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Opinion-Section

North / South

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Saigon in 1965. A propaganda poster in the city centre exalts people to "Unite, to defend the South and liberate the North!" Photo courtesy: Warren G. Reed Collection.
  • The Vietnamese would like to thank the author, Mr. Will Nguyen, who has given us permission to republish his article, North/South, which was first published in New Naratif.

April 30, 2018|I’ve always been into the idea of counterparts—“separate but equal”, to borrow the politically dangerous phrase. Captain PlanetSailor MoonThe Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers—these shows were always particular favourites of mine as a child because each contained an episode or arc where analogues to the good guys arose: Captain Pollution and his team of toxic “planeteers”, the Four Sisters of the Black Moon, or the Dark Rangers. I find the inherent sense of balance in counterparts intensely satisfying, like yin-yang writ large.

As I’ve grown older, this affinity for correlates extended to international politics, in particular, ideologically-opposed, directionally-split countries, i.e. North and South Korea, or East and West Germany.

The time when the modern Vietnamese nation-state existed as two separate entities naturally possesses a particular gravity in my mind, as I’m sure it does in the minds of many overseas Vietnamese. After all, that pair’s existence, its mutual antagonism, and one’s annihilation of the other is single-handedly responsible for the dispersal of Vietnamese people across the globe, a burst of human photons in one of many collisions between communism and anti-communism.

I was born in America; unbeknownst to me at the time, all the Vietnamese I ever encountered were former citizens of the Republic of Vietnam (i.e. South Vietnam) or as I’d known it, Vietnam. There was no alternative, no other. The yellow flag with three red stripes were ubiquitous and the only representation of Vietnam I knew.

The “right” and “wrong” anthem

Encarta Encyclopedia 97 provided me the first hint of another truth, of another “Vietnam” – the “evil” one, I would quickly learn. I remember doing a project in fifth grade which required us to produce a “country profile” on a nation of our choosing. I referred to the CD-ROM encyclopedia and, without giving it much thought, copied out the red flag with yellow star, Vietnam’s official flag as listed within the country’s entry.

My grandmother was the first to “correct” me, scolding me as Encarta played “Tiến Quân Ca”, the national anthem of North Vietnam from 1945-1975, and after the war, the official one of all Vietnam. That was not the “real” anthem, she told me. The information in that article was “wrong”. When I asked her what the real anthem was, she hummed “Tiếng Gọi Công Dân” – the national anthem of South Vietnam from 1948–1975 – a tune I was much more familiar with.

As I finished up my project, I asked my mother to look over my work. What she did, whether intentional or not, resounds with me to this day. Rather than make me remove my drawing of the yellow-starred red flag, she had me draw South Vietnam’s red-striped yellow flag next to it, presenting both flags as equally valid.

It took me at least another two decades to realise this, but my mother’s simple gesture was both an extremely powerful teaching moment and a representation of my intellectual angst with the overseas Vietnamese identity. It was my first taste of the concept of contradictory but co-existing truths.

Growing up, I never gave that distant land of Vietnam too much thought; the framework for that place and its people had been set up for me. We (the southerners) were the good guys; they (the northerners) were the bad. Everything we said was true; everything they said was lies. I never wondered why we were the ones living in another country.

College, membership in an active Vietnamese student association, and a kind-hearted Vietnamese professor ushered in a new era of knowledge for me. I began taking my first steps toward balance, and further steps towards the truth… or rather, truths.

North to South

In Vietnam, “nam tiến”, literally meaning “march to the south”, refers to the expansion of Vietnam southwards, from the Red River Delta down to the Mekong River Delta. This development shapes Vietnam’s long-standing stereotypes between northerners and southerners. Contrary to people who like to compare the shape of Vietnam to a bamboo yoke or the letter ‘S’, I like to think of the state in more metaphysical terms: a past-oriented north that flows to a future-oriented south.

Photo courtesy: Wikipedia.

 

The Red River Delta is held up as the “birthplace” of Vietnam, the traditional seat of culture and politics. The northern region and its people are perceived as conservative, ascetic, and prone to resource and food shortages. This has bred a northern character that prizes resilience, indirect communication, the concept of “face” (linked to the concept of one’s honour and prestige), and a muted cuisine that uses fewer herbs and spices.

As the state advanced into Cham and Khmer territory, a separate centre of power began developing in the south, attracting those drawn to “frontier” life and a multi-cultured existence. By virtue of self-selection, Vietnam’s expansion south drew the free-wheeling, the forward-looking, the liberal, the cosmopolitan. The south was more abundant in food and resources; Saigon – formerly known by its Khmer name Prey Nokor and currently by its Sino-Vietnamese name Ho Chi Minh City – drew traders from the world over, and life was on the whole, easier and more prosperous.

These historical circumstances have defined what it means to be a southerner: we speak with a relaxed drawl and in a straightforward manner, we cook flavourful, vivacious, eclectic dishes, and we possess a progressive, open outlook that embraces global trends. It was no surprise that the south Vietnamese eagerly adopted American dress, customs, and culture during the 1950s – 1970s.

But it isn’t just a matter of character traits and cuisine; regionalism in its extreme form has repeatedly led to Vietnamese killing Vietnamese. Historian Huy Duc describes Vietnam as a home “whose walls are made of flesh and blood”. It’s not just a metaphor.

North versus South

A civil war in the 17th century proved to be an eerie foreshadowing of events three centuries later. The north and the south were split into two separate polities: “Đàng Ngoài” and “Đàng Trong”, literally the “outside” and the “inside”. The Trinh lords ruled over the north, the Nguyen lords the south. In 1802, the southern Nguyen lords ultimately triumphed over their northern Trinh rivals, uniting the country under its Southern aegis. Inklings of this contentious period still remain in our language: to this day, Vietnamese still say they are going “out” to Hanoi and “into” Saigon.

The 20th-century civil war between North and South was a reverse iteration. The 1954 Geneva Accords split Vietnam into directional counterparts once more – a communist north versus a democratic south – with nationwide elections set to unify the country in two years’ time. Ho Chi Minh was predicted to win. Knowing this, Ngo Dinh Diem declared the formation of an independent southern republic that technically was not signatory to the Geneva Accords and thus un-beholden. The United States supported the non-communist South Vietnamese government, pouring in financial aid. The northern victory in the Vietnam War in 1975 unified the country once more, but different perspectives persist. Depending on who you talk to, 30 April 1975 – the day the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong captured Saigon – is described either as a liberation or an invasion.

Depending on who you talk to, 30 April 1975 is described either as a liberation or an invasion

My mother regularly reminds me I’m from the south. When I first began taking Vietnamese language classes in college and started pronouncing my v’s, qu’s, and final consonant n’s, she and my eldest aunt jested that I’d “become a northerner”. In class, I quickly learned that much of the Vietnamese I spoke at home was heavily marked by southern vocabulary used pre-1975. The enormous amount of South Vietnamese who had transplanted themselves in the 1970s and 1980s had led to the creation of communities that were essentially living time capsules.

The southernness of my spoken Vietnamese comes and goes depending on how inebriated I am, but the pride is palpable. On the first day of my advanced Vietnamese class at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences in Ho Chi Minh City in 2012, the professor asked me where I was from – “Will là người gì?”

Without thinking, I responded, “Will là người nam (I’m a Southerner).”

Taken aback but pleasantly surprised, the professor said that, in her 30 years of teaching, she’d never heard such a response from a “foreign-born”. I quickly corrected myself – “Will là người Mỹ gốc Việt (I’m a Vietnamese-American)” – but the identity ambiguity persists.

Conversations

My investigation of the history between the north and south often involved prodding fellow southerners with sensitive topics. Once, I asked my Vietnamese professor in college in the United States about one of the war’s alternate names in Vietnam – “Chiến tranh chống Mỹ cứu nước (The war to resist America and save the nation)” – which heavily implied that we southern Vietnamese were imperialist collaborators. (For the record, the first South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem, and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were both assassinated with tacit American support for not being compliant enough.) It was a mind-blowing experience to later see the phrase in propaganda posters on the streets of Saigon.

I had, of course, to thoroughly research the other side as well; I read numerous books and watched countless interviews from individuals on the Communist side, both those based in Hanoi as well as those hidden away in the jungles of South Vietnam.

On my first trip to Vietnam in the summer of 2007, I took liberties during my research project on gay culture in Saigon to randomly ask locals their thoughts on the war, on life post-1975, on their current government.

A propaganda poster displayed in Da Nang. Similar posters can be found in Ho Chi Minh City and other Vietnamese cities. By Dragfyre [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

“These colorful billboards… on every corner. They’re so strange, aren’t they?” That was how I broached the topic with the motorcycle drivers. Casual. Open-ended. The propaganda signs, with their blocky, solid-colored, Soviet-style imagery, were a genuine curiosity to me. They were government-sanctioned, overtly political signs, exalting the Communist Party’s leadership in history, in the South’s “liberation”, in developing a “modern”, civilised Vietnam. And they were literally everywhere. As we drove by the myriad signs peppered around the city, I would use the occasion to ask the moto-drivers their opinions of the political status quo.

“They’re a bunch of liars.”

“They don’t really care about the people.”

As one driver zoomed past a particularly large mansion, he told me that it was the residence of a prominent Communist Party member. There was a consistent sense of cynicism among these working class motorists.

An older, southern woman’s story was particularly interesting, as she was old enough to have experienced the “liberation” and the years that followed. I met her through a family friend of my mother’s. (My mother had been terrified for my safety; I was the first family member to return to Vietnam since they fled, and I would be traveling completely alone as the child of a “collaborating” family.)

Upon arriving at the house, I was impressed by how large and modern it was. It had granite countertops, hardwood floors, and classic, imposing cherrywood furniture. This was luxury by Vietnamese standards; with at least four motorcycles sitting in the spacious courtyard, it was clear this family was relatively well off.

Auntie and I were sitting in the living room having a casual chat about our families, when the conversation turned to what life was like immediately after 30 April 1975.

At this point, she got up to close all the doors and windows, drawing the curtains. She whispered for the rest of the conversation. Her family had been businesspeople during the Republican era, accumulating a good deal of wealth. After the Communists came to town, local party members, aware of the family’s affluence, found an excuse to confiscate the house. It was impossible to dispute the move, so the family decided to work within the new system, establishing enough political connections to eventually reclaim the house within a decade or so. There was a healthy dose of disdain for the powers-that-be in her stories, but her family’s resilience, tenacity, and resourcefulness overshadowed all else for me. It was an injustice corrected through cunning manipulation of an alien political system. That she was still paranoid about being overheard 20 years later speaks volumes of the pervasive and oppressive surveillance state the Vietnamese live under.

A different perspective came in the form of a Northern shopkeep at a propaganda poster shop. She’d noticed my many visits to her shop, and figuring out that I was Việt Kiều (overseas Vietnamese), took the initiative to engage me in conversation about history and politics.

I was taken aback but excited by her friendliness and eagerness to help me understand Vietnam. She told me to ask her anything I wanted. Aware that I was part of a Southern family that had fled after the war, she knew I’d been served a healthy dose of skepticism regarding Communism and the current political regime, and tried her best to argue for the other side. She’d moved to Ho Chi Minh City, she said, after its liberation.

“When you work against the victors, you are naturally apprehensive when they arrive”

I got straight to the prickly issues. Why had so many people from the South fled? What of the re-education camps? How can the powers-that-be call the current system “democratic” when there’s only one party in charge?

“People fled because they feared retribution,” she said. “When you work against the victors, you are naturally apprehensive when they arrive.”

The re-education camps, she went to on say, were not all that bad: “The ones I visited even had nice gardens and flower beds. And in any case, you have to understand the situation that the new government was in. You had an entire population grow up under an enemy’s regime. When you come to power, you have to make sure this group cooperates, you have to make sure this group is educated in the ways of the new regime.”

Her answers started to waver, though, when it came to the current “democratic” system. “We have elections. We have voting. We have representatives who form a national assembly,” she said.

“Yeah, but all that stuff doesn’t really matter when you can only pick representatives from one party,” I argued back. “If everyone is forced to follow the same ideology, the same ideas, choice is a moot point. True democracy involves multiple parties.” She disagreed, insisting that because the organs existed, democracy existed in Vietnam.

Conviction and democracy

To be sure, truth is a sensitive topic on both sides; I’d had just grown up entrenched in the anti-communist camp rather than the anti-capitalist one. Various attempts to remedy the situation have led to some rather awkward moments. I remember a conversation between my aunt and my mother where my mother said she had to give credit to the Communist government for keeping the country together and growing the economy at an appreciable clip, but my aunt quickly retorted that my uncle – who had served in the South Vietnamese army – would have maimed her if he heard her talking like that.

I’m still researching today, adopting a less polarised, more nuanced approach to the war and its competing ideologies than perhaps my mother would like. During a BBC interview, southerner Nguyen Thi Binh, former foreign minister of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam and prominent Communist figure at the Paris Peace Accords, was asked for her thoughts on Vietnamese dissidents and their desire for a better nation. She retorted: “How are they any different from me?”

The dichotomy of “good versus evil” had been so deeply ingrained in the narratives of north and south that, until I heard that comment, I’d never really thought of it that way. These people, these Communists, laid down their lives for their ideals, for their country, and perhaps most meaningfully, for their countrymen. Can, or should, we cynically believe that those who fought on the northern side sacrificed the spring of their lives, and sometimes their lives altogether, simply to gain power at the expense of their fellow Vietnamese?

What, on the other hand, was the South fighting for? Trudging through American history books, one would be hard-pressed to find any real, fleshed-out answer beyond “the domino theory”, a theory that argued that the fall of one country to Communism would lead to a domino effect among its neighbours. Reading such material, it was hard not to buy into the (Hanoian) idea that South Vietnam was a propped-up American creation. In fact, the more I researched, the more I realised that it was a deep sense of ambivalence among the southern population that lead to South Vietnam’s embarrassingly quick demise.

When asked why they were fighting and what they were fighting for, South Vietnamese soldiers often turned out not to be very firm believers in their own cause. Boots and uniforms stripped off and abandoned in place by soldiers deserting on 30 April 1975 testify to that fact.

The wartime South Vietnamese population might not have been able to answer the question of “what are we fighting for?”, but the next few decades of economic mismanagement and political oppression after unification would provide a resounding answer, especially for those not able to escape the country.

By the early 2010s, after nearly a decade of research and reading, my viewpoint had matured from “acknowledge that our side may have been ‘wrong’, and then find out what happened on both sides” to “never lose sight of the fact that democracy as the South attempted to espouse it trumps the totalitarian communism adopted by the North.” Both were foreign, imposed ideologies, and the fact that one conquered the other has no bearing on virtue. As the Vietnamese author and political dissident Duong Thu Huong so eloquently put it: “Beauty does not always triumph.”

Though film and media are thoroughly dominated by northerners, southern defiance is coming to the surface. “We only learn how to cherish things when we’ve already lost them,” the 2017 trailer of Cô Ba Sài Gòn (The Tailor) begins. The southern voiceover is immediately followed by a close-up of Saigon’s city hall, with the camera focused squarely on the flagpole – there the flag of South Vietnam flutters. Yellow with three red stripes. It is subtle but perceivable for those who look for it.

But of course, if that is too subtle for you, you can always rewind a few seconds and there staring you in the face from the very moment the trailer starts is the flag on the áo dài. The tailor’s hand gently caresses a swath of yellow with three red stripes. Genuinely ask yourself if this is all coincidence. Of all the patterns in the world that the filmmakers could have featured on the dress, why this one? And why does the voiceover make the statements she does as this pattern is displayed?

A slow zoom-out, followed by shots of economic prosperity and vibrant displays of traditional áo dài to emphasise the blossoming of Vietnamese culture under a “fascist”, “puppet” regime. That these scenes managed to make it onto the big screen directly undermines the communist narrative of Saigon needing to be “liberated”. A particularly salient question asked among dissidents, both in and outside the country, is “who liberated whom?” Did the impoverished North really liberate the wealthier South? Or was it the other way around? Moreover, what exactly did the South need liberating from? A comfortable, prosperous, peaceful life?

The film champions the preservation of the áo dài – the traditional Vietnamese outfit – over Western fashions in 1960s Saigon, but the subversive message, wrapped in the garb of an innocent movie about fashion, is unmistakable. For South Vietnam, the loss is more political than cultural: no longer do citizens possess freedom, democracy, and a vibrant civil society. Even if imperfectly practised in South Vietnam, greater freedom of expression brought prosperity and a society of better quality than what Vietnam has today. Many Vietnamese, unable to express dissatisfaction with the status quo at the ballot box, vote with their feet. Leaving the country is the dream for those who have means to do so; Hanoi readily acknowledges that Vietnam suffers from brain drain.

Even so, it must be acknowledged that the war was a manifestation of North and South both wanting the best for the Vietnamese people while choosing drastically different paths. It would be unforgivably cynical to believe otherwise, to view either government as monolithic entities not made of Vietnamese individuals who loved their country. The root of the conflict stemmed from both sides competing to be the only good. Both the North and the South had causes they believed to be just – a fact which native and overseas Vietnamese have yet to fully accept.

On paper and in diplomatic circles, there is only one “true” Vietnam. Although the Republic of Vietnam ceased to exist after 30 April 1975, it lives on in the hearts and minds of millions of Vietnamese who abhor communist totalitarianism. It lives on in its enforced absence within Vietnam’s national discourse. A silent, de facto ban of the yellow flag with three red stripes, of any positive mention of the southern republic, of anything related to the former state is, in a way, perpetuating South Vietnam’s existence. And if history is any indication, the South remembers.

About the Author:

  WILL NGUYEN

Will Nguyen considers himself a “Schrödinger’s cat” of East and West. He is Vietnamese or American, depending on who’s looking. Will graduated from Yale University in 2008, with a Bachelor’s in East Asian Studies. He is currently completing his Master in Public Policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (NUS), where he has pursued topics of Vietnamese history, culture, and politics.

Opinion-Section

The Power Of Your Ballot

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As election day approaches for seats in the Vietnamese National Assembly, it is important to take a step back and reflect on the significance of this political exercise as a whole and on our role as voters. 

It is common knowledge that several aspects of this entire electoral process are suspicious or perhaps even fraudulent. As such, a large portion of the Vietnamese population may choose not to vote at all, even though they seem to care greatly about the politics and elections of other foreign nations. At first glance, their actions are logical and make total sense. 

Why should Vietnamese citizens continue to take part in a rigged electoral system where their votes will not matter in the end? Why should they take time off from their day and exert effort to indulge in the whims of a government that hardly even cares about the well-being of its people? After all, non-participation is a form of civil disobedience in itself, and in most cases, it is effective and it works.

Yet, in the context of Vietnam, perhaps another way to express discontent might be more effective in bringing about lasting social and political change.

A History of Fraud and Deception

The Vietnamese government has constantly alleged a remarkable voter turnout since the 2002 election for the National Assembly, according to the IFES Election Guide. To be specific, Vietnam tallied 98.85 percent in 2002, 99.52 percent in 2011, and 99.35 percent in 2016. It is also expected that government claims for the turnout for the upcoming election will remain in a similar range. 

Yet, according to some experts, election results in Vietnam come as no surprise as these tallies could be mere fabrications, highly exaggerated, and may not accurately reflect reality. To support their opinions, these experts – such as Mu Sochua, a board member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), and a former Cambodian Member of Parliament – state that the VCP will enlarge these numbers by relying on proxy voting – wherein one person can vote for his/her entire family – and pressuring local authorities to ensure high voter turnouts in their regions. 

Contrived voter statistics is not the only thing the Vietnamese government is guilty of; its claim of free and fair elections is also deceptive. Candidates for the National Assembly are closely scrutinized and vetted by the Vietnamese Fatherland Front, an arm of the VCP. In the upcoming elections, out of 868 candidates vying for 500 seats, only nine are self-nominated, with six of these also reported to be members of the VCP as well. From this, we can see that pluralism and choice are all but non-existent. 

Prior elections also illustrate this phenomenon and the distinct lack of choice. A report by Freedom House states that out of the 500 seats available for the National Assembly in 2016, 473 were taken by Vietnamese Community Party members while “independent” candidates, who were also vetted by the VCP, took 21. 

Independent candidates and those who are not part of the Communist Party also face an uphill battle in their bid to be candidates in the elections. While most don’t even pass the Vietnamese Fatherland Front’s scrutiny, some are imprisoned or pressured into rescinding their intention to run. 

The arrests of Le Trong Hung, Nguyen Quang Tuan, and Tran Quoc Khanh, as reported by Amnesty International, stand as recent examples.

Le Trong Hung was a citizen journalist who worked for Chan Hung TV and Nguyen Quang Tuan was a medical doctor. Tran Quoc Khanh ran a popular social media account, which he used to comment on social issues and to criticize the Vietnamese government. All three were independent candidates running for seats in the National Assembly in the upcoming election. However, they were arrested for allegedly violating Article 117 of Vietnam’s penal code, a statute which Amnesty International claims in the report, “ …violates Viet Nam’s international human rights obligations” and that Article 117 “should be repealed or substantially amended…”

To top all of this, the result of the National Assembly elections is more or less carved-in-stone and predetermined months in advance. This can be seen in the “tentative proportion” or “tentative allocation” data released by the National Assembly’s Standing Committee. The committee has portioned the number of available seats and through this, we can get a fairly clear picture of who will get “elected” and what the priorities of the National Assembly will be over the next five years. 

To Vote or Not to Vote 

Hence, we are faced with a conundrum.

Given the state of elections in Vietnam with all the deceit, manipulation, and unfairness involved, would it be proper and appropriate to still vote come election day, or would non-participation in the system itself be the better alternative?

The usual reaction, when faced with such a situation, would, of course, be the road of passivity and non-compliance. Ergo, to choose not to participate in the elections at all. 

This perspective is all well and good. After all, a lack of voters usually implies a government’s lack of legitimacy and the absence of its citizens’ trust. However, legitimacy does not seem to be the VCP’s concern and they would be more than happy to pad the actual number of voters through the use of various statistical anomalies. 

On the other hand, choosing to vote seems to be a fruitless and purposeless course of action when the result is more or less predetermined several months in advance. 

At the end of the day, it appears that no matter what we decide to do with regards to the elections, the Vietnamese government and the Communist Party emerge as the true victors.

Rays of Hope 

And yet, you have someone like Luong The Huy, an openly homosexual man, civil society activist, and gender expert, who is one of the few self-nominated candidates who somehow managed to slip through the Vietnamese Fatherland Front’s obscure vetting process. 

On election day, May 23, he and a few other candidates will take on a seemingly hopeless fight for a slim chance at winning a single seat in the National Assembly. The odds and the deck are stacked against them, but they still continue to push back; they refuse to remain silent in passive acceptance. 

And while most of us cannot run for any government position, choosing to vote is the next best thing; even though it feels like an exercise in futility, we should still force ourselves to vote come election day. 

Even though our choice may not matter, our mere participation in the simplest of democratic freedoms given to us shows the VCP that we are concerned and invested in the direction the country is moving towards. Even if the election is rigged from the start, the mere act of supporting a candidate that does not agree with the Party’s schemes shows the Party that we will not take kindly to the government’s machinations and ploys. Even the act of submitting a blank ballot carries much more weight than simply not voting at all. 

The VCP thrives on the growing apathy and passivity of its people and could care less about legitimacy. Hence, choosing to vote and then deciding to vote properly becomes an act of rebellion; it becomes revolutionary in that it respects the concept and sanctity of the democratic process itself rather than the Vietnamese government as an institution. And if enough people unite and vote for those actually deserving of a seat in the National Assembly, there is a minuscule chance that perhaps true and lasting change and reform can slowly come from within. 

The strength of your ballot lasts beyond election day and extends far into the uncertain future. And when your time comes to make a decision, we hope you make the right choice.

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Opinion-Section

Ao Dai, The Freedom Index, And An Election Goes Uninterested In Vietnam

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Photo: Reuters.

Why are so few paying attention to this country’s grand affairs, such as our upcoming general election on May 23, 2021?

Maybe the op-ed article written in Vietnamese by Huynh Minh Triet that was previously published in the Luat Khoa Magazine on March 17, 2021, would offer us some perspectives on this question? The translation was done by Hoai Huong.

***

In March 2021, with the most crucial election in Vietnam about to start in two months which should be the event that attracts the most public attention in the country, what has sparked controversy was a Japanese adult movie and a freedom-ranking list of a foreign organization.

Freedom House, an international non-governmental organization, on March 5 categorized Vietnam as a country that has neither political freedom nor internet freedom. The online Vietnamese population immediately rushed to the Freedom House Facebook page, scolding it both in English and Vietnamese. Even the postings on this account that were irrelevant to Vietnam also came under fire.

Furthermore, on March 10, Japan released a soft porn movie in which the main actress, who wore a Vietnamese ao dai, was a young girl of Vietnamese origin. Again, the online population in Vietnam vehemently protested, expressing their hurt feelings because the movie humiliated them. The press quickly gathered the most impressive comments to prove that the national superiority complex had been hurt. 

Wow, if only our national affairs captured public attention in the same way as Japanese sex movies or the Freedom House rankings!

Vietnam is currently undergoing the tense process where our general election on May 23 has the utmost important responsibility to select our National Assembly’s deputies who will represent all of us. Nevertheless, such a significant event received virtually no considerable discussion on social media. 

On March 9, Tran Quoc Khanh, an independent candidate, was arbitrarily arrested. His news was covered superficially in newspapers and mentioned on just a few Facebook accounts of interested individuals. Word of the arrest came and went unnoticed among the online population.

Aren’t the Vietnamese interested in elections? 

No, they are. But just not with their own country’s elections.

The Vietnamese were one of the peoples around the world most enthusiastic about the US presidential election in 2020, and their fondness for Donald Trump might have contributed to this phenomenon.

Vietnamese people created all kinds of news channels to support Trump and made all kinds of projections and comments about the US election on social media platforms. We grew openly hostile to one another and even humiliated one another because we supported different candidates in the US presidential election. Worse still, following the election, the Vietnamese online population rushed the US Embassy Facebook account to express frustration over the failure of their idol Trump.

In Vietnam’s elections, however, things were different. No relationships turned sour when the VCP arranged for Nguyen Phu Trong to seize power again. There were no vehement protests or objections when candidates who were not Vietnamese Communist Party members were detained or had their names crossed off the list. 

However, we discussed US voting laws with great passion and many of us cursed “the damn Democratic Party” for allegedly wanting to ease restrictions so that illegal immigrants could vote. Many shouted with joy when Trump criticized voting via postal services as he claimed this would lead to cheating. In fact, however, many of us have never seen a ballot box in Vietnam.

Is it true that a political system in which the people can only vote for candidates recommended by the Party is so perfect that we do not care about domestic elections? 

No, definitely not.

Are we so insensitive to our responsibilities, while having surplus energy for trivial matters that are not even related to Vietnam? 

Probably.

But there may be another reason: that is because we are scared.

The widespread fear from the land reform campaign (in North Vietnam in the early 1950s) has not actually subsided. Fears have now been heightened by the 2018 Cyber Security Law – an identical copy of China’s. Under this new law, all that we speak up about or write about on social media platforms can be used as a pretext for the authorities to harass and arrest us.

Few of us dare to confront the authorities because we are all afraid of being murdered in a police station, upon which the government will claim that we have “committed suicide due to a guilty conscience,” as it has stated during Vietnam’s review under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in March 2019 to rationalize the unusually high number of people who died unexplained in police stations. 

Thus, in the face of events really close to us and of great importance, we remain silent and “project” our depression onto safer events such as Japanese adult films and the freedom rankings of an organization thousands of miles away.

A Myanmar demonstrator under arrest in the capital city Yangon on February 27th, 2021. Photo: Reuters

Now, let’s take a look at a neighboring country, Myanmar. At the time I wrote this article, 150 people had been killed while taking part in demonstrations to protest against the military coup that overthrew the democratically-elected government led by Aung San Sui Kyi. For the Burmese, the ballot is their life. For us Vietnamese, how many of us can’t be bothered to even think about the weight our ballot can carry?

Freedom is not free. The Myanmar people are declaring with dignity that they are ready to pay an exorbitant price to have freedom.

We may feel free to criticize the Freedom House rankings, but this does not render us freer.

So, how can we change this? I have not come up with an answer yet. But if most of us keep staying silent for our own sake, and then throw our bursting surplus energies into things which are trivial or less important – and also less risky – to preserve the self-respect of a cowardly collective consciousness, then we will never find the answer.

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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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