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“Piss on Trump” Opens Up Much Needed Debates on Individual Rights Among Vietnamese

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Mai Khoi and her one-person protest "Piss on Trump". Photo credits: Facebook Do Nguyen Mai Khoi/AP/Getty Images.

In the late night of November 11, 2017, I saw the picture of Vietnamese singer Mai Khoi, a pro-democracy artist who has been dubbed “the Vietnamese Lady Gaga” by Western media in the past two years, holding a sign saying, “Piss on you, Trump” where the word “peace” was crossed out and written over by “piss”.

She was protesting President Trump, who, in her words, was “a misogynistic man”, and unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, had failed to mention the critical conditions of human rights defenders in Vietnam during his trip for the APEC 2017 meetings.

2017 marks the year that the pro-democracy movement there has experienced some of the worst crackdowns in recent times. During Trump’s visit, activists reported that they were being followed and that police guarded their houses, many also had to take refuge from their homes temporarily. Even before the trip, rumors have been circulating around that more arrests were to be made in the coming days, which worried many observers.

Yet, for Mai Khoi’s one-person protest, I did not think much of it at first. I chuckled at her sign, and then because of the report on Twitter by American journalist Bennett Murray, who works for German media, that police had started to harass her, I became a bit worried. But still, I went to bed hoping she would not get into too many troubles with the government. She is a public figure, the police would have been a bit more careful, I thought.

What I would never expect was to wake up the next day and found out not only that she was still being harassed by the police, but a backlash against Mai Khoi on social media in Vietnam also began. Even more perplexed was the fact that the critics not only were members of the general public or the government’s Internet trolls but also from some of the pro-democracy and pro-human rights camps inside and outside the country. And there were so many arguments being thrown around from everyone, myself included.

Mai Khoi was criticized for protesting against Trump instead of Xi Jinping who also in Hanoi at the same time because some thought Xi is the bigger enemy of all Vietnamese. Afterall, it was China that went after our sea waters, not the U.S.

There were people who complained that her message was too crude, or that it was not good manners to treat Trump that way. People even suspected that the Vietnamese government had allowed her to protest to make the U.S. president to “lose face.” Had she replaced the word Trump with Xi, she would have been beaten up right then and there by the Vietnamese authorities, some said.

The worst criticism probably was about her choice of fashion. Mai Khoi was also scolded for not wearing a bra. No proper woman would dress like that, so she did not deserve the right to protest, was the explanation of one critic. Many people demanded that she must give a reason to protest Trump. Not liking Trump or just hating his guts was not good enough, they argued, we hated Xi Jinping because the Chinese took our islands, but why did you have to hate Trump? What did Trump ever do to Vietnam and Vietnamese people?

Those who supported her simply stated that it was her right to protest and that it did not matter what her reasons were. Mai Khoi had the right to choose whom to protest against, and she did not have to offer a reason for why she picked Trump and not Xi.

So you can see how one could come to tear her hair out, trying to understand the phenomenon, like I was. And as the events unfolding before my own eyes, with each and every Facebook status and comment of people debating over Mai Khoi’s conduct, it started to dawn on me. We, the current generation of Vietnamese, have all been scrambling for pieces of information on human rights and individual freedoms without any guiding light for so long. And as such, each person was trying to scratch the architecture of those concepts based on his or her own understanding, which may or may not be in line with the already existed international standards.

And because the difference in understanding the very same concepts among us was so large that it seems as if everyone was fighting with each other, one way or another, about whether Mai Khoi had the right to protest the way she did. It was then that I could see why our thoughts and arguments were so different from each other, or why we had spent so much time to debate.

But who could blame us for wanting to go through such lengthy debates to get to the bottom of our arguments with one another? We were born and raised in an extremely closed society for such a long time. And for about half of our population, it has also been two, three generations living under a one party’s rule, one way of life, where individualism was banished from society to give space to communal and collective living.

Today, we are still living in a society that values uniformity and conformity over diversity, because our totalitarian political system controls our every single move. Worse, our ancestors also preserved a culture of obedience and filial piety and passed it on to us, where individual expressions were neither encouraged nor welcomed.

Not only that none of us was taught about human rights and freedom in school, books on these subjects were not that easy to get printed and sold in Vietnam. We also have not experienced using suitable platforms to engage in meaningful debates or learn how to agree to disagree. Engaging in political debates was not something that we could claim we were particularly trained for.

We had no experience living with different political views and diverse ways of life. In other words, we all thought we wanted to live in pluralistic society while in fact, we had no idea what it meant.

The Internet was the miracle that arrived and took many of us to a different world when it introduced us to new, and at the time could have been somewhat strange to some, concepts.

Nevertheless, instinctively, many of us knew that we wanted to experience living with the values of liberty, freedom, and individual rights. With every single aspect of our life, from our homes to our schools, from our bedrooms to our classrooms, from family life to society, being kept under a tight control, the pressure to take off the lid was unstoppable.

And with that, in the past twenty years since the Internet was first introduced in Vietnam, each of us had slowly learned – mostly by ourselves – how to push up that lid, so that we could reach the definition of human rights and liberty that many societies had long been established as universal and common values.

And though these values could have tasted like fresh dews in the early morning to us when we first had them, we also need to learn how not to choke on them.

The Mai Khoi’s incident was just another example of us still learning how to best apply the definitions of individual rights and freedom in our everyday’s life. Pro-democracy activist Paulo Nguyễn Hồ Nhật Thành wrote on his Facebook this morning: “Mai Khoi (unintentionally) created a debate where both sides, for and against her, had to utilize all that they had learned in order to create their best arguments, while members of the public could watch and learn … Only by having more debatable incidents like this, could us then, as a society, truly absorb the concepts of individual rights and freedom”.

I happen to agree with Paulo. As painful and uncomfortable as we are in having to debate with other people, including our dear friends who do not agree with us, we must continue this practice. At least, we are doing something that the generations before us were not afforded the opportunity to do so, and that is to open up dialogues and to engage each other in discussing our individual rights with our social issues as the backdrop.

Only through practice then we can come to have a common, better, and more thorough understanding of the freedoms we are all fighting for. This, I believe, is something Vietnamese people and activists can agree on.

We may disagree what freedom and individual rights mean, but nevertheless, we all want to have them and practice them. We may fight about what is the definition of pluralism, but there is no doubt that many of us do not want to continue living under the current one country-one leading party’s regime.

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Opinion-Section

Vietnam Should Stand In Solidarity With The People Of Myanmar

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Photo courtesy: Nikkei/Asia

On February 1 2021, the Myanmar military arrested and detained several prominent figures from the National League for Democracy (NLD), the ruling party of Myanmar prior to the recent coup. Among those arrested were Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. 

This was followed by a swift declaration of a state of emergency and the entrenchment of  military cronies in the Myanmar government. Min Aung Hlaing, the figurehead of this new budding dictatorship, stated that it was inevitable that the military would seize control; he alleged that last year’s election, which the military resoundingly lost, was fraudulent and that this coup was their way to ensure a smooth and stable transition towards “a genuine and disciplined demoractic system.” The actions of the Myanmar military have been met by both local and international backlash, criticism, and scrutiny despite their attempt to justify the coup.

Unprecedented numbers of Myanmar citizens have gathered to express their disapproval and anger towards the military through constant and relentless demonstrations and protests; some have even been arrested for their participation in these events. Even though the new regime has been attempting to quell these gatherings through the disruption of internet services, limiting telecommunications access, and through the enforcement of curfews, the Myanmar people have hardly faltered – they continue to remain steadfast and resolute in the face of escalating violence by Min Aung Hlaing’s fledgling dictatorship. 

On the international stage, the residents of other nations have organized demonstrations of their own in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Myanmar. Likewise, private citizens, NGOs, and various media outlets have been spreading awareness of the situation and have placed the actions of this dictatorship under the scrutiny of the rest of the free world. Some foreign countries, such as the United States, now under the Biden administration, have imposed economic sanctions to pressure the Myanmar military into compliance. 

The United Nations Human Rights Council, despite the dissenting voices of China, Bolivia, Venezuela, Russia, and the Philippines, has also made several demands of the current ruling power of Myanmar, such as a call for the immediate lifting of the declaration of the state of emergency and the release of all arbitrarily detained individuals.

Justice for Myanmar, a group of undercover activists that aims to improve the lives of all people in their homeland, has recently published a list of people, businesses, and organizations under the control and sway of the military junta. These entities provided the Myanmar military with assets and sources of revenue that aided it in its systemic takeover of the country that further lined the pockets of those in control. 

Justice for Myanmar calls on “the international community to impose immediate comprehensive and targeted sanctions against the Myanmar military in response to their Feb 1 coup and their continuing violations of international law, including their campaign of genocide against the Rohingya and war crimes and crimes against humanity in ethnic regions.” 

This published report lists 133 businesses fully or partially controlled by the Myanmar military, the names of 174 directors of those businesses, 112 other businesses which the military gets additional income from, and 32 state-owned enterprises that were formerly under the control of civilian institutions. While a majority of the businesses stated are based in Myanmar, there are a number which operate in other neighboring countries such as Vietnam, South Korea, and Japan.

Yadanar Maung, the spokesperson for Justice For Myanmar, states that the “brutal and illegitimate Feb 1 coup, is enabled by their business interests. The Myanmar military leadership uses business to enrich themselves at the expense of the Myanmar people and finance their brutal campaigns of repression….” He then adds that several international businesses such as Kirin Holdings and Viettel empowered the Myanmar military and that their continued operation in the country will only serve to further embolden the junta to commit further atrocities against its people. 

With money being an essential factor in the military takeover, one of the most effective ways to aid the struggle of the citizens of Myanmar is through severing relations with those institutions and companies that actively do business with the junta.

In Vietnam, as private citizens in our own country, something as simple as refusing to patronize businesses like Viettel is a start. Those with direct connections to organizations that work with the businesses on the list may take it a step further and call for these groups to distance themselves from the junta. With enough people, we could even petition our government to look into whether or not they actively do business with any of the corporations in the report in a bid to expose and terminate these agreements. 

Yet, something as simple and cliche-sounding as discussing this issue with family and friends serves this purpose as well. 

After all, the situation in Myanmar is not a story in a vacuum, but rather it is one of many tales regarding the struggle of freedom against the ever rising threat of authoritarianism in the world. It is merely one chapter in the anthology of human history, of the conflict between those who persevere for the betterment of all against those who would enrich only themselves at the expense of everyone else. 

As such, the events in Myanmar cannot be willfully ignored, and we have to stand as a unified front against tyranny, selfishness, and deceit. And thankfully, a few exceptions notwithstanding, the rest of the world seems to be on the same page. 

All in all, the Justice for Myanmar report, the words of its spokesperson, and all the corollary information derived from the available facts underscore the reality that this coup was not the result of grave injustice, nor the misplaced nationalistic sentiments of the Myanmar military; it is the result of the callousness and unending greed of those who would willingly choose to set their nation ablaze rather than let power slip from their fingertips through legitimate democratic mechanisms. 

It is the last resort of a delusional group of people destined to fade into the annals of history as nothing more than a footnote in a textbook. Times are changing and the people of Myanmar have spoken. True democracy will come to them in time as it has come to several other nations in the past. And while the fight rages in the streets of Naypyidaw all the way to the alleys of Kawthaung, the united people of the free world stand in solidarity, in kinship, and in brotherhood with the Myanmar citizens in their struggle for lasting democracy and freedom.

In Vietnam, we are hoping that our human rights and democracy activists will also take the opportunity to stand in solidarity with the people of Myanmar.

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Opinion-Section

Watching The US Presidential Election While Dreaming About Vietnam’s Free Election At The Commune Level

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Propaganda in Hanoi to encourage people to vote in the 2016 National Assembly election. Photo courtesy: Baotintuc.vn

This op-ed article was written in Vietnamese by Ly Minh and previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on November 6, 2020. The translation was done by Jade NG.

***

Although I am a Vietnamese citizen, I anxiously watched the US presidential election in November 2020. Many of my friends in Vietnam also did the same thing. We eagerly watched every turn of that election as if we were personally voting for our own head of state.

The Vietnamese public’s interest in the US presidential election every four years can be seen through the headlines of our newspapers. The mainstream media updates many Vietnamese readers on every step of the thrilling race to the White House.

Looking eagerly at the news every day about  the US presidential election, I cannot help but wonder whether or not the Vietnamese people earnestly wish to elect their own leaders.

In the political context of Vietnam, I understand that this question is a taboo. Needless to say, everyone knows that the current political regime in Vietnam does not allow the Vietnamese to exercise their voting right as in the United States.

Theoretically, the Vietnamese elect their National Assembly delegates through the National Assembly election once every five years. Then, on behalf of the Vietnamese people, the National Assembly delegates elect our national leaders.

Thus, elections in Vietnam ironically have been going on smoothly, albeit with many predictable results. Surprises rarely happen in those elections. Throughout my own monitoring of the National Assembly elections in Vietnam, I found the saying “the Party selects, the People elect” a very reasonable way to explain the development and the results of elections in Vietnam.

The secret desire of many Vietnamese people, including myself, is to have the freedom to make our decisions and to choose our state leaders, and even the National Assembly delegates who actually represent our voices when deciding the big decisions for the country.

That desire is expressed indirectly by many people through monitoring and discussing the US presidential election, as if we were voting for our own state leaders. A friend of mine lamented on Facebook: “I look at the US election and all I  can feel is pain for the Vietnamese people.”

It is impossible not to feel hurt.

Governance is democratic when each vote of the citizens decides who the leaders will be. Every vote influences the final result. The thrill of the US election right up until the last minute was because those of us who watched the election’s progress could see the importance of each ballot cast by the American voters.

Because each person’s vote is so important, the presidential candidates of the US must find ways to enlist the support of their voters, to specialize their campaigns for each state, to come up with policies that please local voters to gain support for the candidates, and even to try to entice the neutral voters.

Meanwhile, looking back at the political situation in Vietnam, my country’s people have no decisive voice in deciding who will become our leaders. Therefore, in Vietnam, many people are not excited about politics and are not interested in who will become the general secretary, the president of the country, the president of the National Assembly, and the prime minister. It is simply because Vietnamese citizens do not have the right, through their votes to influence the selection of these above positions.

Those who are knowledgeable about politics in Vietnam understand that the Party decides all the leadership positions in the country. Some three or four million members of the ruling Communist Party decide for almost 100 million Vietnamese people. Party members also decide all of the major issues of the country through their secret meetings, where the press is not allowed to cover any news. And the public? The public only knows about the results which are often announced by  Party officials after those meetings.

This is the reality about the Vietnamese political situation that I, a Vietnamese citizen, am forced to accept. But I personally think that many people who also accept that reality do not comprehensively support it.

Of course, I fully understand that some supporters of the current regime would argue that the Vietnamese people have the right to vote for the head of the country through the National Assembly delegates. However, I just want to ask two simple questions. First, do you remember who you voted for in a recent election? Second, do you feel happy when your delegate wins the election or sad when she or he fails?

Having an election such as in the United States is a distant dream for the Vietnamese. Nevertheless, I have only a small dream, which is that our local people can one day elect the leaders of their wards or communes, free and fair, by themselves. Hopefully, my dream will come true soon so that in the future I can proudly tell my children and grandchildren that I have elected our ward president in a past election.

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Opinion-Section

“Law of the Jungle” for Pham Doan Trang

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The arrest of Pham Doan Trang on October 6, 2020. Photo courtesy: Luat Khoa Magazine

This article was written in Vietnamese by songwriter Tuan Khanh and published on The New Viet magazine. The Vietnamese would like to thank The New Viet and author Tuan Khanh for allowing us to translate and publish this article in English. This article was translated into English by Y Chan.

***

While combing through my notes about Pham Doan Trang, I recalled many details which only now have been connected together, which could make up a symbolic book depicting the journey of a young person, from growing up under the socialist educational system to breaking out of the barbed wire of propaganda. She raised her voice to become a symbol of Vietnamese youth born after 1975, who committed themselves to an ideology to help their country rise up.

But what is no less crucial is that along the same journey, we have also experienced a depiction of Vietnamese law, a legal system that is used by the state as “joss paper” to be burnt in traditional ritual and sanctimonious duties, which in essence is completely meaningless. 

Pham Doan Trang has unwittingly somehow become the main character in a tragic story that unveils, through her blood and tears, the nature of that so-called legal system. 

I have uncovered that brief personal struggle of hers and found three markers that could have predicted many recent events.

Pham Doan Trang has always opted to fight for democracy in a peaceful manner through her writings. But the “law” that surrounds her is completely the opposite. 

The first marker was in April, 2017, when the situation around Trang had grown intense. The Hanoi police shelved their kind and friendly attitude toward her, opting for other more “direct” measures. It started with a bicycle demonstration in Hanoi that was stopped by the police. The event was meant to commemorate the anniversary of the Formosa environmental disaster, which resulted in massive fish deaths in the seas off the coastal provinces in central Vietnam. Despite not having taken part in the demonstration, Pham Doan Trang was taken to the police station for interrogation.

“Mother fucker you cuntface!”  Trang recalls a young policeman pointing at her and shouting, angered because he was unable to tell her why she had been detained. When Trang protested against his attitude, the young officer, again unable to respond, shouted again, “I’ll pee in your fucking mouth”. It happened in front of several other police officers, women included. But all stayed dead silent. The incident marked the beginning of a stage when the police no longer treated Trang as a normal citizen who raised her voice on social issues. After that unlawful arrest, journalist Pham Doan Trang started to face much more brutal treatment from the authorities.

The second marker was June, 2018, when many demonstrations broke out in Saigon and Hanoi, protesting the lack of environmental protections as well as voicing criticisms against the Cyber Security Law and the Special Economic Zone Law. Trang took part in one of the demonstrations. She noticed at the time the presence of a young muscular man who was silently walking beside her. She felt a bit doubtful, but assured herself that the man would do no harm to her, but simply follow her.

She was wrong. In the midst of all the chaos and confusion when the demonstrators encountered the police, the young man suddenly approached and stamped on her foot to keep it from moving, then very skillfully delivered a kick under her knee. Trang immediately fell to the ground. The ankle joint, severely injured, swelled. The young man quickly vanished. She thought it was just a minor injury that would heal itself within days. But severe pain later forced her to go to the hospital.

In the two hospitals she visited in Hanoi for examination, after taking X-rays, the doctors all assured her that her injury was nothing serious and that she needed no treatment at all. Later, sensing something was not right, Trang decided to see a doctor she personally knew who worked in a hospital in Saigon. Only then did she find out that the expert kick she had suffered that day had seriously damaged her cruciate ligament, leaving only an almost necrotic lingering fibrous tissue. Had this injury gone undetected for just one more day, she might have had to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. 

What is a cruciate ligament? As the doctor explained, it is used to connect the thigh bone (femur) and shin bone (tibia), keeping the lower extremity straight and bearing the body weight while still enabling the folding and stretching activity through the knee joint. When the cruciate ligament is damaged, the thigh bone and shin bone instead of bonding to each other will become two loosely connected bones, and can not form a structure that bears the body weight while standing.

The kick on the knee will make the knee joint abruptly turn inward, either tearing or stretching the cruciate ligament. This kind of injury is mostly seen in football when a footballer suffers from a malicious foul or in tennis when a player folds his knee while falling down. Or, as in this case, it is the result of a powerful kick from someone who is well trained and knows exactly the consequences of his act. Although having recovered and been saved from losing her leg, Trang now has to spend the rest of her life limping, never again regaining her ability to walk normally.

The third marker was at the concert of singer Nguyen Tin in August, 2018. The melody was replaced by a continuous banging, the sound of bike helmets being smashed against Trang’s head. The act, performed passionately by four fully-masked young men with strong northern accents who were on motorcycles, lasted until the helmets broke apart.

According to Trang, right before this beating, she was taken away by the police after they interrupted the concert and arrested several other people, including her. She was pushed into a seven-seater car and driven to a deserted street in the middle of the night. One officer, who seemed to be the man in charge, then ordered her to get out of the car. Having all her personal identification papers and belongings confiscated by the police, Trang protested and tried to explain to the police that there was no way she could get back if she was left alone in that area. The man in charge handed her a 200,000 dong note (less than US$9) and told her to take a taxi. 

Standing in the middle of a street, confused and still in pain after the initial strikes by the police at the concert, Trang noticed the police car did not leave but stopped a few hundred meters away, from where the officers kept watching her. That was then the helmet-attack happened, after four young men on two motorcycles suddenly approached her. The young men immediately got to work without saying anything, striking her on the head, adding the curse “fucking” with every blow. Only when they all left did Trang manage to hobble away and seek help to get to a hospital.

The stories from the three markers that I point to are filled with countless acts that don’t fit into any legal framework. One can relate such acts to the kind of tactics used by criminal gangs who exert their brutal power to control their turf. The systematic and gang-like attacks used against this woman were planned and coordinated in a perfect manner, and any law-abiding citizen could easily become a victim of such brutality.

And now when Pham Doan Trang has been arrested under some very obscure laws, the joss paper is burning once again on the legal altar where the laws are put on the stage just for show.

In the coming trial for Pham Doan Trang, none of these stories will be mentioned. The Vietnamese State never represses its citizens. No peaceful activists have ever been arrested. Only those who break the law are rightfully punished. There are no human rights violations in this country. Vietnam is a country that always respects and ensures human rights. These words will be engraved on the joss paper being burned on the stage where people who put on judge’s robes hand down their law of the jungle.

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