Pham Doan Trang’s 9-Year Sentence: An Outrageous Affront To Human Dignity

Frances An

“Your Vietnamese will improve if you keep practising,” my Vietnamese tutor says, his stringy grey hair like vermicelli strands combed to one side. “Then you will be able to read difficult books about politics.” He smiles with one front tooth notably more forward than the other.

But what if I cannot improve fast enough? What if my Vietnamese needs to be at the same level as my English - usable in political philosophy seminars - now?

This crucial moment dawned on me when I heard of Phạm Đoan Trang’s nine-year prison sentence. I can logically string together data and peer-reviewed evidence to dismantle Communist psychological tactics in English. Yet in Vietnamese, my reading is slow and constantly interrupted by dictionary searches.

Then, I remember the words of Communist dissident Czeslaw Milosz in his book, The Captive Mind: “Sometimes, it is better to stammer from an excess of emotion than to speak in well-turned phrases.” So please, bear with my stammering.

My Vietnamese-Cantonese father despises my involvement with pro-democracy movements in Vietnamese diasporas. He warned me after I mentioned my bilingual readings at a PEN Day Of The Imprisoned Writer event which included Trần Đức Thạch’s poem ‘Sám Hối’ (‘Repentance’) and a letter I wrote to Pham.

He told me, “You were born in Australia and have citizenship status here. You take the rule of law for granted, and the corruption and manipulation of Communist governments are beyond your imagination.” His underlying message was that an Australian-born girl like me is too stupid and naive to think for herself regardless of my education.

I have met men who fled from Communist regimes for “better lives in Australia” yet use the dominance and manipulation tactics rife in those societies against their wives and daughters. The phrases these men follow a clichéd tune: “others will use you as a puppet,” “don’t let them exploit or trick you,” “you’re lucky to be born in Australia,” “you would’ve been a prostitute or mail-order bride in Vietnam.” Their underlying message is “obey me, and only associate with people I have approved.” Western academics slap on labels like “intergenerational trauma” and “cultural differences” to excuse these behaviours.

Yet, I have met fugitives who, after enduring prison sentences, torture, and re-education camps, emerge with a profound appreciation for the meaning of freedom. They sing Nhạc Vàng songs (songs written in the South of Vietnam before 1975) prohibited in Vietnam after 1975 in memory of separated lovers, slain soldiers, and cultural dust. Australian citizenship and the distance from the homeland give them perfect opportunities to support democratic rights in Vietnam; these serve as shields to safely criticise the Communist government from the outside.

In a healthy society, feedback circulates among its people and the authorities. Yet, this social ecosystem fails in totalitarian regimes because they are ill, and illness requires external intervention. In the Vietnamese diasporas worldwide, survivors of Communist oppression and their children are glaring at the motherland.

I replied to my father in Vietnamese, “Thank you. I will never involve myself with Vietnamese democratic politics again.” I, too, know the strategy of saying one thing in public while intending another in private. He conveniently forgets that I have reviewed multiple books on intellectual life in Maoist China and studied the Soviet Union during university. When I read stories such as Victor Kravchenko’s defection in his memoir, I Chose Freedom, I feel an important memory is within reach. Some might label it “collective memory,” yet the feeling is too profound to be captured in that term.

When I think about Communist defectors waiting for a chance to escape, dealing with constant paranoia about being tracked, and with their stories frequently ending in suicide, I wonder: what moves this defector’s heart to fight for freedom, even as she is despised as a sell-out in both her adoptive and mother country? What sharpens her ears to anguished whispers, in the absence of identity group labels which many university-educated Westerners need before they will validate a fellow human being’s pain?

I have no answer, only a feeling that may stem from my genetic makeup: my heart is soldered to those of intellectuals oppressed by Communist regimes, not only in Vietnam but throughout the world and throughout history.

In the West, elites are too blinded by rainbow flags, black squares, and other tokenistic displays of “diversity” to notice the impunity of Communist regimes in restricting intellectual life. Western elites enamoured with Communism respond to anti-Communist critiques with statements such as: “That’s not real Communism,” “We only hear the defectors’ stories, which are biased against Communism,” “Everyone else in those societies gets along fine,” and “Communism hasn’t been ‘done right.’” They are blind to the 241 Vietnamese activists currently imprisoned. They celebrate Vietnam’s success at COVID-19 suppression, yet are blind to the police state’s tactics committed in the name of public health. They are blind to the systematic and active suppression of independent journalism and media which often involve violent harassment.

I challenge all of those elites:

If you think Communism will just look like Australia but with more sharing and caring, go live under a Communist regime. See how long you survive when human interactions are clouded with double-meanings and the history lessons are bogus.

If you think one cheeky pop music video is enough to defeat the Chinese Communist Party’s media control, you are blind to the dissolution of pro-democracy platforms in Hong Kong and Vietnam’s row of Communist dissidents awaiting trial.

If you think democracy should be burned along with its national flags and statues, throw your passport in the flames. And leave.

Despite Pham’s unfavourable ruling, her final statement leaves us with a hint of strength. Even if the government mauls her, that will only provide more evidence of the government’s disregard for human rights. We must see the Communist regime in Vietnam for what it is: an outrageous affront to human dignity and intellectual freedom. I will conclude with Pham’s words: “The protection of reason is forever the sacred duty of humanity.”

Opinion-SectionPham Doan TrangPhạm Đoan TrangHuman RightsdemocracyVietnamVietnamese Communist Party