Archive for the ‘Vietnam’ Category

Is the new data protection bill the final nail in the coffin before India turns into a surveillance State?

  • Published 22.11.19, 12:34 AM
  • Updated 22.11.19, 12:34 AM
  • 2 mins read
This April, an Israeli firm reportedly hacked into WhatsApp messages to spy on activists, journalists and political dissidents. Even though the Indian State claimed its innocence, the Israeli firm clarified that it only works with government agencies.Shutterstock

Social media is a boon as long as it can be used as a propaganda tool by the State. It is a bane when people use it to criticize the government. Asian countries, including Bangladesh, Singapore, Vietnam and China, which launched the digital revolution in the past few years, are giving the impression that they are allowing people to be a part of the global cyberspace. In reality, they are curtailing cyber freedom in the name of national security. India will join the bandwagon soon. After all, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party doesn’t like dissenters.

In Bangladesh, the government has used the Digital Security Act, 2018 to target people who called for reforms in government service recruitment and for better road safety measures through social media campaigns. The police invoked the law against demonstrators for allegedly spreading false propaganda online. The law also came down heavily on press freedom and was used to arrest journalists and confiscate their equipment without a court order. This year itself, at least four journalists have been arrested for publishing “false information” online about the government and posting “provocative” status on social media.

Vietnam enacted its cybersecurity law this year to stave off cyberattacks and weed out hostile forces. The ruling communist government stated that Facebook violated this law, allowing Vietnamese users to post anti-government content, and delayed removing such content even after being requested to do so. Interestingly, in Vietnam, it is the government’s prerogative to decide what is ‘illegal’.

Similarly, Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, which has come into effect, gives the government the power to order social media sites to put warnings next to posts that the authorities label false and damaging to Singapore’s interests. People fear that this would stifle free speech online and empower the ruling People’s Action Party to curb dissent. According to the law, individuals who post false statements that threaten ‘public interest’ on social media would risk up to five years in prison or a fine of 37,000 US dollars. In a country where the rhetoric of nationalism is shrill, there isn’t a clear indication of what is considered to be ‘public interest’.

China, characteristically, has gone a step ahead by blocking access to non-China based online communications platforms. As per the China Internet Security Law in 2016, network operators need to cooperate with Chinese security agencies and allow them full access to data on request. Again, this is being done in the name of national security and to safeguard public interest.

Picking up a cue from its ‘adversary’, India has proposed the personal data protection bill, which would allow the government to access encrypted messages on apps. The BJP, which used online platforms extensively to run campaigns such as #MainBhiChowkidar and #ModiHaiTohMumkinHai, has now turned against it. Once the law is enacted, the government would have the right to ask online platforms to remove content that it considers to be ‘false’ and against ‘national interest’. Such a legislation would give sweeping powers to the government to access personal data, thereby posing a threat to the people’s constitutional right to privacy. This could leave no place safe for people to speak freely in the world’s largest democracy.

Last year, the government had authorized 10 of its agencies to intercept and monitor information from any computer. This April, an Israeli firm reportedly hacked into WhatsApp messages to spy on activists, journalists and political dissidents. Even though the Indian State claimed its innocence, the Israeli firm clarified that it only works with government agencies. This is illuminating, given the BJP’s approach towards people’s freedoms and constitutional rights.

The question is this: is the new data protection bill the final nail in the coffin before India turns into a surveillance State?

By Sonia Sarkar


In a 10-minute video titled Dream II, multimedia artist Pham Hong, dressed in a white wedding gown, chews betel leaves, an essential part of every Vietnamese wedding. Slowly, red juice from the leaves starts flowing down her chin, and her white dress turns red. “Betel leaves signify tradition,” says the 34-year-old, as she fiddles with her copper and jute bracelets, before delivering the punch line: “Eating the betel leaves to the point of self-pain is symbolic of how marriage can become a cause of suffering.”

It’s a bold statement in a country where public discussions on women’s identity, empowerment and sexual rights are rare. But Hong’s work isn’t a one-off. She’s among a growing band of independent female artists in Vietnam using art in all of its forms — performance, sculpture, painting, installation and multimedia — to reshape conversations long seen as taboo in this communist-ruled country where President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un notably are meeting today.

Multidisciplinary artist Himiko Nguyen’s ongoing photography installation Come Out II in Ho Chi Minh City consists of independent boxes containing nude portraits of herself and other women, and is aimed at challenging mainstream notions of gender and sexuality. In her interactive performance titled Encroaching Space, 35-year-old Anh-Thuy Nguyen invites audiences to walk through a room, where she acts as an obstacle and observes how others look at her body. Ly Hoang Ly’s installation artwork and performances deal with menstruation and breastfeeding. And at a Hanoi cafe last year, curators Dinh Thi Nhung and Duong Manh Hung ran a two-week exhibition titled Lip Xinh, which focused on the vagina and people’s relationship with it.


come out poster

A poster of Himiko Nguyen’s Come Out IIexhibition.


For decades, Vietnam’s art galleries held only commercial exhibitions of silk, oil and lacquer paintings showcasing women in traditional attire, working in the fields or in Viet Cong uniforms fighting American soldiers. Now, as the country slowly opens up, that’s changing too, helping these female artists. Five years ago, only foreign-funded art spaces such as the Goethe-Institut and L’Institut Francais de Hanoi, and a handful of private art spaces including the Nha San Collective, Six Space and Salon Natasha, exhibited offbeat art. But since 2014, at least 15 contemporary art galleries and cafes, such as the Factory Contemporary Arts Center, Salon Saigon, MOT +++ and the Vincom Center for Contemporary Art, have come up in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi to offer space for experimental work.

Both the artists and these new public spaces have faced censorship. But they’re pursuing the push for change they’ve started, and their work, experts say, could transform broader gender equations in Vietnamese society.

“The work of these artists is crucial to shift discourses of gender and power in a political setup where gender equality is strongly guaranteed by law but feminist questioning of social power structures is not encouraged,” says Shweta Kishore, an art curator who teaches media and communications at Ho Chi Minh City–based RMIT University and is exploring the work of contemporary female artists in Vietnam for a project titled In Art as in Life.

There’s no word for “feminism” in Vietnamese, and these artists don’t overtly call their work feminist. Historically, Vietnamese literature has had feminist themes, such as in folklore that mentions the heroism of two sisters, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, who, riding on elephants, drove away an invading Chinese army. The 18th-century poet Ho Xuan Huong spoke up for women’s rights. During French rule in the 1930s, women advocated for gender equality in newspaper columns. Later, the Vietnam People’s Army allowed female soldiers to fight against the U.S. In 1986, when the Communist Party of Vietnam launched “Doi Moi” (economic reforms), it gave women the chance to be financially independent, but there were also government campaigns to re-domesticate them. Curators say Vietnam’s artwork reflected this feudal thinking. And while in the 1990s, some female artists like Dinh Y Nhi, Nguyen Thi Chinh Le and Dinh Thi Tham Poong did challenge the norm, they remained only a handful of individuals, and the country’s art landscape wasn’t supportive.

For sure, the female artists trying to drive controversial conversations through their work face challenges even today. In Vietnam, there is still almost no commercial market for them. Some of them exhibit their work in the U.S., Thailand and Hong Kong, where they are paid when their work is on display at major museums. Occasionally private collectors purchase their work. But many need second jobs to sustain their art. Hong works as a designer. Anh-Thuy Nguyen teaches in the department of visual arts and photography at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona. 

Then there’s censorship. Exhibitions that don’t comply with the government’s set parameters of promoting “good cultural and moral values” are not allowed. In 2016, San Art, a Ho Chi Minh City alternative art space, had to discontinue a residency program because of increasing government scrutiny. Himiko Nguyen’s Closer, a nude photography exhibition, was shut down by authorities in 2006. Publishers self-censor too. The cover of an upcoming book by visual artist and writer Nguyen Thuy Hang had to be changed because the image she wanted to use, of two naked women holding each other passionately — a painting titled She by Hanoi-based artist Ly Tran Quynh Giang — was considered “too sexual” by the publisher. “This painting was banned by the government even 10 years ago,” says Hang. “It’s funny that the government’s approach toward art has not changed in one decade.”

To get around censorship, Nhung didn’t seek government permission for her exhibition on the vagina. Many artists simply call their exhibitions “private events” to avoid government scrutiny.

But unlike the previous generation of female artists who tested boundaries, the current set is finding support from public spaces willing to host their work. “Alternative art spaces play an important role because conventional art galleries and museums would be either commercial or state-funded, which are still limited to propagandist art,” says art curator Do Tuong Linh, who co-runs Hanoi’s Six Space gallery. These art spaces finance themselves by hosting the work of other mainstream, renowned artists too, for which they charge a fee. Vincom Center is funded by its parent company, Vingroup, founded by property developer and entrepreneur Pham Nhat Vuong.

These women have also benefited from international exposure those before them didn’t have. The alternative art galleries invite international artists, and some Vietnamese artists have won international residency programs at the Art Institute of Chicago or Singapore’s NTU Center for Contemporary Art.

Slowly, Vietnamese society is accepting them too. More Vietnamese women have come forward to pose for Himiko Nguyen’s Come Out II project as compared to Come Out I in 2011, she says. “On one hand, these women inside the boxes are in a closet; on the other hand, they have liberated themselves by posing nude,” says the 42-year-old. At Nhung and Hung’s exhibition on the vagina in 2018, ordinary people turned up to share their stories and experiences — unimaginable a few years ago.

The work of these artists is helping “provoke new questions about women’s role in society, outside their identity within family relations or as economic units,” says Kishore. Anh-Thuy Nguyen, for instance, uses her body as her device to test her audience. “A woman’s body is often being claimed by others,” says the artist, who splits her time between the U.S. and Vietnam. “So I want to use my body as a powerful material, to reaffirm my possession of it and to examine how others view our body.”

The artists know these conversations are tricky. But that’s precisely why they must not be avoided, says Hong, the multimedia artist. “Conversations must go on, even if these are uncomfortable conversations,” she says.
Himiko Nguyen at his studio. Pic by Sonia Sarkar

Pham Hong in front of Fine Arts Museum, Hanoi –Source: 
Sonia Sarkar 

Painting by Ly Tran Quyn Giang — Source: Nguyen Thuy Hang

23380281 1989247304622060 1088762229137864794 n

Artist Anh-Thuy Nguyen’s Thuy & Sand project. The lone figure travels across the landscape, filling holes that were left behind. As she fixes them, more holes are created. A constant endless effort she pursues represents the inevitable cycle of life: creation and destruction.


Poster of Come Out, project by Himiko Nguyen. Source: Himiko Nguyen

This story was published in Ozy on February 27, 2019 — Link :

By Sonia Sarkar, DW

Mai Khoi (pictured above) is not afraid to push boundaries in her native Vietnam. The 35-year-old musician is known for criticizing the country’s communist government and has built a large following on social media. Her latest album “Dissent” features titles like “Cuffed In Freedom” and “Re-education Camp.”

Re-Education Camp highlights how the communist government forcibly puts people into jails and controls free speech. It also suggests that the people who created these camps should be in jail,” she said.

However, artistic protest is risky in Vietnam. In March 2018, Mai Khoi was detained for eight hours at Hanoi airport by Vietnam’s immigration authorities after returning from a tour in Europe where she promoted her album.

Look at this cat,” said Khoi pointing to the album cover. “She is alert and anxious, just as we are in this country because we never know who is snooping on us.”

And Khoi has a new reason to be anxious. On January 1, Vietnam enacted a new cybersecurity law that requires internet companies to remove content the government deems subversive, and bans users from posting “anti-government” content that could “cause harm to national security, social order and safety.”

A new wave of censorship?


According to the law, Vietnam’s government can force technology giants such as Google and Facebook to hand over personal information of account holders, store user data and to censor anti-government posts.

On January 9, Reuters news agency reported that Vietnam’s Ministry of Information and Communication accused Facebook of violating the law by allowing users to post “slanderous” anti-government comments. Facebook reportedly has yet to respond to the ministry’s request that the posts be removed.

Hanoi keeps a close eye on its critics by tapping their phones, sending spies to private gatherings and intimidating artists who perform abroad.  Now social media, once a safe haven for artists to express their opinions and protest the government, is coming under state control.



Issues in Vietnam like the assault on free speech, arrests of human rights defenders and criticism of the government’s move to sell land to foreign investors, were formerly addressed by protesters on social media. But it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to protest online.

“Online space is a refuge in this repressive state,” Khoi told DW. “But this space is vanishing now.”

Last nail in the coffin’ 

Hanoi-based songwriter Ngoc Dai, who has been censored for his songs with “sexual overtones” and “anti-state” content, uses YouTube to release his music.  He thinks the new law is the worst form of state repression. “It was the last nail in the coffin,” he told DW.

Last year, 40-year-old poet Chieu Anh Ngueyn was detained by the police for half a day for protesting against the cybersecurity law.

“The space for free thinkers is shrinking further,” she told DW. Nguyen’s poetry is popular online for its harsh criticism of the state with prose that expresses contempt toward the “barbarous” who “steal and sell the motherland.”

A refuge on social media



For these artists, social media has allowed them to bypass vetting by authorities. In 2007, Mai Khoi couldn’t release her song, “Night Flower,” because of its language praising a woman’s body. In response, she stopped sending her songs to the Ministry of Culture for screening and released them directly on YouTube instead. Her most popular songs on YouTube include the 2014 “Selfie Orgasm.”

Similarly in 2013, Ngoc Dai released his album, “Thang Mo 1” (Village Herald 1), without the permission of the authorities because it suggested the state controls how people think. “We have to create a sense of freedom through our work,” he said.

Author Nguyen Vien, known for his criticism of the government through novels like “Dragon and Snake,” said it is important to talk about “forbidden” things. “It gives you a sense of liberation,” he told DW.

Last year, Vien used a Facebook campaign to protest a government move to sell land to Chinese investors.

The struggle continues 



Although social media has made it easier for artists to express themselves, it also exposes them to critics and trolls.

Poet Chieu Anh Ngueyn said pro-state teachers often appoint college students to harass dissidents in exchange for good marks. She fears the new cybersecurity law will only embolden trolls and state propagandists.

Dissenting artists could also face imprisonment. In December 2018, police issued an arrest warrant for Nguyen Van Trang, a member of the banned group, “Brotherhood for Democracy,” for posting articles, photos and videos on Facebook. According to the government, Trang had misrepresented government policy, and incited protest.

Nguyen Vien has a strategy to deal with censorship. He said he would probably use the encrypted network if Facebook banned him. Many internet users in Vietnam are meanwhile accessing YouTube through proxy networks. Groups like “The League of Independent Writers of Vietnam” plan to hold more sessions at cafes and members’ houses.

Despite the imminent crackdown, Vietnam’s artists feel that more dissent is needed to challenge the system.

Published in DW, January 18, 2019


Image : The man in red Tee is Hanoi-based songwriter Ngoc Dai. He is at his home at  Hồ Tây.

2. The woman in Black Tee and pair of black trousers is pop singer Do Nguyen Mai Khoi at a Cafe in Ho Chi Minh City.
3. The woman in white top is poetess Chieu Anh Nguyen. She is at a cafe in Ho Chi Minh City.

4. The man in blue shirt is writer and activist Nguyen Vien.

(Picture credit: Sonia Sarkar)



Communism and Capitalism co-exist as the country makes a transition

By Sonia Sarkar

The morning sunlight pierces the windows of a glitzy skyscraper and falls on a colourful billboard featuring Uncle Ho — that’s how the people of Vietnam refer to the communist revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Minh. Both skyscraper and billboard are in the heart of Saigon city and reflect two contrasting realities of Vietnam today. One depicts the growing consumerism, the other is a reminder of the country’s communist legacy.

Vietnam has a single-party socialist republic framework. The general-secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam is the party leader and head of the politburo and holds the highest position in the one-party system. But here’s what’s happening — the communist regime is embracing corporatisation.

Visitors at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum


Visitors at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Image: Sonia Sarkar 

There’s corporatisation in education, information and communications technology, infrastructure, oil and gas, railways, ports and healthcare. Foreign advertisement and PR firms have joined hands with local companies and entered the local market. Mid-market clothing brands such as H&M and Zara made an entry in 2017. Foreign F&B companies such as PastaMania, Chamichi, and Hokkaido Baked Cheese Tart and GS25 are hot favourites with locals now. Singapore realtors Maple Tree and Kepple Land, the Republic of Korea’s confectioners’ Lotte and Walmart equivalent, Emart, and Japan-based retailers Aeon and Takashimaya-VNA are making huge investments.

According to the manager of Pan-Asian financial services firm, Dezan Shira & Associates’ business intelligence department, Maxfield Brown, the Vietnamese government has prioritised divestment of state-owned enterprises and deregulation of restricted business lines across a wide range of industries over the last few years. It continues to simplify investment procedures, open up sectors to foreign investment, provide incentives for investors and integrate itself further into the global economy through a strong network of free trade agreements.

Brown says, “Recent legislative reforms such as Vietnam’s Law on Investment and Law on Enterprise helped to solidify Vietnam’s commitments in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and reassured investors in the European Union and the US that Vietnam is fully committed to supporting foreign investment.” Indeed, several US companies such as Intel and Microsoft have invested in Vietnam, though the overall investments are much less compared to the foreign direct investment or FDI from Asian countries.

In 2017, FDI reached $35.6 billion, while disbursed capital reached $17.5 billion, a 10-year high, according to Dezan Shira & Associates. The top three investors were all Asian countries — Japan, South Korea and Singapore. Till September 2018, the total cumulative registered FDI in Vietnam reached $334 billion, with disbursement at $184 billion. As of October 2018, 57 per cent of the total FDI focused on the manufacturing industry, catering mainly to the export industry.

It seems a new class of young consumers has sprung up with the inflow of FDI. They work in advertising, PR, IT, education and retail sectors. Consumer spending has nearly doubled since 2010, leading to an explosion of local and foreign businesses targeting Vietnam’s emerging middle class. According to a 2014 survey by the US-based Pew Research Centre, almost all Vietnamese people — 95 per cent of them — now support capitalism.

Saigon-based advertising entrepreneur Do Kim Dzung says big economic changes have started changing their lifestyle. “Global giants such as Starbucks, McDonald and Burger King have started ruling our lives. English classes are on offer everywhere in the major cities, where speaking the language has become essential to grow professionally. The lifestyle of the urban Vietnamese today is no way less than anyone living in the West.”

The first time Vietman opened its markets to the outside world was in 1986 — that was the Doi Moi or economic reforms campaign. It joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in 1995 and five years later it signed a trade agreement with the US, enabling trade to take off. From 2000 onwards, Vietnam approved the sale of state-owned companies. By 2006, it became member of the WTO, thus reaping its initial crop of foreign investments.

Today, the red flag dots the cityscapes of Saigon and Hanoi as do giant advertisements for luxury goods, commercial banks, real estate companies and telecommunication firms. A kilometre away from the Independence Palace, which became the citadel of the Communist Party after it was overtaken by soldiers of the People’s Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam in 1975, stands the swanky Saigon Times Square.

A jewellery shop inside the premises of Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum