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Prisoners of Conscience

Tran Thi Nga – The Story of A Grassroots Human Rights Defender in Vietnam

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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. 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 Tran Thi Nga, who also goes by her blogger’s 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.

Nga 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 started work. 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, 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, because 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 shaped 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 on January 21, 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.

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 for 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 Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh and Tran Thi Nga were 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 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 had ordered to have them relocate to prison centers that are hundreds of miles away from their hometowns, which also meant it might be impossible for their young children to visit them.

In February 2018 and right before the Vietnamese New Year – Tet, 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.

Tran Thuy Nga may not be the type of activists who are being seen as the leading voices behind some of the more well-known campaigns, such as “We Are One” or “We Want to Know” on social media in Vietnam.

Yet, 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.

Human Rights

When Calls To Free Pham Doan Trang Are Not Enough

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Pham Doan Trang. Graphics: Luat Khoa Magazine.

This op-ed article was written in Vietnamese by Trinh Huu Long and was previously published in the Luat Khoa Magazine on October 10, 2020. 


Every time an activist is arrested, several campaigns for his or her release emerge in response to the government’s persecution of human rights. This method is the oldest, most common, and most familiar form the common citizenry uses to call for justice.

I have been a part of those movements and have even organized several campaigns many times in the past nine years. 

Yet, despite everything, I constantly ask myself if these calls to action actually do any good? “How long am I going to do this,” I ask myself, “and are there any benefits to this or not?” These are just some of the questions that constantly linger in the back of my mind.

Most likely, those arrested will remain in prison; their sentence will be upheld. In fact, the length of the individual’s  imprisonment might even be made longer. Despite all our work, more and more people are still being incarcerated. There has been no change in our laws or institutions, despite all our efforts at home and abroad.

And even if we’re blessed with the smallest amount of luck, those arrested are granted asylum in another country, defeating the primary purpose of our campaigns.

Pham Doan Trang, imprisoned activist, blogger, journalist, and co-founder of The Vietnamese and Luat Khoa online magazines has put some of my concerns to rest.

“I do not need my own freedom; I need something much more significant than that: freedom and democracy for the whole of Vietnam,” she wrote in a letter on May 27, 2019, her 41st birthday, and while she was on the run from the police. “This goal sounds grandiose and far-fetched, but reaching it is actually possible with everyone’s help.”

Doan Trang wanted this letter to be released to the public only when she was indeed convicted and not when she was merely detained. Eventually, she was arrested and now faces a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. 

If Doan Trang merely wanted freedom for herself, she had at least two opportunities to attain this in the past. 

The first was after her nine-day criminal detention in 2009. If she was obedient and ceased all her activities regarding sensitive topics and cut all her ties with social elements deemed “anti-state,” she would have continued to live a safe and full life. 

The second was when she studied in the United States and could have chosen a path towards residency or citizenship. In fact, at least three agencies and organizations wanted to sponsor her permanent stay in America.

So, why did Doan Trang choose to return to her homeland? It is because she understands that her freedom means nothing compared to the whole of Vietnam. Vietnam needs people to step up and work for the freedom of everyone. 

Such a concept is simple and easy to understand, yet making it a reality is challenging to attain.

Doan Trang could have chosen to contribute to Vietnam’s fight from the outside as many others, including myself, are doing. Yet, she chose the most complex, most painful, and most difficult way to contribute to the cause. She returned home and faced the problem head-on. She published various works, wrote books, and even taught about democracy and freedom right in front of the police.

Doan Trang often told me that the best way to fight is to be an example, to be an inspiration for others to do the same. Only then can we, as a society, start to see what democracy, human rights, and the rule of law look like in reality. Words without actions are meaningless.

Sadly, I do not know how successful Doan Trang’s efforts have been, nor how many lives have been touched by her words and deeds. But regarding her arrest in October 2020, I would like to say this.

Activists have a saying called “sharing fire,” which means sharing the tasks and responsibilities of dangerous activities with many people to reduce individual risk. Sometimes we coordinate with each other, but more often than not this is not the case; people passively participate in this phenomenon without discussing plans in advance.

What if the deeds Doan Trang had done in the past five years were divided among five or 10 people, would she still have been arrested? More recently, if she had not produced the two Dong Tam reports, would she be in jail right now? 

She often told me that these things are not difficult to accomplish and that there are many people who share similar ideas with her. If so, why are there so few people standing up for what is right? Granted, some people do, and Doan Trang was one of them. Yet because of inaction, apathy, or fear, she and the handful of brave, noble souls like her shoulder the entire risk.  

Many of them will go to jail, while those who are content to watch from the sidelines will get angry again. They will once again clamor for the release and freedom of those imprisoned. But in the end, nothing gets done. Rinse and repeat.

Will we Vietnamese forever play the same old games with the government? Will we continue to sheepishly and ineffectively demand the release of our friends? Then, when nothing gets done, will we once again forget and return to the tolerated normalcy of life in this great prison that the government has made?

Things will be different if more people actively do their part to create social change, just like Doan Trang. Doing so has two advantages.

The first is to “share the fire” with those still fighting to reduce their risk and limit their chance of getting captured. Government resources are limited, and they can only invest in monitoring and controlling a few people. 

Those outside Vietnam can do their part as well. For instance, to write something similar to the Dong Tam Report, we just need to collect data on the internet and conduct interviews online or through the phone. It is not necessary to live in Vietnam physically to accomplish these tasks.

The second is to normalize press freedom, independent publishing, and political activities considered “sensitive.”

When these activities become commonplace, the government will be forced to accept them. This was observed in the past when private businesses were considered illegal. Nonetheless, they continued to operate, and gradually the government had to admit that these establishments were a fundamental component of the country’s economy. Since 1986, the state no longer considers owning a private business a criminal offense. 

For me, the best way to help Doan Trang and people like her is to play a more active role. Eventually, everyone will benefit when the political space expands. No one will ever be arrested or imprisoned again for writing or publishing books. I will no longer have to clamor for one person’s freedom every single time someone gets arrested. I will finally be able to rest. 

Calls for Freedom are good, but they are often not enough. We should release ourselves from the shackles of fear, apathy, and apprehension to actively fight for progress and change.

Doan Trang has completed her mission and the responsibility now falls on our shoulders. Even if she were to be released tomorrow, even if she chooses to stay in Vietnam or decided to leave, the fight continues in each one of us.

And if you love Doan Trang, I implore you to do what she would have done.

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Human Rights

The Women Of Possibilities

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From left: Pham Doan Trang, Can Thi Theu, Nguyen Thuy Hanh. Photo: Luat Khoa Magazine/PhotoMania.

This article was published in Vietnamese by Luat Khoa Magazine on March 8, 2019. The translation was done by Will Nguyen. More than two years after the Vietnamese article was published, all three women in this article have been arrested and charged with national security laws in Vietnam. We do not want their stories to go in silence, so we translate them to tell the world about who these women are: the women of possibilities.


March 8, is International Women’s Day, and Vietnam celebrates this holiday wholeheartedly.

However, no mainstream newspapers will write about the three women in this article. No organizations will honor them. No solemn ceremony will have them as guests. And among those who “care” about them the most are usually…the Vietnamese police.

They say things few people say.

They do things few people do.

They’ve accepted risks that few people dare accept. 

In actuality, they’re part of a world that few care about or dwell on; for these individuals, few are willing to stand by their side.

The women we speak of in this special piece represent the hidden aspirations, the beautiful reflections, the burning dreams of an entire nation. They’re singing for us a song of freedom, nurturing a better future for each and every one of us.

Nguyen Thuy Hanh

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Activist Nguyen Thuy Hanh. Photo: Huynh Ngoc Chenh. Graphic: Luat Khoa Magazine.

In February of 2016, a wave of independent candidates competed for seats in the National Assembly, setting off a movement that was the largest of its kind in post-1975 Vietnam. Approximately 30 candidates had signed up, only for the “consultation” process to remove them from the roster. Nguyen Thuy Hanh was among them.

Different from Party-nominated candidates, independent candidates announced their action plans. And different from nearly all independent candidates, Nguyen Thuy Hanh was the rare voice that included women’s rights in her platform. She called for stricter laws on violence against women and human trafficking, encouraged job creation, and pushed for education policies and legal support for women.

Born in 1963, Nguyen Thuy Hanh is a Hanoi woman whose soul is full of art and romance. She has participated in civil society struggles since the 2011 anti-China protests, when protesting was especially taboo not just in the minds of state officials but the vast majority of ordinary citizens.

Over nearly eight years, having participated in tens of protests and having been beaten and arrested many times, she has witnessed Vietnamese society slowly change, from opposing the right to protest to respecting and then supporting it. When boisterous, nationwide protests broke out on June 10th, 2018 and tens of thousands of people took to the streets to oppose the Special Economic Zones and Cybersecurity Laws, Nguyen Thuy Hanh was perhaps one of the most elated, for her contributions had normalized what had previously been one of the most “sensitive” acts in society. 

However, Nguyen Thuy Hanh’s name is more often connected to the “50k Fund”, which she created to financially support prisoners of conscience and their families.  The fund started at the beginning of 2018, originating from a brief, online fundraiser to help a number of activists on trial. Hanh had received several fold the amount requested and thus, the idea for a future fund to help activists at-risk unexpectedly came into being.

The 50k Fund aimed to help with difficult situations lesser known to the public, and its name was purposefully chosen to encourage people to donate small amounts, rather than >50,000 VND (~2.20 USD), popularly believed to be the minimum for charity. Such small amounts also assuaged donor fears of police harassment.

To this day, Nguyen Thuy Hanh’s 50k Fund has received thousands of donations, totaling many billions of VND (~hundreds of thousands of USD), all of which are documented in detail on her public Facebook account.  

The 50k Fund’s meaningfulness goes beyond providing prisoners of conscience everyday material support. It also awakens the emotions of ordinary citizens, encouraging them to care more about politics and helping them overcome the intangible fear constraining their hearts and minds. The 50k Fund normalizes and makes concrete that which is considered “political” or “sensitive”, bringing to citizens the full splendor and meaning of civil society struggle.

A lover of beauty and romance, Nguyen Thuy Hanh draws a long, brilliant stroke for the Vietnamese democracy movement.  

Can Thi Theu

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Peasant leader Can Thi Theu. Photo: RFA. Graphic: Luat Khoa Magazine.

People normally think of peasant leaders as something from their history classes, as figures only found in textbooks. But Can Thi Theu is a real-life, flesh-and-blood peasant leader, a heart beating strongly within the body politic.

The life of this courageous woman is connected to the phrase “Duong Noi’s disenfranchised citizens”. Duong Noi is a ward in Ha Dong District. Prior to 2008, it was part of Ha Tay Province, but today, it has been incorporated into Hanoi. Can Thi Theu’s name is probably not mentioned very often in domestic or international press, and she doesn’t have her own English-language Wikipedia page. From 2007, she became one of thousands of disenfranchised citizens who lost their land when the government forcefully reclaimed agricultural and cemetery land in Duong Noi for new urban construction projects.

The “disenfranchisement” of farmers like Can Thi Theu lies in their complete exclusion from the process, from project planning all the way to land acquisition.

They were not consulted about compensation or relocation assistance, and the government did not provide them any kind of vocational training after taking away their livelihoods. Furthermore, the gravesites of their ancestors were leveled without notification of their displacement.

As a woman born in the year of the Tiger (1962), Can Thi Theu rose among the thousands of disenfranchised citizens to become leader, with her strategic mind, her ability to see in the short- and the long-term, and her skill in thwarting police tactics.

Her leadership skills also manifest in her ability to endure and sacrifice for others, forever taking the hit while protecting those in her care. She is patient and looks past the small, unimportant details to achieve the peasant movement’s longer-term goals. It must be remembered that these farmers lost their land 12 years ago; it’s not easy to keep Duong Noi a hot topic to this day.

The price that Can Thi Theu had to pay was not small. She was twice imprisoned (2014 – 2015 and 2016 – 2018) for a total of two years and 11 months, for obstruction of officials and disturbing public order.

From prison in the Central Highlands, she wrote a letter home to her fellow citizens before the 2017 Lunar New Year: “Fight to the end, to demand the return of our land, our right to live, and our rights as human beings, which the communist regime has stolen from my family and those who share our plight.”

You read that properly. Northern farmer Can Thi Theu is not afraid of calling out the “elephant in the room”, the direct perpetrators of the injustice that she and farmers like her have had to endure.

Can Thi Theu became the face of one of the greatest forms of injustice that Vietnamese citizens contend with, when she fell victim to the Vietnamese Communist Party’s larcenous land policy, which it has consistently carried out for decades.

She is also a living representative for those fighting to abolish “universal ownership” of land, seeking to establish legitimate, private land ownership rights for every individual. Every act in Vietnamese history has been intimately tied to land, and Can Thi Theu has placed herself center-stage for the next.

Pham Doan Trang

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Activist Pham Doan Trang. Photo: Tri Dung. Graphic: Luat Khoa Magazine.

If someone believed that it was impossible to be a bona-fide journalist in Vietnam’s mainstream media environment, then Pham Doan Trang proves the opposite. She has 12 years of experience as a sterling journalist at VnExpress, VietNamNet, and Ho Chi Minh City Law, with reams of critical stories and excellent documentations.

If someone believed that journalists and intellectuals in Vietnam faced insurmountable political restrictions, then Pham Doan Trang proves the opposite.

She constantly embarks on endless explorations to (un)cover the most sensitive, most dangerous, most censored topics.

She also does not limit herself within the rigid confines of mainstream newspapers; instead, she uses all the tools at her disposal to write and publish. Independent newspapers, overseas newspapers, blogs, social media, samizdat—Doan Trang has adeptly utilized them all to convey information to her readers.

For Doan Trang, the concept of “hitting the ceiling” is completely foreign; she is forever someone who lifts those ceilings so that others may have more breathing room.

If someone believed that they were unable to surmount material, physical, and even spiritual difficulties, then Pham Doan Trang proves the opposite.

A small and frail woman with numerous scars and injuries, she has had to endure countless assaults by police, drifting through more than 35 different locations across the country over the past 20 months to escape police pursuit and continue her work.

She lives frugally, no different from those provincial students in the 90s, who left to study in the city, but people would see her write consistently and prolifically.

Politics for the Common People, Non-violent Resistance, and Studying Public Policy Through the Case of SEZs are just some of the many titles she’s penned over the years.

Born in 1978, Doan Trang belongs to the post-war generation and grew up when the country and the world were changing at dizzying speeds. Unsatisfied with the disorderly state of the country, people like Doan Trang saw it as their role to address these disorders. For her, there is always work to do, and she does so, without rest.

Doan Trang swears by a lifetime oath: to never leave Vietnam, not even for a day, while it remains without democracy. 

Doan Trang personifies fierceness and does not compromise with evil or cowardice. But she is also full of romance and forever searches for beauty in the strums of a guitar.

She inspires people to stand up, to take steps and discover the beauty of politics. With knowledge and vigor, she represents for many the aspiration for a democratic Vietnam, the light of hope in the dark depths of despair, and the ability for oneself to embody that hope.

Doan Trang talks the talk and walks the walk, inspiring many with what could be; her life, simply put, is a powerful testament to what could be.


The three women in this piece embody the possibilities. They have defied political and gender stereotypes that weigh down their every step. The meaning of March 8th has never lain in flowers or gifts; it lies in the women who fight for what is right and just.

This March 8, we reserve flowers for women like Nguyen Thuy Hanh, Can Thi Theu, and Pham Doan Trang.

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Prisoners of Conscience

Who Is Pham Doan Trang?

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Pham Doan Trang in Saigon. Photo: Thinh Nguyen. Graphic: Luat Khoa.

“I believe my life is firmly tied to the nation’s.”

For at least the past 12 years, Pham Doan Trang has been one of the most prominent names in Vietnamese politics, and her arrest on October 6, 2020, has her staring down 20 years in prison.

So, who is Pham Doan Trang?


Pham Doan Trang

Birth name: Pham Thi Doan Trang
Birthdate: May 27, 1978
Birthplace: Hanoi
Profession: Democracy activist, journalist
Location: Currently being held in Temporary Detention Camp #1, Alley 702, Phuc Dien Ward, Nam Tu Liem District, Hanoi.
Quotations without citations are taken from writings on Doan Trang’s blog: phamdoantrang.com.


Growing up with the music of the Beatles

Hanoi youth in the 1970s. Photo: ngoisao.net.

Pham Doan Trang is the youngest child in a family of teachers. Her grandparents taught history and math at Hang Ken School, and her mother and father were also teachers. During the subsidy period, Doan Trang grew up in a poor residential area in southern Hanoi. Shewrote about her childhood in her blog:

Like many other children, I was scared of ghosts. This fear only grew when we had to sleep amidst blackouts so dark we couldn’t see our own fingers. Looking out the window, the alleyways were pitch black. There was a burned-out house whose gray walls were charred black. The owner of the house had died in a fire long ago, and no one lived there anymore. There was another house in which the husband and wife died in an accident, and the children lived with the grandparents; no one dared go there either.

In 2nd grade, a neighbor’s cassette player strongly stirred little Doan Trang’s curiosity as it played Beatles’ songs one after the other. Her soul was set aflutter with these hits. From that point on, she began studying English so she could sing Beatles songs. 

“In 7th grade, I began struggling with my neighbor’s cassette player to listen to and transcribe the songs where I tried my best to record the lyrics,” she said. “I started borrowing my friends’ personal songbooks where they had the lyrics written out to transcribe the Beatles songs, complete with incorrect English spellings and spotty grammar…. I grew up with the music of the Beatles”.


In college

Doan Trang during her freshman year at Hanoi Foreign Trade University in 1996. Photo: Pham Doan Trang’s Facebook profile.

From 1996-2000, Doan Trang studied at Hanoi Foreign Trade University, majoring in international economics. It was during this time that she and her classmates first connected to the internet. In her blog, she described her college years in Vietnam:

Back then, the internet was only barely establishing itself in Vietnam, and students were quite shy and cautious when surfing online…. We didn’t have books, but we could already see the events in reality were not really accurately described in those books anyway. Moreover, who would let the students just willy-nilly visit the companies and large organizations to find out the truth…. Because of that, students of my time especially focused on studying the one resource that was most useful: online economic articles, either written or translated by journalists. Countless generations of economics students got their education through these articles.


Baby steps towards journalism

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Doan Trang interviewing Ms. Hoang Thi Minh Ho (1914-2017), wife of businessman Trinh Van Bo, in 2010. Photo: Pham Doan Trang’s Facebook profile.

In the winter of 2000, after graduating from university, Doan Trang began a stint at the e-newspaper VnExpress, which had just been established. She wrote about that time in her blog:

I remember fondly the winter of 2000, those days and months when I was just starting out in journalism. Sometimes when I think back, I picture myself as a child, dazed and naïve, scared of everything and everyone. I was scared of many things, but most of all, I was scared of miswriting.

After a period of time as newsroom secretary at VnExpress, Doan Trang switched over to television at the digital TV channel VTC (Vietnam Television Corporation).

During her journalism career, Doan Trang has stated that with the exception of sports, she wrote about all sorts of topics—including those which couldn’t be published in the media.


“Trang the Ridiculous”

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Doan Trang’s blog. Photo: screenshot.

In August 2006, Doan Trang established her blog phamdoantrang.org, which helped her connect with friends in and outside the country, as well as providing her with a platform with which to write about things that could not be published in the media. The blog remains to this day.

When writing her blog, she used the name “Trang the Ridiculous”.

“I started my blog … originally and purely as a means to practice writing in English,” she wrote. “As such, you can see right away that Trang the Ridiculous’ blog became a gathering place for the ridiculous and the recalcitrant.”

After a number of years, Doan Trang’s blog moved beyond its original purpose.


Sympathizing with the weak

One of the many things that haunted Doan Trang was the fate of the weak around her. 

When I was young and living with my parents in a poor neighborhood in southern Hanoi, I remember the women who shouted to themselves, hoarse out of fear and hopelessness, “my child, oh my child….” I remember the tired faces of those struggling to survive, working countless jobs with no names: pedaling cyclos and bicycles, repairing shoes, carving chopsticks, etc. I remember asking myself why so many people around me died young; I once asked my friend, why is human life here worth so little, and he responded: “Whose life? You think your life is worth something?”

“If I had the power to change anything in Vietnam,” she wrote, “I would say that the country lacks an environment where human beings are respected.”


Speaking up is tied to the nation 

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Journalist Pham Doan Trang when she was working for state newspapers. Photo: Tuoi Tre Online.

Doan Trang once wrote on her blog that life would be so much easier if we closed our eyes to the suffering around us. 

She has said that the first reason most people don’t say what they think is innate fear, fear of being blamed, fear of responsibility, fear of isolation. The second reason is, perhaps, that people are not perceptive enough to see the problem or their self-interest in the problem. Even worse, they may only see the penalty in speaking up, believing that speaking up won’t change anything anyway; maybe they feel that the problem is not even relevant to them. 

I’ve worked in a number of organizations, and I recognize that people will speak up, and only speak up, when they see themselves as part of the organization. People only strongly attach themselves to the nation when they feel they have shared visions for the future; only then will they feel inspired to turn these visions into reality.


Quitting VTC Television

In March 2007, Doan Trang announced that she would step down from VTC and move to the e-newspaper VietNamNet.

I was like many of us: obsessed with working in television, to the point of madness. I brought (just a portion of) the flame I had from when I was 12 or13 and 19 or 20 to my time working as a visual journalist at VietNamNet TV. I was fortunate that I didn’t pour my whole self into it, otherwise I would have lost even more than I did those 10 years. One day, the pragmatic voice inside of me cried out: “Trang, is it worth it?”.


Mobilizing for LGBT rights

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The cover of Bóng – a biography of LGBT figure Nguyen Van Dung, written by authors Hoang Nguyen and Doan Trang. Photo: Global Span (“Nhịp Cầu Thế Giới”).

In 2007, a man named Nguyen Van Dung recounted his life and the LGBT world he inhabited in a trailblazing book called Glass – Biography of a Gay Man, authored by Doan Trang and Hoang Nguyen.

The biography shook society, revealing for the first time the world of LGBT in Vietnam. 

Nguyen Van Dung became a popular figure and one of Doan Trang’s friends, and the book, which was used to mobilize for LGBT rights, became a bestseller. 


Working as a state journalist

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Doan Trang worked for the e-newspaper VietNamNet when Nguyen Anh Tuan was still editor-in-chief. Photo: thongtincongnghe.com.

In 2008-2009, Doan Trang became the first Vietnamese journalist to write an in-depth analysis on Sino-Vietnamese relations. The articles resonated strongly among Vietnamees when they  appeared in Vietnam Weekly, a specialty page of VietNamNet.

Prior to that, at the end of 2007, bloggers in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City organized ground-breaking protests to oppose China’s establishment of Tam Sa (Sansha) City, an island in the disputed area of the sea, which Vietnam also claims sovereignty over.

In 2007, Doan Trang wrote extensively about her experiences as a journalist in Vietnam.

I like being around those who are different from me, especially those who are quirky or even eccentric. I crave novelty. So, I rarely regret spending too much time or energy on work. I don’t think you can excel at something if you don’t love it. And if you love it and you do it well, in turn, it will change you in positive ways. Obviously, [overworking] can still ruin your life, but unhappiness can spring even from one’s happiness.

However, never will I be an effective journalist if I feel unhappiness weighing down on my heart. 

If you’re a Vietnamese journalist, you’ll have many more reasons to feel sad. Whether this sadness is worthwhile depends on you. But if you sincerely want peace, perhaps you shouldn’t become a journalist.


Detained for nine days

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Journalist Doan Trang in 2009. Photo: Pham Doan Trang’s Facebook profile.

In 2009, an unexpected event caused Doan Trang’s life to veer in a different direction.

On August 27, 2009, blogger Wind Trader, whose real name is Bui Thanh Hieu, was arrested. The next day, Doan Trang was also arrested, and then blogger Mother Mushroom, whose real name is Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, was arrested a few days after that. 

Police stated that all three individuals had infringed upon national security by printing t-shirts opposing the establishment of bauxite mines in the Central Highlands.

All three individuals were released one after the other after nine days in detention. At the time, Doan Trang was a reporter for Vietnam Weekly (VietnamNet). She wrote about her detention in her blog:

Among the three bloggers, I was perhaps the most ‘unjustly’ arrested; I didn’t participate in the t-shirt printing at all, had never laid eyes on the shirts, or even been consulted about them. Now, when I occasionally think back to that event, it’s of one sad thought: I didn’t even get to wear my shirt, not even once…. 


Fired by VietnamNet 

Doan Trang during an award ceremony held by the publication Ho Chi Minh City Law. Photo: Pham Doan Trang’s Facebook profile.

After her arrest and detention in 2009, Doan Trang was fired by VietnamNet; no reason was given.

During the dark, depressing winter days of 2009, [Professor Dang Phong] remained one of three individuals who helped me keep the flame alive. I couldn’t give in to their rottenness. I couldn’t.

During the dark, depressing winter days of 2009, [Professor Dang Phong] remained one of three individuals who helped me keep the flame alive. I couldn’t give in to their rottenness. I couldn’t.

After that upheaval, Doan Trang went to work for the Ho Chi Minh City Law newspaper.

I was lucky to cross paths with Ho Chi Minh City Law newspaper during those difficult days, when the lingering effects of my time in detention remained serious, when I lived under constant suspicion and when I myself couldn’t trust anyone.


“A history of Vietnamese blogs”

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Doan Trang in a protest against Chinese antagonism on June 5t, 2011. Photo: Lan Thang.

In June 2012, Doan Trang released “A History of Vietnamese Blogs” on her personal blog to mark the 7th anniversary of  Yahoo! 360°’s arrival in Vietnam. Yahoo! 360° opened up a world of information for Vietnamese citizens. It became the online literary movement and provided social and political commentaries.

In addition to working for Ho Chi Minh City Law newspaper, Doan Trang also wrote articles for other publications, including Tia Sang (Ray of Light), Nhip Cau The Gioi (Global Span – a Vietnamese newspaper in Hungary), and a number of other publications.

During this period, Doan Trang continued to write in-depth analyses on Sino-Vietnamese relations. She was the first journalist in Vietnam to write about the Vietnam-China dispute over the South China Sea, which was a very politically sensitive issue in the country that the government just started to lift up its censorship in the past five years.

On the morning of August 5, 2012, Doan Trang was arrested when she participated in an anti-China protest in Hanoi. This arrest led Doan Trang to become more involved with human rights activities and began her works as a Human Rights Defender in Vietnam.


Pham Doan Trang became a Human Rights Defender 

In 2012, Doan Trang became one of the first Vietnamese journalists to report on human rights violations occurring inside the country to the outside world. 

That same year, Scrap Paper (Giay Vun) Publishing House published Doan Trang’s book And the Fourth Power, as well as a number of other works of which she was co-author, including The F Generation. In the same year, Knowledge Publishing House published Vietnam and the East Sea Dispute, which Doan Trang co-authored.

In March 2013, as the Vietnamese government was seeking citizen feedback on its new draft of the Constitution, Doan Trang began writing a series of articles called What I Tell Myself and Others, which sought to disseminate basic knowledge about politics and human rights where she wrote:

Isn’t this an amazing opportunity for us to learn about our Constitution, the law, constitutionality, human rights and citizens’ rights…? This writer asks for even more: this is an occasion to push all of us Vietnamese citizens, especially young people, to try caring about politics a bit more. How about it?


Moving away from state journalism

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Doan Trang during a 2012 press conference held by state-owned  Oil and Gas Group regarding East Sea issues. Photo: Pham Doan Trang’s Facebook profile.

In 2013, Doan Trang announced that she was leaving Ho Chi Minh City Law. By this point, she had worked for more than 10 different state media outlets. She then made the decision to go overseas and participate in international advocacy. 

The next year, Doan Trang traveled to the United States at the invitation of Villa Aurora, a prestigious artists’ residence, and the University of Southern California.


Human rights advocacy for Vietnam

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Doan Trang and a number of other activists in front of the UN Headquarters in New York, January 24, 2014. Photo: Doan Trang’s blog.

From the end of 2013, Doan Trang embarked on many trips to the United States, Europe, and Thailand to advocate for human rights in Vietnam. In particular, Doan Trang was part of a delegation of civil society advocates during a number of international events, including the Universal Periodic Review session on human rights at the UN in February 2014 and the Canadian Senate hearings on human rights in Vietnam in April 2014.


Co-founding Luat Khoa Magazine

Ba trong bốn thành viên sáng lập của Luật Khoa tạp chí. Ảnh: liv.ngo.
Three of the four co-founders of Luat Khoa Magazine. Photo: liv.ngo.

On November 5, 2014, readers first laid eyes on Luat Khoa Magazine, a publication dedicated to law, politics, and human rights and founded by Doan Trang and a number of others. 

In her blog, she introduced Luat Khoa: 

I understand the fear of not knowing anything about the law, of not knowing even where to begin to escape that immense jungle. I understand how overwhelming these things can be, and I know (in part) what it’s like to be involved in matters related to “courts” with a voice too weak to have any say, not knowing what to do or who to believe, never mind using the law to defend oneself….

Broadly speaking, discovering the law and studying jurisprudence are the first steps on the road to building a state governed by rule of law.


Police retaliation upon returning home

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Doan Trang in a meeting with US senators visiting Vietnam in May 2015. Photo: Pham Doan Trang’s Facebook profile.

On January 26, 2015, Doan Trang returned to Vietnam. She was detained at the airport for 15 hours and was closely monitored after returning home. Afterwards, she was arbitrarily arrested by police when she served as a translator for the families of death row inmates Ho Duy Hai and Nguyen Van Chuong in an advocacy meeting with the New Zealand Embassy in Hanoi.

Two weeks after she returned to Vietnam, police disseminated explicit pictures of Doan Trang taken from her computer, which they had confiscated six years earlier.

In March 2015, police poured glue into the locks of Doan Trang’s home, preventing her from attending a meeting at the German Embassy in Hanoi.


Assaulted by police during protests against felling trees in Hanoi

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Doan Trang, carrying a backpack, was dragged by police during protests on April 26h, 2015. Photo: Phan Tat Thanh.

On the morning of April 26, 2015, the group For a Green Hanoi organized a march to prevent the Hanoi authorities from cutting down trees in the city. During the protest, police strong-armed Doan Trang and many other protestors onto buses. Doan Trang recalled the incident:

After the march was disrupted on Sunday, when everyone was gathered in front of the Long Bien district police station, Mr. La Viet Dung checked in on me: “You were dragged over a manhole this morning, weren’t you?” he asked. 

I remember I was lost in the middle of the crowd, images rushing past in a blur, but I recall seeing a stretch of green sky and a sea of undulating faces, young and old, of both the citizens and police.


Demanding the release of individuals at the police station

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Doan Trang together with activists Dinh Thao and Luu Van Minh on the night of September 23, 2015. Photo: Le Anh Hung.

Doan Trang participated in many attempts to free those arbitrarily held at police stations.

On the night of September 23, 2015, six young individuals of the channel Conscience TV were arbitrarily detained. That same day, Doan Trang and other activists arrived at the Hai Ba Trung District police station in Hanoi to demand their release. She and others organized a small protest in front of the station, where they were assaulted by the police.In December 2015, Doan Trang uploaded “Timeline of the capital’s tree-felling ‘campaign’” in both English and Vietnamese on her blog.


Arrested on the way to meet President Barack Obama

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American President Barack Obama meets with civil society activists on May 24, 2016 in Hanoi. Doan Trang was invited to the meeting but was prevented from attending. Photo: Reuters.

In May 2016, Doan Trang took a car from Saigon – where she had just undergone knee surgery – to Hanoi to meet American president Barack Obama. However, she was apprehended by police several hours south of Hanoi and held for 26 hours in  Ninh Binh Province.

After being arbitrarily detained in Ninh Binh, she returned to Saigon and continued to be harassed by police at a friend’s residence where she was staying. 

From this point onwards, up until her most recent arrest, Doan Trang was repeatedly harassed by police in all sorts of ways. Anytime a diplomatic delegation came to Hanoi, she would be put under house arrest for many weeks prior to its arrival.


Resumption of book and report writing on the environment, politics, and human rights

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Doan Trang along with Ms. Le Thi Minh Ha, wife of blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh, during the release of Anh Ba Sam on March 23, 2016 in Hanoi. Photo: JB Nguyen Huu Vinh.

In 2016, Doan Trang participated in writing and editing the bilingual (English-Vietnamese) book Anh Ba Sam, about blogger Anh Ba Sam, whose real name is Nguyen Huu Vinh. The book was released on Amazon a week before Mr. Vinh’s preliminary trial in March 2016.

Beginning in February 2016, as the Vietnamese government was organizing elections for representatives of the National Assembly’s 14th term and of the People’s Councils at all levels, Doan Trang wrote a good deal about the processes on her blog. 

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The book Overview of Vietnam’s Marine Environmental Disaster. Photo: Liberal Publishing House.

In October 2016, the group Green Trees published the book Overview of Vietnam’s Marine Environmental Disaster on Amazon, with Doan Trang and other activists as co-authors. The book laid out the timeline of events during and after Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh’s polluting of beaches in mid-2016. Also in the same year, the book From Facebook Down to the Streets was published on Amazon.


Supporting other activists

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Doan Trang standing with crutches to the right of Green Trees group members in a photo taken in 2016. Photo: Anh Ba Sam.

Few outsiders know that Doan Trang is more than just an activist; she also guides young people on how to become activists themselves. For these young people, she is a rare kind of teacher, imparting on them knowledge and skills that they can’t learn anywhere else.


The days writing Politics for the Common People

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Doan Trang in 2017. Photo: Thinh Nguyen.

In 2017, Doan Trang wrote Politics for the Common People while she was under house arrest in Hanoi. In July 2017, she left Hanoi for Saigon in order to evade police harassment.

On September 22, 2017, Politics for the Common People was published by Scrap Paper Publishing House and  Green Trees. The book aimed to spread basic political knowledge to everyday people, especially the young involved in social and human rights activism.

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Cover of Politics for the Common People. Photo: Liberal Publishing House.

I wrote [Politics for the Common People] while under tight police supervision in Hanoi; I couldn’t do anything or go anywhere. I felt like I couldn’t breathe—literally…. Meanwhile, in some other location, their boss, sitting in an air-conditioned room, directed them to closely follow the ‘suspect’, research the suspect’s habits, her daily routine, her path to and from home, and how items are arranged in her house….

If I didn’t have my guitar by my side, I probably would’ve gone insane…. But, to me, all of that isn’t important; what’s important is that people read the book. The more people that read it, the better.

In 2017 and 2018, Doan Trang stated that at least 300 copies of Politics for the Common People were confiscated by Danang police as they were being transported from Poland to Vietnam.

Link to purchase the book: Amazon (print), Smashwords (digital).


Receiving the Homo Homini Award

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Doan Trang in a documentary film shown at the Homo Homini Award ceremony in Prague, Czech Republic. Photo: People In Need.

In February 2018, People In Need, an internationally-renowned non-profit organization based in the Czech Republic, bestowed upon Doan Trang the Homo Homini Award, given annually to honor valiant political and human rights activists and journalists across the world. Doan Trang was unable to leave Vietnam to receive the award. 


Days of horror

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Photo: People In Need.

In February 2018, Doan Trang was kidnapped by police and interrogated about Politics for the Common People; upon returning home to Hanoi to celebrate the Lunar New Year with her family, she was put under house arrest.

At the beginning of March, police continued to hold her captive as she tried to find ways to escape Hanoi. Ultimately, Doan Trang was able to escape to Saigon, but her health was quite frail. 

One day at the end of May, Doan Trang returned to Hanoi. As soon as she stepped off the bus in Hanoi, police were waiting for her. She was forced to resume house arrest because the authorities were afraid she would “instigate” the masses to protest two bills: the SEZ Law and the Cybersecurity Law.

With the help of friends and readers, Doan Trang escaped the Hanoi police one more time, traveling to Saigon. During this escape, she seriously injured her hands climbing over high walls, which she did in spite of her aching knees.


The next book

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From left: Nguyen Anh Tuan, Pham Doan Trang, and Trinh Huu Long. Photo: Luat Khoa Magazine.

In June 2018, when protests against the two proposed laws broke out, Doan Trang joined hands with jurist Trinh Huu Long and activist Nguyen Anh Tuan to write Studying Public Policy through the Case of SEZs. In mid-December 2018, the book was published by Luat Khoa Magazine.


Admitted to the hospital after a brutal police assault

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Doan Trang was admitted to the hospital after police broke up singer Nguyen Tin’s concert. Photo: Pham Doan Trang.

On August 15, 2018, Doan Trang was assaulted by plainclothes police while attending an evening concert by singer Nguyen Tin. The concert was broken up by police, who interrogated and beat both organizers and attendees. 

Doan Trang recounted how six plainclothes police officers beat her with a motorcycle helmet and some custom-made weapons. Police confiscated her computer and I.D. documents during the event.

The next day, she was admitted to the hospital suffering a concussion. At the hospital, police kept an eye on her as though she were a criminal; no friends or readers were allowed to speak with her. She was bedridden for the next three weeks.

Only later did Doan Trang learn that the concert was disrupted by police because they suspected Doan Trang was going to use the event to distribute Politics for the Common People and other “anti-state” materials.


Homeless

Doan Trang’s living situation became increasingly precarious as she no longer had her identification papers and police scoured for her everywhere. Vietnam’s tenant registration system effectively worked to make life difficult for an independent journalist like her. She believes that police even forced her neighbors in Hanoi to sign pledges to immediately report her if they saw her.

In January 2019, Loc Hung Garden – where Doan Trang was living – was torn down by the authorities. From then on, half her time and energy was spent trying to find a place to live while on the run from police and while her hands and feet were seriously injured. Doan Trang was unable to walk more than a few hundred meters and could not ride a motorcycle.

Injured and exhausted, Doan Trang felt her journalism career was coming to a close in the face of relentless government pursuit.  


Unable to live a normal life

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Doan Trang and saxophonist Dang Vu Luong in Ky Anh District, Ha Tinh Province, March 2017. Photo: Pham Doan Trang’s Facebook profile.

For more than three years beginning in July 2017, Doan Trang lived in at least 60 different locations across Vietnam. She traveled for over three years on a pair of injured legs, weighed down by a pervasive fear, while being constantly beaten, assaulted, and beleaguered by police. She described her life in her blog:

Working as an independent journalist and author under a totalitarian regime means that you can be arrested and interrogated, even assaulted, at any time without any way to protect yourself and unable to freely move around the country….

One could also be placed under house arrest or become essentially homeless. You can’t go out and enjoy yourself or even walk down the street because someone could be following you, or even worse, a complete stranger could suddenly attack you from behind.

Your family is closely monitored, and police might make trouble for your friends and supporters .… You have to live with the perpetual feeling that you are an enemy of the state, deserving of punishment ….

You certainly won’t die, because they have no intention of killing you. But you can no longer live normally like other people or like you had before. Misery, depression, and mental breakdowns will all pile on to wreak havoc and slowly kill you.


Receiving the Press Freedom Award from Reporters Without Borders

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Doan Trang received the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Award, September 12, 2019. Photo: Trinh Huu Long / Luat Khoa Magazine.

On September 12, 2019, Reporters Without Borders awarded Doan Trang the 2019 Press Freedom Award Prize for Impact.

Responding to BBC Vietnamese, Doan Trang spoke of her wishes after receiving the prize:

I hope that in the near future, more people in Vietnam will continue to strongly speak up, to express their views and political opinions on social and political matters.

I especially hope for the appearance of more writers, more independent journalists, more professional bloggers, and even more state journalists, who will participate in democratizing society through the media.”


Unable to live and unable to write

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Doan Trang with musician Tuan Khanh and activist Pham Thanh Nghien. Photo: Tuan Khanh’s Facebook profile.

In her most trying days, Doan Trang was neither able to live nor to write.

In February 2019, she founded and became an editor for Liberal Publishing House.

In 2019, Liberal Publishing House published two of Doan Trang’s books: Politics of a Police State and Non-violent Resistance; Luat Khoa Magazine also published her book A Handbook for Families of Prisoners.

In July 2020, Doan Trang and a number of translators announced that they would publish the book Fighting Impunity, translated from a work by Safeguard Defenders providing instructions on how to use Magnitsky Laws to sanction human rights violators. In addition, Liberal Publishing House also produced other works on human rights, politics, and democracy.

After Liberal Publishing House released a number of books and reports, police sought to disrupt its activities by any means possible. Many book distributors and recipients were followed, threatened, and assaulted by the authorities.


Report on the Dong Tam Village Incident 

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The cover of Fighting over Senh Field: A Report on the Dong Tam Village Attack. Photo: Liberal Publishing House.

In February 2020, a month after riot police shot at Dong Tam villagers in the middle of the night, Liberal Publishing House published a bilingual (English-Vietnamese) work called Fighting over Senh Field: A Report on the Dong Tam Village Attack.

Fighting over Senh Field had five authors, including: Doan Trang, activist Will Nguyen, and activists Can Thi Theu and her two sons Trinh Ba Phuong and Trinh Ba Tu. Ms. Theu and her two sons were arrested before the preliminary trial for murder and obstruction of officials in Dong Tam.


IPA honors Liberal Publishing House

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Doan Trang in a documentary shown during her acceptance of the Prix Voltaire 2020 award. Photo: screenshot.

At the beginning of June 2020, the International Publishers Association (IPA), the world’s largest association of publishers,  awarded Liberal Publishing House the Prix Voltaire 2020 Award. The award is given to publishing organizations around the world that best embody IPA’s spirit of independent publishing.

At the beginning of July 2020, Doan Trang announced her withdrawal from Liberal Publishing House, citing her “ailing health” and “security threats to members of LPH”.

A few weeks later, Liberal Publishing House became embroiled in a scandal after Doan Trang publicly accused a high-level manager in the organization of corruption. The spat dragged on, with the other side claiming that Doan Trang’s accusations were false. The matter remains to be settled, but the person whom Doan Trang accused also withdrew from Liberal Publishing House.


Arrested after the third report on Dong Tam

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Ho Chi Minh City police lead Doan Trang from her home late on the night of October 6, 2020.  Photo: Pham Doan Trang’s Facebook profile.

At 11:30 pm on the night of October 6, 2020, Ho Chi Minh City Police arrested Doan Trang, and extradited her to Hanoi the following day. 

Police charged her with “propaganda against the state” as stipulated in Article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code and “making, storing, or distributing information, materials, and items to oppose the State” as stipulated in Article 117 of the 2015 Penal Code. 

Police arrested Doan Trang on the very day Vietnam and the United States held their annual human rights dialogue, detaining her shortly after the event ended.

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Doan Trang in a documentary about Liberal Publishing House, shown at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Photo: Screenshot/IPA.

Shortly before her arrest, Doan Trang and Will Nguyen had announced the release of the 3rd edition of the Dong Tam Report, in both English and Vietnamese.

Doan Trang introduced the report on Facebook: “On September 25, we released the 3rd and most complete edition of the Dong Tam Report to readers. It is bilingual and twice as thick as the February edition. Strangely, I was also able to break my own personal record: I lost 7 kg of body weight.”

Doan Trang’s arrest occurred before she was able to participate in a live discussion at the world’s most prestigious event for publishers – Frankfurt Bookfair – from October 14-18, 2020. In September 2020, IPA announced on its website that Doan Trang would be attending the event.


International response to her arrest

The Vietnamese government’s arrest and indictment of journalist Pham Doan Trang sparked a sweeping international backlash.

After her arrest, the Czech Republic’s foreign minister Tomáš Petříček recalled on his Twitter and Facebook accounts that Doan Trang had been bestowed the Homo Homini Award for her bravery and contributions to protecting human rights.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Robert A. Destro, wrote on Twitter that the United States condemned the arrest of activist Pham Doan Trang and called for her immediate release.

International publications such as The New York TimesThe GuardianAPReutersWashington PostEconomistBloombergAl JazeeraDWVOABBCBangkok Post, The Independent and other media not only reported on Doan Trang’s arrest but also depicted how human rights were trampled on in Communist countries like Vietnam.

Many globally prestigious organizations also criticized the Vietnamese government’s blatant human rights violations after Doan Trang’s arrest. Following are a number of human rights and publishing organizations that have demanded the Vietnamese government release Doan Trang immediately: PEN InternationalReporters Without Borders (RSF), Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Federation of European Publishers (FEP), Amnesty International, Front Line DefendersInternational Federation for Human RightsInternational Federation of JournalistsInstitute for War and Peace Reporting


“I’m counting on you”

Doan Trang probably didn’t want to be detained, but she knew she would be arrested and sentenced one day. She had long prepared for it.

Right after Doan Trang’s arrest, her friends made public  a letter that she had left behind. “Ideally, I’d like to be free (and allowed to stay in Vietnam instead of being expelled), with the goals achieved,” she wrote.

She touched upon three objectives that she hoped readers would leverage her imprisonment to achieve.  

The first goal was to tie her imprisonment to advocacy for new laws to reform how Vietnam conducts elections and constitutes its National Assembly.

The second one was to encourage people to read her books. 

And the third goal was for democracy activists to use her imprisonment to negotiate with the Vietnamese government, with a focus on new legislation for elections and National Assembly formation.

***

In 2011, Doan Trang was still affected by the repercussions of her 2009 arrest. Back then, Trang could have chosen a different path, one that led to a quieter life – but she didn’t.

In a 2011 post, she imagined asking her late grandfather:

“Oh grandfather, when you were alive, did you ever think that your grandchild would grow up to be a ‘disaffected’, ‘disruptive’, ‘danger to national security’, grandfather?” And then I would ask him: “Should people love their country, should they tie themselves to their nation, grandfather?”

Today, Doan Trang undoubtedly has an answer.

***

This article was written by Tran Phuong and previously published on Luat Khoa Magazine on October 25, 2020. The translation was done by Will Nguyen.

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