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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.

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The 88 Project And 12 Other Human Rights Organizations Release An Open Letter To U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris Ahead of Her Visit to Vietnam

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The 88 Project commenced and was joined by 12 other human rights organizations to sign and publish an open letter, addressed to current U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, ahead of her planned mission to Singapore and Vietnam.

The intentions of her visit, as previously reported by Nikkei Asia, are to strengthen U.S presence in the Southeast Asian region, and to discuss the issues of climate change, regional security, and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Released on Wednesday, August 18, 2021, the letter urges the Vice President to “empathize the importance of human rights with Vietnamese leaders” and also calls for specific action to be taken regarding the situation of Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, a prominent Vietnamese democracy activist whose health is slowly deteriorating due to his prolonged hunger strike.

In 2010, Thuc was sentenced to 16 years in prison for writing and publishing online articles calling for a multi-party democratic system in Vietnam. The letter also claims that Thuc’s imprisonment, detention, and subsequent treatment at the hands of Vietnamese authorities are blatant infringements of his right to a fair trial under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Vietnamese Constitution itself. He has also been subject to various forms of physical and mental duress which violate the international prohibition against torture.

The 12 signatories of the open letter implore U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris to express her concern regarding this blatant denial of Thuc’s human rights, in her discussions with Vietnamese leaders, and to call for his immediate and unconditional release. 


For the full text of the open letter, click here.

For more information regarding the situation of Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, click here.

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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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