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Thousands flee as Typhoon Vamco nears Vietnam | Vietnam

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Vietnam braces for Typhoon Vamco to make landfall on its central coast as the death toll in the Philippines rises to 53.

Thousands of people fled their homes in Vietnam on Saturday as Typhoon Vamco barrelled towards central regions already pummelled by weeks of successive storms.

Airports have been shut, beaches closed, and a fishing ban put in place as the country braces for winds of up to 100 kilometres per hour (60 miles per hour) when the typhoon makes landfall on Sunday, likely close to Hue.

Thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes in four central provinces, according to the disaster management authority, while state media said hundreds of thousands more may have to flee.

“This is a very strong typhoon,” Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said, warning provinces in Vamco’s projected path to prepare for its impact.

‘No respite’

A series of storms have hit central Vietnam over the past six weeks, causing flooding and landslides that have killed at least 159 people, authorities said, while 70 others are missing.

The severe weather has also damaged or destroyed more than 400,000 homes, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Roads and bridges have been washed away, power supplies disrupted, and crucial food crops destroyed, leaving at least 150,000 people at immediate risk of food shortages, it added.

“There has been no respite for more than eight million people living in central Vietnam,” said Nguyen Thi Xuan Thu, Vietnam Red Cross Society president.

“Each time they start rebuilding their lives and livelihoods, they are pummeled by yet another storm.”

Philippine coastguards conduct rescue operations after Typhoon Vamco resulted in severe flooding in the Cagayan Valley region [Reuters]

Typhoon Vamco has already caused devastation in the Philippines.

Emergency response teams were dispatched to the northeast on Saturday where more than 340,000 people have been affected by severe flooding following Vamco, which killed at least 53 people across the country, disaster agencies said.

Twenty of the deaths were recorded in the provinces of Cagayan, Isabela and Nueva Vizcaya, which have become the focus of rescue efforts.

Hundreds of people were trapped on rooftops in the hardest-hit areas along the Cagayan river with rescuers unable to reach them because of strong currents, said the spokesman for the regional Office of Civil Defense.

Vast swaths of the region were underwater in what officials have described as the worst flooding in living memory. The release of water from the Magat dam has exacerbated the impact.



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‘Chilling’ crackdown on dissent in Vietnam ahead of key congress | Vietnam News

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As Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party gears up for its most important meeting in years, its leadership has presided over an intensified crackdown on dissent, according to rights groups, activists and data collated by Reuters news agency.

A record number of political prisoners, longer jail terms, and increased harassment of activists in recent years have contributed to the crackdown ahead of this week’s Communist Party congress, a gathering to determine national leadership and policy that takes place once every five years.

The crackdown has left some international human rights groups and legislators questioning whether Vietnam has breached the spirit of trade agreements with Western countries – accords that have helped propel the country to a position of economic strength in Southeast Asia.

“I have been summoned by the police several times since December 9, 2020,” said Nguyen Quang A, a veteran activist in Hanoi, declining to detail the circumstances saying he was subject to an ongoing investigation. He told Reuters Vietnam’s security ministry had in recent weeks rounded up other government critics without saying why, citing his contacts with activists.

“They [the police] summon them and find reasons to convict them under those very fuzzy articles of criminal law. It completely violates the law but they use it very regularly,” said Quang A. “I’ve told them they can’t shut me up.”

Vietnam’s foreign ministry, which handles inquiries from foreign media, did not respond to Reuters’s request for comment on activist detentions.

‘Anti-state’

Despite reforms and increasing openness to social change, the Communist Party of Vietnam, led by 76-year-old Nguyen Phu Trong, tolerates little criticism and controls domestic media tightly.

Vietnam drew international condemnation this month when it sentenced three freelance journalists known for criticism of the government to between 11 and 15 years in prison, finding them guilty of spreading anti-state propaganda.

Journalists Pham Chi Dung, right, Le Huu Minh Tuan, centre, and Nguyen Tuong Thuy, left, stand between police during their trial at a court in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam January 5, 2021 [VNA/Handout via Reuters]

The country’s constitution says it protects “freedom of opinion and speech, freedom of the press, access to information, to assemble, form associations and hold demonstrations”.

In reality, public criticism of the party is not tolerated, and groups which promote democratisation are targeted by the authorities in a battle playing out online on platforms like Facebook, Vietnam’s premier platform for both e-commerce and dissent.

A Reuters tally based on state media reports found 280 people were arrested for “anti-state” activities over the five years since the last party congress: 260 were convicted, many being sentenced to more than 10 years in jail. In the five years leading up to the 2016 congress, there were 68 arrests and 58 convictions.

‘Force 47’

Last year, Amnesty International said it had recorded the most “prisoners of conscience” in Vietnam since it began publishing figures in 1996 – 170, close to double the 97 recorded in 2018. Of the 170, some 70 were arrested for online activism, Amnesty said.

In late 2017, Vietnam unveiled a 10,000-strong military cyber-unit, Force 47, to counter what it said were “wrong” views on the internet. According to rights groups, the unit also recruits volunteers online to target dissidents and activists.

Reuters reviewed dozens of posts across multiple Facebook groups and pages from December and January that claimed links with Force 47. Many attacked prominent activists, including Quang A, accused by one group of creating anti-state propaganda.

A woman wearing a traditional conical hat walks past a poster for the upcoming 13th national congress of Vietnam Communist Party on a street in Hanoi, Vietnam, January 18, 2021 [Kham/Reuters]

Some group moderators were dressed in military uniform in their profile photos while others ran pages for official local branches of Communist Party organisations.

Last November, Vietnam threatened to shut Facebook down if it did not toughen rules on local political content on the platform.

Facebook’s local servers were taken offline by the government earlier last year until it agreed to significantly increase policing of “anti-state” posts by local users, a request with which Facebook previously said it complied.

A Facebook spokesman said the company faced “additional pressure” from Vietnam to restrict content last year.

‘Driver’s seat’

For some, the crackdown has a connection with fluctuations in global trade ties with Vietnam.

“During the [former US President Barack] Obama administration, pressure on rights connected with TPP [trade] negotiations helped the cause of human rights activists and political dissidents,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“The early visit of Prime Minister [Nguyen Xuan] Phuc in 2017 to the Trump White House saw human rights completely dropped from the agenda,” he said.

Robertson said trade tensions with China have also left Vietnam “in the driver’s seat” as US and European Union companies look for alternative supply chains, helping the Vietnamese economy thrive.

“The EU had an important opportunity to make real changes through the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement,” said Robertson, referring to a pact that has been a boon for Vietnam. Instead, he said, the EU “fell short, settling for vague promises … instead of substantive changes”.

EU officials did not immediately respond to Reuters’s request for comment.

After the jailing of the three journalists earlier this month, the United Nations human rights office said: “Coming just weeks ahead [of the party congress], the convictions and long sentences are not only a blatant suppression of independent journalism but also a clear attempt to create a chilling effect among those willing to criticise the government.”

The United States described the sentences as the “latest in a troubling and accelerating trend of arrests and convictions of Vietnamese citizens exercising rights enshrined in Vietnam’s constitution”.



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