Vietnamese government authorities in Hanoi on Wednesday raided a gathering of registered NGOs and abruptly shut down their annual civil society workshop, drawing condemnation from an international rights group which called it “an alarming step-up of the authorities’ repression of civil society.”
Eight civil society groups from the health, public administration, and human rights sectors organized the two-day event which focused on the role of civil society groups in advising and engaging with the government on solutions to social issues.
After the meeting began, a blackout occurred in the auditorium while Gianh Hoang Dang, deputy director of Vietnam’s Center for Community Development Studies, was giving a presentation on the role of social organizations in ensuring access to public services, some attendees said.
Local police entered the hotel where the event was being held and ordered organizers to shut it down, accusing them of violating a wartime decree from 1957, which stipulates that those who arrange a gathering of more than five people in a public place must inform local authorities of their meeting 24 hours in advance.
Gianh, who researches civil society organizations, later said he did not want to comment on the event cancellation, but he pointed RFA’s Vietnamese Service to his comments on Facebook.
“State governance is a math problem that any country, even the U.S., China, Cuba, or Japan, has to solve,” he wrote.
“However, yesterday a workshop to discuss these topics held by eight nonprofit, nongovernmental organizations in various fields (health, governance and public administrative reform, human rights, gender, and community development) was cancelled by the local district People’s Committee,” Gianh wrote.
RFA could not reach another participant, Nguyen Duc Thanh, president of Vietnam’s Institute for Economic and Policy Research, for comment.
‘Absurd and shocking crackdown’
London-based Amnesty International took Hanoi authorities to task for their actions.
“This is an absurd and shocking crackdown on a well-established, peaceful event,” Minar Pimple, Amnesty’s senior director for global operations, said in a statement.
“To use an arcane wartime decree about holding events in public spaces to stop a private gathering at a hotel is clearly unjustified and cynical,” he said.
Pimple also noted that shutting down the event violated both international law and Vietnam’s constitution, which guarantees the rights to freedom of assembly and association.
“The authorities must allow this vital gathering of respected grassroots groups to go ahead and put an end to this worsening crackdown on civil society groups,” he said.
HRW criticizes cyber security law
On Thursday, meanwhile, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) took aim at Vietnam’s new cybersecurity law, which comes into force on Jan. 1, saying it will seriously undermine rights and called on the country to revise the legislation to bring it into line with international law.
Vietnam's National Assembly adopted the 43-article Law on Cybersecurity in June 2018, which tightens control of the internet and global tech companies operating in the communist country by requiring service providers to store data locally, verify user information, and disclose user data to authorities without a court order.
The law will also further restrict citizens’ use of the internet and require companies like Google and Facebook to delete posts considered “threatening” to national security.
In early November, the Ministry of Public Security, which will enforce the law along with the Ministry of Information and Communications, issued a draft decree with detailed instructions for carrying out the law with two months allotted for public feedback.
“This cybersecurity law is designed to further enable the Ministry of Public Security’s pervasive surveillance to spot critics, and to deepen the Communist Party’s monopoly on power,” Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, said in a statement.
“If this law is enacted, anyone who uses the internet in Vietnam will have zero privacy,” he said.
Opponents both inside and outside the country have said that the law could cause economic harm and stifle online dissent.
Thousands of Vietnamese protesters took to the streets in rare demonstrations in several cities in June to protest the draft Law on Cybersecurity and government plans to grant long-term leases for foreign companies operating in special economic zones, prompting crackdowns by police who assaulted and arrested them.
Nearly 130 people were convicted for participating in protests as of November, receiving sentences of up to five years in prison, HRW said.
Within four months after the law was passed, almost 70,000 people had signed an online petition to urge the government to postpone the legislation and revise it, HRW said.
In a September letter to Federica Mogherini, European high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, and Cecilia Malmström, European Union commissioner for trade, some members of the European parliament said Vietnam should revise the law and bring it into compliance with international human rights standards, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which the country is a party.
“Vietnam’s Law on Cybersecurity and the accompanying decree trample on individual privacy in direct defiance of Hanoi’s promises to the European Union to respect rights,” Robertson said.
He called on EU member states to postpone any vote on a free trade agreement with Vietnam until the country revises the law and demonstrates improvements to its "abysmal" human rights record.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnam Service. Translated by Gia Minh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.