Is Vietnam’s purge spinning out of control?
Hanoi's bid to extradite a police spy official with alleged secret documents now in Singapore and seeking passage to Germany threatens a diplomatic disaster
Vietnam’s anti-corruption crackdown has once again spilled over its borders and threatens to spiral into another damaging diplomatic incident that undermines its recently improved international credibility and standing.
Hanoi is now pressing Singapore to extradite Vietnamese secret police official and property tycoon Phan Van Anh Vu on charges of revealing state secrets, an anti-state crime punishable by the death penalty in Vietnam’s one-party authoritarian state.
Vu has hired a fleet of lawyers to contest his forced return and is known to be seeking safe passage to Germany, where he would likely apply for and possibly get political asylum. He and his family had already fled Vietnam when police raided his house on December 21.
Vu was arrested on immigration-related charges on December 28 while trying to cross the border into neighboring Malaysia. It’s not immediately clear if Berlin has made any representations on the case to Singapore, which has not publicly commented on the arrest.
As a member of Vietnam’s elite police intelligence General Unit 5, Vu is believed to have detailed information on last year’s kidnapping of ex-PetroVietnam executive Trinh Xuan Thanh from a public park in Berlin. While Vietnam has claimed Thanh returned home voluntarily, Germany believes he was abducted in a secret service operation.
According to Vietnamese language reports, Vu carried many secret documents with him to Singapore to present to German police on the chain of command behind the kidnapping, including the plot’s mastermind. The reports suggest that Vu is willing to serve as a witness in Germany.
Thanh now faces corruption charges, including embezzlement, for state losses punishable by 20 years in prison or a possible death penalty. The Public Prosecution’s Office found Trinh was “insincere” during the investigation and has recommended that he be severely punished.
His case is linked to 22 other PetroVietnam officials, nine of whom face potential death if convicted. Deposed Politburo member Dinh La Thang, who’s final indictment on charges of economic mismanagement was announced on December 26, is part of the same prosecution. Thang was once viewed as a possible future Party leader.
They are among scores of top Party and state-owned enterprise officials to face corruption charges in an escalating intra-Party drive orchestrated by Communist Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, the country’s most powerful political figure.
While necessary to clean up deep-seated rot among wayward Party officials, many see a parallel witch hunt aimed at consolidating Trong’s power against rival factions. But by internationalizing his purge on dubious legal grounds and using illegal tactics, Trong is dangerously risking Vietnam’s wider global economic and security interests.
If Vu has information that specifically implicates Trong in the kidnapping operation, the party leader and de facto national leader could face possible targeted sanctions from Germany. Broader punitive measures, including trade sanctions, are also a possibility, some analysts suggest.
One of Vu’s lawyers told Reuters his application to travel to Germany has been made on rules that allow a foreign national to enter the country “to protect German interests.” Another of his lawyers has suggested he could gain entry to Germany on “humanitarian” grounds.
Singapore does not have an extradition treaty with Vietnam, but the two Association of Southeast Asian Nations are on good diplomatic terms and are expected to draw closer when Singapore assumes the regional bloc’s chairmanship in 2018. The two nations are viewed as leading China skeptics in the consensus-driven association.
Vietnamese police have bid to convince Singaporean authorities that Vu holds a fake passport and have presented a criminal profile of Vu in requesting his extradition, according to Nguoi Buon Gio, a blogger with direct access to Vu’s lawyers.
Proof of high-level involvement in the alleged kidnapping could also jeopardize a pending European Union-Vietnam free trade agreement at a juncture Hanoi is trying to diversify its international trade away from rising dependence on China and with the loss of the US’ involvement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact.
There are also questions about how far the internal purge can go before it starts to undermine intra-Party stability.
Vietnamese analysts prominent in the local language blogosphere have suggested that the recent purge of Da Nang Party Secretary Nguyen Xuan Anh, while clearly linked to Vu, could also aim at President Tran Dai Quang.
Quang, the Party’s second-ranking official who previously served as Minister of Public Security, is the front-runner to replace Trong as Party leader at the next Party Congress in 2021 – or perhaps earlier as some suggest the 73-year-old Trong may opt to step down earlier.
The same analysts believe Trong would prefer his replacement hail from his own clique rather than further empower the rising police, where Quang previously served as Secretary of the Central Police Party Committee. They suspect Vu may have information implicating Quang in both or either of Vu’s and Thanh’s escape overseas.
Vu also heads various General Unit 5 police-run front companies that some suggest could put Quang’s past role as security minister and Party head of police under scrutiny if placed under investigation. If those top-level tensions are valid, expect more explosive revelations in the months ahead as Trong and Quang jockey for power and survival.