Vietnam has been praised for its COVID-19 response, reporting fewer than 300 cases and no deaths despite sharing a 1,400 km land border with China. According to public health experts, the minimal of the virus in Vietnam has been a resounding success for the ruling Communist Party, which took drastic measures like mandatory mask-wearing even as the World Health Organization (WHO) claimed they were unnecessary.
The Southeast Asian nation has framed its strategy around a sense of national unity and transparency. While the government’s management of the current crisis has earned it credibility as a trustworthy guarantor of public wellbeing and safety, some of its decisions have revived memories of its troubled relationship with important regional partners, notably South Korea, as well as the treatment of a marginalized section of its own community.
Rapid response produces compelling results
The Vietnamese government’s response to the pandemic has had three key strands. First, there has been a mass nationwide screening, testing and contact tracing campaign. Temperature screenings have been carried out since February, and anyone with a temperature over 38 degrees has had to undergo testing. As a result, Vietnam has one of the highest COVID-19 testing rates in the world.
Second, there has been a targeted lockdown across the country. Anyone entering the country or moving between major cities has to undergo a 14-day quarantine period. Businesses have been closed and movements are severely restricted, even within smaller villages.
Third, the normally secretive Vietnamese government has run an effective communications campaign, emphasising the seriousness of the virus as early as January and even texting citizens with public health advice. Overall, the strategy has proved so successful that the Vietnamese government announced last week that it would be easing the lockdown.
In formulating its response, the government has also used the outbreak to shore up support and strengthen its legitimacy following episodes of controversy the past few years. These include a slow and opaque response to the 2016 Formosa Marine Life Disaster and a brutal reaction to village protests in Dong Tam in the suburbs of Hanoi this past January. When it comes to the coronavirus, Hanoi has demonstrated a keenness to learn lessons from its handling of SARS in 2003 and swine flu in 2009.
The temptations of jingoism
Although the COVID-19 response has been thorough and communications largely open, state media has presented the crisis in a nationalistic (and sometimes xenophobic) tone, contrasting Vietnam’s low infection rates with other countries (especially the US and Europe), praising overseas citizens who are “flocking home” to avoid infection and get treatment, and labelling criticism of the state response as pro-Western or unpatriotic.
The rhetoric marks a sharp turn for a country whose growth in recent years has depended on globalization and trade with former adversaries such as South Korea and the United States. Relations with South Korea have grown since a free trade agreement in 2015. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, there were plans to increase bilateral trade by 50% to $100 billion this year. Much of this has been down to South Korea ramping up trade and investment in recent years, with companies including Korean multinational giant Samsung keen to expand its Vietnamese market. South Korea now exports around 2.5 times more from Vietnam than it imports and had a trade surplus of $22.3 billion in 2019.
The COVID-19 crisis has nonetheless injected tensions into Vietnamese-South Korean relations. The state-owned Vietnam Airlines suspended all flights from South Korea in early March and an Asiana Airlines flight from Korea was also prevented from landing in Hanoi back in February, drawing criticism from the Korean Foreign Ministry. Such measures have hampered bilateral cooperation between the two countries in the fight against the coronavirus.
Ghosts of past conflict
In reality, the recent trade deals and economic cooperation mask longstanding unresolved issues between the countries that date back to the Vietnam War. The COVID-19 pandemic has thus offered a reminder of South Korea’s role as an occupying force in Vietnam less than half a century ago. In order to preserve its economic relationship with South Korea, Hanoi has for decades turned a blind eye on wartime atrocities carried out by South Korean troops and resisted calls from Vietnamese victims for those crimes to be addressed.
Over 300,000 Korean troops assisted the American campaign in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. Research suggests that as many as 9,000 South Vietnamese civilians may have been killed by South Korean soldiers during the conflict. In addition to this, mass rapes were carried out on Vietnamese women. Due to the social stigma surrounding abortion and babies born out of wedlock, many of these women ended up ostracized in their communities or even imprisoned by the authorities. It is believed that tens of thousands of Vietnamese children were born as a result of these rapes, with around 800 still alive today.
Although there have been some moves to acknowledge war crimes committed by US troops during the Vietnam War, there has never been any recognition or apology from South Korean officials. In a statement to the BBC, the South Korean government recently said that both “have made together continuous efforts to develop their bilateral relations in a future-oriented manner on the basis of the shared view that they should put their unfortunate past behind them and move forward to the future.”
A chance for recognition?
Movements by campaign groups to secure justice for victims of these atrocities have been ignored by both governments. The Justice for Lai Dai Han (JLDH) group has drawn international attention towards the victims of sexual violence during the Vietnam War, lobbying governments including the UK, which has sought to position itself as a leader in combating sexual violence around the world through its Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative. Former UK foreign minister Jack Straw is an ambassador for the JLDH and has regularly spoken out on behalf of the group.
Even renewed international focus on these past crimes has done little to persuade either South Korea or Vietnam to make a formal acknowledgement. Now, with COVID-19 putting international economic relations on the backfoot and bringing about unprecedented transparency in Vietnam, leadership in Hanoi could use public sentiment to present an example of reconciliation – finally acknowledging its own victims of war and repositioning itself as a defender of marginalized Vietnamese citizens in the process.
*Gary Buswell is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to the New Londoners and Expatica.