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.