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A Letter To Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Photo courtesy: TIME

Dear Justice Ginsburg,

I hope this letter will somehow reach you in heaven or in the afterlife. I have not seen any evidence for the existence of either place, and I will not presume you prefer one to the other. But I hope there is a place in the cosmos where you have gone after a life well-lived, and that you are happy there. I also hope your husband, Martin Ginsburg, is also there with you and for you, as he had always been. You both deserve each other for eternity. 

I do not intend to put on a pretense that this letter is only for you. The message is addressed to you in death, but I mean to speak to the living. More specifically, I want this letter to be read by my fellow Vietnamese people. This is why I am writing in both English and Vietnamese. I want to talk to my people about your legacy. 

I believe we cannot sincerely treasure a legacy if we do not attempt to understand it as much as we can. 

We can learn a lot from you and how you lived your life. I hope this letter can explore and elaborate a bit more on that possibility. I do apologise beforehand for any misunderstanding or misconception in this letter. It is only a starting point in my own process of learning about you and your life.  

We have heard in the US media in the past few days many cries of how your legacy is being threatened by the Trump presidency and the prospect of the Supreme Court consisting of six conservative-leaning judges, with just three liberal-leaning judges remaining who are likely to protect your legacy.

But I think your legacy should be understood more widely. Yes, the progressive legal advancements you left behind have been challenged and will continue to be challenged, perhaps even more vehemently. 

But suppose more people worldwide understand the lessons from you and how you lived your life. In that case, I believe the forces that will protect and enhance your legacy will be grown beyond a group of three US Supreme Court justices. 

So, what do I think we Vietnamese people can learn from you and your life? The first thing is feminism. 

What is feminism?

I am glad to learn that you were not born a feminist (to be honest, it always seems a bit dangerous to be born with an ideology implanted in your head). 

You are now a feminist icon, but you first came to feminism through a process of learning and teaching what you learned. 

This is important as it suggests that any person, no matter what their gender or background, can choose and learn to become a feminist. This matters to me because I am a man born and raised in the heavily patriarchal Vietnamese culture. 

The starting point for your feminism seems to be 1970 when you were a 37-year-old law professor at Rutgers Law School. 

On May 1 of that year, you chaired a student panel on “women’s liberation.” Later that year, in a panel at the Association of American Law Schools’ annual meeting in Chicago, you put forward two arguments. The first is against the stereotyped characterizations of women. The second is about “the infusion into standard curricular offerings of material on sex-based discrimination.”

According to your book My Own Words (2016), you did not just wake up one day in 1970 and decide to become a feminist. It was the students whom you taught who, in turn, inspired you. 

It is quite inspiring to know that in the late 1960s, there were “newly activist women law students” at the Rutgers Law School. And they inspired their professor to shift her academic focus from court procedure to women’s rights. 

So, you read and researched everything you could on the subject. Within a month, you had perused every federal decision ever published involving women’s legal status, and every relevant law review article.

In 1971, you taught your first seminar on sex discrimination and the law. Later that year, you started working with the American Civil Liberties Union on two litigation matters concerning sex discrimination, one against men and one against women.

These two sex discrimination cases provided you the first opportunities to bring your academic research straight from academia’s ivory towers to the judiciary’s dusty colosseums. You retrained yourself from a law professor to become an attorney who could prepare briefs, then present and argue cases in court.

To root out sex discrimination using the US court system, you and the ACLU chose to persuade the courts that any law that seeks to discriminate purely on the basis of sex is in contravention of the US Constitution. The Equal Protection Clause in that constitution stipulates that the state shall not deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The case involving sex discrimination against women is Reed v. Reed. While you did not argue this case in court, together with the ACLU director, you did prepare the brief, which was submitted to the US Supreme Court. 

The woman in the case, Sally Reed, was not allowed to administer her deceased teenage son’s small estate. The state law stated that only men were allowed to administer the estate of relatives who died without a will.

Having heard the arguments, the US Supreme Court ruled that the state law is unconstitutional. This is because the state law did discriminate solely based on sex and thus protected Sally Reed’s husband but not her. The law, therefore, denied protecting Sally Reed at least equal to how it protected her husband. 

In the case of sex discrimination against men, you acted on behalf of Charles Moritz. Moritz was denied a tax deduction for the cost of providing care to his elderly and invalid mother. The law stated that such tax deduction was only available for women and formerly married men. Moritz was a single man. 

In this case, you worked in partnership with your husband, Martin Ginsburg, a brilliant tax attorney. Both of you argued the case in the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

The court heard your arguments and ruled in favour of Moritz. In passing the judgment, the judges relied on the US Supreme Court’s decision in the case you had worked on earlier that year: Reed v. Reed

As a result of the above cases, several laws that discriminated purely on the basis of sex were changed or abolished. A lot of such laws discriminated against men as well as women.  

The year 1971 was just the beginning. The years that followed saw you produce “a tsunami of articles about gender and law that flooded law journals.” You also argued and won six landmark cases on sex discrimination in the US Supreme Court. 

I started this section of the letter by asking what feminism is, then together with you, I jumped from feminism to women’s liberation to women’s rights to sex discrimination.

So, what really is feminism then? Does feminism mean the absence of sex discrimination?

Yes. To you, to advance feminism is to promote gender equality

Your feminism seems not to be focusing on the sole advancement of women’s rights at the expense of men’s rights. Both men and women deserve to have their rights protected. 

Your view of feminism may be a revelation to many members of my sex. Many men view feminism with fear and disdain. For they think that feminists are coming for their rights and that the only way to satisfy a feminist is for a man to sacrifice all his rights, privileges, and entitlements. 

I guess it made sense for you to adopt such a view of feminism: As a lawyer, you had to rely on the US Constitution’s powers to strike down discriminatory laws. 

And that constitution, written by a group of white men in the 18th century, never mentions women, sex, or gender. 

There was an attempt to introduce the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution, which says that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” This amendment was passed by the US Congress in 1972, but it was never ratified by the states, and so it is now dead in the water.

Therefore, the only words in the US Constitution that could be relied on to fight sex discrimination are the Equal Protection Clause’s very words.

So that is your feminism: the legal advancement of gender equality standing on the shoulders of the giant – the US Constitution. 

It is a type of feminism that is not merely for preaching. It was forged through the sleepless nights on your work desk through the myriad of lectures, seminars, debates, and then through the US courts’ intense scrutiny, including the highest court in the land. 

Your legally pragmatic view of feminism is termed by legal scholars as “formal equality.” It has undoubtedly helped many men and women in protecting their rights, as we have seen from the effects of your first legal victories and the legal victories that came after.

But in reading about you, I have also learned that your view of feminism is not free from criticisms. 

The limits and future of your feminism

It has been pointed out by your most vocal critics that out of the six landmark cases on sex discrimination which you won in the Supreme Court, you argued for equality for men in four of those cases.

Professor Judith Baer, in her essay titled “Advocate on the Court: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the Limits of Formal Equality“, criticised you, saying that your legally pragmatic view of feminism is too obsessed with protecting both men and women, to the extent that it hurts women. 

Because men and women are naturally different and men already enjoy certain advantages over women in society, the insistence on treating both men and women the same in the eyes of the law can actually hurt women more than men. 

This is perhaps explained more clearly and vividly by Catharine MacKinnon, a radical feminist legal scholar:

“Almost every sex discrimination case that has been won at the Supreme Court level has been brought by a man. Under the rule of gender neutrality, the law of custody and divorce has been transformed, giving men an equal chance at custody of children and at alimony. Men often look like better “parents” under gender-neutral rules like level of income and presence of nuclear family, because men make more money and (as they say) initiate the building of family units. In effect, they get preferred because society advantages them before they get into court, and law is prohibited from taking that preference into account because that would mean taking gender into account.”

This failure of the law to consider the fact that a group in society may traditionally enjoy certain advantages and privileges over other groups is very significant in the eyes of many of your critics. 

These critics have argued that your feminism is white feminism – a kind of feminism that seems to benefit only white women who already enjoy certain economic benefits and social privileges more than women of colour. 

Having read the criticisms against your feminism, I am concerned for anyone who chooses to celebrate you as a feminist icon without first going through a critical evaluation of your feminism.

I have felt a certain uneasiness upon seeing some women of my colour celebrating you as a feminist icon purely through the universalist prism, which sees that women anywhere are the same and any difference due to race, social class, or religion does not matter at all.

But I do not agree with those who have claimed that your legal work has helped destroy all affirmative action programs that help women. 

That view is deliberately exaggerated and fails to consider the facts that you advocated for women’s affirmative actions in 1975. Later, as a Supreme Court judge in 2003, you argued for affirmative action to address societal discrimination. 

I am quite curious to learn more about how you square the two: the need to ensure equal protection of the laws and the need for affirmative action, or positive discrimination, to rectify “both civil and social inequalities and helps disadvantaged groups achieve a measure of freedom within the societies that oppress them”). But that is for another day.

Here, another criticism can be suggested: Your feminism helps advance formal equality for both men and women. So what?

Unlike in the United States, we have no problem with formal equality in Vietnam. 

Our Constitution enshrines women’s rights and has done this since 1946. Our Gender Equality Law came into effect in 2007. 

Yet, it would be an overstatement to say that the women in Vietnam enjoy a kind of gender equality that allows them to flourish. 

On the global scale in 2020, Vietnam is ranked 31 out of 153 countries in ensuring women’s economic participation and opportunity, 93 out of 153 in ensuring women’s educational attainment, 151 out of 153 in ensuring women’s health and survival, and 110 out of 153 in ensuring women’s political empowerment. 

Vietnamese women, on average, still earn $130 less than Vietnamese men per year. 

On a more micro-scale view I can still see that many women in my country suffer from sexual abuse, domestic violence, and extreme misogyny. 

I am ashamed to see that some of this Vietnamese misogyny has been shown in many things written about you on the Vietnamese social media in recent days. 

Some Vietnamese people seem unable to get over the fact that you supported the women’s right to abortion. They claimed that you were obsessed with killing unborn children. 

The fact is that you simply supported women’s right to choose, following your feminism. As you said to the US Senate in your confirmation hearing, “[i]t is essential to woman’s equality with man that she be the decisionmaker, that her choice be controlling. If you impose restraints that impede her choice, you are disadvantaging her because of her sex“. 

More than anything, such a hostile attitude towards abortion rights – which tends to be seen amongst Vietnamese men of older generations – betrays an underlying belief that Vietnamese women are not entitled to own and control their wombs. 

Suppose a Vietnamese woman’s decision to abort offends a Vietnamese man’s religious belief in the sanctity of her child’s life. In that case, it is the Vietnamese woman who is wrong, not the Vietnamese man. That seems to be what some Vietnamese people, men, and women, still believe, 74 years after the Vietnamese Constitution proudly announced that women shall have the same rights as men. 

So, it appears we need more than “formal equality”, to make Vietnam a better place for women. 

Does that mean your feminism is obsolete to us Vietnamese? That would be an overstatement based on only a partial understanding of your feminism. 

Professor Joan Williams argued that, as a lawyer, you fought for women’s rights with more than just a steely insistence on gender equality. 

In your legal briefs and later court decisions, you aimed to deconstruct the traditional male-female divide in which men must be the bread-winners, and women must be the dependants and caregivers. 

For example, in the case of Charles Moritz we discussed earlier, Moritz was discriminated against by the law because the law back then refused to recognise the possibility that a single man can be a caregiver for his elderly mother. Caregivers must be women or formerly married men (who have family members they could care for). 

Your legal arguments did not just point to the Equal Protection Clause. You sought to deconstruct that traditional assumption that caregivers must not be single men. In doing so, you reconstructed a new premise for the law: caregivers can be women, married men, single men, whoever has someone they have to care for. 

Social roles are social constructs. If a social role results in unfairness, we must attempt to deconstruct and then reconstruct that social role. 

It is another surprise to learn that your feminism originally was not only inspired by your law students. It was inspired by your research on Swedish laws and legal reforms in the 1960s. 

Back then, Swedish advocates argued that “imprisonment in the masculine role is at least as great a problem to men as conformity to a feminine ideal is to women” and “that a debate on liberation and equality must be about how men as well as women are forced to act out socially determined stereotypes.” 

Adopting such stances, you became a constructive feminist who “defines equality as treating men and women the same but only after deconstructing the existing norms defined by and around men and masculinity, and reconstructing existing institutions in ways that include the bodies and traditional life patterns of women.

Maybe you described your constructive feminism best in your own words:

“[W]ere I Queen, my principal affirmative action plan would have three legs. First, it would promote equal educational opportunity and effective job training for women, so they would not be reduced to dependency on a man or the state. Second, my plan would give men encouragement and incentives to share more evenly with women the joys, responsibilities, worries, upsets, and sometimes tedium of raising children from infancy to adulthood. (This, I admit, is the most challenging part of the plan to make concrete and implement.) Third, the plan would make quality day care available from infancy on. Children in my ideal world would not be women’s priorities, they would be human priorities.”

Here are perhaps hints of a future of gender equality that the Vietnamese people can consider. 

We have formalised gender equality, but how far have we attempted to reconstruct the existing norms and institutions to free both men and women?

Why is it so easy for Vietnamese men to assume and joke that if a young woman is wealthy, she must have a “sugar daddy”?

Why were many Vietnamese people irked to see a 17-year-old girl celebrating a bit prematurely when she was on the verge of winning a television contest against three male opponents?

Maybe I am reading too much into these behaviours. Still, I suspect they are because of the expectations deeply rooted in our culture about how women should live and should behave. Such expectations seem to dictate that, in her role, a young woman cannot become rich on her own; and that, in her role, a young girl should not over-celebrate and should not live true to her emotions. 

On the other side of the coin, I suspect that there are other deeply rooted expectations that imprison the Vietnamese men in specific roles as much as the Vietnamese women.

I have yet to see these expectations, roles, and social norms being debated and deconstructed by the Vietnamese people. But I am hopeful that one day they will be.

The letter is now quite long. I do not want to bore both you and my Vietnamese audience too much, so I will stop here. 

I hope to write to you another time. So that I can discuss more things I have learned from you, things that my Vietnamese people can also know to further their pursuits of freedom and happiness. 

I thank you for your feminism, and I wish you a good eternal rest. 

Yours sincerely,

Nam Quynh 

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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