Taboo on politics fuels conspiracy theories

General Thanh appears in public after weeks of speculation

General Thanh appears in public after weeks of speculation. Photo courtesy VTV

And so it seems, rumours of the general’s death were much exaggerated.

After weeks of frantic speculation and outlandish theories on social media, the Defence Minister Phung Quang Thanh, has appeared in public.

In full uniform and flanked by other top military officials, he was shown on state television on Monday night attending a ceremony to thank wounded soldiers.

The government says he underwent an operation for a lung tumour while visiting in Paris in late June.

Not many of Vietnam’s millions of young cyber addicts were prepared to buy such a prosaic explanation.

The waves of rumours have highlighted how the deeply secretive nature of Vietnam’s leadership breeds mistrust – and how quickly conspiracy theories can spread and gain credence through social media.

The whispering began in late June when General Thanh, seen as a contender for a top leadership post at next year’s Communist Party Congress, went to Paris on an official visit.

Unfounded theories spread rapidly on Facebook that he had been shot in an assassination attempt.

The speculation gained such credence that the Communist Party leadership felt compelled to respond a few days later.

The medical team assigned to look after the inner circle of the leadership put out a statement.

General Thanh, at a recent meeting with reporters. Photo Courtesy of Truoi Tre

General Thanh, at a recent meeting with reporters. Photo Courtesy of Truoi Tre

It said that General Thanh had undergone an operation in Paris for a benign lung tumour.

The statement said he had been coughing for some time and his illness was thought to have developed from an injury he received while fighting in South Vietnam during the war in the late 1960s.

The statement did nothing to dampen speculation.

The assumption of the cyber warriors was that, at the very least, General Thanh had terminal lung cancer and would not be around much longer.

A report by a European news agency that General Thanh had died fueled a new wave of excitement.

The report was attributed to an unnamed “defence source” in Hanoi. It was later withdrawn with an apology to the general, if not to the reading public.

Official statements that General Thanh was alive and well and firing off messages of congratulation to various military units appeared to many to be a clumsy attempt at a cover up.

General Thanh and comrades

General Thanh’s unexplained absence fueled rumours

Even the general’s return to Hanoi at the weekend was not enough for some. There was excited talk of a body double or perhaps an animated waxwork – the Communist Party’s chums in Beijing, so the story went, are experts at that sort of thing.

The party lost its monopoly on information some time ago.

Its ability to control the narrative on any given story diminishes with every day. Facebook users in Vietnam now exceed 30 million and they love nothing more than a good political rumour.

The saga of General Thanh and his (alleged) lung tumour look like the opening shot in a long run up to next year’s Party Congress and leadership reshuffle.

The party will do everything it can to keep the lid on any open political discussion.

There will be no reports and leaks in official media of jockeying for position and secret deals between various party factions.

The inner workings of the Communist party are one of the great taboos of Vietnamese politics. Anyone poking their nose in risks severe repercussions.

But that can of worms has already been opened by Vietnam’s growing band of courageous bloggers and millions of Facebookers.

The political season this time is going to look very different to the party congresses of the past.

How the party leadership will respond is anyone’s guess.