired criticism of alleged corrupt Politburo members, state land grabs, budget misspending and public security officials who organized illegal gambling activities. The ministry said that information in the report was untrue and had caused a serious negative impact on the Party and government.

In fact, Tuoi Tre was ordered to immediately change the title of the article after its initial publication from “The President Agreed That a Demonstration Law is Necessary,” to “The Matters (Violent Protests) in Binh Thuan and Ho Chi Minh City Were Caused by Instigation.” All of the content related to Quang’s statement and voter suggestions about the need for a demonstration law was excised from the modified story.

According to an original unmodified copy of the article obtained by this writer, Quang said at a meeting with voters in Ho Chi Minh City on June 19 that as a member of the National Assembly he supported a voters’ petition for a demonstration law. The article said he promised to report to the National Assembly about the law.

One voter quoted in the original story said that “The National Assembly should take initiative to research and draft a demonstration law rather than waiting for the government, related ministries and departments to build the law, then the National Assembly just passes it. This is not the nature of a legislative branch.”

Another voter quoted in the article said, “The National Assembly should have a demonstration law as soon as possible in order for the people to exercise their constitutional rights legally, taking part in the protection of public security and order.”

Yet another said, “We should not ask the Ministry of Public Security to draft a demonstration law since it has been quite busy dealing with demonstrations and restoring public order. Moreover, it is also the agency which enforces the law.”

Vietnam President Tran Dai Quang and Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong. Image: Twitter

Four days later, the ministry’s press authority also imposed a 50 million dong (US$2,200) fine on another online newspaper, VietnamNet, for publishing a similarly supposedly “false” story under the title “The President Will Report to the National Assembly About a Demonstration Law.”

It is unlikely that both the Tuoi Tre Online and VietnamNet reports put the same “false” words in the president’s mouth at the exact same time. If the story had been false, the president or his office would have simply had to order the state newspapers to rectify it. Many witnesses at the voter meeting with Quang say there are video and audio recordings of the meeting.

Importantly, what Quang said about the demonstration law contradicted Secretary General Trong’s message two days earlier on June 17, when he was quoted saying: “The bad nature (of the protests against the SEZ draft law) was to distort the truth, to instigate the people’s genuine patriotism. There were sabotage elements. We do not rule out foreign factors.”

All 800 newspapers, television networks and radio stations under the government’s tight control were prohibited from reporting on the massive protests, many of which aired strong anti-China messages. Yet the same mouthpiece publications were free to announce that de facto martial law and a new curfew will take effect across the country on January 1, 2019 in response to the protests.

In Vietnam’s unelected one-party political structure, the Politburo and Communist Party secretary general have power over the president. In that hierarchy, Trong is the only person who has the authority to outright censor the president.

It is not known how Quang may have reacted to the removal of his remarks from Tuoi Tre Online and VietnamNet, though it’s believed to be the first time he has been censored in the local media since becoming president in January 2016.

But the incident is believed to have added fuel to the simmering personal conflict between the country’s top two leaders. Quang remained silent until the recent popular protests had been suppressed and wound down. And he stayed silent again after his support for a demonstration law was suppressed in the media, presumably on Trong’s orders.

In recent days, Trong has repeatedly mentioned “internal enemies” had a hand in the widespread protests, which some have read to mean Quang and his faction tacitly supported the anti-China unrest.

Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong smiles before a meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping at Central Office of the Communist Party of Vietnam in Hanoi, November 12, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Luong Thai Linh/Pool

While not openly visible to the public, power politics are clearly in play. As minister of public security under previous premier Nguyen Tan Dung (2006–2016) – a political opponent of Trong who he sidelined at the 2016 Communist Party Congress – Quang strongly opposed the passage of a demonstration law. Then, he deployed various excuses to delay submitting a draft law.

Why he has apparently flip-flopped on the need for such a law is unclear. What is clear is that the debate will not play out any further in the local press. After the recent censorship, some analysts now view Tuoi Tre Online and VietnamNet as supportive of Quang.

Thanh Nien, another influential local newspaper, is believed to lean in a similar direction. The publications are seen as more sensitive to society’s prevailing currents than the mouthpiece media that tend to echo Trong’s conservative hardline positions.

While Quang, a former minister at the fearsome ministry of public security, is no liberal, many see him as less beholden to China and the dogmatic Communist Party ideology Trong has long and steadfastly promoted.

The Politburo was stacked with public security and military figures at the 2016 Party Congress, meaning any new move on a demonstration law will likely restrict rather than protect peoples’ right to protest.

Some Vietnamese feel it is better to have no law at all and continue to exist in a legal vacuum – though that’s not likely the view of those now held in detention, many of them brutally beaten, after the recent clampdown.

But the question rising over Vietnam now is if Trong moves more assertively against Quang, would people who believe he and his faction represent a more open, less pro-China way take to the streets in protest?

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