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Some thoughts on Vietnam’s Covid-19 repression


On Thursday, Pham Chi Thanh, a Vietnamese writer and blogger, was arrested for “producing, storing, and disseminating information and documents against the Vietnamese state.” The following day, Nguyen Anh Tuan, a well-known pro-democracy activist and writer, was detained in Hanoi.

A former reporter at the state-radio Voice of Vietnam, Pham Chi Thanh subsequently became a “dissident” writer, publishing honest and critical books about Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and the Communist government’s founding father Ho Chi Minh.

Thanh is also thought to be connected to, and possibly targeted because of his connection with, the Liberal Publishing House, a local independent publisher that the Vietnamese government has been harassing for the past year. There may be no connection, though, as the Communist government happily targets any critic who poses a problem for the regime.

For starters, his arrest should receive a swift rebuke from human rights organizations, as well as from the international community and foreign governments.

For the latter, though, that might be optimistic. We still haven’t seen enough pushback after numerous arrests of other writers and activists in recent months, including of independent journalist Pham Chi Dung in November (see my article Vietnam’s assault on a journalist), even though this was raised at the European Union, which nonetheless voted through a free-trade deal with Vietnam in February.

It also comes amid a debate about Vietnam’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis. Last week, a social-media debate – which naturally turned into a shouting match – ensued after the publication of an article in Foreign Policy, “Vietnam’s Coronavirus Success Is Built on Repression,” written by Bill Hayton and a Vietnamese colleague of his.

To set the scene: In recent weeks, international media and governments have praised Vietnam’s handling of the crisis, which has resulted in relatively few cases, considering Vietnam neighbors China, and officially not one death, so far. I, among others, have also written about the Communist government’s uncharacteristic openness and transparency, which included regular press briefings, updates by phone and so forth.

This is especially the case when you compare it, say, with the 2016 Formosa toxic spill, when the government spent weeks trying to cover up the environmental disaster.

Or in comparison to how the Communist government did, in fact, manage to cover up what happened at the Dong Tam commune in January, when thousands of police raided the small village and shot dead the 84-year-old leader of the village’s land-rights protesters. Rightly, some call this a massacre, and Facebook has been criticized for helping the government cover it up.  

However, what Hayton and his co-author wrote is also true. The government’s response has also been built on repressive tactics, namely shutdowns, restrictions on free movement and the police’s enforcement of quarantine in certain areas of the country. 


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