Five News Stories to Know for February

February has been back with action for the country of Việt Nam. Keeping up with the most important and interesting news can be difficult, so here’s this month’s roundup of all the news you need to know.

1. ASEAN tensions cast shadow over Sunnylands

The United States’ pivot to Asia was on display when President Barack Obama hosted leaders of ten Southeast Asian nations at Sunnylands resort in Rancho Mirage, California, two weeks ago. ASEAN leaders travelled to the Coachella Valley in hopes for a stronger stance against China’s aggressive claims in the South China Sea.  

A joint statement and remarks by Obama following the two-day summit had obvious references to China… without directly naming China.

“The United States and ASEAN are reaffirming our strong commitment to a strong regional order where international rules and norms and the rights of all nations large and small, are upheld. We discussed the need for tangible steps in the South China Sea to lower tensions, including a halt to further reclamation, new construction and militarization of disputed areas. Freedom of navigation must be upheld, and lawful commerce should not be impeded.”

Tensions in the South China Sea continue to escalate between China, Việt Nam, and other ASEAN countries. Earlier this month, satellite imagery revealed the presence of Chinese surface-to-air missiles in the Paracel or Hoàng Sa Islands.

At Sunnylands, countries also discussed issues ranging from climate change to trade, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership which Việt Nam has already signed on to. The TPP is another linchpin in the Obama administration’s counterweight to China’s outsized economic influence in the region.

Critics like Việt Tân representative Angelina Trang Huỳnh argue that President Obama did not do enough to address Việt Nam’s human rights record when it rewards Việt Nam with trade negotiations:

“Human rights were brought up with ASEAN leaders. President Obama also met with Nguyễn Tấn Dũng on the sidelines and we would have liked to see that President Obama raised concrete cases. The talking point that Hà Nội is making effort to improve their human rights record in preparation for TPP isn’t convincing. In fact since the signing of the TPP agreement Hà Nội has stepped up crackdown and physical violence against human rights activists. We need to see a concrete plan for how the U.S. is going to hold Hà Nội accountable for their human rights violations.”

The next ASEAN Summit is scheduled for May in Laos.

2. Running against rigged elections

A rubber stamp election scheduled for May is rubbing rights defenders the wrong way -- and they’re now mounting an open challenge to one-party rule.

How? By nominating themselves.

The National Assembly election is typically a process designed to maintain one-party rule through the facade of democracy. But an effort led by Dr. Nguyễn Quang A, a former Party member turned dissident, to launch his own election campaign to join the National Assembly as an independent - is gaining steam.

In an open letter on Facebook, Dr. A says he is running because a response was needed to challenge General Secretary Nguyễn Phú Trọng’s claim that the Vietnamese people had achieved unmatched democratic freedoms.

Democracy and civil society activists have followed suit and have announced their self-nominations. Nguyễn Thúy Hạnh, a human rights activist from Hà Nội, told Chân Trời Mới Media, she believes that by running for office she can help motivate others to take more civic responsibility as well.

“With this action, I wanted to awaken the sense of responsibility among the people regarding their freedoms, their fundamental human right to be free. And that includes the right to vote and stand for election. I want to make our citizens aware of the problems of the country. At the same time I would like to, along with my friends and my people, overcome our fears so that we can fulfill our duty, and that is to reclaim our rights which is the right to vote and to stand for election.”

Việt Nam’s National Assembly is the legislative body that elects the president, and prime minister and passes laws. The election process though is completely controlled by the Party apparatus. Independent candidacies have a low chance of surviving the skewed vetting process and make it on the final election roster. Young activists all over the country have started to rally behind them and threw their support behind their favorites via social media.

3. Harassment during the holidays

While many Vietnamese were celebrating Tết, one young Catholic activist had to contend with harassment from local authorities during the holidays.

Trần Minh Nhật, 28 years old, is a former prisoner of conscience who, along with 13 other activists, was tried  in 2013 in one of Việt Nam’s largest political show trials. He was released last August after four years in prison, on the spurious charge of “attempting to overthrow the government.”

Nhật, a member of Việt Tân, says that police harassment since his release has been relentless. On the second night of the Lunar New Year - security police set fire to his family’s garden. They poisoned livestock with pesticide and burned his family’s livelihood, coffee and avocado plants. They have stoned his house every night, he says, breaking windows and lamps. He tells Loa that his family lives in constant terror:

“On February 22, local police called me out of my house and stoned me on the head. They did not allow me to go to the local hospital and have threatened our lives. I ask from the international community to call for the end to police harassment towards my family and Dat and I as well as all Vietnamese peaceful activists."

In an interview with Radio Free Asia, Nhật says he and the other activists are targeted because they organized protests against China's incursions in the South China Sea.

Lawmakers like Australian member of parliament Chris Hayes have spoken out against Nhật’s mistreatment.

By the way, you can head on over to our Facebook page to see pictures of the violence Nhật endured.

4. Traffic cops have new powers

Motorists on Sài Gòn's busy streets have yet another traffic rule to observe. On February 15, new guidelines  expanding the duties and powers of traffic police went into effect. Issued by the Ministry of Public Security, this circular allows traffic cops to pull over and conduct both vehicle and body searches if they believe that the driver and/or the passengers are violating traffic laws or threatening public safety and social order.

One provision has ignited a firestorm of criticism. It states that officers, during the performance of their duties, can take possession of vehicles and other equipment from citizens.

One Sài Gòn mechanic who also moonlights as a security guard, says the rule is being misunderstood.

“The right word here is commandeer, not confiscate. They don’t confiscate it forever. They borrow it and then will return it. It’s not a confiscation of property.”

But others think that the traffic law goes too far. They say it prevents drivers from protecting themselves against police misconduct because cops can simply confiscate any recording equipment without retribution.

Nguyễn Thúy Vi, a commuter, chats with Loa and gives her critical take:

“I don't know how this new law is going to help with traffic. The police were pulling cars over already. It just gives them more reasons to arrest people without getting in trouble for it.”

5. Contemporary art under attack

Not everyone “gets” contemporary art and it seems, local local authorities don’t either.

Sàn Art, a non-profit contemporary arts organization based in Sài Gòn, will be forced to shut down all of its performance art program in May after mounting pressure from authorities.

A notice on the group’s website said they were given a warning by “cultural police” to not host an artist talk “due to foreign attendance.”

Nguyễn Bích Trà, Sàn Art’s general manager, explains that the organization has faced increased scrutiny due to staff changes within the internal security police division.

“With the consideration that artists after six months [of] creating thoughtful artwork without being able to make it known to the public, it’s just not making sense any more. We made the decision to take this time to strategize differently so we can still do what we commit to do which is supporting the artists but the resources will be spent more efficiently both for the organization and the artists as their outcome artwork should be reachable to the audience.”

These latest acts of censorship by the cultural police is just one of many attempts by the government to curtail the art’s role in Vietnamese society. Despite these setbacks, Trà says she is optimistic that artists can overcome these obstacles and continue promoting expression in Việt Nam.

“Việt Nam is unique in its own context and I think at least for in the art world and the art scene here, artists and artistic practitioners have an understanding of how the situation can enable them to even voice their ideas better and that’s a very good thing to have hope for.”

If you’re interested in some of the unique art still on display at Sàn Art, check out our Facebook page for pictures of these artists in action.