US diplomacy in Vietnam was certainly shaken and stirred when a bunch of local thugs—who also happen to be police—seized-upon on a diplomat when he attempted to visit an aging Catholic priest last week.
It began with United States political officer Christian Marchant (with the embassy in Hanoi) calling on Father Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly—deemed a political dissident and detained at home by communist authorities in the central city of Hue.
According to a mix of reports, Marchant had a car door slammed against his leg, was then wrestled to the ground, bundled into a police car and driven away in scenes reminiscent of a Cold War power play. A complaint has been lodged by the US, but the Vietnamese response was not untypical, with a foreign spokeswoman noting that diplomats have a responsibility to abide by the host country’s rules.
If not, then they have the right to beat you up?
In this case, however, no laws had been broken except by Vietnam under its obligations to protect diplomats as a signatory to international law.
Ly, 63, was only under house arrest after being released on medical parole. He was serving an eight-year sentence for trying to undermine the government and the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). During his trial, he shouted out in protest, prompting police officers to try and silence him by covering his mouth. Embarrassment followed as photos were taken and circulated widely around the world.
The beating was unfortunately not an all that uncommon event, and came amid a crackdown on dissent, chronicled in The Diplomat in May last year, ahead of this year’s 11th National Party Congress when the CPV will prioritize government policy over the next 5 years.
The congress will be held between January 11 and 19 in Hanoi and the hierarchy is traditionally a bit more thin-skinned than normal in the lead-up to the main event, when the all-important 17-member politburo faces elections among the party faithful.
CPV leader Nong Duc Manh chaired a central committee meeting over the weekend in preparation for the conference, which will provide a stage for aspiring leaders.The congress is also a potential battleground for old hands like Manh who’d prefer a compliant audience among the 1,400 CPV delegates representing 3.6 million members.
He’d also like diplomats who don’t talk to trouble-making priests at such a sensitive time…and, ideally, re-election as well.