At a conference on “Strengthening Party-building Work in Press Organizations” last Friday, Mr. Vo Van Thuong, head of Communist Vietnam’s Central Propaganda Committee, reminded attendees that the press must serve the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and the revolution in order to function “stably” and “without error”.
Referring to a government plan ratified earlier in the year to develop and manage press throughout the country until 2025, Thuong stated that the time for debate had passed and that strict implementation was now key. According to state media and in sentiment echoed by Thuong, the press serves as “an important channel to fight against incorrect information, fake news, news critical of the regime, and that which makes people lose trust in the Party-State.”
In his remarks at the conference, Thuong stressed the importance of ideological work in press organizations and making sure Party cadres and Party members guard against signs of political, ideological, and moral decay. In particular, Thuong warned against signs of “self-development” and “self-evolution”, negative terms that refer to the shift towards liberal democratic values–values which are anathema to the ruling Communist Party.
In this vein, Thuong took to admonishing journalists who lacked “proper training” and were critical of society but not sufficiently critical of themselves. He also stressed the importance of proper training for leadership and suggested greater oversight of the Party committees and organizations involved in press organizations, particularly when it comes to adherence to Party regulations.
“In order to help press organizations develop self-awareness and a more proper nature, we should do as a number of comrades have stated: ‘Sometimes those who educate [Party members and cadres] must themselves be educated’,” Thuong stated.
Thuong reminded attendees that Vietnam’s journalists were journalists of the revolution, journalists of the Party, and journalists of the state; as such, they should work closely with the Central Propaganda Committee, the Ministry of Information and Communication, various central Party committee blocs, and the Vietnamese Journalists Association, in order to strengthen the leadership of the Party.
The plan approved April 2nd of this year also seeks to streamline Communist Vietnam’s press environment, limiting government bodies to one newspaper and one magazine, with a shift to electronic rather than print forms, and with the “Vietnamese Communist Party E-Newspaper” and the Central Propaganda Committee serving as the “core” of the country’s press structure.
Along with head of propaganda, Thuong is also currently a member of the Politburo (short for “Political Bureau”, the leading body of the Vietnamese Communist Party), and the secretary of the Central Committee (from which members of the Politburo are chosen). In the past, Thuong was deputy secretary of the Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) Standing Committee, first secretary of the Central Committee of the HCMC Communist Youth Union, and secretary of the Quang Ngai Provincial Party Committee.
According to Reporters Without Borders, Vietnam ranks 176th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom. Although freedom of the press is guaranteed by Article 25 of the 2013 Vietnamese Constitution, Communist Vietnam is a one-party, authoritarian state that does not tolerate challenges to its power. It controls all official media, newspapers, and publishing houses in the country and regularly censors material that does not conform to sanctioned historical or political narratives.
Freedom Of Speech In Vietnam: Where Government Is The Boss
In ASEAN, there are still stories of the independent media that will give us inspiration and encouragement. Here are the two examples of those stories.
Two years ago, a tuk-tuk took a group of international journalists along alleys full of twists and turns in Chiang Mai, Thailand, before stopping in front of a private radio station.
Uncle Sangmuang Mangkorn, the colleague and guide, then gave the journalists a tour around the radio station and showed us the facilities of MAP Radio.
MAP stands for the Migrant Assistance Programme, and it is a foundation that runs several community radio stations in support of migrant workers in Chiang Mai and Mae Sot.
Most people have a preconception of radio stations being quite large and full of modern equipment and technology. Yet, the MAP Radio office is far from this ideal. Inside were just two small transmitting rooms and two employees working on a live program. This was all they had.
Warmly referred to as “Uncle” Sangmuang, he and some of his close friends founded MAP Radio in 1966 when an influx of Myanmar migrants came to Chiang Mai to work at construction sites. Myanmar workers frequently got into trouble in Thailand, and they had no avenues available to access information that would be essential for the duration of their stay. MAP Radio operates both as a radio station focusing on labor rights, health, education and an organization to help and campaign for migrant workers. MAP Radio also broadcasts in some of the workers’ mother tongues.
In 2018, Malaysiakini, a 4-language online newspaper in Malaysia, issued a publication concerning deaths in police stations. The paper discovered that only one-fourth of these deaths captured public attention. Hence, the paper created a separate web page to gather information about these deaths, teach basic ways to protect oneself from abuse by authorities, and share the experiences of victims under arrest.
In 2021, Malaysiakini was fined RP $500,000 (more than USD $120,000) by a court in Malaysia on charges that readers’ comments on its website resulted in a decline of public trust in the judiciary system. Immediately after the court’s ruling, Malaysiakini called on its readers to make donations to help it pay the fine. Within a few hours, they had collected more than the amount needed.
Compared to the rest of Southeast Asia and the world, freedom of speech and free press in Vietnam has a quite different fate.
Vietnam: When the government acts as the big boss
In 2018, a Vietnamese activist, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for collecting information about unexplained deaths in police stations. After spending two years in jail, she was exiled to the United States for political reasons.
Fast forward towards the year 2020, it was a terrible one for the press in Vietnam as mainstream media continued to operate under government control.
Vietnam’s independent press development has taken a step backward during the past two years. We now do not have Bao Sach (The Clean Newspaper) anymore because its founding members have been arrested in late 2020 and early 2021.
Three members of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, journalist Pham Doan Trang, land rights activist Can Thi Theu, and her two sons, together with many others, were also detained in 2020 and 2021. At some of their trials, heavy sentences were handed out.
Vietnam imprisoned all of them for speaking out against abuses by the government and participating in activities that displeased the authorities.
In a few months, Chung Hoang Chuong, the owner of a SIM card shop in Ninh Kieu Town, Can Tho, will complete his 18-month sentence. He was arrested in early 2020 for posting comments concerning the Dong Tam incident. The final post on his Facebook account attracted around 1,400 comments, many of which criticized him for his daring anti-state viewpoints.
The government uses penal charges against people who exercise their right of freedom of speech in Vietnam when it feels that that such speech negatively affects the interests of the Vietnamese Communist Party. In these charges, the authorities always regarded the Party’s interests as the people’s; when the Party’s interests are compromised, so are the people’s.
The VCP always regurgitates the idea that the people are masters of Vietnam. But in reality, the Party and the government behave like they are the bosses of the people. At a moment’s notice, they are ready to punish a particular civilian if he/she criticizes them. Here, the VCP shows its true colors; party leaders are the true masters of the land and not a government whose primary responsibility is to serve the people.
In a particular business, the owner has the right to punish or dismiss some workers since he holds ownership of the company. However, Vietnam is not owned by the Party; ownership of this land belongs to us, the people.
In Myanmar, the military regime has controlled the country for a long time. Following the transfer to a civilian government, the military, by default, accounts for 25 percent of seats in the National Assembly. Nonetheless, the central and local governments should be run by civilian leaders.
The political system in Vietnam is similar, if not worse, than the situation in Myanmar; replace the term “Myanmar junta” with “one-party regime” to see these similarities. The National Assembly, the courts, the People’s Procuracy, and the central and local authorities are under the control of VCP members. Even in elections, the Party handpicks candidates to ensure the Party’s continued existence and dominance. Such an administration leaves the people with no other option than obedience.
Side effects of controlling the press
Have you ever wondered how one gets daily news and information about Vietnam? He or she may listen to the radio in the morning, reads online papers in the afternoon, and watches TV or follows social media after work in the evening. In Vietnam, except for social media platforms, all other sources of information are controlled by the State.
Imagine for a moment that you live in a neighborhood where residents can buy groceries at only one store. Whatever the store is selling will decide what you eat each day. If the commodities are plentiful and diverse, your family can be assured that they will receive proper nutrition. However, if what is being sold is neither nutritious nor varied, you are left with no other choice than to accept what the store has available. In other words, your family’s health and yours depend entirely on what the store owner has for sale.
Now, let’s visualize that there are lots of stores in your neighborhood. In case you dislike what’s available in one, you can go to another instead. Better products will be available to you since competition exists among the stores to provide the best goods and services. They respect your demands because satisfying their customers’ needs means they get more enormous profits.
Controlling the press is similar to allowing people to do their shopping at only one store. For decades, Vietnamese authorities have dictated what people should know and what they should not; they have decided which media outlets are permitted to operate, how they should function, and which types of news are not allowed to be released. This whole mechanism determines what information you can get and how you can obtain it.
Thus, the responsibility falls on an independent press to become the best way for information to reach the people. An ordinary civilian has no time to look into matters that don’t personally affect his or her life. Take, for example, the suspicious construction of toll booths, a stretch of forest cleared and made into a golf course, the sale of counterfeit medicines, corrupt government officials, the misallocation of the national budget, and the troubles in reforming the education system. For all these things to reach the ears of the masses, we need the involvement of the free press. Only when journalists are free from the risk of persecution and imprisonment can they provide this critical information.
Regrettably, each of us has been forced to do our shopping at the only one store for a tremendously long time. Even worse, we dare not speak about our need for information because it is too dangerous. Some of us do not even know what information we need in the first place.
Without proper access to information, the people are robbed of their right to make counter-arguments, and they become increasingly less and less able to make their voices heard. Eventually, they relinquish their own land’s mastership and become puppets of those who hold the strings.
This article was written in Vietnamese by Tan Thanh and was previously published in the Luat Khoa Magazine on April 24, 2021.
Vietnam: Putting Up with Facebook
This article was originally published in SEAPA.org on June 3, 2019. As Facebook recently announced that it would agree to significantly increase censorship of “anti-state” posts for Vietnamese users, according to Reuters, we would think this article is providing a glimpse of how life is for an independent news media in Vietnam while we have to deal with both Facebook and the government for our right to publish stories. Please note that the stories and incidents provided in here happened in 2018 and 2019.
“No, no. I think Facebook is worse than your communist government.”
That was a retort from a friend of mine, a foreign researcher on international laws on human rights, after hearing me comparing Facebook’s handling of its content restriction policies to the authoritarian ruling style of the Vietnamese regime.
“At least,” my friend continued, “Vietnam will charge an activist with a specific Penal Code, 117, 109, 331, or whatever, for writing stories that it disapproves of. From what you are saying, you don’t even know why Facebook deleted your articles. That is even more arbitrary.”
He made his comments as a joke. But he actually may have a point — a good one at that.
We had been talking on the phone, and I was venting that Facebook had decided to unilaterally delete four articles from the fan page of Luat Khoamagazine, an online publication that I manage with Trinh Huu Long, another Vietnamese activist. The reason? According to Facebook, the stories have violated its “community standards.”
No explanation was offered, our appeal was swiftly denied, and the decision was final. All four articles were gone a day after we posted them on Facebook.
How did we manage to offend the “community” on Facebook that it had to delete our stories that quick?
I wish that Facebook would care enough to explain to us why writing about the US-China trade war, Donald Trump’s life before he became president of the United States, and the border dispute between Vietnam and Cambodia, would be considered offensive.
The fourth and last “offending” piece, however, was a long, detailed analysis of different “isms” and why people choose certain ideologies to follow. Its removal, in particular, has caused me to believe that the requests to delete our stories must have come from the Vietnamese government. After all, discussing these issues — especially dancing around the idea that people can choose different ideologies for themselves — could only be “offending” to a regime controlled by the Communist Party in Hanoi. The one that penned a constitutional clause to designate its own political party to be the only leadership force in Vietnam’s government and society.
To add insult to injury, during the same time, Facebook allowed a comment from an Internet troll to remain on the review session of our page. The troll called us “animals that betrayed (the country and) not worth anyone’s attention.” Our report on this troll has remained unanswered to date; the hateful comment is still there, mocking us every day.
I have had to use a lot of my own speculations in piecing together what was going behind the scenes between Facebook and our government in this past year because Facebook has been keeping secret everything about its operation in Vietnam.
To start with, we do not have a country’s representative from Facebook to deal directly with civil society and independent media. Also, besides not telling the users which community standard a removed post has violated, the names of third-party firms that conduct fact-checking for Facebook in Vietnam are not disclosed. These entities, which hold such high authority to review and decide which content can be allowed and what should be deleted, function totally in the dark.
That is why dealing with Facebook this past year, at times, has felt worse than writing and publishing in defiance of an authoritarian state like Vietnam: Because we have no idea who is on the side of Facebook.
With the new cybersecurity law passed in 2018 — which took effect earlier this year, in January — I would expect that in 2019, the compliance rate from Facebook to remove contents in Vietnam will increase more drastically. Now the Vietnamese government can just say that requests that may well compromise privacy as well as freedom of expression are all supported by its “legal process” under the new law. Under the new legislation, the law enforcement’s power to make requests to service providers such as Facebook has become potentially boundless. As soon as they open an investigation, the police could start making requests for data, private and otherwise, without any warrant and without any judicial oversight.
People outside of Vietnam may wonder, why do you still use Facebook?
It is a legitimate question. My reply is, if it is solely for personal leisure, I will not use it.
But we must put Facebook and its social-media platform in the context of a country like Vietnam. In Vietnam, we do not have a real-time civic space. People cannot organize or assemble peacefully on the streets without risking arrest and imprisonment. Independent media like our Luat Khoa magazine is slandered as a product of “reactionary forces” by state publications, such as the People’s Armed Forces online news site. Our website has been blocked by the government. If we attempt to open and operate from a brick-and-mortar office, it probably will get shut down by the police within 10 minutes.
The Vietnamese government could not even tolerate the political satire stirred up by Kim Jong-un impersonator Howard X, swiftly deporting him days ahead of the summit between the North Korean leader and U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi in February 2019. It certainly would never allow the flourishing of an independent press.
And so both the activists and the public in Vietnam have turned to online activism and utilized cyberspace as our civic space. Since the first mass protests broke out in the summer of 2011 (and lasted for three months), protests have been organized on Facebook. Incidents of corruption, social problems such as child abuse, sexual harassment — these stories and more have been reported first on social media. Usually, they then become viral and then get coverage in regular news.
The online civic-space movement needs to continue and not lose its momentum. Until the day that we find another, more suitable solution, Vietnamese activists will have to engage with the people and with one another on this platform that now has over 50 million users. Yet while we continue to use Facebook, we also push for it to be transparent about its policies and business practices. We are not asking Facebook to help us with our work. We ask that it be frank and up front with us.
“Secretive,” “non-transparent,” and “unaccountable” — these are words we often use to describe our government functions. We certainly do not want to start using them for Facebook.
Phạm Đoan Trang – The Humming Guitar Before Rainstorm Falls
“I’m so very tired. How long can they keep continue doing this? They’ve cut electricity yesterday. Today it’s the Internet.”
That was the last message I received from Đoan Trang in the afternoon on the 9th day of the Vietnamese New Year celebration, Tết. Less than an hour later, I messaged her. There was no reply until midnight.
Trang’s family later told me that two strangers came to their residential home in the afternoon and took Trang with them. Their reasons? Her book – Politics for the Masses – which Trang wrote and published late last year.
Discovering the forbidden zones
Đoan Trang was once considered one of the best journalists in the country, representing the mainstream, ‘orthodox’ majority of the Vietnamese press.
Even though she started her career at VnExpress – one of Vietnam’s first online newspapers – back in 2001, it was at Vietnamnet, another prominent e-newspaper, that Đoan Trang first made her break into the news business. After that came the much renowned and critically acclaimed feature writings and commentaries, which she produced while working for the Pháp luật Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh (The Law in Ho Chi Minh city newspaper).
From 2007 to 2008, Trang wrote a series of articles exploring the Spratlys and Paracels Islands conflict on Vietnamnet. The series brought to her both professional glory and hardships in perhaps, equal measure.
It was the first time since Vietnam and China normalized their relationship in the 1990s, that the South China Sea (or East Sea from Vietnam’s point of view) conflict was analyzed on a mainstream newspaper, and in a quite direct and candid manner, with an abundance of research. Despite the normalization, the East Sea conflict was then still a forbidden subject in Vietnam: an area very much known to many, but rarely touched upon by the Vietnamese mainstream journalists.
Đoan Trang’s writing career is indeed a journey to discover these unknown lands. Before she became a household name with her political writings on Vietnamnet, Trang co-authored with Hoang Nguyen the book “Bóng” (Shadow), the first published autobiography of a homosexual person in Vietnam. However, the story with the East Sea was different. To land one’s foot in such an area is to place oneself a step further into a jail cell.
As it turned out, Đoan Trang soon found both of her feet ended up inside a government’s prison cell. She was arrested and detained for nine whole days at a police station from the end of August to early September in 2009. On the same occasion, two other bloggers with dissident views were also arrested: Bùi Thanh Hiếu ( blogger Người Buôn Gió), and Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh (blogger Mother Mushroom).
“To this day, I still don’t know what they arrested me for,” Trang said.
After her nine-day detention, Trang lost her job at Vietnamnet. It only took nine days for her to go from a well-respected journalist into a “subject” who threatened Vietnam’s “national security”. With such a label, she also faced an infinite prospect of unemployment. However, she soon found a job at The Law in Ho Chi Minh city newspaper’s branch office in Hanoi. Nam Đồng, the veteran editor-in-chief of the paper, specifically invited Trang to work for them and assured her that she would be able to work normally as a journalist.
If the Vietnamese police thought that nine days in a cell were enough to smack Trang around, they were dead wrong. The incident pushed Trang to march even further down on her chosen path. She got involved in democracy activism and continued to write stories other mainstream journalists still hadn’t found the courage to tell.
On her personal blog at www.phamdoantrang.com, Trang began to discuss some of the most politically sensitive matters in the country: the one-party system, the police state, the public demonstrations and the resulting oppression, the arrests of political activists, etc.
Trang turned up at the demonstrations against China’s aggression in the East Sea in 2011 and 2012. She joined the demonstrators protesting the government’s plan to cut down a large number of trees in Hanoi in March 2015. Her face and voice soon were sought after by different human rights delegations from Europe and the United States.
Trang has thus stepped into the darkest of forests and the deadliest swamps in Vietnam. The areas in which the Vietnamese communist security apparatus have always guarded carefully.
Of course, the sword of the State never shows mercy for such a “rogue” as that is how they see her.
The Cat and Mouse game
At 2.39 A.M. on a day back in 2016, Đoan Trang was awakened by the doorbell.
She was staying temporarily at a friend’s home while still on her way to escape the pursuit of the Vietnamese police. The place was an apartment room inside a building with 24-hour security service. No strangers are supposed to be allowed into the main access, let alone coming straight to the door and ring the bell.
“The bells were definitely tolling for me”, Trang recollected.
“I heard clearly chit-chatting sounds from a group of people outside my door. There was no other way to explain their appearances at such ungodly hour, except that they have uncovered my tracks”.
Hearing no noise from inside, the group of strangers left. Đoan Trang was left unscathed on that occasion.
Going “dạt vòm” (Vietnamese slang which literally means “sleeping rough” and is used by activists to describe situations where they have to deflect secret police’s surveillance by leaving home) has become something that Trang is well-accustomed to.
Before any demonstrations or meetings with foreign officials, this tiny lady must get herself to a hidden place at least a day prior. This is to evade being cordoned off by the government’s security force because the Vietnamese police always try to prevent Trang from turning up at such events.
Once in a while, Trang came to stay at a friend’s place; other times, she either had to book a room at a hotel or stay at a construction site – where those living on the margins of society usually assemble.
But escaping the police is never easy.
Once back in 2015, not long after she came back to Vietnam after a one-year fellowship at the University of Southern California, U.S., Đoan Trang was abducted right at the Hồ Gươm (Sword Lake) in central Hanoi in broad daylight. She was on her way to the L’Espace Center to interpret in a meeting between a representative of the New Zealand embassy and the families of two wrongful death-row inmates, Ho Duy Hai and Nguyen Van Chuong.
A police car stopped right next to the pavement and Trang was forced into it. She was taken to the nearest police station. They only released her after successfully breaking off the meeting.
“Every time things like that happened, friends and relatives rushed to look for me. It is such an annoyance. And the thing about being abducted that frequently is that: if you are not mentally tough, you start getting paranoid, you start to see security people everywhere”, Trang revealed.
But it was apparently still not enough cloak-and-dagger for some people.
On 24 May 2016, the then US President, Barack Obama, planned to meet several representatives of the Vietnamese civil society communities in Hanoi. Đoan Trang was invited. At the time, she was still recuperating from a recent operation on both of her knees in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).
Knowing full well that the security folks would follow her and prevent her from attending the meeting, a secret road trip to Hanoi was arranged with help from two drivers who are Trang’s friends.
The road trip was smooth. They reached Ninh Binh in the late evening of the 23rd of May, one day before the meeting. They had a private and well-secluded hostel reserved for them, giving them the hope for a safe night without police surveillance.
But the secret police were sleeker than what was thought of them. Early morning the next day, Trang saw several people in the hostel’s foyer, carefully dissecting her with their eyes. Then a female security officer with her own entourage marched into Trang’s room, bringing with them strange equipment and winners’ sniggers.
“I felt like a hunted animal,” Trang recalled.
Trang and her friends could not make it to Hanoi for the meeting with Obama. Instead, they were kept inside the hostel for the entire day.
“In literature, there is this novel, The Seventh Cross, which is about the loneliness of the German people who were fleeing the Nazis. Now I understand how they felt. Occasionally, I walked across a huge city full of cars and people, but there was no place for me to stay. There is no hostel or hotel that would be safe enough.”
“They do not consider us humans. To them, each and every one of us is simply a project in the name from which they could mooch off the national budget. So don’t expect to have a dialogue with the security people. We can only have a dialogue with those who respect us.”
It may sound negative for many, but such an insight comes from a person who has been forced to have a “dialogue” with the Vietnamese security officers hundreds of time.
The hidden audience
“You used to sing this song, which goes ‘Let me go home’ or something? It was damn sad.”
I received that message from Đoan Trang in an afternoon when she was on the run from another police’s pursuit.
“I wanna go home”, she wrote in English to me, borrowing from the song Home by Michael Bublé.
Trang likes to take care of her home. She said that she “misses the flower vase, the table, the painting, and especially longs for her guitar”.
Not many people know about Trang’s passion for the guitar. It has been more than one occasion, in which Trang confided in me how she doesn’t really have any true passion for politics or the struggle for democracy like people usually assume. The only thing she cannot live without is her guitar.
“I love the guitar very much. I miss it ceaselessly whenever I am away. I just want to hug it when I come home, and to kiss it and caress it with my fingers,” she said.
If you are ever so lucky, you can sit down and hear Trang’s renditions of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, or the ballads If by Bread, I Kiss Your Memories by the Bees Gees, or Love Me with All of Your Heart (Ray Charles version).
Trang has been teaching herself to compose music, and therefore the “dạt vòm” days are full of sufferings for her. She cannot play the guitar normally like others. Thus, she usually plays the guitar as if she won’t be able to play it tomorrow.
People have countless reasons to fear the idea of having to go to prison. For Trang, she fears that she will not be able to play the guitar anymore. Prisons in Vietnam seldom let prisoners play guitars. It is usually with close supervision if they are allowed to play at all. The guitar strings can be used for many things, including committing suicide.
One thing Trang has never been able to tell for sure is whether her home was bugged. Many people say with certainty, that such a “notorious dissident” like Trang, has to be bugged somehow. In the former Soviet and East European states, many people only found out that their homes were bugged after the communist regimes collapsed.
Trang always has this feeling that even though she plays her guitar alone, there is somebody else listening.
“I never thought I would play my guitar in such a circumstance. On the ‘other end’ of the line, if somebody is listening, what are they thinking? Maybe they think I am such a crazy woman”. Trang said, half-jokingly.
Writing for the Mass
On the past 9th February, the newspaper Tin Tức (The News) of the Vietnamese Press Association announced something unusual: The Danang City’s customs officers confiscated several parcels of politically-sensitive books.
Amongst the four parcels of books “with politically-sensitive contents” which were confiscated, two parcels consist of several copies of Politics for the Mass, a book that Trang wrote.
Politics for the Mass, written in Vietnamese and talks mostly about Vietnam and for the Vietnamese people. One would think such a book should have been able to publish in Vietnam, and not having to be ordered from abroad like that. More than 20 years ago, I dug around in my parents’ old stack of books and found the textbook Elementary Politics, published by the Vietnamese communist government. It was a short, yellowed book. I read it in one go. The clear and simple language of the book allowed my 12-year-old self to thoroughly understand and get mesmerized by Marxism-Leninism.
But the right to publish this kind of book only belongs to the government.
Many years later, I read another political book. This one perhaps is most famous for this oft-quoted sentence: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.
Animal Farm by George Orwell somehow managed to escape the Vietnamese government’s censors and got published for a short period of time before they ordered the confiscation of all copies and listed it as a banned book in Vietnam.
Politics for the Mass by Đoan Trang does not have such luck. She has no other way to get it published in the first place, except by relying on a “foreign force”: the tech-giant Amazon.
Trang is the type of journalist who is especially concerned with those who have yet to know a lot of things. While many people sigh in dejection whenever “popular literacy” or “people’s intellectual level” is touched upon, Trang always reaches out to the people who are still strangers to the most basic concepts in politics and law.
“I still remember very clearly how in 2009 when I was first arrested, I was totally naive. I did not know anything about law, or about how to behave with the police. When we went to demonstrate against China in 2011, the whole group was still none the wiser. We got bullied by the police a lot”, Trang recalled.
“It was only in 2013 when I started to explore politics, law, democracy, human rights, etc. So when I write, I imagine that I am writing for this girl, Đoan Trang pre-2013”.
The idea of a book for the common folks emerged when Trang read the preface to the Vietnamese translation of The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford. It was written by Nguyen Duc Thanh, a prominent Vietnamese economist, who said that Vietnam needs intellectual heralds who can help bringing complex, academic knowledge to the general public.
After nearly 20 years working in the news business, Trang has the insight that “the Vietnamese newspapers and media fail to do such a thing. Don’t blame it on the people’s low intellectual level, or that they don’t like to read. It is us who are still not willing to help the people read, explore, discover”.
“I don’t write a book so that it will become a legacy or get included in some canon somewhere. I don’t mind if the book grabs the public attention only for a few years if that can help the people become less ignorant about politics and inspire others to write better books on politics. We must write more so that the people become less fearful.”
So said so done, Trang wrote Politics for the Mass, Non-violent resistance, and she is now writing several other books.
When Politics for the Mass was published, some readers complained that Trang was too hurried in her writing and made a number of errors which could have been easily avoided.
Đoan Trang has always been in a hurry. Always urging. Always kicking other people into immediate actions.
She cannot wait. Because she never knows when they will arrive: the uniforms and the handcuffs.
“We cannot give up”
Not many people know this, but Đoan Trang did have an opportunity to seek political asylum when she finished her nine-month course at the University of Southern California back in 2014. At least three organizations, government departments had offered Trang their assistance in applying for asylum because they were concerned about her safety when she decided to return to Vietnam.
But Trang has never had any intention to stay abroad.
“Many people look at your life and only see a weirdo who does strange stuff and invites misfortunes upon herself. Do you feel miserable?”, I once asked Trang.
40-year-old, no husband, no kids, living on the run, for her greatest asset is her uncertain future. Yet not many people understand that Trang is rather happy, and not at all miserable like they imagine.
“Many people prioritize stability, they want family, children, peaceful life. There is nothing wrong or right to argue about it because that is their own life. But for myself, if I haven’t got involved in activism, I would never have been able to experience the adoration that people have for me”, Trang said.
Indeed. Occasionally Trang told me about such experiences, showing gratitude and pride in equal measure. Like this one time when a hotel owner told Trang to leave immediately because a police officer just came by to ask for her. That owner even showed her which way to run. When she had her knees operation, many people came to assist her, many of whom she had never met.
“Sometimes they came to visit me in the hospital. They pushed some money into my hands, then cried and ran away. And there were old friends – who had not been in touch for some time – suddenly reappeared to help me with this and that”, Trang recalled.
“Some people actually recognize me on the streets. I am especially elated to find young people who recognize me and talked about my writings. There was this one time in a restaurant in Saigon, the owner kept smiling at me, then he came near and asked if I am Đoan Trang. Once I said yes, he served me the meal himself, slashed the bill for me, and gave me some gifts at the end.”
Trang said, “it is a wonderful treasure. What can you possibly trade to receive such sentiments? We cannot give up because there are still people like those in life.”
Of all the songs she has sung, Đoan Trang loves “Fernando” by ABBA the most, the band that her 1970’s generation grew up with.
The song’s lyrics are about two old Mexican Revolution veterans reminiscing their younger years fighting for freedom.
The song ends with an inspiring chorus:
…If I had to do the same again I would, my friend, Fernando…
Maybe right at this moment, on the “other end” of the line, inside the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security’s office, an unnamed police officer is listening to the gentle sound of a humming guitar softly weaving the melodies of “Fernando”, as if it cares not when the storm comes.
…If I had to do the same again I would, my friend, Fernando…
In March 2018, Đoan Trang was honored by People In Need from the Czech Republic with the Homo Homini award for her tireless works on promoting and advancing human rights in Vietnam.
This article was originally written in Vietnamese and published by Luật Khoa tạp chí on February 25, 2018, entitles, Đàn reo trước bão.
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