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Censorship in Vietnam: JFK Miller Interviews Thomas Bass

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  • With permission from author Thomas Bass, The Vietnamese is pleased to reprint the interview Mr. Bass has given to JFK Miller, a Melbourne-based journalist, in February 2018 on his latest book, Censorship in Vietnam: Brave New World 

Thomas A. Bass’s 2009 book The Spy Who Loved Us dissects the double life of Pham Xuan An, a correspondent for Time during the Vietnam War and a contemporary of Peter Arnett, Richard Pyle, and Morley Safer. As American radio blasted Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’ to signal the evacuation of embassy personnel in those final tumultuous hours of April 30, 1975, An was Time’s last man standing, the magazine’s sole remaining reporter in Saigon as the North Vietnamese tanks rolled in. In truth, he was part of the welcome brigade. An was a spy who used his journalistic contacts to feed vital intelligence to Hanoi. Time’s Zalin Grant, who worked alongside An, called him “the first known case of a Communist agent to appear on the masthead of a major American publication.”

But An’s tale is a story within a story. Bass’s latest book, Censorship in Vietnam: Brave New World (University of Massachusetts Press, 2017), recalls his experience with Vietnam’s state censorship apparatus when he tried to get a translation of The Spy Who Loved Us published in Vietnam. He succeeded, but at a cost — five years of negotiations and no less than 400 cuts to his manuscript.

Was it worth it? Bass himself answers that question below. For me, the reader, the answer is a resounding yes. The censorship experience Bass recounts in his book paints a vivid picture of present-day Vietnam, and it’s not a flattering one. Economically, the country is one of Asia’s “new” tigers which last year posted the world’s second-fastest growth rate. Politically, however, it’s a paranoid and insecure beast which lacks the ability to confront its own past and look squarely at its own present (Bass does not mince words: Vietnam is “a culture in ruins,” he writes). I traveled to the country several times in the ’90s, but am ashamed to say my conception of Vietnam was cryogenically frozen somewhere between The Quiet American and Apocalypse Now. Well, it was, until I read this book.

My connection with Thomas Bass comes via our different but eerily similar experiences with state censorship – his with Vietnam, mine with China. As I worked my way through his book it struck me how alike the censorship systems in both countries are. And then on page 83, I learned why: Hanoi takes its cues straight from Beijing. The dissident novelist Pham Thi Hoai explains, “We always look to the Chinese and copy them… it is mandatory for every high Vietnamese official to get training in China once a year, just as it was in the time of the Cold War. It is no accident that every campaign and law adopted in China is introduced into Vietnam six months later.”

It’s perhaps no surprise then that Vietnam’s military conflicts with China, including the incredibly brutal 1979 conflict in which tens of thousands died on both sides in less than a month, are glossed over in school textbooks.

But this is simply one of the censorship’s many casualties. Writers and journalists are routinely given draconian prison terms for speaking truth to power. Criticism of the Chinese is censored, as is praise for the French and Americans (“they are not allowed to have taught the Vietnamese anything,” writes Bass). Disparagement of communism and communist party officials is banned, together with the discussion of “government policy, military strategy… minority rights, human rights, democracy, calls for political pluralism, allusions to revolutionary events in other communist countries, distinctions between north and south Vietnamese, and stories about Vietnamese refugees.”

Whether it’s novels or journalism, there’s an overarching optimism that must pervade writing in Vietnam that is forced upon its writers by state censors. Either be censored, self-censor, or be damned. A 1988 novel by the above-mentioned Pham Thi Hoai, The Crystal Messenger (which I’ve not read, but now want to because of Bass’s book), was banned for the reason that its view of Vietnam was “excessively pessimistic.” No surprise that she now lives in self-imposed exile in Berlin, a place where, unlike her homeland, she is lauded for her work.

My one criticism of Bass’ book is the choice of the most prosaic of titles – Censorship in Vietnam – with a nod to Huxley in the subtitle. But this is small beer. On the whole, this is a tremendously eye-opening book, and thoroughly readable. Our discussion follows.

***

Why was it important to you to have a translation of your book published in Vietnam, especially know that it would be censored?

Communicating across borders interest me. There is much to be learned and much to be unlearned, and even the misunderstandings are revelatory. Look what happened when I tried to mail you a copy of Censorship in Vietnam from the U.S. The book was returned to me several weeks later by “homeland security.” Who would have guessed that the “JFK” in your name – honoring of the 35th president of the United States – was suspicious? But apparently, according to the paranoids who patrol our borders, initials without complete first names imply criminal intent. So it took another 20 bucks and the entire “John Fitzgerald Kennedy” to get you a copy of my book.

Another answer to your question has to do with surviving as an author. My books have been translated into various foreign editions, and I enjoy traveling to literary events in far-flung places. So why not add Hanoi? Nha Nam, the Vietnamese publisher of my book, was supposed to be the country’s best. I would be joining the likes of Vladimir Nabokov, Milan Kundera, and Orhan Pamuk. Not bad company.

But I think you’re asking a more serious question, which is the subject of Censorship in Vietnam. If I knew how much grief I would be getting for translating The Spy Who Loved Us into Vietnamese, why did I invite it? The answer is pretty straightforward. I wanted to conduct an experiment. Exactly how much grief was coming my way, and who would be cranking the handle?

Did you brace yourself for a rough ride, or did you go into it thinking that you might perhaps get away with more than you thought you could?

I knew that chunks of my book on Pham Xuan An would be removed. It was full of subversive material – by which I mean material that the Vietnamese consider subversive – conversations with exiled writers, accusations of corruption in the Communist Party of Vietnam, jokes about how ugly the language has become in postwar Vietnam.

My Vietnamese publisher and my literary agent in New York and subagents in Tokyo and Bangkok all assured me that I had nothing to worry about, that none of the books they had published in Vietnam had been censored. They were either ignorant or lying, but it’s also true that no one pays much attention to foreign rights. A book goes into Polish or Portuguese, and very few authors have the time or skills required to check the translation. I had been tipped 3 off to the fact that even novels and poetry are censored in Vietnam. So a nonfiction book about a Vietnamese spy who claimed to have loved the United States and the values of investigative reporting and Western journalism was certainly going to be censored.

For the few hundred bucks my literary agent was making on the deal, he kindly allowed me to rewrite the standard publishing contract for the sale of translation rights, and then we patiently negotiated these changes as the contract was bounced back and forth between New York and Hanoi. I inserted clauses about prior review and final approval of the translation, and I larded the contract with trip switches, so that every time the censors moved on me I had to be notified. The manuscript became a kind of early warning system, ding, ding, dinging on my desk, at every stroke of a censor’s pen. And in Vietnam, as you yourself found in China, there is not just one censor, but various tag teams and competing groups of censors, which operate in a hierarchy of censors that stretches all the way up to the head of the Communist Party. Each level in this hierarchy is afraid of getting whacked by the one above it. So the natural urge is to adopt what the French call langue de bois – the wooden speech of martinets and political hacks. This is how a culture dies … but at least the censors will never be out of a job.

Given my jerry-rigged publishing contract, I owe a great debt of thanks to the editors at Nha Nam who honoured this contract. I was a pain in their necks, if not dangerous to the survival of their company, but still they notified me every step along the way. At the end of five years, my book was radioactive. My original editor had quit the company and quit publishing altogether. The project had been at death’s door a half dozen times, and many of us were surprised when printed copies of the book finally appeared – briefly – on bookshelves in Hanoi and Saigon.

Did you ever consider simply pulling the plug and abandoning the translation altogether?

Remember, this was an experiment, with every twist and turn in the process producing “data.” At the most basic level, I was studying the Vietnamese language. How has it changed since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975? Pham Xuan An complained about these changes when I was interviewing him for “The Spy Who Loved Us,” which began as an article for The New Yorker and later became a book with the same title. He said the Vietnamese language was being corrupted by Marxist-Leninist gobbledygook borrowed from Russia and Maoist terms imported from China. To learn how to speak this new language, An was sent to a “re-education” camp for ten months. “I was a bad student,” he said. “They never understood my jokes, but at least I didn’t do anything serious enough for them to shoot me.” (An’s “re-education camp” was actually a military academy outside Hanoi for training high-level officials, but I believe him when he says the experience was bone-chillingly boring.)

Censoring books in Vietnam begins before the first word is translated. In this case, the person chosen to translate my book was a north Vietnamese journalist fluent in gobbledygook. He produced quotes that sounded nothing like the south Vietnamese spy about whom I was writing. The publisher was surprised that I cared about these things or knew enough to want the language changed. A nonfiction book for them was the equivalent of an encyclopedia entry. Give us the information, and give it to us in today’s language – in this case, the language spoken in North Vietnam, which is where most of the book-buying public lives. There was also a good dose of prejudice at work. The South Vietnamese lost the war, which means that not only their political system but also their culture and language are in the process of being effaced.

After the censored Vietnamese-language copy was published in print, you released an uncensored version on the Internet. Can you explain why this was important to you?

Censorship is so crushing in Vietnam that many authors are skipping printed publications and releasing their work directly to the web. In my case, I wanted to see what the printed book looked like. I wanted to evaluate the damage done to the text by Vietnam’s censors, count up the number of cuts and alterations, and study the people and ideas that got erased.

After assembling my literary seismograph – in other words, after The Spy Who Loved Us was translated and released in Vietnam (although not under that title, which the censors considered far too dangerous)-I felt obliged to provide my Vietnamese readers with a copy of the original book. This too is standard practice in Vietnam. Even when a book is printed, people go to the web to find what everyone assumes will be a more accurate version online.

At the same time, I wanted to conduct a second experiment. Vietnam’s censors work across borders. You can’t publish books online with impunity. Electronic publications will be attacked by trolls, worms, viruses, denunciation campaigns, denial of service attacks, bribery, extortion – whatever works to get them taken down. I don’t want to exaggerate the risks I took, which were nothing compared to my Vietnamese colleagues, but the Vietnamese version of my book – the complete version published online in Berlin on computers hardened against attacks from Vietnam’s censors – invited retaliation. It was attacked in a variety of ways. The translator was forced to drop out. He also pulled his translation, which we could no longer use. People threatened to sue me. The internet lit up with chatter maligning me and the project. The Berlin web site went down a few times, but it held fast against the censors and trolls, due to the good work of exiled author Pham Thi Hoai, whose site for many years has been the rallying point for opposition to Vietnam’s communist police state.

When you engaged the dissident Pham Hong Son to translate your book for the Berlin release, did it weigh on your mind that you might be condemning him to another hefty prison term? (Son had already spent five years in prison and another seven under house arrest for translating essays on democracy).

As I mentioned, the first translator for the unexpurgated version of The Spy Who Loved Us, was forced to quit. Enough threats were brought to bear that he felt he had no choice. Pham Hong Son is a different kind of person altogether. After spending five years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, for translating an essay on democracy and recommending this form of government to his fellow countrymen, he went on doing exactly the same thing after he was released to house arrest. Trained as a medical doctor, a true intellectual and patriot, he is a brave man, someone whom I admire and am lucky to count as a friend. He did the work for free because he thought it was important, and ever since then, I have been looking for some way to repay him.

In your book’s foreword you ask the question central to all of this. Could China and Vietnam’s governance model become the new normal? It pains me to acknowledge this, but democracy, with all its trappings – not least of which, freedom of speech and freedom of the press – is in bad odor at the moment, while the Vietnam/PRC model, which puts economic development above free speech, is in the ascendancy. Add to this, declining American power and an Oval Office occupant who has turned American democracy (indeed all democracy, I would argue) into a global laughing stock, and Reagan’s “Shining City on a Hill” now looks like a faltering candle. Is it any real surprise that countries like Vietnam and China seem to have more faith in their political systems than we currently do in ours? And do you not think that democratic reformers in Vietnam are, at least for now, fighting an impossible battle?

This is the key question of the moment. As the western democracies falter and lose faith in themselves, as they debase their elections, trade freedom for security, and forget their founding principles, people think that police states with good shopping look attractive.

This is an illusion. In fact, it is a dangerous illusion. Censorship can kill you. The absence of free speech can kill you. Not knowing the truth can kill you. These are fundamental values, not to be sold at any price, but they are also tools for survival. This argument was made by Nobel-prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, when he was asked by the Indian government to advise them on which model they should choose for development: the open societies of the West or China’s surveillance state, which is attractive at the moment because of its economic growth. Sen warned his compatriots not to go for the shiny lure. He reminded them about China’s Great Leap Forward, which was actually a great leap backward, killing at least 30 million people in a devastating famine. What caused this social collapse? Censorship – a skein of lies spun to please Chairman Mao, ignorance about what was happening in the countryside, courtiers, and buffoons who reported good news in place of facts. Exactly what’s happening in the United States today.

China has been called “a consumerist totalitarian state.” The description is just as apt for Vietnam, I think. In this type of polity, economic growth trumps personal freedom. The idea is that you cannot have both, that personal freedom must give way to economic development, that the two cannot possibly work in tandem. First World economic parity must be attained before you can even start to think about personal freedoms.

Vietnam, like China, is indeed a consumerist totalitarian state, and it too believes that good shopping can replace good governance. It thinks that substituting material goods for freedom is a bargain its citizens will buy. The people I write about in Censorship in Vietnam disagree. For them, freedom is a muscle that atrophies if you don’t use it. They think that all this talk about putting development first and democracy last is a bunch of ideological hooey. This argument is good for nothing more than buttressing the police state and building the walls behind which the ruling elites do their serious stealing. Who ever said that economic development and personal freedom are mutually exclusive? The history of our two countries, the United States and Australia, proves that the opposite is true. In fact, as the United States becomes less democratic and slides toward authoritarian rule, its economic development and leading role in science and technology will be weakened.

In the book, you write that state censorship is producing an intellectual wasteland in Vietnam, and yet I can’t help but think that we’re also suffering from this in the West, despite our having all the freedoms available to us and all the advantages of the digital age. We live in an era where knowledge has never been more widely available, and yet we seem to have succeeded in becoming remarkably ignorant (the rise of populism is not just restricted to the U.S). In a way, it makes us more culpable for our ignorance than those who live under authoritarian regimes. In their system, censorship is preventing them from getting to the truth, but we in the West have no such excuse.

I agree with you that these are perilous times. We are dancing on the edge of the volcano. We are distracted, forgetful, ignorant about our history, and incurious about our future. Plato wrote about this in his allegory of the cave, and here we are, twenty-five hundred years later, still chained to our seats, staring at shadows on the walls. “Democracy dies in darkness” is the motto adopted by The Washington Post after last year’s election in the United States. This sounds vaguely apocalyptic, but the paper’s editor is not looking for salvation in a Batmobile. He is reminding us about the importance of getting the news and learning how to sift truth from falsehood. You know the old joke, “What’s the difference between an optimist and a pessimist? A pessimist is better informed.” This is the golden age of journalism. I can wake up in the morning and before my first sip of coffee peruse headlines from Tokyo to Timbuktu. Sure, the amount of fake news and the stupidity of my optimistic neighbors is unnerving. But in this case, it’s up to me to loosen my chains and turn around if I want to see outside the cave.

You write that censorship exists in all societies, whether it is the state censorship of authoritarian regimes like Vietnam or the “soft censorship” of Western liberal democracies where dissenting views are side-lined. I want to take issue with this, if I may. To me, this a false equivalency. Here, people can express their opinions, while in authoritarian states they are prevented from doing so. Someone may risk marginalisation for expressing a non-mainstream view (whether it’s unpopular, unpatriotic, unorthodox, racist, or simply ignorant), but that person still has the right to say it.

I wasn’t arguing that “soft censorship” is the same as the hard variety, which is enforced by prison sentences or, in the most extreme cases, by death. I think that censorship exists along a continuum. It begins with ideological conformity, fear of retribution, a limited number of media outlets owned by large corporations, PR campaigns, book bannings, surveillance, disinformation, and propaganda. It moves from there to state-run security apparatuses, government control of the media, gulags, torture, and other means by which the state exercises its power. I oppose all forms of censorship, whether they be ideological or market-based. Some deserve more strenuous opposition than others, but all merit the light of discovery and condemnation.

What reaction (or denunciation) from Hanoi do you expect for publishing Censorship in Vietnam?

When the uncensored Vietnamese translation of The Spy Who Loved Us was published in Berlin – with side-by-side comparisons showing the 400 passages that had been cut or altered and with extensive commentary on how censorship works in Vietnam – the publication provoked a firestorm of criticism on the Vietnamese web. Hundreds of messages (not all of them written by trolls) accused me of “betraying” my subjects. I had quoted people without their permission or refused to remove their names when they asked me to do so. (Censoring books after publication is standard operating procedure in Vietnam. If something becomes too controversial or people get scared about being quoted, then a book disappears from the shelves. Even newspaper interviews are never conducted “on the record,” because the record can always be revised or erased.) The firestorm of criticism became the party line on Thomas Bass. He’s a backstabbing, bumpy-nosed betrayer of Vietnamese values who deserves to be censored and, in fact, he reveals the value of censorship, if it keeps people like him out of Vietnamese bookstores. At moments like this, I remember the advice of Henri Beyle, better known to us by his pen name Stendhal, who consoled himself by saying that he wrote for “the Happy Few.”

Now that your book has been published do you have any reservations about returning to Vietnam? Say you were invited to speak about your book at a literary festival in Hanoi. Would you be concerned about any repercussions?

I would be pleased to return to Vietnam. In spite of their benighted government, the people and the country are quite marvelous. Many brave dissidents are currently at work in Vietnam, and I would like to support them. I don’t know whether I’m brave or foolhardy or simply have the bones of a working journalist, but on my next trip to Vietnam, I plan to stuff my suitcase with copies of Censorship in Vietnam and try to carry them over the border. The electronic edition has yet to appear, and I have a lot of friends who would appreciate receiving a copy – even if they have to wrap it in brown paper or hide it under their beds. This will be another small attempt at lighting a match in the darkness.

Human Rights

Montagnards: Persecuted in Vietnam, Living in Limbo in Thailand

Over the past two decades since it first began, Hanoi’s persecution of the indigenous peoples of the Central Highlands is still raging on.

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Four among at least 500 Montagnards people living in limbo in Thailand. Photo: Thinh Nguyen.

Tran Duy – Ha Anh

On the morning of April 19, 2008, indigenous villagers of Ia Piar – more than 80 km away from the Gia Lai provincial capital in Pleiku – were heading to their commune people’s committee with well prepared posters and banners calling for religious freedom and the protection of land ownership. They had their own “battle plan” ready, but so did the authorities.

Soon after the protest began, the villagers, who are Protestants, ran into a group of strangers carrying wooden sticks in their hands. For no reason, the protesters were severely threatened and beaten by these people. To save their lives, the villagers ran off in different directions, except for Nay Them, who was arrested despite not having joined the protest.

Nay Them recalls how the meeting room of the district police, where he was first interrogated,  soon turned into a “slaughterhouse”. The police tied him to a chair with electric wires. He was tied so tightly he could barely move, not even a centimeter.

As if in a Hollywood movie, policemen kept walking around Nay while his whole body was shaking violently after being kicked, slapped, and beaten with batons that directly struck his head. Being shaken up after falling down from the chair, he was beaten over and over again. The people who hit him no longer considered him as one of their compatriots.

There was no attempt to talk to him nicely or to reason with him. Or maybe it was simply because this tactic is not used for ethnic Jrai people such as Nay. He had no rights at all, not even the right to talk, or to even open his mouth.

The police insisted that Nay knew exactly where the protestors were hiding. They kept beating him over and again with their hands and a baton. “ Soldiers, plainclothes policemen, mobile policemen and even traffic policemen were enjoying beating me up”, said Nay. “One of them walked around me and finally hit my face with a baton”. Blood splattered from his swollen nose and eyes  until Nay fainted.

The next day, Nay woke up at a detention center with wounds all over his body. “I was in so much pain my eyes were swollen”, he recalls. “I could sit but could not open my eyes. I could not eat for five days”.

Ia Piar Commune is almost 80 km away from Pleiku, the provincial capital, and about 17 km away from the district police department.

Meanwhile, Nay’s brother-in-law, Siu Wiu, the person in charge of the protest, was hiding far away deep in the forest. Siu was a small, muscular Jrai, a typical example of the dark-skinned Montagnards in the Central Highlands. His eyes were as sharp as a cat’s.

Every policeman in this district knew Siu Wiu. He had been sent to a re-education camp in 2004 under the charge of leading a demonstration. At the camp, Siu met 180 other Jrai people who were exploited while being held prisoner. They worked as sugar cane porters or builders from early morning until evening . “Everyone was beaten by hoe handles no matter who they were – young or senior citizens,” Nay said.

“We were arrested not for burglary, but for fighting for land protection and religious freedom”, he said. “Do you know if treating us like this is right or wrong?” Siu recalled asking one officer at the camp. 

Two years later, he was set free, the re-education camp having failed to change Siu’s thinking about the government.The camp gave him 160,000 dong, which was just enough to buy a bus ticket home, leaving him without any money to buy anything to eat on his way back to his village.

Meanwhile, Siu’s family members – all Protestants – continued to be targeted  because they had taken part in the protests. Some had been detained, arrested or imprisoned.

Siu Wiu was under house arrest while his father, Nay Bro, was imprisoned. “I was not allowed to do anything, and our land was also taken by the government,” Siu said. He added that the government had take three-quarters of his land, leaving just a little than 250 square meter left for farming. 

Facing such difficulties, he called for a protest in front of the people’s committee of the Ia Piar commune. Other villagers joined Siu in the protest.

“In order to convince the villagers to join this protest, I talked about the truth. They also lost their land so they followed me”, said Siu. “Their beliefs were threatened by the government. Their family members had been sent to prison for religious reasons. The government said that we were free to exchange information, free to communicate. But in fact, we would be arrested whenever we raised our voices.”

Protests such as this were not uncommon in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. From 2001 to 2008, demonstrations have taken place frequently in the area and thousands of people have fled to Cambodia to escape the government’s revenge.

One month hiding in the forest was too much for Siu Wiu. He decided to go home to look for more food, but he was detained immediately. “I was arrested at around 4 pm and severely tortured,” he said. “They tied my legs to the chair with a  hammock string and started to beat me until my mouth was swollen, my eyes could not open properly, and my ears were full of blood”.

Siu was sentenced to 10 years in prison at the end of December 2008.

Nay Them, who was released right after they caught Siu, never forgot what the policeman told him: “I understand that you don’t know about the protest, but as I was afraid that you would hide some information, I had to beat you first”.

The experiences of Nay Them, Nay Bro and Siu Wiu show how the Central Highlands of Vietnam is like a large prison for ethnic people who fight for their religious freedom and land rights. The more remote their villages are, the more controlling the local governments are. No law exists in these far-flung regions. 

No lawyers dared to defend them. In addition to being a warning to villagers of the high cost of joining protests, the mobile trials were also a government ruse to make it appear that those charged had been given a fair trial. The trials were a sham. And even when left prison after serving their time, they’d still never be free people.

Nay Bro had been sentenced to seven years in prison for sabotaging the great unity policy after being accused of organizing protests in 2005. At the detention center, he was imprisoned with 62 other Jrai, Ede and Bana people for their work on behalf of  land rights and religious freedom.

After being released from prison, the local police kept an eye on him as he remained a suspect in the  plotting of protests.

“On August 25, 2015, the police came to arrest me again,” said Nay Bro. “They came to my house while I was looking for bamboo shoots in the forest. When I headed back home, my wife informed me that there were 5-6 policemen visiting my house. They asked her to keep me in my house as they wanted to see me the next day. I would rather die in the forest than be put under communist surveillance”.

Nay Bro took his personal belongings and informed his daughter that he and his wife would be away for a few days to take care of some friends in the hospital. Nay and his wife hid in the forest for more than 11 days.

Stateless in Thailand

As a highlander, Nay Bro didn’t believe what lowlanders often said: “If you didn’t do anything wrong, the police would set you free.” From his own experience, he knew that “once  I was imprisoned for the first time, I would have no chance to go home after the second time I was imprisoned”. 

In September 2015, Nay Them helped his parents-in-law travel to Saigon, where they then followed a stranger travelling by bus to Thailand. Crossing the border was the only way to avoid being arrested by the government and sent back to a reform camp or prison. Thailand was the favorite place for Montagnard refugees seeking to escape Vietnam.

Siu Wiu (right) and his father, Nay Bro, standing in front of their house above a river in Thailand. Nay Bro has been waiting for resettlement for almost 4 years in Bangkok, not knowing what will happen next. Photo: Luat Khoa tap chi.

The word Montagnard was first used by the French when they ruled Vietnam to refer to the more than 20 different ethnic groups indigenous to the Central Highlands. These indigenous peoples lived in the Central Highlands before the Kinh, or Vietnamese, people arrived. The E-de, Jrai and Bana people have a larger population than other ethnic groups, such as the  K’ho, Sedang, Stieng, and Ma.

Today, the word Montagnard has disappeared from official state usage,. They are now generally known as “ethnic minority people”.

Them was arrested in November 2016 after the police discovered  that he was involved in helping his parents-in-law escape across the border to Thailand. He was in a dilemma between asking his in-laws to return  to Vietnam and being prosecuted on the charge of  “forcing others to flee or stay abroad illegally”, which carried a punishment of at least two years in prison.

Once again, crossing the border was the only way that Nay Them could think of to get out of his predicament. He took his wife, two children and his wife’s younger brother to Thailand with him after having been temporarily released. The arrest warrant was issued immediately after they left.

In the middle of July 2019, I met Nay Them and his wife’s other eight family members at a refugee camp in a suburb of Bangkok. They lived not far from the WestGate Shopping Mall, in the Bang Dai District, Nonthaburi Province. Siu Wiu came to Bangkok in 2018 after finishing his 10-year prison term.

Temporary identification cards issued for asylum seekers Nay Them and his family. Photo: Luat Khoa tap chi.

That day, Nay Them looked exhausted and frustrated. With a big paper board hanging in front of his chest, he and his two year old daughter, who was born in Thailand, wandered around different NGO offices, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), begging for help for his wife, who had been detained for over a year.

Sen Nhiang, a Jrai person who took me to the camp from the MRT station, said “Although living in poor conditions here, I can follow my Protestantism freely. In the worst case, even if I’m arrested, I would not be beaten as the Vietnamese police did to me”.

Together with his wife and three other children, Sen lived in a 20 square meter room. There were no chairs or tables. A thin mattress lay in a corner, and the only other objects were an  electric fan, clothes, books, a gas cooker, and an empty fridge; a Christian crucifix was placed solemnly in another corner of the room. His three children spoke Jrai and Thai much better than Vietnamese. His wife was sitting in front of their house weaving a towel for overseas Vietnamese who donated rice for her community. For almost a year, Sen had no job, as was the case with other refugees living here. His 14-year old daughter had just broken her arm and he was looking for support to continue her treatment. 

Talking about the status of the Montagnards in Thailand, Grace Bui, a retired US attorney, said that this area is now home to over 500 Montagnards, with approximately 120 children. “Thailand did not sign the United Nations Convention in 1951 on the status of refugees, so Montagnards, despite being recognized as refugees by the UNHCR, are still illegal residents,” she said. “They are not allowed to work, and police can arrest and punish them very harshly.” ”

Grace has been voluntarily working in the camp over the last four years. She works with overseas Vietnamese to obtain rice donations. Grace asks the INGOs, UNHCR for support for the most needy cases, especially when someone is arrested. 

Y Rin Kpa, an Ede ethnic man from the Central Highlands, who had been in prison for 10 years for  taking part in protests, messaged me via Facebook from a refugee camp in Cambodia. He told me that he was in a camp in Phnom Penh with 27 other Montagnards, including seven children under 14.

He reported that Cambodian police were strictly surveilling these people. They lived with very limited subsidies and supplies funded by the UNHCR every month. However, their biggest fear wasn’t living under such a demanding situation, but of being deported back to Vietnam, where they could face imprisonment and other abuses. A family of three was forced to go back to Vietnam in June 2019. 

Evan Jones, a coordinator for Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, a non-governmental organization that advocates for refugees in the Asia Pacific region, explained why these people don’t want to return to Vietnam.

“Vietnam is well-known for punishing returnees with prison sentences, harassment, physical abuse and intimidation,” she said. “It has been particularly difficult to keep in contact with Montagnards who have been forcibly returned in the past. This may suggest that they have faced reprisals from the Vietnamese authorities after their return.”

The Criminal Law issued in 2015 includes four articles for  prosecuting people for illegal border crossings. The shortest prison sentence is one year  (Article 349) if charged with organizing or brokering illegal emigration. The law stipulates up to 20 years in prison for particularly serious cases as stated in Article 121, which covers illegal emigration for the purpose of opposing the people’s administration.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asian Division for Human Rights Watch, has been observing the human rights situation in the Central Highlands for nearly 20 years. He is not optimistic about the situation of Montagnard refugees.

“Vietnam continues to press hard to persuade the Thai government to force Montagnards to go back.  In Bangkok and nearby provinces, Montagnards live in difficult situations, doing low paying work in the informal sector, and facing problems with access to health and education services for themselves and their children. Most importantly, they don’t know what the future will hold for them, and whether they will ever be safe,” he said. “In Cambodia, Vietnam’s influence is even greater [than in Thailand], so seeking protection is even harder. UNHCR officials and diplomats based in Bangkok and Phnom Penh, who represent governments that resettle refugees, should redouble their efforts to protect the Montagnards, and strongly resist Vietnam’s efforts to force the Montagnards to go back.”

Despite pressure from the Vietnamese government, the number of Montagnards crossing the border into Thailand is still increasing. “The total number of Montagnards [crossing the border] has increased,” said Sen Nhiang.. “Last month, there were 20 more people coming from Dak Lak. We don’t have enough rice to give them”.

Sen Nhiang and his wife, sitting in their small studio apartment in Bangkok, recall what made them escape Vietnam to become stateless in Thailand. Photo: Luat Khoa tap chi.

Vietnamese embassies in both Thailand and Cambodia refused to speak with Luat Khoa about the situation of the Montagnards. In Thailand, the embassy didn’t respond to our emails, faxes or phone calls. In Cambodia, a staff member named Ngoc informed us that he had no information about the status of the Montagnards in Phnom Penh, while the Politburo officer said Ngoc was the only one who could answer our questions. 

The Montagnard refugees don’t speak English or Thai and very little Vietnamese. As a result, it takes them much longer to go through UNHCR procedures to obtain refugee status; after that, they have to wait for approval from a third country to be re-settled. The chance of resettling is uncertain, and nobody is sure what the future will be like.

Jennifer Harrison, UNHCR spokeswoman in Bangkok, said she could not reveal the total number of Montagnards who are applying for refugee status at UNHCR. She said UNHCR is doing its best to help refugees.

She said: “UNHCR consistently advocates that refugees and asylum seekers – having been confirmed or claimed to be in need of international protection – cannot be returned to their countries of origin according to the principle of non-refoulement, which prevents states from expelling or returning persons to a territory where their life or freedom would be threatened.”

Losing all in Vietnam

For hundreds of years the Montagnards have  depended upon the forests to earn their living and to survive. It’s said that the Montagnards preserved the forests of the Central Highlands to serve the never-ending needs of the Kinh people – the majority of Vietnam’s population. The beds the Kinh people lie on and the chairs they sit on likely come from forests in the Central Highlands.

The Montagnards sacrificed their own fertilized lands to welcome immigrants from the north when the country was divided into two regions in 1954. And they did this again when the lowlanders moved to the new economic zones on  the order of the government in a move to deal with population growth and unemployment in cities after 1975.

The Montagnards I met in Thailand said that they had been under surveillance by the Vietnamese government back in the villages in the Central Highlands. First they were not allowed to follow their Protestant beliefs and then they lost their lands.

The Central Highlands has become the most religiously sensitive areas in Vietnam following a long period of persecution since 1975. Photo: East West Center.

The Central Highlands is no longer a mysterious land when native customs and customary laws continue to be abolished by the government. 

“When I was a child, I heard from teachers and the commune people’s committee that praying for rain, buffalo stabbing and other traditional practices were considered backward customs and superstition”, said Nay Them. “They asked the village elders to abandon these ancient customs”.

People eliminated costly rituals and men stopped smoking and drinking once they started to follow Protestantism. And so it was strange in the early 2000s when the government asked the people to restore their traditional customs. Between 2000 and  2004, the government wanted to limit the number of Protestants and so sought to restore these old customs, which were anathema to their religious beliefs. 

“They said that these were the original customs of the Central Highlands, and that following Roman Catholicism and Protestantism were following French and American customs,” said Nay Them. He had witnessed the police take away Bibles away from people  and beat them, but he did not understand why they did it.

Under strict controls by the local authorities, Nay asked his community to focus on praying at the beginning of the month, but it was also very difficult.  At the beginning of the month, the villagers secretly prayed together at the leader’s house. Every Sunday, the police would come and check all the houses. If they found people praying, they would force them to go to the police station. Police said that this religion was not allowed, especially when the people gathered and prayed at the same place.

“I went to the public church but what I got was contemptuousness,” said Nay Them. “They also discriminated against me for advocating against the government”.

Pastor Than Van Truong, who helped some Montagnard families cross the border to Thailand, said that in the 2000s the number of house Protestant groups in the Central Highlands increased sharply. These groups paid much interest to human rights as the local government had been discriminating against them regarding administrative procedures and land disputes. The people  depended on their religious affiliations to share their concerns about such issues.

There are many Protestants like Nay in the Central Highlands who also need to pray at home.The number of Protestants in the Central Highlands increased by 432% from 1975 to 1999, to a total of 228,618 followers.

The Protestants in the Central Highlands have long been regarded as a threat to the Communist regime. In 1999, former Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, along with Nguyen Tan Dung, one of the deputy ministers responsible for  the Central Highlands, established the  184 Steering Committee  (the Committee for the Guidance of Correct Thought) to suppress Protestants in the Central Highlands and the northwest.

“When we pursued and drove away FULRO (the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races) and the rebellious groups, evangelical churches in some places had to be closed….”, according to a committee statement describing its successful effort to control Protestantism in the Central Highlands. “After a few years of taking measures against Protestantism, such as suspending religious activities of Protestantism, dismissing the governing board of deacons, re-educating the clergy in detention camps, closing churches, dealing forcefully with unauthorized religious activities and agitating for the masses to defect from their own religions in fact, Protestant activities have been narrowed and prevented from operating in a normal way”

FULRO was an armed movement fighting for independence for indigenous people in Vietnam. They fought against both the regime of the Republic of Vietnam and the Viet Cong.  After hiding themselves in the forests in Cambodia, FULRO was disbanded and its members were resettled in the United States at the end of 1992.

Neil L. Jamieson, Le Trong Cuc, and A. Terry Rambo – three researchers – predicted in a special report published in 1998 that there might be some crisis in the area, and this prediction became true between  2001 and 2008. 

“Many upland people began to see themselves as poor and backward. They felt inferior to lowlanders, to foreigners, and even to some other minority groups”, the researchers wrote in their report. “Lacking money, food, access to natural resources and public services [education, health care, information], they were  on the edge of losing their most precious resources of all: self-confidence and self-respect. It was not just that they lacked money and access to daily necessities. After all, the uplands have always been economically worse off than the lowlands. The problem is that the people gradually became self-conscious about their economic status.”

In early 2001, thousands of Montagnards paraded from their villages to the government center in the region for a protest. The government then issued a curfew order, cut off the telephone lines, mobilized tanks and mobilized army forces to eliminate the massive protest.

In order to alleviate the situation, author Nguyen Ngoc suggested former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who was in charge of the Central Highlands, to revise land ownership policies, but he refused to do this. Dung sent the protesters work as forced laborers in re-education camps and  prisons.

Since the 2001protests, the government has claimed that FULRO and its Degar Protestantism, a religious organization that unites the Montagnard Protestants to stand up for their rights, was behind uprisings and activities that were opposed to the government in the Central Highlands. Until now, many Montagnards continue to be persecuted as the government thinks they have links to these organizations.

In the refugee camp in Bangkok , I had tried to find out the connection between the refugees and Degar Protestantism but the people I spoke to claimed to have no idea about it. Pastor Than Van Truong said that he had asked the Montagnard pastors to get more information about Degar Protestantism but again no one knew anything about it. 

Kpă Hung, a 44-year old Bana man, who was arrested for the  third time in 2004, when he was sentenced to 12 years in prison, lost his faith in the government. “On the protest day, I sought a transparent dialog between the government and the people,” he said. “But they neither admitted their faults nor changed their minds”. 

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Dung has continued to push harsh policies in the Central Highlands during his two succeeding terms as prime minister.

A former UN staff member in Vietnam told Luat Khoa that the state considered the Central Highlands “very sensitive” in terms of religious and ethnic issues.The United Nations in Vietnam could only intervene in the Central Highlands indirectly through Universal Periodic Reviews (UPR) and visits by the UN special rapporteur.

Land issues did not improve after a series of misguided policies in the Central Highlands, such as hydropower projects, which allocated most of the land to agroforestry farms and land in forest areas to Vietnamese  and other migrated minority groups from the north. The Montagnards didn’t received any benefits. The Land Law issued in 2003 and 2013 did not solve the land problem for indigenous highlanders.

An anonymous expert with a decade of experience working on forest lands said that the land issue in the Central Highlands was extremely complicated. He said that land disputes in some areas of the regions accounted for more than 90% of complaints. Land disputes had been taking place among the Montagnards, the government, businesses, the Kinh and other ethnic migrants.

The expert said that the Montagnards continue to face many disadvantages. “For example, they didn’t have sufficient legal evidence to fight for their land”, he said. “And furthermore, the government did not provide  adequate compensation for the indigenous people who lost their land to the government. Their land was not protected by customary laws and the people didn’t even have the right to agree on prices.”

The expert said that those indigenous people who didn’t want to fight, moved closer to natural forests, but they once again had  to confront the government. 

He added that the vicious cycle of land loss, land shortages, land disputes and encroachment was a result of multiple factors. “For instance, forest land for ethnic people to cultivate was worth approximately 15 million dong/ha/year. But if they switched to trading crops, the profit would rise to 80-120 million dong/ha/year,” he said.

The Montagnard families whom I met in Bangkok told me that they had little to no space available for use. They didn’t have enough capital to grow high-value crops so they tried to live day by day.

Children under threat

In an old house above the small canal, I found a group of Jrai women painting scenes of their unforgettable escapes from Vietnam. While there, I met Jen, a 20-year-old Jrai girl who had fled to Bangkok the  year before. She spoke a little English and the Jrai language, and she was working hard as a  translator for an American artist who was coming to the camp every weekend to provide painting therapy to her mom and others in the camp.

Jen’s mother was painting a scene about how she lost her two-year daughter after they passed through the immigration check-point at the border. While she hid herself under the bus she let her daughter go with the guide through the check-point. They reunited two days later in Laos and continued their escape to Thailand.

The paint of Jen’s mother described her escape to Thailand. Photo: Luat Khoa tap chi.

When her mother fled to Thailand, Jen was still a child in the Central Highlands. “My two younger sisters and I had to take care of ourselves. We were very scared  right after our parents had left home….” she said. “We cried so much, but we accepted the reality after two or three months, and we tried to be stronger for the next three years”.

Jen stuttered when describing the time her mother tried to escape from the police after being forced to provide her husband’s contact in Bangkok. “My mother didn’t say that she was about to go to Thailand,” said Jen. “She told me to stay at home and take care of my two younger sisters; then she walked away with my youngest sibling.”

“When I turned 18-years-old they came to my house and asked if my father had called me or if I had contacted my parents,” she said. “I dared not to speak any words. I was afraid that they would arrest me.”

Jen said there were many similar cases in her  village. “the police arrested the family members and beat them at the police station”, she said. “When they came to see us, we gathered at the corner and I tried in fear to protect my sisters with my arms.”

“Once again, the police ordered me to come to their office. They threatened that if I did not call my parents and urge them to return home, I would be put into prison,” she said. “They asked me to give them my parents’ contact information. I answered that I didn’t have any. I was so scared that I only spoke a few words and then burst into tears. They yelled at me. They beat me up. They slapped my face and head. Each night, they sent some people to investigate our house.” 

Jen later decided to give 10 million dong  (about US$430) to the man next door to send her three sisters to Thailand. The money was from her grandmother and her job.

“At 3:00 am that day, the man took the  three of us to Saigon [Ho Chi Minh City”, she said. “At the Mien Dong Bus Station, he told us to wait until someone picked us up. Finally, a man came and forced us to walk quickly. We jumped into a small car with many people, I had no idea what would happen next. We walked through the river and the jungle. After three days, we arrived in Thailand”.

To escape the threat of Vietnamese police, children like Jen’s sisters had to go with strangers and travel in dangerous cars with the hope that they would later be able to reunite with their parents. The children faced the danger of  being kidnapped, sold to brothels, or forced to work as slaves.

For the past two decades, only international organizations abroad have been monitoring the situation in the Central Highlands, but they are struggling to get  accurate information due to government restrictions in the area.

Many NGOs remain silent when asked about the situation in the Central Highlands for fear of government retaliation. World Vision Vietnam, a Christian organization that has helped children in Vietnam for 30 years, declined to comment on the situation of children in persecuted Protestant families in the Central Highlands.

 Phil Robertsonbelieves that the Vietnamese government is trying to cover up its human rights violations in the Central Highlands.

“The problem is Vietnam sees its abusive treatment of the Montagnards as an internal matter and does everything it can to keep the international community out of this,” said Robertson. “But in reality, what Vietnam is doing to the Montagnards clearly violates international human rights, and so the international community is quite right to be concerned about this.”

Robertson added that Hanoi severely restricts access to the highlands to keep diplomats and human rights monitors like HRW, UN officials, and international media out of the picture, so it is sometimes difficult to get up-to-date information about what is happening there. 

“By making it difficult to get information from the area,” he said, “Vietnam hopes to make the world forget its blatant discrimination and rights abuses against the Montagnards.” 

“Over the past 20 years, the Montagnard people have gone through hard times, especially during crackdowns by the authorities after protests, but these communities are strong and they continue to persevere in the   face of government repression,” he said.

A Ga, a Protestant from the Montagnard Evangelical Church Of Christ, has resettled with his family in the United States after seeking asylum in Thailand for six years. However, he is still on watch the list of the Ministry of Public Security in Vietnam and so dares not go back home. In July 2019, he was surprisingly chosen to meet U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House along with other survivors of religious persecution in the world.

A Ga said that his case caught the attention of U.S. government because he was arrested by Thai police in January 2018. He said he believes the Vietnamese government was involved in his arrest. After three months in detention, he and his family were taken to the Philippines and then flown to the United States. Now he has begun a new life in North Carolina – the place where many Montagnards families have resettled in the past.

Meanwhile, in the refugee camps in Thailand and Cambodia, Montagnard refugees continue to  live desperate lives, not knowing what the future holds for them.

While you are reading this article, somewhere on the desolate borders between Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, there are likely some frightened Montagnard families making the harrowing trip across the border, running away from the Vietnamese government in the hope of finding a new and better life.

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Human Rights

The 88 Project: Bringing the silent voices of Vietnam to a larger audience

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A screenshot from The 88 Project's database of Vietnamese activists in prison and at risk.

As a Vietnamese overseas student working on her Ph.D. at Indiana University’s School of Law, Huong Nguyen was focused on her academic career but couldn’t stop thinking about the activist community she was involved with in Vietnam.

This explains why she frequently reached out to students and gave presentations around campus, one of which was the student chapter of Amnesty International.

It was there that she met Kaylee Uland, a blonde, blue-eyed undergraduate whose life growing up in Indiana was far removed from Vietnam and the communist government’s litany of human rights violations that she heard from Huong that day.

“This was one of my first exposures to learning about political prisoners, and it gnawed at me learning that some people were in prison solely because of expressing their political or religious beliefs or a blog post,” Kaylee responded in an email.

Fired up by Huong’s talk, Kaylee began to dedicate herself to advocacy efforts alongside Huong, conducting public outreach efforts on campus and letter-writing campaigns. Around the same time, Huong connected with Ella Gancarz, a filmmaker who wanted to create a documentary about human rights in Vietnam. At the junction of these partnerships, The 88 Project was conceived in 2012.

The group takes its name from Article 88, one of the provisions of the 1999 Criminal Code traditionally used to prosecute activists. The 88 Project’s logo is a pair of handcuffs, which also represents the number ‘88’. According to their website, “the slightly open handcuff in our logo symbolizes the fact that not even prison bars can hold back the ideas of hope, human rights, and democracy.”

From left to right: Ella Gancarz, Huong Nguyen and Kaylee Uland, the founders of The 88 Project. Source: the88project.org.

Over the years, the members have volunteered and worked part-time, on top of their full-time jobs, to put together a weekly newsletter reporting and analyzing the news.

“I believe that regardless of how busy we are if we care enough about something, we can make time for it,” Huong responded in an email. “I am grateful that our team members care enough about our mission to dedicate the time for the project despite their busy career and personal life.”

Kaylee, who is now research director, was the driving force behind the recent expansion of their Database of Persecuted Activists in Vietnam, which now has functions that make it easier for users to navigate. The team has also unveiled the Map of Human Rights Violations.

“We wanted to allow users to interact with the data in multiple ways, depending on their needs and learning style,” Kaylee said.

Although Kaylee doesn’t speak Vietnamese, she is proud to be part of a team that provides an up-to-date English-based source of news on human rights issues, political prisoners, and activists at risk in Vietnam.

“One of our largest challenges has always been gathering, verifying, and processing data from inside Vietnam,” she said. With Huong’s network and Vietnamese language skills, the 88 Project has maintained a strong backbone of research integrity through carefully vetting the information that goes into their news, database, and map. The group also takes security precautions to protect their sources, in-country contributors, and data.

Online activity is heavily monitored and independent media does not exist in Vietnam. According to the 2019 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders, Vietnam sits at #176 out of 180 countries in terms of freedom of the press, one notch higher than China but one below Sudan.

Despite the challenges facing human rights defenders in Vietnam, the 88 Project finds success in big and small ways, such as when its work is used to advocate for the release of prisoners or when the nonprofit organization is cited in news and journal articles.

“There can be a lot of bad news before you get to hear any good news,” Kaylee said in an audio recording with Memria and the Norwegian Human Rights Fund. “But as a privileged person, as a white, educated, female American, the least I can do is to try to use my voice in some way to bring the very powerful and strong, but unfortunately, silenced voices of human rights defenders working on the front lines to a larger audience.”


Linh Nguyen is a contributor to The Vietnamese. Linh can be reached at linhnguyen1251992@gmail.com and Twitter @LinhVietnam4.

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Freedom of expression

Vietnam: Lawyer Disbarred For Speaking Ill Of Regime and The Communist Party

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Lawyer Vo An Don. Photo credits: Tuoi Tre newspaper.

“I have lost my license to practice law forever, with no apparent recourse available,” Vo An Don, one of Vietnam’s most well-known lawyers in recent years, lamented on Facebook on April 9, 2019. Last week, a high court in Danang ruled that the minister of justice’s decision to affirm his disbarment in 2018 remained effective and final.

The 42-year-old lawyer from Phu Yen province, however, is widely recognized for his fierce advocacy. In the past five years, Don took on cases involving some of the more popular political dissidents, such as blogger Mother Mushroom. But he gained the most public attention when he represented the family of Ngo Thanh Kieu,  a man who died while in custody after being beaten by the police in 2014. Don had demonstrated tireless efforts in bringing those who committed police brutality to justice in Kieu’s case. Yet on November 26, 2017, he was disciplined by his provincial bar association, and his bar license was taken away. In April 2019, the People’s High Court in Danang sided with the disciplinary decision and let the decision stayed.

According to Tuoi Tre newspaper, the reason for the disciplinary action was because of Don’s “abuse of democratic freedoms to write and to give interviews to foreign press and broadcasters to defame lawyers, the prosecutorial bodies, the (Communist) Party and the State of Vietnam with the intent to incite, propagandize, and misrepresent the truth which had negatively affected the reputation of the Party, the State, the prosecutorial bodies, and other Vietnamese lawyers.”

The Phu Yen Provincial Bar Association’s decision to disbar him came only a few days before the appeal trial of Mother Mushroom, which was on November 30, 2017. Don stated at the time in an interview with BBC-Vietnamese that such a decision was probably politically motivated.

It was not the first time, however, that his local bar association had attempted to discipline Vo An Don. In another interview with RFA in 2014, Don already disclosed that the Phu Yen Provincial Bar Association had tried, unsuccessfully, to disbar him a few times during his representation of the family of Ngo Thanh Kieu. But Don was unfazed and continued with the case, successfully bringing the offending officers to justice.

The case of Ngo Thanh Kieu was probably the first one in recent years where the court convicted a group of police officers for causing death to a suspect in custody. Public opinion, however, was split about the sentences handed down to the former police. Some people thought that the jail terms were too light as the longest one was only a five-year-imprisonment. At the same time, many people also saw Vo An Don as the lawyer who fought for the people’s rights and stood against what they perceived as a corrupt system.

The unintended popularity could be the root of the troubles that later followed the lawyer, who practiced law in one of the poorest areas in Vietnam. Don is often dubbed the “farmer lawyer” in social media because he still has to continue farming to support his family. Practicing law in an honest way, he said, cost him opportunities to “get rich” because he refused to be part of the widespread corruption in Vietnam’s judiciary. His popularity and his candid words about the profession together made him an unpopular person among his fellow attorneys. His allegation of corruption among lawyers was one of the statements that cost him his bar license, as reported by The Law newspaper in Ho Chi Minh City on May 24, 2018.

After the Phu Yen Provincial Bar Association issued its disciplinary decision on November 26, 2017, Vo An Don petitioned the Vietnam Bar Federation in December 2017 for a review.  Over 100 Vietnamese lawyers signed a petition asking the Federation to stand by its member’s freedom of expression and stated that the disciplinary action would be a dangerous precedent for the law profession. The Federation still rejected his petition on May 21, 2018.

Don continued to appeal his case with the Ministry of Justice later last year, but the minister of justice also decided against him.

Finally, in December 2018, Don initiated a lawsuit against the administrative decision to uphold the disciplinary action by the minister of justice. But as stated, the court system also did not side with him and effectively allowed the disbarment to remain in effect. The high court in Danang agreed that the dismissal of Don’s case by a lower court was proper.

Both courts had reasoned that the minister of justice’s decision to uphold the disbarment was done within a professional and social organization – the Vietnam Bar Federation. Such a decision did not fall under the categories of subject matters that could be decided in a lawsuit against an administrative order.

At this time, even Vo An Don does not seem to think that there could be any other recourse for him. In the meantime, Don’s case has raised sufficient concerns about the freedom of expression of lawyers in Vietnam and whether their human rights will continue to be subjected to professional disciplinary actions.

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