Digital Dictatorship in Vietnam seeks to silence dissidents

Activists fear new cyber law will allow authorities to crack down harshly on those promoting freedom of expression.

Pham Doan Trang was arrested last March for her book Politics for the Masses - Free Pham Doan Trang sign held by Vietnamese musician Mai Khoi courtesy of Do Nguyen Mai Khoi Facebook page

A ‘free Pham Doan Trang’ sign is held by Vietnamese musician Do Nguyen Mai Khoi [Courtesy: Do Nguyen Mai Khoi]

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – Pham Doan Trang strums softly on an acoustic guitar. She’s performing the Vietnamese folk song Water Ferns Drift Clouds Float Far. It’s a song permitted by Vietnam’s government. The authorities keep a close eye on any public performance.

Trang, 39, now suffers when she plays the song. Not because of its moving lyrics or melody but because she can barely strum the chords. Last August, Trang was arrested along with 50 others at a concert in a Ho Chi Minh City teashop.

“They raided the concert. They said the singer was singing unpermitted songs,” Trang said.

“They have a law that stipulates that every songwriter must register to perform and disseminate a song. That means if you compose a song and perform it somewhere without asking for permission, you are doing something illegal.”

Witnesses watched as police physically assaulted Trang who was seated in the audience. While in police custody, she sustained injuries to both hands. Many weeks later, bruises still cover her knuckles.

She was never charged with a crime but had her passport, phone and laptop confiscated.

It was not the first time Trang was arrested or assaulted. In 2015, she was participating in a protest against the felling of trees in the capital, Hanoi. Police descended on protesters and both her knees were broken.

This has left her with a debilitating limp.

“Since I became an activist, I [have been] attacked, physically attacked, many times by the police. Now I am disabled,” Trang said, looking down at her hands, knees and mobility aid by her side.

“Once you learn about freedom, it’s very hard for you to stop.”

Communist mindset

Trang is one of Vietnam’s most prolific dissident writers. Her most recent book Politics for the Masses got her briefly detained earlier this year. It’s a political primer for pro-democracy activists.

“Many people say this book can give me a prison sentence of 20 years. This book may give me a death sentence. It’s a logical deduction,” Trang said. “I don’t know what is their strategy or plan. I mean [a] status on Facebook may attract several likes, not hundreds or thousands, but people are still given 20 years [in prison]. I can’t understand the mindset of communists.”

Vietnamese environmentalist Le Dinh Luong had his 20-year prison sentence upheld last month – one of the longest handed down to an activist. He was convicted of “attempting to overthrow the state”.

Vietnamese blogger Mother Mushroom – Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh – was released and sent into exile in the United States after serving two years of a 10-year prison sentence. She was convicted in 2016 of writing “anti-state propaganda”.

Amnesty International says there are at least 97 prisoners of conscience in Vietnam. Human Rights Watch Asia deputy director Phil Robertson puts the total at more than 130.

This year alone, 55 Vietnamese activists, bloggers and Facebook users have been jailed, according to an AFP news agency investigation.

Many Vietnamese believe the government uses political prisoners such as Mother Mushroom as bargaining chips to gain concessions from the US and, most recently, to improve trade relations with the European Union.

Human rights lawyer Le Cong Dinh served five years in prison and was released in 2014 because of pressure placed on Hanoi.

“After that the US agreed not to protest against Vietnam’s involvement in the UN Human Rights Council. That’s why I got out of jail. They tried to force me out of the country at the time but I rejected and decided to stay and keep fighting,” he said.

Facebook overthrow?

From Facebook down to the Streets is a 2016 samizdat book by Pham Doan Trang. It raised the attention of Vietnamese authorities as it documented the country’s nascent environmental movement.

Trang is extremely careful with her online activity. She knows any comment she posts to Facebook could be used to prosecute her and send her to prison like many of her peers.

Vietnam’s government has stated it employs a 10,000-strong cyber “task force” to monitor activists.

“What are they thinking? Do they actually think that people writing on Facebook can overthrow the administration?” Trang asked.

Since last June, nationwide protests against Vietnam’s proposed Special Economic Zones and cybersecurity law have caught Hanoi off guard. Hundreds were arrested.

“Vietnamese Facebook users are close to 60 million,” said Vi Tran, co-director of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam. “Many large protests [against the government] around the country have started on Facebook.”

Inside Vietnam, historically information flowed from the top down via state-run media, but with the rise of blogging and social media platforms now the news flows horizontally with bloggers and journalists writing and sharing news independently.

Reporters Without Borders’ 2018 World Press Freedom Index ranks Vietnam 175 out of 180 countries – one point ahead of China. Freedom House says Vietnam is not free.

But unlike in China, access to Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter in Vietnam isn’t blocked. Under its new cybersecurity law, the Vietnamese government requested these US tech companies to open offices inside the country to store its data locally.

A song for freedom

The law will come into effect on January 1, 2019. Tech giants Facebook and Google have been given one year from this date to comply. Human Rights Watch has called it disastrous for freedom of expression in Vietnam.

“Observers are saying that the new cybersecurity law will give the government a tool to arrest more activists,” lawyer Le Cong Dinh said.

Vietnamese civil society groups are concerned Facebook has begun to block or shut down accounts requested by the authorities. This move could silence many dissidents currently using the platform to share independent news and opinions.

“I just feel worried for other people. I’m so familiar with violent suppression and political repression,” Trang said. “But for other people, it’s a real danger because now they can be arrested and given lengthy prison terms for a post.”

Trang is extremely worried about the deteriorating human rights situation in Vietnam. But she’s optimistic about the peaceful, non-violent, methods used by her compatriots to express their dissatisfaction with the regime in Hanoi.

In the meantime, she’ll continue her work offline.

“My hands are hurt but I can still type. I’m working on a new book. It’s a legal handbook for people with imprisoned family members,” Trang said. “I may even write a song.”

Published @AlJazeera

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Bangkok Street Food Clearance Campaign – Southeast Asia Dispatches

BANGKOK – Some argue that Bangkok’s charm is in its bustling streets and abundance of cheap Thai food. But the authorities want to change that. Street food is rapidly disappearing in the Thai capital.

Sidewalks are being cleared of food carts and street hawkers in an attempt to modernize the city and attract investment. The authorities’ top down approach to urban redevelopment has involved displacing thousands whose livelihoods rely on the city’s informal economy.

This story aired on Southeast Asia Dispatches Monday, November 12, 2018.

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Thailand’s Underground Hip Hop – Southeast Asia Dispatches

BANGKOK – Last Monday, a Thai hip hop collective released Rap Against Dictatorship, a new song and video critical of the country’s military rulers.

The artists may be summonsed and charged for uploading the video to Youtube if the police find them in violation of Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act.

But that isn’t the only case of Thai artists using rap to push various boundaries. In Bangkok, two young hip hop emcees from Klong Toei – a port community once notorious for drugs and crime – are presenting a new portrait of urban Thai youth.

This story aired on Southeast Asia Dispatches Monday, October 29, 2018.

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Thai street food sellers battle Bangkok’s clearance campaign

City officials want to prioritise pedestrians and complain about hygiene but traders want to protect famed tourist spot.

A street vendor cooks Pad Thai in Bangkok, Thailand [Godong:UIG via Getty Images]

A street food vendor cooks Pad Thai in Bangkok, Thailand [Godong/UIG via Getty Images]

Bangkok, Thailand – Every evening Bangkok’s Khaosan Road comes alive as bars open, blaring music to tourists and Thais on the hunt for cheap eats and drink. Mobile food carts clog the arteries of the famed backpacker strip.

Bangkok has been crowned as the number one city in the world for street food. The Queen of Bangkok’s hawkers, Jay Fai, was awarded a Michelin star in 2017 and now serves up her dishes for Thai Airways flights.

“The city wants to ban street food on Khaosan Road,” said Yada Pornpetrumpa, resident of the Khaosan Street Vendors Association. “We can’t let this happen.”

A citywide clearance campaign called “return the pavement to pedestrians” by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration is an attempt to rid pavements of ubiquitous food carts and stalls.

It has been successful in dismantling Bangkok’s most popular markets for street food, but has met resistance on Khaosan Road.

“They want to make Bangkok look like Singapore. We want Khaosan to remain the same. This is why people visit,” Pornpetrumpa said.

Khaosan Street Vendors Association is partnered with the Network of Thai Vendors for Sustainable Development – a group of 6,000 informal workers in 21 districts of the city. Both groups organised in 2017 to fight hawker evictions.

They marched on Government House in Bangkok last month to protest Deputy Governor Sakoltee Phattiyakul’s order to restrict hawking on Khaosan Road pavements from 6pm to midnight only – effectively a daytime ban.

Protesting has been against the law in Thailand since a 2014 military coup.

But the Khaosan Street Vendor’s Association has staged regular events to raise awareness about the loss of livelihood for many Thai hawkers.

Enforcement of this hawking ban – the second since August – has been sporadic, admits Yada Pornetrumpa. But she wants to see international pressure put on city officials to save the famed tourist haven.

But continued tough talk from the city is making hawkers feel uncertain about their future on Khaosan Road. Many have decided to leave the area altogether, states Pornpetrumpa.

This month, Deputy Governor Sakoltee Phattiyakul pledged 88 million Thai baht ($2.7m) to redevelop Khaosan Road. The city now wants to get rid of pavements altogether, make the road level, and construct a roof over it.

But the plan would have to be approved by the city’s conservation committee.

Yada Pornpetrumpa said Khaosan Street Vendors Association has never been consulted by the city on any of its various orders or pledges.

The city once promised to exempt Khaosan Road, along with Yaowarat Road in Chinatown, as landmarks for tourism. Both are major tourist and cultural attractions in Bangkok’s historic area near the Chao Phraya River.

Yada Pornpetrumpa on Khaosan Road Sept. 25 the day the ban came into effect.jpg

Yada Pornpetrumpa on Khaosan Road on September 25, the day the ban came into effect [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

Since 2014, 17,000 hawkers have lost their licences. Some have been offered to relocate to the city’s extremities, where they complain about a lack of customers and foot traffic.

Five hundred of the 700-plus food vending areas have been removed or demolished by the authorities.

Research by Thai academic Narumol Nirathron at Thammasat University states only 210 designated street vending areas will remain – about 10,000 hawkers in total.

That’s a steep reduction from the estimated 240,000 now selling food and other goods on the streets of Bangkok.

“If the police come, we [will] protect [the hawkers],” Yada Pornpetrumpa said.

A question of hygiene?

Last month, Bangkok’s JJ Green night market was shut down over a leasing dispute. In 2017, two popular night markets on Silom and Sukhumvit Roads were closed – forcing many hawkers to hide down Bangkok’s “sois” or alleyways.

“Before we start enforcement on Khaosan Road, we [have to] do some planning. We have to do some surveys,” said Vallop Suwandee, Chairman of the Advisors to the Governor of Bangkok. “We have to admit that the city of Bangkok has changed. The street food stalls [have become] so dirty.”

Maintaining order and hygiene is the city’s paramount concern. Many in the administration view street food as an eyesore in its effort to modernise the megacity.

“We do understand that the city of Bangkok needs to [have] a spot for the tourists. We would like to retain Khaosan and Yaowarat Roads, which is so distinctive for street food,” Vallop Suwandee said. “But we can not allow total freedom of the vendors to [continue] business as usual.”

Yada Pornetrumpa on Khaosan Road wearing a We Love Khaosan tee shirt.jpg

Yada Pornetrumpa on Khaosan Road wearing a ‘We Love Khaosan’ t-shirt [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

Khaosan Road is not a designated area for street food, states Narumol Nirathron.

Her soon-to-be-published report “Street Vending in Bangkok” argues that hawking helps provide economic opportunity and reduce inequality in Thailand. But she mentions how unsanitary some food carts have become in Bangkok.

According to Narumol Nirathron’s research, 88 percent of Thais buy street food every day. More than 92 percent of Thais interviewed believe cheap food is necessary for Bangkok residents.

Vallop Suwandee states that many of the city’s hawkers don’t fit this qualification and are, in fact, quite wealthy Thai farmers.

“Eighty percent of them are not from Bangkok. They’re in the agricultural sector. And would like to spend their free time after harvesting their agricultural crops to come to Bangkok and do some vendoring,” he said. “Some stay here forever. We’d like to send them back to their hometown.”

Vallop Suwandee doesn’t know the exact number of hawkers who originate from Bangkok. But he proposes the city work with private developers to integrate them into new commercial developments.

This has yet to happen, but many point to new shopping malls across Bangkok offering street food staples like somtam, or spicy green papaya salad, in designated food courts.

This has proven popular with Thais, as office and construction workers now frequent these jaunts often.

But, of course, the majority of people still buy food on the street because of its convenience. Some areas of the city where new residential development is booming have seen street food almost disappear, according to a Bangkok food blogger.

“I believe it’s the more high-profile areas that are being targeted with this street food cleanup. The ones that have a lot of tourist traffic, high residential value, high property value or high property potential,” said Chawadee Nualkhair.

Nualkhair believes that street food is too embedded into Thai culture and can never be rooted out entirely.

There are several examples of hawkers like Jay Fai, the chef awarded a Michelin star, turning their street food stalls into culinary hot spots in Bangkok, so city officials may be fighting a losing battle against hawking.

As a queue starts to form in front of a pad thai noodle cart on Khaosan Road, Yada Porpetrumpa said she wants to protect the area’s unique heritage as a destination where the travel guidebooks state “east meets west.”

“We don’t want Khaosan to end up like other areas of Bangkok,” she said as she looked at the hawkers setting up. “We need [to keep] it like this.”

Published @AlJazeera

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Bangkok Says Goodbye to Cheap Pad Thai – CBC The World this Weekend

BANGKOK – The Queen of Thai street food, Bangkok’s Jay Fai, was awarded a Michelin star last year. But for the rest of the city’s hawkers, they may be forced out of work in a push by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration to clear the streets.

17,000 Bangkok hawkers have lost their licenses since 2014. The BMA assured those on Khaosan Road would be allowed to remain, but all that changed since a street food ban was put in place there on Sept. 25. Pictured above is Yada Pornetrumpa, leader of the Khaosan Street Vendors Association.

This story aired on CBC The World this Weekend Sunday, Oct. 7, 2018.

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Overcoming a government crackdown on social media in Laos

Influential Facebook users, pejoratively referred to as net idols, are facing retribution for their online posts.

Keoxomphou Sakdavong points out fake news tools

Journalist Keoxomphou Sakdavong points out fake news tools as she teaches university students [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

Vientiane, Laos – Inside a packed lecture hall at the American Centre in the capital Vientiane, 60 National University of Laos students sit surrounded by framed posters featuring inspirational quotes by American icons Martin Luther King Jr, Maya Angelou and Steve Jobs.

On the screen at the front of the room, Vientiane Times journalist Keoxomphou Sakdavong begins her US embassy-sponsored event, How to Spot Fake News, by broadcasting on Facebook Live from the manicured lawn outside the hall.

“Fake news is created by all,” Sakdavong, 41, told students in attendance as she entered and began her presentation and slideshow.

“In Laos, people believe what they read automatically and share it right away without thinking of the negative impact it may have on others,” the journalist added.

A common refrain used in Laos – a communist country with no media freedom – is “if you don’t give us any information at least fake news is better than no news”.

Anan Bouapha, the 31-year-old founder of Proud to be us Laos – the country’s only LGBT advocacy group, said: “A lot has changed in the last two months since the dam collapse. People are becoming more vocal.”

Laotians turned to Facebook when news of the floods last July was slow to trickle out from government sources. Thirty-nine people died and 97 are still missing following the dam collapse in Attapeu province, according to officials.

Many believe the death toll is higher, but have no way to verify these claims. Journalists who stray too far from their official sources are usually silenced or pressured to resign.

Aid workers and individuals working for NGOs, and those working for the UN, have been too afraid to make public statements about Laos since the forced disappearance of community development worker Sombath Somphone from a Vientiane street nearly six years ago.

One former journalist in the capital admitted he was forced to leave the profession for pursuing stories the government was uncomfortable with. Human rights and democracy are two taboo subjects often dealt with using careful language.

Pressure is not only put on journalists. 

Now, influential Facebook users in Laos, pejoratively referred to as “net idols”, are facing retribution for their posts.

Keoxomphou Sakdavong begins her FB Live chat with U.S. embassy staff Phonesavanh Sangsomboun at American Centre Vientiane

Keoxomphou Sakdavong begins her Facebook Live chat with US embassy staff Phonesavanh Sangsomboun at American Centre Vientiane [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

Phijika Boonkwang, president of the Vientiane United Football Club, was forced to resign last month after posting a Facebook Live video criticising the poor state of a road leading to the national football federation in Vientiane.

Boonkwang compared the muddy, unpaved, road to one in Attapeu, where she was involved in the humanitarian response. Boonkwang was accused of harming the reputation of Laos and conducting inappropriate activities on Facebook, according to the US-funded Radio Free Asia.

“You can’t post anything about the government, anything that could harm national security, or anything that could put government agencies in trouble,” said Laotian activist Soupha Rawady. “She said please don’t mistakenly think that this road is in Attapeu. This is in Vientiane. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Boonkwang later apologised in another video post for “using the wrong words to express her desire to see the road conditions improve”. But the damage was already done. She reported to Vientiane police earlier in September.

Freedom of expression online seemed to be tolerated in Laos, but the policing of the internet is becoming more common, as many have received invitations to meet police, or face criminal charges.

Boonkwang has more than 46,000 followers on Facebook. 

Around 60 percent of people in Laos, a country of around seven million, are under 25 years of age.

“Before you say something or do a live video you have to think about our national image. That’s what the [government has told] all online users,” Bouapha said. 

In 2014, the government issued a decree criminalising online criticism of its policies. 

Charges of criminal defamation can be levelled against anybody. This legislation requires all social media accounts be set up using real names and identities.

“If you post something that is against the law you can be jailed,” said Rawady.

In 2016, three Laotians living in Thailand were charged for criticising the government online.

They were arrested once they returned to Laos to renew their passports and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 12 to 20 years at a secret trial in April 2017, according to Radio Free Asia.

Souliyo Vongdala in Vientiane.jpg

Souliyo Vongdala in Vientiane runs the Laotian news portal Muan, meaning “fun” in English [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

An unverified Facebook page called “Support Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith” has 188,000 followers. Laotians believe its run by the prime minister’s office to highlight his hands-on approach to politics and national development.

In a post last month, Prime Minister Sisoulith called on experts to reveal the truth behind the dam collapse in Attapeu. Many viewed this as a critique of his government’s inaction.

“[Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith] shares many things about people complaining about the government, or blaming government agencies or officials. I like it,” said Rawady. “He’s quite liberal compared to the previous [prime ministers]. There are many things he needs to do, but he’s doing the best he can so far.”

The Paris-based media watchdog, Reporters without Borders, ranks Laos near the bottom of its 2018 World Press Freedom Index (170 out of 179 countries).

The US-based Freedom House states Lao media is not free and internet service providers are controlled by the state. 

Only 18 percent of Laotians are online but this number has grown in urban areas.

Sakdavong says Laotians are subscribing to Facebook every day to access news and information. But with an adult literacy rate lower than the regional standards – 79 percent in Laos – media and digital literacy are lacking.

“It’s important to check the source of the news you’re reading online,” Sakdavong warned students at the American Centre. “You need to think more critically about what you see on Facebook.”

She was careful not to discuss misinformation emanating from southern Laos following the dam collapse in Attapeu. She doesn’t want to be accused of “harming the reputation of the nation” as was the case with Boonkwang.

“Facebook is an independent platform and you can record live and say whatever you want to say,” said Bouapha. “Laos media consumers don’t watch national TV. People from all walks of life prefer to use Facebook every day.”

Keoxomphou Sakdavong begins her How to Spot Fake News talk at American Centre in Vientiane.jpg

Keoxomphou Sakdavong begins her How to Spot Fake News talk at American Centre in Vientiane [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

Souliyo Vongdala, 27, runs the Laotian news portal Muan (meaning “fun” in English). Its Facebook page has over 179,000 followers. He works closely with government agencies to combat the spread of fake news on Facebook.

“We were not taught in school to think or critique. We were taught to remember,” Vongdala said. “We lack critical thinking skills. I think it’s concerning.”

A government crackdown on social media in Laos is unlikely to be as severe as in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, where cybercrime laws and ministerial decrees are used to jail dissidents.

Facebook users in Laos with “net idol” status could be considered a concern to national security, but will most likely be monitored by authorities rather than detained by them for their posts.

Back inside the American Centre lecture hall, Sakdavong shares some final words with the students.

“Be very observant and pay attention to details.”

Published @AlJazeera

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Malaysia detains Hassan Al Kontar after removing him from airport

Al Kontar, 37, had been living in Kuala Lumpur International Airport since March, after being denied entry to Cambodia.

Hassan Al Kontar at KLIA2 sleeping area

Malaysian police transferred Al-Kontar to the immigration department [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

Bangkok, Thailand – Syrian refugee Hassan Al Kontar was arrested on Monday by Malaysian police for remaining in a “forbidden area” of Kuala Lumpur International Airport’s terminal two.

Al Kontar, 37, had been living inside KLIA’s domestic transfer lounge since March, after being denied entry to Cambodia and sent back to Malaysia.

The Syrian refused to seek asylum in Malaysia and decided to remain at the airport. Many view this move as a protest against Malaysia’s arbitrary detention of refugees and it not being a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention.

Al Kontar turned to social media to share his story of a life in limbo.

He first arrived in Malaysia in October 2017 after being deported from the United Arab Emirates, where he had lived for 11 years, avoiding Syria’s devastating war and compulsory military service.

Al Kontar pleaded with UAE authorities to be sent to Malaysia, one of the few countries that allow Syrians to obtain visas on arrival.

Six months in an airport

He overstayed his Malaysian tourist visa last March and paid a penalty fee before attempting to depart. Then Al Kontar ended up at KLIA terminal two domestic transfer lounge, where he spent the last six months looking for options.

A group of Canadian volunteers filed a refugee sponsorship application to Canada on Al Kontar’s behalf on April 25, 2018. The processing time for a refugee application to Canada is 23 months and there is no guarantee he will be accepted.

Canada Caring Society started an online petition to call on Canadian Minister of Immigration Ahmed Hussen to allow Al Kontar to go to Canada on humanitarian grounds until his refugee application can be processed.

Al Kontar has family in Canada and friends and supporters there have found him a job. His Syrian passport expires in January 2019.

Malaysian police transferred Al Kontar to the immigration department. It stated it would contact the Syria embassy to facilitate his deportation from Malaysia.

The UN refugee agency’s Malaysia office is aware of Al Kontar’s arrest but has been unable to comment on specific cases.

Supporters inside Malaysia fear he will be placed in immigration detention until deportation, where conditions have been referred to as “torture-like” by SUHAKAM, Malaysia’s human rights commission.

Al Kontar’s Canadian lawyer Andrew Brouwer was unavailable for comment.

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