Vietnam Punishes Critics of Government’s COVID-19 Response

Criticism of government on Facebook leads to the arrest of one man and the firing of a university lecturer.


RFA | 2021-08-10

Authorities in Vietnam have arrested a Facebook user for posting mild criticism of government COVID-19 policies, while a university fired a lecturer after a student shared on her comments faulting Hanoi’s pandemic response on the social media platform.

The Tien Giang People’s Procuracy announced Tuesday that it would prosecute Tran Hoang Huan, 33, on charges of making, storing and spreading or propagandizing information or documents against the state under in accordance with the Article 117 of the Penal Code, according state media.

Huan, a resident of My Tho city in the far southern province of Tien Giang, had used a Facebook account under the name Huan Tran to post content against the Vietnamese Communist Party and the state on 186 occasions.

His Facebook account remains active and many of his recent posts opposed the use of Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccines, which many Vietnamese oppose because of their perceived low quality and because of longstanding animosity toward China over history and territorial issues.

Huan had earlier called on the government to provide relief to citizens by waiving electricity and water bills during the pandemic.

“The arrest and detention of Tran Hoang Huan marks yet another chapter in the grim tale of Vietnam’s crackdown on freedom of expression online,” Ming Yu Hah, the deputy regional director for campaigns at Amnesty International, told RFA.  

“Huan had used his Facebook page to share information about COVID-19 vaccines, lockdowns and to call on the Vietnam government to subsidize electricity and water fees while many Vietnamese are facing economic hardships due to the pandemic. The Vietnamese authorities should listen to these calls, not repress them,” she said. 

Ming Yu Hah said authorities had used Article 117 to detain Huan on “vague accusations” of causing public confusion or defaming the government so they could prevent dissent.

“Huan’s name now joins an ever-expanding list of Vietnamese activists detained merely for sharing peaceful criticism,” she said, and called for the release of Huan and other detainees.

“It is imperative that Vietnam’s leadership starts taking a radically different approach to human rights, and freedom of expression in particular,” she said.

Student reports lecturer

Vietnam has arrested and prosecuted eight people using Article 117 since the beginning of this year. Human rights groups say the provision allows the government to gag any dissent.

A university in the central coastal city of Danang has fired a lecturer for her “wrong statements” about Vietnam’s COVID-19 fighting measures.

Duy Tan University made the announcement Monday after a student posted on Facebook a video of the lecturer, Tran Thi Tho, part of the university’s English faculty, arguing with the student about government relief for those affected by the pandemic.

Tho said in the video that the government of Vietnam is letting people struggle with very limited help while the pandemic is raging all over the country.

She highlighted how thousands of people are fleeing the country’s southern provinces and Ho Chi Minh City on motorbikes to return to their hometowns thousands of kilometers away, just to escape the virus.

The student in the video accused Tho of disliking Vietnam and promoting negative stereotypes against Asian people.

The university has also reported the lecturer to the Ministry of Police, who said they are investigating the case.

Pham Minh Hoang, a former professor at Ho Chi Minh City Polytechnic, told RFA that dissent should be allowed in academia.

“People who dare to speak their criticisms at a university are a must. Schools, especially universities are obliged to train students into people who have their own opinions, not to become machines just acting on demand,” Hoang said.

“If we continue this way, when everything must be molded and any person who speaks their opinions differently from those of the government and state must face severe consequences, then it means Vietnamese will never strive for anything,” said Hoang.

‘Despicable’ firing

Nguyen Vi Yen, a Vietnamese student studying in Europe, wrote on Facebook that she felt Duy Tan University’s firing of Tho was “despicable.”

“Duy Tan does not deserve to be called a university, let alone its own name ‘Duy Tan,’ which means reform,” she said.

Tho declined to comment to RFA about her case.

Education Minister Nguyen Kim Son told the state-run Tuoi Tre newspaper before the firing that “the education system management needs to encourage criticism about social issues in general and educational policies in particular.”

Though the country struggles to effectively contain a fourth wave of the virus, Vietnam had been relatively successful compared to other countries during the first three waves. Of more than 224,000 confirmed cases during the pandemic, more than 220,000 were diagnosed since April 27, the start of the fourth wave.

With Vietnam’s media all following Communist Party orders, “the only sources of independently-reported information are bloggers and independent journalists, who are being subjected to ever-harsher forms of persecution,” the press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says in its 2021 Press Freedoms Index.

Measures taken against them now include assaults by plainclothes police, RSF said in its report, which placed Vietnam at 175 out of 180 countries surveyed worldwide, a ranking unchanged from last year.

Vietnam’s already low tolerance of dissent deteriorated sharply last year with a spate of arrests of independent journalists, publishers, and Facebook personalities as authorities continued to stifle critics in the run-up to the ruling Communist Party Congress in January. Arrests continue in 2021.

Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Eugene Whong.



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