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Trần Thúy Nga – The Story of A Grassroots Human Rights Defender in Vietnam



Tran Thuy Nga. Photo credits: SBTN.

She came from a poor family in rural areas of North of Vietnam, married young at nineteen years old and soon had children of her own.

Growing up, she did not have good opportunities for schooling.

As a young girl, her mother passed away when she was ten, and her father could not afford to continue sending her to school. Thus after seventh grade, she began working and helped taking care of her younger siblings.

Her first marriage ended quickly. Her husband was abusive, he beat her, and did so very often.

She left him and became a single mother with two young children to bring up while not having a job.

Like many other people around her, she never heard of things like human rights.

Like them, she was too busy finding means to feed herself and her family.

But less than two decades later, she became a person who not only knows about human rights but also makes it her life mission to defend them.

Her name is Trần Thị Nga, who also goes by her blogger name Tran Thuy Nga.

The road to becoming a human rights defender for Nga was influenced by her own life experiences.

After divorcing her first husband and returning to her hometown with her two children, she began a new chapter in life with 5kg of rice borrowed from a cousin.

She used half of the borrowed rice to cook porridge for her starving kids and turned the rest into rice flour to make steam rice rolls, selling them to the neighbors and make a profit of fewer than 1 USD a day. With that, she was able to support her children and herself for a while.

She soon realized she could not raise her children by just selling steamed rice rolls, so she borrowed some money and applied to go to Taiwan as a migrant worker.

Unfortunately, Nga got injured almost immediately after she arrived and began working. Alone in a strange country and unable to receive compensation for the injuries, she again became desperate about the future.

However, with the help of a Vietnamese priest over there, Nga was able to negotiate a settlement with her previous employer for her work-related injuries.

Her life took a totally different turn from that point as she later told her friends, the best thing she had received from that experience was not money, but learning how to fight for one’s own rights and stand up against injustice.

Returning home around 2008, Nga slowly went on a path that turned her into a human rights defender.

She joined the protests against China’s aggression in the summer of 2011, which was a turning point for the independent civil society movement in Vietnam.

She stood with land-grabs victims in Hanoi and assisted the family of death-row inmate Ho Duy Hai in their fight for Hai’s release.

Wearing a traditional Vietnamese dress and a bright smile on her face, Nga also was one of the faces that stood out during the march against the government’s decision to cut down more than 6,700 trees in Hanoi in the spring of 2015.

Her neighbors now remember her fondly as someone who would always stand up for them against the police’s wrongdoings.

But she pays a heavy price for standing up for others and against the government’s wrongs.

Nga was arrested in late January 2017, just a few days before Tet – the Vietnamese celebration of the Lunar New Year. And two days before Christmas 2017, in a one-day appeal trial, the government affirmed her conviction and the 9 years imprisonment sentencing.

But long before the 2017 arrest and trial, her children and she had been a victim of police abuse many times. Their house was vandalized and her leg was broken when plainclothes police attacked her with metal rods a few years back.

Nevertheless, the year 2017 was especially challenging to those who work as human rights activists in Vietnam. The government seemed to have increased its oppression with over 20 individual cases of activists being arrested and charged with anti-state crimes which carry long and harsh sentencing.

Mother Mushroom aka Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh and Trần Thúy Nga are among those who targeted by the recent government’s crackdown.

Both were bloggers who spoke about social injustice like Formosa environmental disaster and police brutality on social media like Facebook and Youtube.

Both are mothers with young children.

And yet they both received some of the harshest sentences handed out to dissidents in recent years. They were both tried in 2017 and got sentenced to 10 years and 9 years imprisonment, respectively, for propaganda against the state under Article 88 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.

Recently, the government has ordered to have them relocate to prison centers that are hundreds of miles away from their hometowns, which also means it may be impossible for their young children to visit them. In February 2018 and right before the Vietnamese New Year – Tết, a group of Vietnamese activists pleaded with both Nga and Quỳnh in a public petition that they should consider seeking political asylum for the sake of their children. Both have been unwavering.

And while Tran Thuy Nga may not be the type of activists that is looked upon as leading voices behind some of the better-known campaigns, such as “We Are One” or “We Want to Know” on social media in Vietnam, in her own way, her life and works could really help people understand how one ordinary person in Vietnam begins her journey towards self-empowerment to stand up and defend universal human rights.

Free Press

Phạm Đoan Trang – The Humming Guitar Before Rainstorm Falls



“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, 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.


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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Human Rights

Censorship in Vietnam: JFK Miller Interviews Thomas Bass



  • 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.

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Death Penalty

Wrongfully Convicted Ho Duy Hai Languishes on Death Row




Ms. Nguyen Thi Loan, death-row inmate Ho Duy Hai's mother petitioned again for his innocence in December 2017. Photo credits: Unknown social media source.

During these last days of 2017, be it rain or shine, people in Ha Noi, Vietnam, could often spot a frail, weary middle-aged woman holding up a sign “Do Not Kill My Innocent Son, Ho Duy Hai” near the government’s headquarters.

She is death-row inmate Ho Duy Hai’s mother, Nguyen Thi Loan.

Since Hai’s conviction in 2008, Ms. Loan has begun her own crusade to petition for his release. In the past few years, she especially traveled more often to Ha Noi where the central government is located to raise awareness of Hai’s case because time might be running out for him.

Ho Duy Hai’s execution was halted once in December 2014 due to public outcry, but recently, local authorities had expressed their impatience for having to continue keeping him on death row.

On December 7, 2017, at a meeting of the People’s Committee of Long An Province, Dinh Van Sang – Prosecutorial General of the People’s Procuracy of Long An Province had suggested that the execution of Ho Duy Hai should be carried out as soon as possible because “the imprisonment of this kind (of prisoners) would be too burdensome (for the government).”

Ho Duy Hai and his sister in a family picture. Photo credits:

It often goes without exception in the majority of jurisdiction, that one shall not be convicted based solely on his or her confessions.

The criminal law principle of corpus delicti requires a higher burden of evidence from the prosecution and provides that a defendant’s confession – on its own – is not enough for a conviction.

Having credible physical evidence from the prosecution then becomes the determining factor in convincing a jury or a judge, that the government has satisfied the burden of proof and that they have proved the defendant was, in fact, guilty of the crime charged.

Vietnam follows this general rule in prosecuting criminal cases.

Yet, such a rule only exists in law books and legal codes.

In practice, people not only got convicted solely on their confessions but very often, they confessed because they were beaten and tortured by the investigating officers.

Ho Duy Hai was one of them.

In March 2008, Hai – a then 23-year-old recent graduate from Long An Province located in the Mekong Delta south of Sai Gon – was arrested, charged and convicted of double homicide and sentenced to death.

The only evidence used to convict him was practically his confession, which he later recanted and revealed that he was forced to confess by the police during his detention.

The prosecution not only did not offer any credible physical evidence, they even committed basic prosecutorial mistakes.

The time of death was never established for the two victims, making it impossible for the defendant to come up with an alibi.

The murder weapons were “lost” by the forensic team and other items were later “purchased” a local market by witnesses who vouched for their similarities if compared to the real ones.

None of the fingerprints found at the crime scene matched Ho Duy Hai’s.

A special team of legal experts set up by the Vietnamese National Assembly and led by the current Commissioner of the National Assembly’s Judiciary Committee – Le Thi Nga – visited Hai in the end of December 2014 after his family successfully used social media campaign to halt his execution (which was set to be carried out earlier that month).

The report signed by Ms. Le Thi Nga in February 2015, found that Hai’s case was riddled with irregularities and prosecutorial mistakes and that the prosecution did not present sufficient evidence to support a conviction. It also called for a trial of cassation for Hai.

2018 will be three years since the government’s legal experts concluded that Hai’s case deserved a review and ten years since Hai’s life as a free man ceased to exist, yet it seems as if the legal obstacles have stacked even higher against him.

Hai remains in prison, his youthful years waste away with each day spent on death row.

With the assistance of a local artist, Thinh Nguyen, Ms. Loan and other parents of wrongfully convicted death-row inmates appeared in several video clips to raise public awareness on the reality of forced confessions and prosecutorial irregularities in Vietnam’s criminal cases.

And even though the videos are well-received, it seems as if these efforts are to no avail, at least for the time being.

His mother has also written thousands of petitions pleading the government to not kill her innocent son, and she would talk to anyone – be it the personnel from foreign embassies or just about any passerby on the streets – whoever would spare a few minutes listening to her telling the story of Hai’s wrongful conviction.

Her hope is that one day, not only the people will stop and listen to her, but so will government officials and that they will take up Hai’s case and declare him a free man.

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