Vietnam has arrested a prominent dissident journalist and human rights activist, just hours after holding its annual human rights dialogue with the United States.
According to reports, Pham Doan Trang was arrested in Ho Chi Minh City at 11.30pm on October 6, and has since been charged under Article 117 of the penal code for conducting “propaganda against the State.” If convicted, she faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
The co-founder of the dissident blog Luat Khoa Tap Chi (Journal of Law), the 42-year-old has long been outspoken on a range of issues relating to human rights and democratic principles. She has been particularly outspoken about a long-running land dispute in Dong Tam, which received international coverage last month when a court sentenced two brothers to death and 27 other villagers to prison terms following a violent clash with police in January of this year.
Trang was seemingly prepared for her arrest. In a letter that she wrote in May 2019 and requested be released in the event of her detention, she laid out a manifesto of reform of Vietnam’s political system, and noted the role that jailed dissidents could play in bringing pressure to bear on the Vietnamese government. “ I don’t want freedom for myself: that’s too easy,” she wrote. “I want something greater: freedom for Vietnam.”
Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch tweeted that the arrest was indicative of Vietnam’s “scorched earth response” to political dissent. “Pham Doan Trang’s thoughtful approach to reforms, and demands for people’s real participation in their governance, are messages the #Vietnam government should listen to and respect, not repress,” Robertson said.
Trang’s arrest took place just hours after Vietnamese and U.S. officials met via video link for the 24th Annual U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue. According to the official U.S. State Department press release, the three-hour dialog “addressed a wide range of human rights issues, including the importance of continued progress and bilateral cooperation on the rule of law, freedom of expression and association, religious freedom and labor rights.”
The arrest of such a prominent dissident blogger signals a possible tightening of controls as the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) moves toward its quinquennial National Congress in January. Fellow dissident Pham Thanh Nghien told the BBC’s Vietnamese service that the authorities would intensify their crackdown on political dissidents, social activists and human rights defenders in the run-up to the important event. “It turns out Doan Trang is first in line,” she said.
The timing also sends a strong signal that the increasing strategic convergence between the U.S. and Vietnam has not been matched by a convergence of values. Since the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Vietnam in 1995, the two former wartime enemies have evolved into important partners, united by their shared concern about China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the region.
Despite the Trump administration’s talk of building a “like-minded” coalition of democratic nations to confront the threat posed by a rising China, Vietnam’s action suggests the limits of this framing. Evidently, Vietnam’s “like-mindedness” does not stretch to questions of democratic governance and international human rights norms. Indeed, on these questions the CPV is much more closely aligned with the communist party that rules in Beijing.
While the State Department’s statement noted that the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms were a “critical pillar” of U.S. foreign policy, it is likely that any American reaction to Trang’s arrest will be muted, in light of the wider national interests at play. This is something that the CPV’s gray collective no doubt understands well.