To Lam swears in the position after he was elected...

To Lam swears in the position after he was elected as the president at the National Assembly in Hanoi, Vietnam on Wednesday May 22, 2024. Credit: AP/Phạm Trung Kiên

BANGKOK — Vietnam’s top security official To Lam was confirmed Wednesday as the nation's new president. He oversaw police and intelligence operations over a period when rights groups say basic liberties have been systematically suppressed, and its secret service was accused of violating international law.

Lam was confirmed by Vietnam's National Assembly after his predecessor resigned amid an ongoing anti-corruption campaign that has shaken the country’s political establishment and business elites and has resulted in multiple top-level changes in government.

Vietnam's presidency is largely ceremonial, but his new role as head of state puts the 66-year-old in a “very strong position” to become the next Communist Party general secretary, the most important political position in the country, said Nguyen Khac Giang, an analyst at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong was elected to a third term in 2021, but at age 80, he may not seek another term after 2026.

Trong is an an ideologue who views corruption as the gravest threat facing the party. As Vietnam's top security official, Lam has led Trong's sweeping anti-graft campaign.

Following Lam's confirmation as president, Deputy Public Security Minister Tran Quoc To was appointed to take over from him at the ministry in an interim role.

Lam spent more than four decades in the Ministry of Public Security before becoming the minister in 2016. His rise took place while Vietnam’s politburo lost of six of its 18 members amid the expanding anti-graft campaign, including two former presidents and Vietnam’s parliamentary head.

Lam was behind many of the investigations into high-profile politicians, said Giang.

Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh is seen as the other major contender to possibly succeed Trong, Giang said.

The current vice-speaker of Vietnam’s parliament was confirmed Monday as the National Assembly speaker after his predecessor, Vuong Dinh Hue, resigned amid the anti-graft campaign. Until his resignation, Hue was also widely seen as a potential successor to Trong.

This unprecedented instability in Vietnam’s political system has spooked investors as the country tries to position itself as an alternative for companies looking to shift their supply chains away from China.

A flood of foreign investment, especially in manufacturing of high-tech products like smartphones and computers, raised expectations it could join the "Four Asian Tigers" — Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, whose economies underwent rapid industrialization and posted high growth rates.

But the scandals and uncertainty — including the death sentence for a real estate tycoon accused of embezzling nearly 3% of the country’s 2022 GDP — have brought with them uncertainty and bureaucratic reticence to make decisions. Economic growth slipped to 5.1% last year from 8% in 2022 as exports slowed.

During Lam's years heading the Public Security Ministry, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other watchdog organizations have strongly criticized Vietnam for its harassment and intimidation of critics.

In 2021, courts convicted at least 32 people for posting critical opinions about the government and sentenced them to multiple years in prison, while police arrested at least 26 others on fabricated charges, according to Human Rights Watch.

Under Tam's watch as Vietnam’s top security boss, civil society faced further curbs, foreign aid restrictions introduced in 2021 were tightened in 2023, the country jailed climate activists, and laws were introduced to censor social media, said Ben Swanton of The 88 Project, a group that advocates for freedom of expression in Vietnam.

“With To Lam’s ascent to the presidency, Vietnam is now a literal police state,” said Swanton, adding that the Vietnamese ruling Politburo was now dominated by current and former security officials. He said he expected further intensification of repression and censorship.

While Vietnam was under a COVID-19 lockdown in 2021, a video surfaced showing Turkish chef Nusret Gokce, popularly known as Salt Bae, feeding Tam a gold-encrusted steak in London. Despite efforts to censor it, the video went viral, stoking widespread anger from people enduring virus lockdowns that exacerbated economic deprivations.

Meantime, a Vietnamese noodle vendor named Bui Tuan Lam, who followed the video with a parody of Salt Bae, was arrested on charges of spreading anti-state propaganda and sentenced to five years in prison.

It was also under Lam's tenure as public security minister, in 2017, when German authorities say Vietnamese businessperson and former politician Trinh Xuan Thanh and a companion were abducted and dragged into a van in downtown Berlin, in what officials there called “an unprecedented and flagrant violation of German and international law.”

Vietnam has maintained that Thanh surrendered to Vietnamese authorities after evading an international arrest warrant for nearly a year. Germany said he and his companion were kidnapped, and responded by summoning Vietnam’s ambassador for talks and expelling its intelligence attaché.

Thanh was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2018 after being put on trial in Vietnam.

Announcing espionage-related charges in 2022 against a man accused of being part of Thanh's abduction, the German Federal Prosecutor’s Office said the kidnapping was an “operation of the Vietnamese secret service” carried out by Vietnamese agents and members of its embassy in Berlin as well as several Vietnamese nationals living in Europe.

The suspect, identified only as Ahn T.L. in line with German privacy laws, was convicted in 2023 of aiding and abetting an abduction as a foreign agent and sentenced to five years in prison.

“The relationship between Germany and Vietnam continue to be shaken by this crime to this day," the German court said at the time.

Another suspect, identified as Long N.H., was convicted in 2018 in a Berlin court of espionage-related charges and sentenced to nearly four years in prison.

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