Trump blamed for surging crackdown on Vietnamese dissidents

Amidst the communist state’s largest crackdown against dissent in recent memory, observers cite US President Donald Trump’s perceived indifference to human rights as a contributing factor

Blogger Nguyen Ngoc Gia. (Image by Twitter user Anh Chí)

Nguyen Thi Tuyet Lan, the 61-year-old mother of imprisoned Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, has struggled to cope since her daughter was sentenced to 10 years in jail for her anti-government advocacy in June.

Unemployed and left to provide for Quynh’s two small children, Lan said the future looks bleak.

“My life has been upside-down since my daughter was arrested and jailed,” she said. “I am trying to pass this life day by day, but I don’t know how long I can stand it.”

Quynh - also known by her pen name Mother Mushroom - was sentenced on June 29, at the beginning of a nationwide crackdown on dissidents that has been draconian even by Vietnam's standards.

The country is ruled by a single-party communist state that broadly criminalizes dissent.

Five days before Quynh's conviction, activist Pham Minh Hoang, a Vietnamese-born French national whose Vietnamese citizenship was forcibly revoked earlier that month, was deported to Paris, separating him from his family.

Fresh charges, arrests and convictions against at least eight more dissidents followed in July.

The crackdown, according to activists, foreign observers and a regime official, is largely influenced by US President Donald Trump’s foreign policy toward Vietnam and his perceived indifference to human rights in one of Washington's newest strategic partners.

“I can say everything has its relation. Nothing relates to nothing,” said Dinh Hoang Thang, Vietnam’s former ambassador to the Netherlands, when asked if the recent judicial action against dissidents stemmed from the Trump administration's indifference to human rights.

Thang, who now serves as vice president of a Vietnamese think tank that advises the government and Communist Party, was the only current or former government official willing to go on record for this story.

“Vietnam and the US now have become strategic partners, and the relationship between the two countries is developing very firmly and in all fields,” he said.

Thang described the crackdown as "paradoxical" to the growing relationship between Hanoi and Washington. 

The recent crackdown has cast a wide net, with targets ranging from bloggers to lawyers.

On July 24, Vietnamese police arrested Le Dinh Luong on charges of attempting to "overthrow" the government. A day later, activist Tran Thi Nga was sentenced to nine years in prison on anti-state charges.

Two activists, including high-profile human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai and his colleague Le Thu Ha, were charged on July 30 with attempting to "overthrow" the government. Four activists connected with Dai were also arrested the same day on the same charge.

These dissidents are known for their activities protesting China's maritime claims in the South China Sea, Vietnam's human rights record and perceived state indifference to environmentalism.

Vietnam denied any link between Trump and the recent crackdown on dissidents at an August 3 government press conference in Hanoi.

"I don't see any relationship between the arrest of the people who violated Vietnamese law with the domestic politics of any other country," said Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Le Thi Thu Hang.

But Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security, the apparatus tasked with fighting anti-government activism, has likely assessed that Trump is not particularly concerned with human rights in Vietnam, said Carlyle Thayer, a South-East Asia expert and emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales.

Trump met with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the White House in May.

“It is unlikely the two leaders addressed this issue in depth or at all in their brief half-hour meeting through an interpreter,” said Thayer, adding that there did not appear to be links between anticipated US arm sales to Vietnam and human rights.

While the US State Department and Congress may complain about human rights in Vietnam, local authorities only care about what they perceive to be Trump’s indifference toward rights abuses in the country, said Pham Doan Trang, a former journalist for Vietnam’s state-controlled press who is now a rights activist.

“The Vietnamese police are not strategists in terms of thinking big. They only see details and their articulation is very simple: Trump's up. So, no more human rights,” said Trang.

“No need to care about the US, even the US Congress. The president is the supreme leader, he is king,” he added.

Despite the crackdown, activists who spoke to dpa expressed defiance.

Trinh Kim Tien, who became a rights activist after her father was killed in 2011 by Hanoi traffic police in a widely publicized incident, said the government crackdown was evidence that dissidents were striking fear into the ruling Communist Party.

“People have lost their confidence in the government due to their wrongly conservative policies, so many people have overcome their fears to join the democracy movement, making it develop fast,” she said.

“The Communist Party has also recognized this and they are trying to act to prevent negative developments for them,” she added.