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Authorities cut power to Ukrainian cultural seminar in Vietnam’s capital

Authorities in Vietnam’s capital cut power to a building hosting a Ukrainian cultural seminar over the weekend, sources said Monday, in the latest bid by the one-party communist state to disrupt a Ukraine-related event since its ally Russia invaded the country in February.

On July 16, a group of Vietnamese intellectuals who had lived and studied in Ukraine held a seminar on Ukrainian culture at the Sena Institute of Technology Research in Hanoi. Representatives from the Ukrainian Embassy in Vietnam, including Ukrainian Chargé d’Affaires Nataliya Zhynkina, and several Ukrainian students studying in Hanoi were in attendance.

The seminar began with a performance of Ukrainian music by a group of visually-impaired students from Hanoi’s Nguyen Dinh Chieu School, but the building’s electricity went off in the middle of the show, which organizers and activists attributed to official malfeasance.

Despite the interruption, the seminar proceeded in the dark, activist Dang Bich Phuong told RFA Vietnamese on Monday.

“It was inconvenient in terms of comfort, but otherwise, the event went as planned. People still read poems, and a musician who was sitting in the corner still played his guitar passionately in the darkness. It was so touching,” Phuong said.

“I noticed that most people accepted the situation very calmly. Despite the darkness, the choir still sang and people still clapped enthusiastically when poems were read, as others held up lights for them. I was very moved and emotional.”

Organizers and activists told RFA that prior to the event, several people who planned to attend reported being monitored by police or being blocked from going by authorities.

‘A cultural problem’

Nguyen Khac Mai, the director of the Minh Triet Research Center and an organizer of the seminar, said that Vietnamese intellectuals who studied in Ukraine before going on to be leaders in their fields had asked to take part in the event to celebrate the country where they obtained their degrees.

“These are people who had been nurtured and taught by Ukraine,” he said. “Now that they are successful, they want to gather and talk to one another about their sentiments for Ukraine and its people.”

Mai said that the seminar had also aimed to amplify an earlier statement by Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh that “Vietnam does not choose sides, but chooses justice.”

Instead, he said, authorities attempted to silence those who would speak in support of Ukraine.

“Usually, a power failure is a technical problem. I think this wasn’t a technical problem, but a cultural one. It’s very difficult to fix a cultural problem because it resides in one’s heart [and mind],” he said.

“Some people agree that we should be able to conduct cultural activities in a natural and friendly way.  But others don’t like it and [cut the electricity] because of that.”

In an emailed response to RFA’s questions about the event, Ukrainian Chargé d’Affaires Nataliya Zhynkina said that, despite the disruption, “I believe we all felt that we were surrounded by friendship.”

“We heard praises for the culture, history, living style and people of Ukraine, as well as words of consolation for the losses caused by the Russian army and my compatriots who are suffering,” she said.

Zhynkina cited the words of the wife of Ukraine’s Ambassador to Vietnam, who spoke at the end of Saturday’s cultural event, to describe the feelings of those in attendance.

“She said, ‘Our hearts are aching for our country every day when we receive horrifying news from home. But do you know when the pain eases? That’s when it’s shared by loved ones, Vietnamese people sharing the pain with Ukrainians.’”

Strong alliance

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Vietnam has repeatedly refused to condemn the war and also objected to a U.S.-led effort to suspend Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Earlier this month, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov became the first Russian cabinet minister to visit Hanoi since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” against Ukraine. His visit took place as Hanoi and Moscow celebrated the 10th anniversary of the so-called “comprehensive strategic partnership” that Vietnam has forged with only three nations in the world – the other two being China and India.

Moscow is Hanoi’s traditional ally and its biggest arms supplier. Most Vietnamese weaponry used by the navy and air force was bought from Russia, leading to a future dependence on Russian maintenance and spare parts, despite efforts to diversify arms supplies.

The weekend’s seminar was not the first Ukraine-related event in Hanoi to be blocked by authorities.

On March 5, police in the capital stopped people from leaving their homes to attend a charity event at the Ukrainian Embassy dedicated to raising funds for people in need in Ukraine. Another fundraising event planned for March 19 by a group of Ukrainians living in Hanoi was canceled due to police harassment, sources in the city told RFA at the time.

Despite COVID-19, bilateral trade between Vietnam and Russia reached U.S. $5.54 billion in 2021, a 14-percent increase from the previous year, according to official statistics.

Translated by Anna Vu. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.