Though the misbehavior of North Korea and the People’s Republic of China have lately dominated the news, another East Asian communist regime has just seriously violated international law. The German government believes that Vietnamese intelligence has kidnapped a Vietnamese asylum-seeker, Trịnh Xuân Thanh, from the center of Berlin. This abduction has raised unpleasant memories in Europe of what the Soviet KGB and Czechoslovakian ŠtB once euphemistically called “executive action.”
Fifty-one-year old Trịnh Xuân Thanh had long been considered a “high flyer” in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. From 2009 to 2013, he was chairman of the PetroVietnam Construction Company (PVC), a subsidiary of Vietnam’s state-owned oil company—during which he was declared a “Laborers’ Hero in the Renovation Era.” In 2013, he was appointed to a high position in the Ministry of Industry and Trade. However, in mid-2016, this high flyer fell precipitously. After photographs appeared of Thanh being chauffeured in a Lexus bearing government license plates, he was accused of corruption. It was subsequently alleged that PVC had lost nearly $150 million dollars in revenue during Thanh’s chairmanship—to embezzlement, according to government-backed accusations. Fearing for his life (embezzlement carries the death penalty in Vietnam), Thanh fled to Europe and petitioned the German government for asylum. In September, Vietnam issued an international warrant for his arrest and expelled him from the Party. While the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) maintains that Thanh was simply a white-collar criminal on the lam, the truth is murkier. Thanh ran afoul of a crackdown within the CPV, as the hardline General Secretary Nguyễn Phú Trọng attempts to reassert CPV control of the country and solidify his own position in the party.
This wave of repression by aging hardline elements of the party comes in response to a recent series of embarrassing blots on the CPV escutcheon. On the one hand, the Formosa Plastics scandal is spurring a new birth of peaceful civil society activism in the country—a danger to the façade of national unity that the regime cannot risk. On the other hand, a series of concessions to Vietnam’s archnemesis, the People’s Republic of China, is inflaming the nationalist forces on which the CPV relies to maintain its tottering legitimacy. The most damaging kowtow to Beijing is the announcement of the end of oil drilling off the Vietnamese coast by PetroVietnam and the Spanish corporation Repsol after the PRC bluntly threatened military attack if such operations did not immediately cease. According to the German newspaper Die Tageszeitung, Thanh planned to blow the whistle on the CPV’s dictatorial behavior from his asylum in Germany. For Trọng, it seems that this would have been one embarrassment too many for a CPV whose reputation is already on the decline.
On July 23, armed men forcibly restrained Thanh in a park in central Berlin. The German government says he was taken to the Vietnamese embassy, then flown to a neighboring European country and spirited back to Vietnam. On August 3, Vietnamese state broadcasting ran a televised “confession” by Thanh, in which he expressed regret for fleeing the country and asserted that he returned to Vietnam of his own free will. Thanh’s lawyer in Germany says the televised confession and a written confession dated July 31 were coerced and false. According to the BBC, it is unknown whether Thanh has any legal representation at all in Vietnam.
To its credit, the German government has taken firm measures against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in response to this flagrant violation of international norms and German sovereignty. Germany quickly expelled the station chief of Vietnam’s intelligence services and is reportedly considering further sanctions. “All options are on the table,” said a German foreign ministry spokesman. “We had hoped there would be a possibility to […] mend things after this serious breach of German and international law. Unfortunately this is not the case, so we are looking at what can be done to make clear to our Vietnamese partners that we cannot accept it.” Germany is Vietnam’s largest EU trading partner; Vietnam is the beneficiary of $257 million in development aid from that country as well. A restriction of aid and trade could well be in the offing. Even more significantly, this brazen affront could jeopardize a proposed EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement now before the European Parliament for ratification.
It is of paramount importance that all free and law-abiding nations condemn and punish this blatant crime. If the Socialist Republic of Vietnam can get away with illegally snatching an asylum-seeker from the middle of one of the free world’s biggest cities, what message does this send to the rest of the world’s tyrannies? The rule of law and the physical safety of asylum-seekers everywhere in the free world is at stake.