I read the Vietnam News and Saigon Times religiously.

I have no fear writing the word “religiously” in Vietnam.  The Penal Code of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam articulates the right to religion and penalties for those who impede its’ practice.

In fact, the Penal Code in Vietnam spells out in its 341 articles and thousands of sub-sections the rights and responsibilities of citizens, organizations and the State with the objective of “maintaining social order and security, economic management and security for all in a safe, healthy and a highly humane social and ecological environment”.

 The Articles are clear and have provisions covering everything from deforestation and bribery of officials, to infringements on personal liberties, penalties for child abuse or knowingly infecting someone with HIV. 

But the same Preamble to the law notes that “at the same time, (the code) contributes to doing away with elements that obstruct national renewal”, and therein lies the rub.

Articles in the Penal Code list penalties for infringing peoples’ freedoms of religion, assembly, livelihood, fair compensation for property loss and even the right to complain.  

Yet other articles, used to indict and imprison “agitators” and “reactionaries” are no less vague.  Often invoked are the clauses on “sowing divisions”  which list “between different strata of society”, “the people and the armed forces”, “religious and non-religious”, “religious organizations and the state” as criminal offenses. “Undermining the unity policy” has landed a number of people in jail of late.

There is also a subsection that makes it a criminal offense to “undermine international solidarity”.

During the recent row over Chinese harassment of Vietnamese fishermen in the oil and gas rich Spratly and Paracels islands, a friend and a small but vocal group organized a protest on Facebook and then in-person, peacefully at the Chinese embassy.  Week one and two came and went without incident but week three led to plainclothes police threatening and arresting the protesters.  Several prominent ones received prison sentences.  Perhaps they were disrupting “international solidarity”.

Vietnam is not unique.

 “Democratic” Thailand has put an 80 year old illiterate man in prison for allegedly texting (a medium he is unfamiliar with) negative comments about the Thai King.

 In widely praised, affluent Singapore, an exchange student lost his scholarship and was fined for indicating there were more dogs than people in Singapore, provoking national outrage.  (Singapore is a place where caning is still in vogue and where Yale University is, ironically or perhaps cynically opening a liberal arts campus).  The model of Islamic democracy, Turkey has more journalists imprisoned than anywhere in the world.

The rights of citizens embodied in law are often contradicted by the actions of government (or by conflicting laws themselves). While not on the scale of the above, the US has its own blemishes. The WikiLeaks source utilizing his perceived freedom of speech is imprisoned. ”Occupy Wall Street” protesters utilizing their right to assemble, embedded in the Constitution are jailed. Property rights are expropriated by the state for the “greater good” and ratified by the courts.  Contradictions?

Regardless of country or ideology we can be assured that the sections, articles and lines in the law are quite clear; we just need to read between the lines. Image


About Dr. Roy Nirschel

Thirty years experience as an educator; international traveler, occasional writer, on a personal journey. Author of My Seasons in Saigon (available at Upon the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States I promised to go to Mexico; I did! Carol and I are here now. In the spirit of full disclosure, I promised to go to Mexico if Hillary Clinton was elected president too. The Seasons in Saigon are over; I am uncertain about Vietnam for many reasons despite my love for the country. Now it is Mexico time.

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