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Thayer Consultancy Background Brief:

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Pham Doan Trang Arrested: A
Snub to the U.S.?
Carlyle A. Thayer
October 14, 2020

Tina Thanh Ha Vu, BBC Vietnamese Service:


Q. How did you react to this news when you first heard about it?
ANSWER: When I first heard the news, I was not surprised that she had been
arrested given her history of run ins with the police from 2018, her numerous
publications but also her criticism of the official account of the Dong Tam village
incident in January. However, I was completely taken aback at the timing of her
arrest, hours after the end of the US-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue.
Q2. What do you think of the fact that Doan Trang was arrested shortly after the US
and Vietnam had a dialogue about human rights. Is it a coincidence or was that done
on purpose to send a message to the US, if so, what is the message?
ANSWER: There are two plausible conclusions we can draw about the arrest of Pham
Doan Trang hours after the conclusion of the virtual U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights
Dialogue. First, Vietnam would have refrained from arresting her prior to the human
rights dialogue so as not to provoke a U.S. response. Second, Doan Trang’s swift
arrest after the dialogue is an indication that an influential section of Vietnam’s
national security establishment remains distrustful of the United States and bristles
at any slight to Vietnam’s sovereignty.
In this context, it should be noted that three U.S. Congressional Representatives –
Zoe Lofgren, Harley Rouda and Alan Lowenthal, all Democrats from California with its
Vietnamese-American community – wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on
2nd October, prior to human rights dialogue requesting that he raise the case of a
jailed pro-democracy activist, Nguyen Bac Truyen.
Also, on 2 October, the Office of the United States Trade Representative announced
it would begin two investigations, one concerning alleged Vietnamese currency
manipulation and the other regarding allegations that Vietnam imported and used
timber that had been illegally cut and traded.
Q3. Some people think that Vietnam arrested Doan Trang to test the US reactions
especially that of the US Ambassador in VN. What do think?
ANSWER: Vietnam is very adept at playing on differences within the U.S. Government.
On the one hand, President Donald Trump and White House officials have shown scant
interest in human rights in Vietnam. They are primarily concerned about trade issues
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and enlisting Vietnam as a strategic partner in Pompeo’s anti-Communist Party of


China crusade. Over the several years, Congress and State Department have begun to
raise human rights issues with countries on a selective basis.
Vietnam’s arrest of Doan Trang exposes the contradiction between the President and
White House, on the one hand, and Congressmen and elements of the State
Department on the other. Vietnam’s actions also pose a dilemma for Ambassador
Daniel Kritenbrink who must balance the promotion of American values with efforts
to enlist Vietnam in Secretary Pompeo’s anti-China drive. The latter could be a moot
point if, as rumoured, Kritenbrink resigns as U.S. Ambassador.
Q4. Do you think the timing of Doan Trang arrest have anything to do with the
upcoming US election?
ANSWER: Yes, it is plausible that Vietnamese officials made the calculation it was
better to arrest Doan Trang sooner rather than later because the Trump
Administration and members of Congress would be fully focused on the 3rd November
elections, not to mention filling a vacancy on the Supreme Court. The new
Administration will take office on 20 January and the arrest of Doan Trang will be old
news.
Vietnam’s leaders probably favour Trump’s re-election on the premise “better the
devil your know than the devil you don’t.” If Biden wins and the Democrats gain
control of the Senate and House of Representatives, Vietnam’s human rights record is
more likely to come under critical scrutiny than it would under a second-term Trump
Administration.
Q5. How do you think her arrest will affect the world impression about freedom of
expression in Vietnam? Does the government of Vietnam cares what the world think
of them?
ANSWER: Vietnam’s arrest of Doan Trang has already aroused the ire of “all the usual
suspects” – Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Defend the Defenders,
Vietnam Human Rights Network, etc. Vietnam is primarily concerned about what
action elected politicians in the European Parliament and legislatures in liberal
democracies (Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, United States etc.)
might take that could affect commercial and trade relations. And, of course, Vietnam
is also concerned about the impact of its domestic human rights practices on its
international prestige.
Vietnam is well accustomed to weathering international criticism of its human rights
record and it is unlikely that Doan Trang’s arrest, in the midst of the global coronavirus
pandemic, will have any major negative impact on Vietnam. While its days as ASEAN
Chair are numbered, Vietnam will still serve another year on the UN Security Council.
Q6. How do you explain the fact that Vietnam has increasingly arresting more and
more dissidents in the last few years?
ANSWER: Vietnam’s remarkable economic growth and Internet penetration among
the general population, has spawned an upsurge of political activity on social media.
This is turn has resulted in more public demonstrations and protests on a variety of
issues ranging from the environment, corruption, to China and the East Sea.
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Under the leadership of Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong, Vietnam has given
priority to the anti-corruption campaign to undergird its political legitimacy. The
Vietnam Communist Party brooks no challenge to its one-party status and the
outbreak of demonstrations against the Law on Special Administrative and Economic
Zones and the Law on Cyber Security two years ago was a turning point. Vietnamese
security authorities have moved methodically to repress individuals and groups that
challenge its authority.
Q7. Anything else you would like to add about this topics?
ANSWER: Finally, it is important to note that Doan Trang was arrested while the party
Central Committee was holding its thirteenth plenum (5-9 October). The plenum
agreed to add finishing touches to key policy documents, such as the Political Report
and various socio-economic plans, before to their release for public comment prior to
the convening of the 13th national party congress early next year. Vietnam’s leaders
want to control this process as much as possible to give the appearance of near
unanimous public support for its policies.
The thirteenth plenum also approved the list of candidates to be elected to the new
Central Committee including a bloc of public security nominees. Months prior to the
thirteenth plenum the number of deputy ministers in the Ministry of Public Security
was expanded to nine.
The Ministry of Public Security is a central organ and holds its own party congress to
select delegates to the national congress. It is clear from the Dong Tam village incident
in January, that public security officials are extremely sensitive to public criticism of
their actions in sending in a force of 3,000 police to arrest villager protestors. Police
intervention led to the death of three police officers and one elderly former village
official in circumstances that are still unclear. Thus, Doan Trang’s authorship of articles
questioning the official public security account of the Dong Tam incident made her a
prime target for suppression.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Pham Doan Trang Arrested: A Snub to the
U.S.?” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, October 14, 2020. All background briefs
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