Photo Illustration of Vietnamese activists locked away. From top left, going clockwise: (1) Pham Chi Thanh, (2) Pham Doan Trang, (3) Pham Chi Dung, (4) Nguyen Thuy Hanh, (5) Pham Van Diep, and (6) Nguyen Tuong Thuy. © 2022 Aimee Stevens for Human Rights Watch.
In January 2021, during the 13th Communist Party of Vietnam Congress in Hanoi, state security agents put activists in the capital under house arrest for 10 days. These arrests were both arbitrary and unsurprising; Vietnamese authorities have long used extralegal detention as a tool against dissent during major political events. Among the activists placed under house arrest were Nguyen Thuy Hanh and her husband Huynh Ngoc Chenh. Said Nguyen Thuy Hanh:
The authorities moved numerous soldiers to Hanoi to guard the Party Congress, yet that did not put their minds at ease. They brazenly robbed us, citizens who did not violate any law, of our rights to freedom of movement, and the police locked us inside our home throughout the entire congress. Which law allows authorities to treat us like that?
Arbitrary restrictions on activists’ freedom of movement are also used to prevent international travel. In September 2018, Nguyen Quang A was about to travel to Australia for a meeting. Before leaving, he had coffee with an Australian scholar at a café on Dien Bien Phu Street in Hanoi. When he left to catch a taxi for the airport, men in civilian clothes approached, forced him into a car, and took him to police headquarters at the city’s Noi Bai International Airport. Police questioned him about a trip he planned to take the next month to Brussels, where he was invited to testify before the European Parliament about the European Union-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement. Police held him long enough for him to miss his flight to Australia. Nguyen Quang A said:
In the Ministry of Public Security, there are people in some departments who abuse power to the extreme. They were trained thoroughly in the ideas that they have the rights to treat citizens as criminals.
This report documents the Vietnamese government’s routine violation of the right to freedom of movement and other basic rights by subjecting activists, dissidents, human rights defenders, and others to indefinite house arrest, harassment, and other forms of detention—even detaining them just long enough to prevent them from attending protests, criminal trials, meetings with diplomats and an US president, and other events. The report also documents authorities blocking critics of the government from domestic and international travel, including by stopping them at airports and border gates, and denying passports or other documents that allow them to leave or enter the country.
These widely practiced violations of the right to freedom of movement in Vietnam are often overlooked in conventional rights reporting, which often focuses on larger-stake issues such as the prosecution and long-term imprisonment of dissidents, land and labor rights violations, and the suppression of fundamental liberties by Vietnam’s one-party state.
As detailed below, Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of freedom of movement violations since 2004 and identified more than 170 people banned from leaving or entering the country. The actual totals are certainly much higher: information is scarce because of Vietnam’s strict censorship regime and because many victims fear that making their cases public will lead to criminal or other retaliatory action by authorities. The abuses documented here, moreover, are not limited to these named human rights and democracy activists; authorities sometimes also target their family members by placing them under house arrest or banning them from traveling abroad as a form of collective punishment.
We also highlight efforts by courageous activists to challenge the legality of government practices and demonstrate the difficulty or impossibility of obtaining legal redress in Vietnam’s Communist Party-controlled courts.
Vietnamese authorities use a range of tactics to carry out house arrests:
- stationing plainclothes security agents outside homes;
- using external padlocks to lock people into their homes;
- erecting roadblocks and other physical obstacles and barriers to prevent individuals from leaving their homes and others from entering;
- mobilizing neighborhood thugs to intimidate people into staying home;
- applying very strong adhesives— “superglue” —on locks.
The most common method of house arrest has been to station several men in civilian clothes outside the house of a target. If the person tries to leave the house, as in the case of Nguyen Thuy Hanh and Huynh Ngoc Chenh above, these men are prepared to use force to block the person’s path. Those so detained eventually give up and return home.
The practice is so pervasive that rights activists and bloggers have adopted certain coded terms to describe house arrest. They include banh canh, a southern food: banh is a Vietnamese word used for cake or noodle made from flour, while canh usually means either soup or to guard. Activists thus playfully post on Facebook that they are eating banh canh—literally guard soup—to indicate that security agents are outside their houses, preventing them from leaving.
In another form of black humor, a common phrase, den hen lai len (originally the name of a 1974 northern film), later became used in everyday language to express something that routinely happens. It was then changed to den hen lai canh (“I’m being guarded again”), used when an important event is taking place in Vietnam and activists are under scrutiny. Another phrase, dat vom (slang to describe those who have houses but like to wander and sleep elsewhere) is sometimes used to describe activists who intentionally leave their houses and stay at unknown places to evade house arrest before an important event.
House arrests often coincide with key events or dates on the national calendar, including national and religious holidays, or significant domestic political events such as a Communist Party congress, the country’s staged elections, international meetings or summits, or political trials of important dissidents.
Particularly sensitive days include April 30 (commemoration of the end of the 1954-1975 war); June 26 (United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture); September 2 (Vietnam National Independence Day); and December 10 (International Human Rights Day); and any day that activists decide to gather formally or informally to celebrate certain important occasions, such as the annual award ceremony of the independent literary group Van Viet, the founding day of the Independent Journalists Association, or the founding day of the Vietnam Path Movement.
Other days that have become sensitive for the authorities are those prior to and during human rights dialogues between Vietnam and the United States, the European Union, or Australia; prior to and during visits to Vietnam by US presidents, including Bill Clinton in 2000, Barack Obama in 2016, and Donald Trump in November 2017 (APEC) and in February 2019 (Trump-Kim Jong-Un Summit), or other heads of government; and prior to and during visits by foreign diplomats on human rights-related issues, such as by the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief, or the US ambassador-at-large on freedom of religion.
Due to the long and complicated historical relationship between Vietnam and its enormous neighbor China, and the opaque dynamics between the two governments, many Vietnamese activists are passionate protesters against China. Many of the “sensitive” days during the year when activists are put under house arrest are related to
- January 19 (commemoration of the 1974 Battle of Paracel Islands between naval forces of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) and China);
- February 17 (commemoration of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese border war);
- March 14 (the commemoration of the 1988 Johnson South Reef Skirmish between Vietnam and China); and
- October 1 (China Independence Day).
Hoa Hao Buddhist practitioners who refuse to join state-sanctioned churches are subject to house arrest at least three times a year: the founding day of the religion and the anniversaries of the birth and the death of Hoa Hao founder Huynh Phu So.
New sensitive days have been added to the calendar in recent years. House arrests are common on weekends following public protests, such as after the Formosa Steel Plant toxic spills that caused a massive environmental disaster along the central coast of Vietnam in 2016 or following the 2018 mass protests against the draft laws on special economic zones and cybersecurity.
On most occasions, activists can guess why the authorities have put them under house arrest. But at other times it is unclear. In March 2019, Nguyen Quang A wrote: “I still don’t know what the fuck today is!” to express his frustration with not knowing why he had been put under house arrest on that particular day.
Intercepting People Going to Events
The authorities have frequently prevented activists from attending meetings or events they consider to be politically sensitive, engaging in arbitrary arrest, detention, or abduction until the event is over or impossible to attend. Often, police officers or thugs force people into a car and just drive them around or keep them locked up at a police station for as long as necessary.
In May 2019, the prominent blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh, also known as Anh Ba Sam, completed a five-year prison sentence and was released. To prevent fellow activists from welcoming him home, the authorities placed many activists under house arrest. One of these was Vo Van Tao, who said that, on the evening of May 4, men in civilian clothes forced him onto a motorbike, took him to police headquarters, and confiscated his mobile phone and identity card. Vo Van Tao said that security agents told him that they “wanted to stop people from welcoming Ba Sam upon being released from prison to come home on May 5.”
This issue reached global proportions during the visit of then-President Barack Obama to Vietnam in May 2016. To show his support for the efforts of the activists, Obama scheduled a meeting with Vietnamese civil society representatives. BBC Vietnamese reported that only 6 out of 15 invitees attended. Security agents blocked others, including lawyer Ha Huy Son, from attending. “They said I could go anywhere else but not to the embassy. And they are still following and watching me,” Son said at the time.
The US embassy also invited Pham Doan Trang to meet Obama. At the time, she was undergoing medical treatment in Ho Chi Minh City for an injury she suffered when security forces forcibly broke up an environmental protest in Hanoi in April 2015. She feared that police would stop her if she flew from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, so she decided to go by car instead. Fellow activists Tran Thu Nguyet and Vu Huy Hoang went with her. On May 23, security agents stopped their car and detained the three in Ninh Binh, about 100 kilometers south of Hanoi. They were released the next afternoon when Obama was leaving Hanoi.
Although security agents were stationed outside Nguyen Quang A’s house in Hanoi starting on May 23, he still tried to leave his house to meet Obama early on May 24, accompanied by his wife, son, and another activist. As they approached a nearby intersection, a group of men wanted to know where he was going. Nguyen Quang A asked for the identities of the men, who instead pushed his wife aside and threw him into a car before driving him around “to kill time.” By the time they dropped him off, Obama was on his way to Ho Chi Minh City.
In Ho Chi Minh City, Obama also met with members of the Youth Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI). Student activist Tran Hoang Phuc was one of the invitees. He brought documents related to the Formosa Steel Plant environmental disaster. As he waited to enter the meeting room, public security officers came and took him to a police station for interrogation. Security agents also detained a bystander, fellow activist Nguyen Nu Phuong Dung, who had gone into hiding several days earlier to avoid being put under house arrest during Obama’s visit.
Former political prisoner Pham Ba Hai also left his house before Obama arrived in Ho Chi Minh City and stayed in a hotel to avoid house arrest. Yet, at 2 a.m. on May 24, police arrived at the hotel and forced him to go home. They put him under house arrest until Obama left Vietnam.
In some cases, security agents have used more extreme measures, such as detaining activists and sending them back to their hometown via train or airplane.
In June 2011, blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (also known as Mother Mushroom) was visiting friends in Ho Chi Minh City. Police detained her for a day and then sent her on a train back to her home in Nha Trang so she could not join an anti-China protest in Ho Chi Minh City. In May 2016, two days before the national election, security agents detained activist Nguyen Viet Dung, who was visiting fellow activists in Ho Chi Minh City, and escorted him to the airport. After landing in Vinh, his hometown, he was physically assaulted before being released. In June 2018, activist Pham Le Vuong Cac flew from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi to take an exam for a legal course. Police stopped him upon arrival at Noi Bai International Airport and forced him to fly to Ho Chi Minh City so he could not join a protest in Hanoi that weekend.
Restrictions on International Travel
The Vietnamese authorities have also commonly violated the right to freedom of movement by preventing citizens from leaving or entering the country, particularly at the country’s two major international airports and its six most important border gates. In many cases, police stop a traveler at an airport or land immigration counter, take them to another room, and tell them they cannot leave Vietnam. In some cases, police intercept a traveler as they are about to board a plane. In October 2006, Le Thi Cong Nhan passed through immigration and security checkpoints at the airport on the way to a labor rights conference in Warsaw when police arrived and stopped her from boarding.
Police prohibit people from leaving Vietnam on trips abroad for various purposes, including to engage in human rights advocacy.
In November 2019, police at Noi Bai Airport prevented Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc from leaving for Japan to welcome Pope Francis during his visit to Asia. Police allowed the rest of his group, including 12 priests and 2 lay people, to leave the country. Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc said that police told him that he was prohibited from leaving the country on orders from the local authorities “to protect national security, and social order and safety.”
In December 2015, police at Noi Bai Airport prohibited bloggers Nguyen Tuong Thuy and Pham Chi Thanh from leaving for Bangkok. Nguyen Tuong Thuy planned to attend a trip with other activists to celebrate International Human Rights Day in Myanmar and to learn about campaigning for a free and fair election. In February 2014, Dr. Pham Chi Dung was stopped at Tan Son Nhat airport in Ho Chi Minh City and prohibited from leaving Vietnam for Geneva. He planned to participate in a human rights event during Vietnam’s Universal Periodical Review at the United Nations. Police told him the ban was at the request of Ho Chi Minh City police and confiscated his passport. He sent complaints to the country’s leaders but did not receive a response.
The authorities appear so sensitive to the possibility that activists may meet with foreign officials or exiled dissidents that they even prevent them from leaving on personal trips, such as for tourism or to accompany loved ones for medical treatment.
In June 2019, police at Noi Bai Airport prohibited environmental activist Cao Vinh Thinh from leaving for a tourist trip to Thailand. Police told her the travel ban was requested by Department 7 of the Domestic Security Bureau. In January 2017, a former political prisoner, Pham Thanh Nghien, was blocked from accompanying her father on a trip to Thailand for his medical treatment. In December 2017, Father Luu Ngoc Quynh was blocked from taking a flight from Noi Bai Airport to France to attend a private religious event. Police told him the ban was “to protect national security, and public order and safety.”
On May 25, 2019, rights activists and bloggers issued a “Joint Statement of People Whose Rights to Freedom of Movement Have Been Violated.” According to BBC Vietnamese, as of May 27, 100 people had signed the statement.
Authorities have engaged in collective punishment, imposing international travel bans against family members of rights activists, religious freedom campaigners, former political prisoners, independent bloggers, and journalists. Nguyen Bac Truyen’s wife Bui Thi Kim Phuong was blocked in March 2019; Nguyen Van Dai’s wife Vu Minh Khanh in April 2017; Do Thi Minh Hanh’s older sister Do Ngoc Xuan Tram in June 2017; and Nguyen Tuong Thuy’s son Nguyen Tuong Trong in May 2015.
The government does not publish its travel ban list or proactively notify those on the list. Rights activists and bloggers may suspect that they are on the list, but no one knows for sure until police stop them at airports or border gates and prohibit them from leaving Vietnam. In a few instances, people learned that they were on the travel ban list when they tried to renew their old passport or apply for a new one, as in the cases of Huynh Cong Thuan in May 2012, Tran Thi Nga in June 2015, and Le Cong Dinh in August 2018 and December 2019. Others, including blogger Bui Thanh Hieu (also known as Wind Trader), poet Bui Minh Quoc, and activist Nguyen Trang Nhung, lost their money on tickets and other travel-related expenses, as they were prohibited from leaving at the last minute.
The authorities have banned some activists from further international travel as punishment for activities while abroad. Pham Doan Trang only learned that she was on the travel ban list upon returning to Vietnam from the United States in January 2015. Similarly, when Bui Quang Minh returned from the Philippines in July 2015, police confiscated his passport at Tan Son Nhat airport and provided him a “record re the discovery of a person-not-yet-allowed-to-leave-the-country, [who has] now entered the country.” Others subjected to police interrogation and passport confiscation upon returning to Vietnam include Truong Thi Ha in March 2020, Dinh Thi Phuong Thao in November 2019, and Nguyen Thi Kim Thanh in February 2019.
Authorities enforcing this policy almost never offer any explanation for the ban or provide legal documentation to support it. As a result, victims of a travel ban rarely know for certain why they have been targeted or how long the ban on international travel will last. At airports and border gates, security agents sometimes tell rights activists and bloggers that they cannot leave for unspecified national security reasons. In other cases, people are told that their ban is at the request of the police of a certain city or province, or a particular police department within the Ministry of Public Security. In some cases, police also confiscate passports.
Police typically refuse to provide a written record to the person on the ban list. In one very rare instance in February 2014, immigration officials at Moc Bai border gate in Tay Ninh province provided Hoang Van Dung and Nguyen Nu Phuong Dung with a written record in which they learned that the travel ban against them began in August 2013.
People usually can only guess why they are on the travel ban list. When Father Nguyen Duy Tan was prohibited from leaving Ho Chi Minh City in June 2018, he assumed the police were retaliating against him for attending a meeting with European diplomats in Ho Chi Minh City the previous month to discuss restrictions on freedom of religion in Vietnam. “I provided truth in my speech that displeased the government, thus they retaliated against me by preventing me from going this time,” he said. Atypically, Nguyen Trang Nhung learned orally from the police that she was banned for attending a conference in the Philippines on fair trials.
Exceptionally, Nguyen Trang Nhung learned orally that her travel ban was valid for three years from October 2014 to October 2017. In another case, Huynh Cong Thuan learned orally in May 2012 that the travel ban against him was valid until August 2014. Police told Bui Minh Quoc in May 2019 that the travel ban against him in March 2018 had been lifted but did not provide written confirmation. Often as the result of domestic or international pressure, some people eventually get their passports back and are allowed to leave
Despite these serious infringements on basic rights, few people have opportunities for redress, as provided under international human rights law. Although daunting, a number of people have nonetheless tried to resist Vietnam’s powerful one-party state and challenge the legality of their mistreatment—a difficult and often impossible feat in the country’s Communist Party-controlled courts.
Father Dinh Huu Thoai, Pastor Pham Ngoc Thach, Nguyen Thi Huyen Trang, Nguyen Trang Nhung, and Huynh Cong Thuan have filed multiple complaints and lawsuits against the police, but so far to no avail. In a particularly egregious case, Pham Van Diep filed several complaints and lawsuits against the authorities for banning him first from returning to Vietnam in 2013 and 2016, and then later from leaving Vietnam in 2019. Authorities responded by arresting him in June 2019, and a court sentenced him to nine years in prison in November 2019.
- The government should end arbitrary restrictions on the right to freedom of movement, including house arrests, detention, harassment, surveillance, and domestic and international travel bans, against activists and other critics of the government.
- The government should end the general practice of placing citizens on travel ban lists. Anyone lawfully placed on a travel ban list should be properly notified and be able to appeal the decision to an independent and impartial court.
- The National Assembly should repeal article 14(2) and article 15(4) of the Constitution, which allow for restrictions on human rights for reasons of national security that go beyond what is permissible under international human rights law.
- The National Assembly should repeal or amend provisions of the Law on Immigration that allow the authorities to arbitrarily ban Vietnamese citizens from traveling abroad or returning to Vietnam on the basis of vaguely defined national security provisions.
Source: Human Rights Watch