A group of 20 retired military officers has written an open letter calling on the leaders of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party to ensure that the armed forces safeguard the country’s citizens, citing military and police involvement in cracking down on anti-China protests and evicting villagers in land disputes.
In a letter published Sept. 2, the officers said that the Vietnam People’s Armed Forces (VPAF), including the military and police, had been co-opted into acting as security to protect the interests of the party powerful, often at the disadvantage of the public, and needed to restore its credibility.
“The armed forces bear the people’s name, therefore they must work for the people,” read the letter, signed by six former officers ranked from Major General to Lieutenant General and 14 colonels, and addressed to President Truong Tan Sang and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.
“The military and police forces are not to be used in any circumstances against the people. To ensure the credibility of the military, whose mission is defense … we need to immediately end the mobilization of this force against the people, such as for land evictions and dispersing peaceful rallies,” it said.
“In order to rebuild the credibility of the police, so they can accomplish their mission of protecting national security and ensuring public order, safety, and fighting crime, we definitely cannot use the police force to crack down on innocent people, who are only demanding their legal rights.”
The retired military officers said that the government should be more transparent about its dealings in foreign relations so that the armed forces can “know exactly who the enemies are” and focus on protecting the sovereignty of the state, rather than targeting the nation’s citizens.
“The objective in battle for the military is to defeat forces which threaten our sovereignty and integrity of the nation at present and in the future,” it said, in an obvious reference to the security threat from giant neighbor China, whose territorial disputes with Hanoi have led to riots and a sharp deterioration in bilateral relations.
“The objective for the police is to contain criminals and any acts against the law and constitution—whether within the government or not—but not innocent people.”
The letter was published on the same day that bloggers across Vietnam launched an online campaign demanding that the government keep the people closely informed about national and foreign policies, including its dealings with China.
Hanoi initially allowed the protests in a rare move widely seen as a way to amplify state anger against Beijing, but the government backpedaled and clamped down after protests turned bloody, with riots targeting Chinese business interests. Beijing says four Chinese citizens were killed in the unrest.
The letter said that Beijing’s deployment in May of a massive oil rig off the coast of a disputed island in the South China Sea showed that Vietnam’s northern neighbor “would never forfeit its intention” to take over the territory, despite the rig’s subsequent withdrawal more than a month later.
It said the people and the VPAF “as owners of the nation” must be made aware of Vietnam’s relationship with China, including territorial and economic agreements that might influence issues of sovereignty and security.
Specifically, the letter demanded that Hanoi release information on the terms of a “secret” treaty signed in Chengdu, China, in 1990 by Chinese and Vietnamese leaders preceding the normalization of relations between the two countries, which have been kept hidden from the citizens of Vietnam.
Activists have expressed concern “about the prospect of Vietnam turning into a part of China” based on information which has already been revealed about the treaty.
Vietnam and China fought a brief but bloody war in 1979 triggered by Hanoi’s invasion of Cambodia. Ties normalized in 1991 but anti-Chinese sentiment remains strong in Vietnam.
Despite the initial support for anti-China protests, the Vietnamese government usually keeps a very tight grip on public gatherings for fear they could snowball into protests against the Communist leadership, and many of the country’s rare demonstrations have resulted in mass arrests by authorities.
Many high-profile incidents of unrest and subsequent crackdowns have been linked to disputes over government expropriation of land, all of which belongs to the state in Vietnam, with people having only the right to use it.
Retired General Nguyen Trong Vinh, who was among the signatories of the letter, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service Tuesday that the use of the armed forces against the people had been justified by recent changes to the written codes of the military and police force in their mottoes and in the constitution.
He said the changes had perverted their original missions as outlined by Ho Chi Minh—the former secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam and a key founder of the country in 1945—from a focus on protecting the people and nation to one of protecting the party.
“Why do they say we have to be loyal to the party? I’m a party member, but I don’t agree with this because if the country exists then the party exists, but if the country is lost then the party is gone with it. Therefore, we have to be loyal to the country of Vietnam,” Vinh said.
“I think the correct [focus] should stick with what Ho Chi Minh said. We call the military ‘the People’s military’—from the people. The military therefore has to be loyal to the country and the people. Nobody says the military is ‘the party’s military’.”
Vietnam’s revised constitution, adopted in November 2013, solidifies the role of the armed forces in protecting the Communist Party, saying they “must be totally loyal to the nation, people, the party and the state.” The previous charter had made no mention of the party.
The government reportedly updated the official mottoes of the military and police force in recent years to also include language outlining loyalty foremost to the party, though it is unclear when it was done or what prompted the change.
Defending the change
Lieutenant Colonel Nong Hoang Thang defended the new roles of the military and police, saying that the written codes for the armed forces which made no mention of their duty to the party had been appropriate for 1946, when they were introduced by Ho Chi Minh, but required an update.
“At that time, the country was in a difficult situation and that was why Ho Chi Minh had to avoid saying ‘loyalty to the party’—to cope with the many difficulties and to unite the people, forming a strong government with representatives from different elements,” Thang said.
“I think the motto change at the present time was necessary and suitable for the political mission of our present revolution.”
But journalist Vo Van Tao, a former military school student, told RFA that he considered the change of the mottoes “a betrayal” of the people by party leadership.
“When we studied politics in military school, we had to memorize that the military comes from the people and fights for the people … We discussed questions with our commissar, who said, ‘We are from the people, therefore we never shoot at our own people’,” Tao said.
“This proves that using the military to crack down on or shoot at people contradicts its own mission.”
He said the deviation from the original mottoes only benefit individuals who he said “have taken advantage of 3 to 4 million party members to shield their interests.”
Reported by Hoang Thanh Viet for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.