Phạm Đoan Trang – The Humming Guitar Before Rainstorm Falls

Trinh Huu Long
Trinh Huu Long

“I’m so very tired. How long can they keep continue doing this? They’ve cut electricity yesterday. Today it’s the Internet.”

That was the last message I received from Đoan Trang in the afternoon on the 9th day of the Vietnamese New Year celebration, Tết. Less than an hour later, I messaged her. There was no reply until midnight.

Trang’s family later told me that two strangers came to their residential home in the afternoon and took Trang with them. Their reasons? Her book – Politics for the Masses – which Trang wrote and published late last year.

Discovering the forbidden zones

Đoan Trang was once considered one of the best journalists in the country, representing the mainstream, ‘orthodox’ majority of the Vietnamese press.

Even though she started her career at VnExpress – one of Vietnam’s first online newspapers – back in 2001, it was at Vietnamnet, another prominent e-newspaper, that Đoan Trang first made her break into the news business. After that came the much renowned and critically acclaimed feature writings and commentaries, which she produced while working for the Pháp luật Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh (The Law in Ho Chi Minh city newspaper).

From 2007 to 2008, Trang wrote a series of articles exploring the Spratlys and Paracels Islands conflict on Vietnamnet. The series brought to her both professional glory and hardships in perhaps, equal measure.

It was the first time since Vietnam and China normalized their relationship in the 1990s, that the South China Sea (or East Sea from Vietnam’s point of view) conflict was analyzed on a mainstream newspaper, and in a quite direct and candid manner, with an abundance of research. Despite the normalization, the East Sea conflict was then still a forbidden subject in Vietnam: an area very much known to many, but rarely touched upon by the Vietnamese mainstream journalists.

Đoan Trang’s writing career is indeed a journey to discover these unknown lands. Before she became a household name with her political writings on Vietnamnet, Trang co-authored with Hoang Nguyen the book “Bóng” (Shadow), the first published autobiography of a homosexual person in Vietnam. However, the story with the East Sea was different. To land one’s foot in such an area is to place oneself a step further into a jail cell.

As it turned out, Đoan Trang soon found both of her feet ended up inside a government’s prison cell. She was arrested and detained for nine whole days at a police station from the end of August to early September in 2009. On the same occasion, two other bloggers with dissident views were also arrested: Bùi Thanh Hiếu ( blogger Người Buôn Gió), and Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh (blogger Mother Mushroom).

“To this day, I still don’t know what they arrested me for,” Trang said.

After her nine-day detention, Trang lost her job at Vietnamnet. It only took nine days for her to go from a well-respected journalist into a “subject” who threatened Vietnam’s “national security”. With such a label, she also faced an infinite prospect of unemployment. However, she soon found a job at The Law in Ho Chi Minh city newspaper’s branch office in Hanoi. Nam Đồng, the veteran editor-in-chief of the paper, specifically invited Trang to work for them and assured her that she would be able to work normally as a journalist.

If the Vietnamese police thought that nine days in a cell were enough to smack Trang around, they were dead wrong. The incident pushed Trang to march even further down on her chosen path. She got involved in democracy activism and continued to write stories other mainstream journalists still hadn’t found the courage to tell.

On her personal blog at www.phamdoantrang.com, Trang began to discuss some of the most politically sensitive matters in the country: the one-party system, the police state, the public demonstrations and the resulting oppression, the arrests of political activists, etc.

Trang turned up at the demonstrations against China’s aggression in the East Sea in 2011 and 2012. She joined the demonstrators protesting the government’s plan to cut down a large number of trees in Hanoi in March 2015. Her face and voice soon were sought after by different human rights delegations from Europe and the United States.

Trang has thus stepped into the darkest of forests and the deadliest swamps in Vietnam. The areas in which the Vietnamese communist security apparatus have always guarded carefully.

Of course, the sword of the State never shows mercy for such a “rogue” as that is how they see her.

The Cat and Mouse game

At 2.39 A.M. on a day back in 2016, Đoan Trang was awakened by the doorbell.

She was staying temporarily at a friend’s home while still on her way to escape the pursuit of the Vietnamese police. The place was an apartment room inside a building with 24-hour security service. No strangers are supposed to be allowed into the main access, let alone coming straight to the door and ring the bell.

“The bells were definitely tolling for me”, Trang recollected.

“I heard clearly chit-chatting sounds from a group of people outside my door. There was no other way to explain their appearances at such ungodly hour, except that they have uncovered my tracks”.

Hearing no noise from inside, the group of strangers left. Đoan Trang was left unscathed on that occasion.

Going “dạt vòm” (Vietnamese slang which literally means “sleeping rough” and is used by activists to describe situations where they have to deflect secret police’s surveillance by leaving home) has become something that Trang is well-accustomed to.

Before any demonstrations or meetings with foreign officials, this tiny lady must get herself to a hidden place at least a day prior. This is to evade being cordoned off by the government’s security force because the Vietnamese police always try to prevent Trang from turning up at such events.

Once in a while, Trang came to stay at a friend’s place; other times, she either had to book a room at a hotel or stay at a construction site – where those living on the margins of society usually assemble.

But escaping the police is never easy.

Once back in 2015, not long after she came back to Vietnam after a one-year fellowship at the University of Southern California, U.S., Đoan Trang was abducted right at the Hồ Gươm (Sword Lake) in central Hanoi in broad daylight. She was on her way to the L’Espace Center to interpret in a meeting between a representative of the New Zealand embassy and the families of two wrongful death-row inmates, Ho Duy Hai and Nguyen Van Chuong.

A police car stopped right next to the pavement and Trang was forced into it. She was taken to the nearest police station. They only released her after successfully breaking off the meeting.

“Every time things like that happened, friends and relatives rushed to look for me. It is such an annoyance. And the thing about being abducted that frequently is that: if you are not mentally tough, you start getting paranoid, you start to see security people everywhere”, Trang revealed.

But it was apparently still not enough cloak-and-dagger for some people.

On 24 May 2016, the then US President, Barack Obama, planned to meet several representatives of the Vietnamese civil society communities in Hanoi. Đoan Trang was invited. At the time, she was still recuperating from a recent operation on both of her knees in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).

Knowing full well that the security folks would follow her and prevent her from attending the meeting, a secret road trip to Hanoi was arranged with help from two drivers who are Trang’s friends.

The road trip was smooth. They reached Ninh Binh in the late evening of the 23rd of May, one day before the meeting. They had a private and well-secluded hostel reserved for them, giving them the hope for a safe night without police surveillance.

But the secret police were sleeker than what was thought of them. Early morning the next day, Trang saw several people in the hostel’s foyer, carefully dissecting her with their eyes. Then a female security officer with her own entourage marched into Trang’s room, bringing with them strange equipment and winners’ sniggers.

“I felt like a hunted animal,” Trang recalled.

Trang and her friends could not make it to Hanoi for the meeting with Obama. Instead, they were kept inside the hostel for the entire day.

“In literature, there is this novel, The Seventh Cross, which is about the loneliness of the German people who were fleeing the Nazis. Now I understand how they felt. Occasionally, I walked across a huge city full of cars and people, but there was no place for me to stay. There is no hostel or hotel that would be safe enough.”

“They do not consider us humans. To them, each and every one of us is simply a project in the name from which they could mooch off the national budget. So don’t expect to have a dialogue with the security people. We can only have a dialogue with those who respect us.”

It may sound negative for many, but such an insight comes from a person who has been forced to have a “dialogue” with the Vietnamese security officers hundreds of time.

The hidden audience

“You used to sing this song, which goes ‘Let me go home’ or something? It was damn sad.”

I received that message from Đoan Trang in an afternoon when she was on the run from another police’s pursuit.

“I wanna go home”, she wrote in English to me, borrowing from the song Home by Michael Bublé.

Trang likes to take care of her home. She said that she “misses the flower vase, the table, the painting, and especially longs for her guitar”.

Not many people know about Trang’s passion for the guitar. It has been more than one occasion, in which Trang confided in me how she doesn’t really have any true passion for politics or the struggle for democracy like people usually assume. The only thing she cannot live without is her guitar.

“I love the guitar very much. I miss it ceaselessly whenever I am away. I just want to hug it when I come home, and to kiss it and caress it with my fingers,” she said.

If you are ever so lucky, you can sit down and hear Trang’s renditions of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, or the ballads If by Bread, I Kiss Your Memories by the Bees Gees, or Love Me with All of Your Heart (Ray Charles version).

Trang has been teaching herself to compose music, and therefore the “dạt vòm” days are full of sufferings for her. She cannot play the guitar normally like others. Thus, she usually plays the guitar as if she won’t be able to play it tomorrow.

People have countless reasons to fear the idea of having to go to prison. For Trang, she fears that she will not be able to play the guitar anymore. Prisons in Vietnam seldom let prisoners play guitars. It is usually with close supervision if they are allowed to play at all. The guitar strings can be used for many things, including committing suicide.

One thing Trang has never been able to tell for sure is whether her home was bugged. Many people say with certainty, that such a “notorious dissident” like Trang, has to be bugged somehow. In the former Soviet and East European states, many people only found out that their homes were bugged after the communist regimes collapsed.

Trang always has this feeling that even though she plays her guitar alone, there is somebody else listening.

“I never thought I would play my guitar in such a circumstance. On the ‘other end’ of the line, if somebody is listening, what are they thinking? Maybe they think I am such a crazy woman”. Trang said, half-jokingly.

Writing for the Mass

On the past 9th February, the newspaper Tin Tức (The News) of the Vietnamese Press Association announced something unusual: The Danang City’s customs officers confiscated several parcels of politically-sensitive books.

Amongst the four parcels of books “with politically-sensitive contents” which were confiscated, two parcels consist of several copies of Politics for the Mass, a book that Trang wrote.

Politics for the Mass, written in Vietnamese and talks mostly about Vietnam and for the Vietnamese people. One would think such a book should have been able to publish in Vietnam, and not having to be ordered from abroad like that. More than 20 years ago, I dug around in my parents’ old stack of books and found the textbook Elementary Politics, published by the Vietnamese communist government. It was a short, yellowed book. I read it in one go. The clear and simple language of the book allowed my 12-year-old self to thoroughly understand and get mesmerized by Marxism-Leninism.

But the right to publish this kind of book only belongs to the government.

Many years later, I read another political book. This one perhaps is most famous for this oft-quoted sentence: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.

Animal Farm by George Orwell somehow managed to escape the Vietnamese government’s censors and got published for a short period of time before they ordered the confiscation of all copies and listed it as a banned book in Vietnam.

Politics for the Mass by Đoan Trang does not have such luck. She has no other way to get it published in the first place, except by relying on a “foreign force”: the tech-giant Amazon.

Trang is the type of journalist who is especially concerned with those who have yet to know a lot of things. While many people sigh in dejection whenever “popular literacy” or “people’s intellectual level” is touched upon, Trang always reaches out to the people who are still strangers to the most basic concepts in politics and law.

“I still remember very clearly how in 2009 when I was first arrested, I was totally naive. I did not know anything about law, or about how to behave with the police. When we went to demonstrate against China in 2011, the whole group was still none the wiser. We got bullied by the police a lot”, Trang recalled.

“It was only in 2013 when I started to explore politics, law, democracy, human rights, etc. So when I write, I imagine that I am writing for this girl, Đoan Trang pre-2013”.

The idea of a book for the common folks emerged when Trang read the preface to the Vietnamese translation of The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford. It was written by Nguyen Duc Thanh, a prominent Vietnamese economist, who said that Vietnam needs intellectual heralds who can help bringing complex, academic knowledge to the general public.

After nearly 20 years working in the news business, Trang has the insight that “the Vietnamese newspapers and media fail to do such a thing. Don’t blame it on the people’s low intellectual level, or that they don’t like to read. It is us who are still not willing to help the people read, explore, discover”.

“I don’t write a book so that it will become a legacy or get included in some canon somewhere. I don’t mind if the book grabs the public attention only for a few years if that can help the people become less ignorant about politics and inspire others to write better books on politics. We must write more so that the people become less fearful.”

So said so done, Trang wrote Politics for the Mass, Non-violent resistance, and she is now writing several other books.

When Politics for the Mass was published, some readers complained that Trang was too hurried in her writing and made a number of errors which could have been easily avoided.

“Hurried”.

Đoan Trang has always been in a hurry. Always urging. Always kicking other people into immediate actions.

She cannot wait. Because she never knows when they will arrive: the uniforms and the handcuffs.

“We cannot give up”

Not many people know this, but Đoan Trang did have an opportunity to seek political asylum when she finished her nine-month course at the University of Southern California back in 2014. At least three organizations, government departments had offered Trang their assistance in applying for asylum because they were concerned about her safety when she decided to return to Vietnam.

But Trang has never had any intention to stay abroad.

“Many people look at your life and only see a weirdo who does strange stuff and invites misfortunes upon herself. Do you feel miserable?”, I once asked Trang.

40-year-old, no husband, no kids, living on the run, for her greatest asset is her uncertain future. Yet not many people understand that Trang is rather happy, and not at all miserable like they imagine.

“Many people prioritize stability, they want family, children, peaceful life. There is nothing wrong or right to argue about it because that is their own life. But for myself, if I haven’t got involved in activism, I would never have been able to experience the adoration that people have for me”, Trang said.

Indeed. Occasionally Trang told me about such experiences, showing gratitude and pride in equal measure. Like this one time when a hotel owner told Trang to leave immediately because a police officer just came by to ask for her. That owner even showed her which way to run. When she had her knees operation, many people came to assist her, many of whom she had never met.

“Sometimes they came to visit me in the hospital. They pushed some money into my hands, then cried and ran away. And there were old friends – who had not been in touch for some time – suddenly reappeared to help me with this and that”, Trang recalled.

“Some people actually recognize me on the streets. I am especially elated to find young people who recognize me and talked about my writings. There was this one time in a restaurant in Saigon, the owner kept smiling at me, then he came near and asked if I am Đoan Trang. Once I said yes, he served me the meal himself, slashed the bill for me, and gave me some gifts at the end.”

Trang said, “it is a wonderful treasure. What can you possibly trade to receive such sentiments? We cannot give up because there are still people like those in life.”

Of all the songs she has sung, Đoan Trang loves “Fernando” by ABBA the most, the band that her 1970’s generation grew up with.

The song’s lyrics are about two old Mexican Revolution veterans reminiscing their younger years fighting for freedom.

The song ends with an inspiring chorus:

…If I had to do the same again I would, my friend, Fernando…

Maybe right at this moment, on the “other end” of the line, inside the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security’s office, an unnamed police officer is listening to the gentle sound of a humming guitar softly weaving the melodies of “Fernando”, as if it cares not when the storm comes.

…If I had to do the same again I would, my friend, Fernando…

________________

In March 2018, Đoan Trang was honored by People In Need from the Czech Republic with the Homo Homini award for her tireless works on promoting and advancing human rights in Vietnam.

This article was originally written in Vietnamese and published by Luật Khoa tạp chí on February 25, 2018, entitles, Đàn reo trước bão.

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Trinh Huu Long

A journalist and democracy advocate at @luatkhoatapchi and @thevnmesemag magazines. He's also a co-director of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam, a nonprofit organization that runs The Vietnamese.