IN VIETNAM’s Ha Nam province, human rights defender Tran Thi Nga was this week sentenced to nine years in prison and five years’ probation on charges of conducting propaganda against the state.
She was sentenced under the controversial Article 88 of Vietnam’s penal code, a provision used by the government to silence dissident bloggers and other activists. At her sentencing, activists and other supporters were refused entry to the courtroom, chased away by police vehicles.
Governments throughout Asia are grappling with, and quickly pushing against, the rise of democratic protest, and Vietnam is officially joining in.
Hanoi is keen to avoid embarrassment in the face of visits from leaders like United States President Donald Trump.
On the other side of the coin, analysts are predicting foreign investors and private business parties will view the suppression in a positive light.
The “elimination of threats” to Vietnam’s fast-growing economy signals the Vietnamese Communist Party (CPV) ongoing control over society.
With the Apec Summit set to focus on issues of business growth, innovation and sustainable development, Vietnam is keen to preserve its image of providing a stable business environment on its own turf.
This is not a new development, though. Prosecuting citizens over banalities and jailing them in horrendous conditions are tried-and-true intimidation tactics in Vietnam, with bloggers being the authorities’ preferred target.
In the mock trials that usually precede disproportionate prison terms, the rule of law and defendants’ rights are practically non-existent.
Back in August 2014, three blogger activists were sentenced to up to three years in jail for supposedly causing “public disorder” and “serious obstruction to traffic”, though their arrests may be more related to the fact they were en route to visit a former political prisoner. Activist groups condemned the one-day trial as phony and politically motivated, but they were ignored. Instead, in scenes similar to Nga’s trial, police blocked 200 people, including the relatives of the activists, from the courtroom.
Since the beginning of the year, Hanoi has zeroed in on female activists campaigning for women’s rights at a time when female activism is on the rise throughout Southeast Asia. The targeting of women has been accompanied with a rise in physical violence against them, an ironic yet telling reflection of how the CPV views women in Vietnamese society.
In that regard, the case of Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh caused special international outrage: while in detention, she was repeatedly abused by authorities, leading the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights to call on the government to release all women detained for their activism.
To the surprise of no one, that did not happen. Instead, she was sent to prison for 10 years.
She joins thousands of other women activists throughout Asia who are facing constant discrimination, brutal assaults and lengthy jail time for their efforts in fighting for their families and communities.
And with targeted arrests now a daily occurrence, the plight of women in Southeast Asian countries – a region whose track record in human and women’s rights is woefully lacking to begin with – is only expected to get worse. Though the independent states that emerged from the end of colonialism in Southeast Asia after World War II were committed to gender equality on paper, reality has been slow to catch up.
A 2014 study on female marginalisation in the region concluded women in Vietnam, among other countries, have fewer social contacts outside the family and greater dependence on men, leading to a much more isolated existence and directly contributing to the number of women engaging in sex work.
This is especially true for already socially stigmatised demographics. Vietnam’s 5,000 to 30,000 Lai Dai Han, for example, are a community born of sexual assaults committed by South Korean soldiers during the Vietnam War.
The Lai Dai Han and their mothers live shunned on the margins of society, and neither Vietnam nor South Korea show much interest in their welfare – calls for reparations have so far gone unanswered. Seoul refuses to acknowledge their existence, or that rapes by South Korean soldiers even occurred.
Amid rising calls in Vietnam to lift the veil of silence, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In and his predecessors have faced demands to apologise to Lai Dai Han families so that the healing process can finally begin.
Hanoi might be implementing widespread economic change, but the entrenched cultural attitudes that see a woman’s primary role as wife and mother continue to clash with attempts to achieve reform. The targeting of human rights activists only serves to further perpetuate the stigmatisation of women.
As Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc looks to boost economic growth by signing business deals worth billions, it is critical to look further and address a deep-seated failure to boost equal rights among his constituents.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent