On August 2, news emerged that that Vietnamese security agents abducted an economic fugitive, Trinh Xuan Thanh, 51, from the streets of Berlin, allegedly at gunpoint, and forcibly returned him to Vietnam, for his role in the $150 million losses during his tenure as chairman of a subsidiary of PetroVietnam, the state-owned energy conglomerate.
The Vietnamese government denied the July 23 abduction, and “regretted” the German government’s allegations. The government put Thanh on state-controlled TV, where he admitted that he “voluntarily” returned, after a turn of heart. “I wasn’t thinking maturely and decided to hide and during that time I realized I need to return to face the truth and… admit my faults and apologize,” he said. Few believed that it was a voluntary statement.
Thanh’s capture has been a high priority for the Vietnamese government, which had been tracking his movements since he fled the country in 2016. In December 2016, Party Chief Nguyen Phu Trong stated that his capture was the “highest priority.”
The government expressed alarm when the learned that Thanh had recently applied for political asylum in Germany. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc had previously raised the issue of Thanh’s legal extradition when he was recently in Germany.
That the Vietnamese government was willing to conduct such a brazen act, a clear violation of international law and diplomatic norms, is telling. German officials said that there was “no longer any serious doubt” regarding the involvement of Vietnamese security forces, likely working across borders in the Czech Republic. The government declared the Vietnamese intelligence representative persona non grata and gave him 48 hours to leave the country. The Foreign Minister condemned Vietnam in harsh diplomatic language.
But the diplomatic fallout will be far greater. Germany is primus inter pares within the European Union, a major trading partner and aid donor. On 7 August, the German Federal Foreign Office made clear that this issue was not going to be quietly swept under the table.
Extradition was never going to be a quick or easy path for the Vietnamese government, but it was not insurmountable or without precedent. Clearly Hanoi was concerned that Berlin has recently been welcoming of Vietnamese dissidents. Embezzlement carries the death penalty, which further complicated Vietnam’s formal extradition request. But legal remedies had not been exhausted.
Thanh will certainly be charged and tried. And given the scale of the losses and the dearth of judicial independence, justice is expected to be swift.
Vietnam clearly is fraught with corruption, the legacy of too much state control of assets, with little accountability or oversight, and certainly no free press. The party leadership is aware that public anger over official corruption does weaken their legitimacy, and clearly they do seek to make examples of a few high profile transgressors.
But the operation against Thanh had less to do with alleged embezzlement of state assets, and everything to do with politics. After all, it is low level corruption that confronts everyday Vietnamese, whether on the roads or in the educational system.
The Vietnam Communist Party’s 12th Congress in January 2016 left many issues unresolved. General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong kept his job, a surprise to many considering his age. He was clearly the consensus candidate of conservatives and others who were committed to thwarting then Prime Minster Nguyen Tan Dung from assuming the top slot.
Since then Trong has worked methodically to purge Nguyen Tan Dung’s protégés. At the mid-term congress in May 2017, he not only kept his job, after it was expected that he would step down, but he moved on Nguyen Tan Dung’s closest protégés.
The Central Committee voted Dinh La Thang off of the 19-member Politburo, ostensibly for corruption. That removal was almost unheard of; the last time someone had been expelled was 1996. But it too had little to do with corruption. Thang remained on the Central Committee, and was put in charge of the VCP’s Economic Commission. He was politically emasculated, not criminally charged. Thang, who chaired PetroVietnam, from 2009-2011, was close to Thanh.
There are reports that the government is moving in on Dung’s network, in both the state-owned sector, and private sector. Dung has so far been unable to mount an effective defense, let alone a counter-attack.
Complicating matters is the fact that the VCP’s top ideologue Dinh The Huynh, the conservative’s perennial candidate to succeed Nguyen Phu Trong is seriously ill. He has taken a medical leave and is reportedly seeking cancer treatment in Japan.
Huynh’s responsibilities as the chief of the VCP’s Secretariat have been assumed by Tran Quoc Vuong, the chairman of the Central Inspection Committee, i.e. the top anti-corruption watchdog.
Nguen Phu Trong, 73, appears to be in an unassailable position, with political rivals clearly on the defensive. He is showing no signs of stepping down anytime soon, especially with Huynh’s sickness. He looks set to complete his term in 2021. And if he were to step down, it would be on his own terms.
But the operation against Thanh, may also be an attempt to weaken President Tran Dai Quang. Quang is clearly positioning himself to become the next VCP General Secretary. But Quang has ties to Dung, and it seems as though Trong may be trying to clip his wings. Thanh did manage to flee the country when Quang was serving as Minister of Public Security, and he has been criticized for not doing enough to investigate Thanh and his network.
With the responsibilities of the Secretariat, now in the hands of Tran Quoc Vuong, the man leading the anti-corruption charge, we may be seeing the signs of him positioning himself as a candidate to succeed Trong. Anti-corruption is a very powerful tool to use in a country where campaigning is frowned on.
In addition to an aggressive counter-corruption agenda, the government has escalated its rigorous persecution of dissidents, including harsh sentences for Me Nam, and the recent arrest of other bloggers, under Article 79, further buoyed by the indifference to human rights of the Trump administration.
Further complicating matters is the fact that a subsidiary of the Spanish oil firm Repsol, has withdrawn from its exploration of a Vietnamese oil block clearly within Vietnam’s 200NM EEZ, after threats from China. The Vietnamese leadership quickly caved in, a dire humiliation for the leadership, unwilling to stand up to China. Hanoi has apparently relinquished the right to drill in its own EEZ, protected under the UNCLOS. Analyst Anton Tsvetov has argued that the Thanh case was important for the party to divert attention away from the Repsol decision, and a nationalist backlash.
Perhaps it was a diversion. But the government is not taking any chances. It took the unpopular – but not unprecedented – step of blocking Facebook, the most popular social media platform in the country, and an important medium for free speech and discussion.
Zachary Abuza, PhD, is a Professor at the National War College where he specializes in Southeast Asian security issues. The views expressed here are his own, and not the views of the Department of Defense or National War College.