The Diplomat: What’s Behind Vietnam’s Rising Violence?

The rise of physical violence committed against activists is a troubling trend.

A recent report by Human Rights Watch, “No Country for Human Rights Activists: Assaults on Bloggers and Democracy Campaigners in Vietnam”, documents the rise of physical violence committed against activists, mainly by plain-clothed “thugs,” some of whom may be police or soldiers, and most of whom target their victims in very public place.

Nguyen Trung Ton, a pastor and blogger, and a friend, were set upon by a group of men after exiting a bus in February:

[They] took our belongings, stripped our clothes off, covered our heads with our jackets and beat us repeatedly with iron tubes. They did not tell us any reason. The van moved and they continued to beat us [in the van]. There was a driver and at least six other men.

And this happened to the pro-environment activist Nguyen Thi Thai Lai when she was leaving a restaurant with a friend:

Four young men, like four water buffalo, blocked our motorbike. They grabbed me by my neck and threw me on the ground. They beat me until I fainted. They kicked me in the face – look at my [bruised] face. They kicked me in the face. They kicked me and beat me until I fainted.

While “physical attacks against human rights activists and bloggers in Vietnam are not a new phenomenon,” as the Human Rights Report notes, there does appear to be a trend away from detention and towards public violence. The report states:

In 2014, during an especially contentious phase of negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership between Vietnam and the United States, the number of people convicted for political crimes in Vietnam decreased to 31. However, according to the Association of Former Prisoners of Conscience, the number of physical attacks increased to at least 31 incidents targeting 135 rights bloggers and activists.

In 2015, the number of reported convictions continued to decrease, with only seven activists convicted throughout the year. On the other hand, according to research by Human Rights Watch, roughly 50 bloggers and activists reported that they were assaulted in 20 separate incidents. In 2016, at least 21 rights campaigners were convicted while at least 20 physical assaults were carried out against more than 50 people.

“Marxism needs a dictator,” according to the late Russian-American literary giant Vladimir Nabokov, “and a dictator needs a secret police”. The secret police in Vietnam, however, is hardly that secret. In 2013, Carl Thayer, then of the Australian Defense Forces Academy, estimated as many as 6.7 million Vietnamese work in some fashion for the country’s numerous security agencies – so about one in six people.

In 2015, when I met Pham Chi Dung, an activist who founded the Independent Journalistic Association of Vietnam, and who worked for the Ho Chi Minh City’s security bureau for sixteen years before becoming disillusioned, he knew that two security agents had followed him from his house to our café rendezvous. And he knew they would follow him home again. (He was arrested once again a few months after we met).

The use of paid (one assumes) bullies to attack activists, however, is different from the use of security agents to spy on or arrest dissidents. When an activist is threatened by the police or military, at least he recognizes his attacker. The uniform reveals all. People know who is his attacker and for whom his attacker works. As a result, he understands the message that comes from up-high; we want to cripple all activism. In a sense, then, some credit must go to a government that sends its police or military to do its dirty work; at least it’s being honest about its motives.

The use of plain-clothed attackers is different. It’s dishonest. It’s cowardly. The removal of a police or military uniform (if that is the case) before an attack is an effort to distance the boss from the violence. Not only that, it is an attempt to say: the regime isn’t against activists, fellow citizens are.

Because of this, a corollary is necessary to the view of Human Rights Watch; the use of plain-clothed thugs isn’t just an effort to “sow fear and uncertainty among activists” but, as well, to sow fear and uncertainty among those who might become activists.

For the secret police to arrest an activist is to silence that critic. For the police or military to beat an activist is to demonstrate that the regime won’t put up with criticism. But for a plain-clothed thug to attack an activist is to publicly humiliate that activist.

Indeed, an imprisoned activist is removed from society; a beaten activist is forced to show his scars to all, perhaps a more effective deterrent. A detained activist, also, often inspires more activism; his or her release becomes a motivating reason for protest.

The fact that friends and family are often targeted in the attacks, as the Human Rights Watch report makes clear, also changes the game. Every committed activist has considered their own imprisonment. But violence against one’s family compels a different response. Self-sacrifice is one thing but having to also sacrifice your family makes a person think again about continuing.

The changing tactics of the Vietnamese regime no doubt reflect changes in the pro-democracy, human rights movement. Social media, the modern-day samizdat, has become almost impossible for the regime to censor as it would like. Activists have also become more emboldened, willing to protest and demonstrate publicly. And with closer ties to the United States and the European Union (which agreed to an important free-trade agreement that will probably take effect next year) the risk of irking these partners is potentially too important economically. Plain-clothed thugs, therefore, provide some distance between the regime and the violence.

Moreover, the rights-movement is simply much stronger than it once was. As I have written before, the growth in environmental activism has coalesced disjointed parties: middle-class urbanites and poor rural farmers, democrats and nationalists, have been united under the banner of they all have a stake in. (The fact that some of the attacks were committed while activists were visiting one another was most likely intended to show the dangers of solidarity.) This is unprecedented in modern Vietnamese history, and the regime knows it.

Civil society across Asia is flowering but fragile

The proliferation of civil society organizations (CSOs) throughout Asia is having a significant impact on relations between the state and citizens, on the institutions of the state and on prevailing norms and values. At a recent conference organized by Akihiro Ogawa, professor of Japanese studies at the University of Melbourne, scholars from around the region gathered to assess civil society and the forces that support and threaten it. This gathering testifies to the expansion and deepening of civil society across Asia. While the flowering of civil society across the region is undeniable, the gains that have been made are fragile.

In recent decades the range of Asian CSOs has expanded rapidly, and their concerns now run the gamut from welfare, the environment, refugees, legal services and gender to counseling, trafficking, entrepreneurship, education and beyond. Most of these nongovernmental groups are small, understaffed and underfunded, but they persist because they must, and draw on the passion of the committed. There is no shortage of needs and public demands for the various activities CSOs engage in, yet they are also constrained by regulatory hurdles and wary, intolerant governments.

From Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka to Cambodia and Vietnam, illiberal democracies and authoritarian governments are targeting foreign funding because they suspect that CSOs are agents of globalization spreading Western values, ideologies and practices. These suspicions are fueled by concerns that CSOs are undermining and discrediting the state by engaging in advocacy for people and causes that have been marginalized and mistreated — for example, to further human rights, and on behalf of LGBT people or ethnic and religious minorities. By empowering people, CSOs challenge and subvert the state’s monopoly on power.

There are two major trends influencing the 21st century operating environment for CSOs in Asia: the spread of neoliberal economic policies and the rise and consolidation of illiberal democracies. Neoliberal economic reforms are varied, but they usually involve reducing the role of the state and cutting taxes and government budgets. The impact on vulnerable people in society can be catastrophic as programs aimed at mitigating poverty, improving living standards and addressing health and educational problems are slashed. Such reforms create a niche for CSOs as they respond to what is effectively an outsourcing of government services.

Problematically, neoliberal reforms tend to accentuate disparities and polarize society. Across the globe we are witnessing the marginalized respond to the broken promises of globalization and the gloomy omens they face. Pankaj Mishra, in “The Age of Anger: A History of the Present” (2017), captures the zeitgeist, explaining how the neoliberal democratic model is under siege because it is not delivering. The internet enables widespread awareness of what only some can attain. Envy, disappointment and anxiety are alienating even the relatively privileged in developing nations because they find limited opportunities and can only climb so high before they realize their dreams have been thwarted. It is this hothouse of discontent that fuels populist politics and breeds radicalism.

The other significant trend shaping the CSO ecosystem in Asia is the spread of authoritarian governance. Illiberal democracies such as Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Malaysia hold elections, often feature prolonged one-party rule and embrace the rule of law only when convenient, while drawing on authoritarian practices to ensure that democracy stays tightly tethered. Cronyism, corruption and a lack of transparency are defining features of illiberal democracy, and in this age of anger, repression is the favored means of retaining power. The grass-roots wildfire of frustration sparked by neoliberal reforms and heightened disparities have drawn illiberal political responses from the ruling classes.

There is no single model of illiberal democracy, but in general they stifle political debate, engage in media censorship, resort to intimidation and limit space for political contestation. They breed intolerance, encourage bigotry, engage in “othering” minorities and create a hostile climate for CSOs. This is because civil society groups disseminate liberal values antithetical to reactionary agendas. In Asia, the winds of illiberalism are gathering momentum, shrinking the space for CSOs to operate at a time when they are more needed than ever due to neoliberal reforms.

Illiberal democracies also encourage uncivil hatemongering groups that are often connected with powerful political forces that benefit from their activism. The rise of extremist religious organizations is a transnational phenomenon in South and Southeast Asia. Moderate religious groups appear to have lost ground to less-tolerant ones that promote religious chauvinism. These benefit from powerful political patrons who see them as weapons to sideline opponents and foster an uncivil society.

The emergence of a vibrant civil society in many Asian societies is not an onward and upward process, depending not only on sustained citizens’ support and participation but also on shifting political winds. In some cases, partnerships between the state and CSOs have flourished and they have helped mitigate socioeconomic problems. For example, in terms of natural disasters, in the 2000s CSOs have come into their own, playing an indispensable role in disaster relief and recovery and contributing significantly to promoting disaster resilience in vulnerable communities, with Japan being a prime example. Their vital role is recognized by states across the region, and as such they have gained social legitimacy.

Yet governments across Asia remain ambivalent about CSOs, seeing them as a combination of political threat, partner and talisman of globalization. This means closer government scrutiny and tighter regulatory monitoring because the state doesn’t trust them and wants to know what they are doing and at whose behest.

The political sensitivities of the authorities means there are no-go zones and taboo topics where CSOs are not welcome or can only operate under duress and within tightly circumscribed bounds. Even in authoritarian societies, CSOs manage to carve out space, but their activities and impact are limited so as to avoid undesired consequences. China, for example, is allowing environmental activism even as it incarcerates journalists, lawyers and other activists who venture into sensitive political issues involving repression, human rights, nepotism and corruption.

Even in nations like Indonesia that have navigated democratic transitions, civil society is not always what it seems, as some groups that enjoy the support of international donors are controlled by local elites representing legacy power networks antithetical to liberal agendas, thus thwarting good intentions. Existing power networks shape the operating environment across Asia, where CSOs are flexibly navigating an evolving space in which hazards and needs abound. And they need your generous support.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.


UNDP Engagement With Civil Society

UNDP seeks to engage with civil society to promote the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Engagement with civil society is critical to national ownership of development processes, democratic governance, and the quality and relevance of official development programmes. Given the growing role and influence of civil society in development, UNDP seeks to draw on and contribute to its strengths in order to maximize the potential of civic engagement for development.

What We Do

UNDP focuses on three goals for strengthening civil society:

· First, we invest in civil society and civic engagement by facilitating an enabling environment for civil society, supporting and partnering with civil society for policy impact and revitalizing UN(DP) capacity and environment to engage with a fuller range of civil society actors that could contribute to a positive social change and foster civic engagement.

· Second, we facilitate citizen action for democratic governance and development by supporting democratic governance through collective civic action for accountability, drawing on the expertise and experience of others in this arena to facilitate more productive state-society and mutually respectful interactions in national processes; and scaling up community actions for local development and upstream impact.

· Third, we strengthen civic engagement for multilateralism and human development by promoting UNDP-civil society partnerships for human development as well as UN(DP)-civil society dialogue mechanisms at national, regional and global levels to promote inclusive participation in development processes; and facilitating multi-stakeholder platforms and networks to address global development priorities.

These goals are supported through partnerships with civil society at country offices and at the global level. UNDP engagement with civil society is guided by two policy documents: the UNDP Corporate Strategy on Civil Society and Civic Engagement (2012) and the UNDP and Civil Society Organizations: A Policy of Engagement (2001).

Why We Work With Civil Society
Civil society actors at national and global levels have developed substantive capacity and influence in a range of development issues. Partnering with them can help contribute to the effectiveness of development interventions, especially with respect to marginalized and vulnerable groups.

The success of development and participatory governance depends on both a robust state and an active civil society with healthy levels of civic engagement. Civic engagement is key to the work of UNDP in strengthening responsive governing institutions and practices – accountability, good governance, democratization of development co-operation, and the quality and relevance of official development programmes. Civil society also has an important role to play in development and aid effectiveness. It has been a strong advocate of changes in the way donors provide development assistance, and is an active partner around the Paris Declaration and Accra Agenda for Action.

Many civil society organizations (CSOs) have a proven capacity for broad-based mobilization and creating bottom-up demand that fosters responsive governance. Civil society advocacy can facilitate the participation of poor and vulnerable populations in the design and implementation of development policies and programmes. This can enhance the delivery of basic social services, such as health and education. Civil society organizations also play a critical watchdog role in public life. Last but not least, members of civil society organizations volunteer their time, skills, and expertise to development.

Who We Work With

For UNDP, civil society constitutes the full range of formal and informal organizations that are outside the state and market. This includes social movements, volunteer organizations, indigenous peoples’ organizations, mass-based membership organizations, non-governmental organizations, and community-based organizations, as well as communities and citizens acting individually and collectively.

To foster policy dialogue with civil society, UNDP has in recent years promoted the establishment of Civil Society Advisory Committees to United Nations Country Teams as forums for strategic engagement by civil society in the work of the UN at the national level. At headquarters, the Civil Society Advisory Committee provides UNDP with policy advice.

UNDP partners with a wide cross-section of local, regional and global CSOs in programme implementation and policy advocacy. At the country level, this often means working with them to provide basic services in the areas of health, education, water delivery, agricultural extension and micro-credit provision.

In addition, recognizing that CSOs often serve as both a driving force in guiding development policies and as a watchdog to make sure policies get implemented, UNDP facilitates civil society participation in poverty reduction strategy processes, advocacy for the MDGs, and in advancing gender equality.