As I am writing this beginning line, my mind is flooded with memories of Pham Doan Trang. I also realize that it has been almost seven years since I said goodbye to her before she left the United States to return to Vietnam. We had become friends and spent seven months together in the United States, and I have not seen her since December 2014. I also have not been able to contact her or speak with her on the phone since October 6, 2020. Vietnamese police arrested her near midnight that day in Saigon. My last text message to her was “Trang, answer me,” which I sent the night she was detained.
Doan Trang can be classified as many things, depending on the person you speak with. She is a journalist, an activist, a teacher, a political person who opposes the Vietnamese Communist Party, a prominent figure of the democracy movement in Vietnam, and more. Yet, for me, Doan Trang is a friend, a very close friend, and that’s it. My only hope is to help set my friend free because she has not done anything wrong. She deserves to be free so that she can continue to write.
And yet, sadly, her writing is precisely the reason that has put her in prison in Vietnam.
In Vietnam, writing or producing verbal speech (YouTube, TikTok, etc.) can be a severe crime when you refuse to obey the government’s censorship system or self-censor on your own. If you look at the details of any political case in Vietnam, I guarantee that you will only find the alleged wrongdoings to be the uncensored writings and speeches produced by these defendants. It does not matter how the Vietnam government classifies their crimes as “abusing democratic rights” or “propagandizing against the state,” their crimes are always their writing and speech.
For Doan Trang, I can also think of another aspect in which she has irritated the Vietnamese authorities even more. She was not just a journalist; she was also trying to encourage more people to write and be more aware of politics in Vietnam. I was one of the people she inspired to take writing as a profession and focus more on Vietnam’s human rights and political affairs.
In my writing career, I have two people to be grateful for: my two co-founders of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam (LIV), Trinh Huu Long and Pham Doan Trang. If I had not met them in life, I don’t think I would have been confident enough to write in either Vietnamese or English, especially as a journalist.
I left Vietnam and came to the United States when I was 12-years-old. I was not too young to think of myself as a native speaker in English, but I was not too old to be confident in my ability to write in Vietnamese either. However, after meeting Trinh Huu Long and Pham Doan Trang in 2014, they changed my life as I believed in their cause and decided to co-found LIV. Starting from that point, I began to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in Vietnam through journalism. Trinh Huu Long may be the first teacher in journalism for me, but Doan Trang is the inspiration for my decision to change my career from law to journalism.
Many people have asked me why I decided to quit my legal profession and started working for a non-profit organization that focuses on Vietnam. Maybe this career change was not advantageous for them and could be stepping down in life. But Doan Trang’s last words before she left the United States stuck with me throughout these years: “Every country needs a generation of young people who will sacrifice their lives to build a better society for others. If our generation refuses to take up this job for Vietnam, then who else will? Do we wait for the next generation to sacrifice for our country and choose an easier life now?”
Doan Trang chose to take up this task to promote human rights in Vietnam, and she left America to go back to Vietnam, knowing that she would be imprisoned in the future. Then, for me, the decision of giving up my life as a litigation lawyer to write about human rights and political issues in Vietnam seemed to be a much easier job when I compared myself with Doan Trang.
She’s inspired me, and we both have the same goal: to put Vietnam on the map for international audiences and encourage more Vietnamese people to care about human rights and democracy. To write about these issues should not be a crime in any nation because we only want to educate the public. What did we do so wrong that my friend Pham Doan Trang has spent one year incommunicado in Vietnam?
The Vietnamese government cannot explain away Pham Doan Trang’s case or any political cases that have sent hundreds of dissidents to decades in jail. However, I hope the international community and foreign governments can speak up louder and be more explicit against this injustice.
Journalism is not a crime; writing about politics and human rights is not a crime. Vietnam continues to suppress the free press and the freedom of speech much harder now, which is not an action the international community should condone. Please speak up for those imprisoned by the Vietnam government, such as Pham Doan Trang, because we are on the right side of history.