The violent decline of expressive freedom in Vietnam
By Alec Martinez, Asia Advocacy Scholar
Last week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing titled “A Bad Year for Human Rights in Vietnam.” It was an ominous title for a committee that often uses diplomacy as its centerpiece, but the grimness was tragically apt. Even as Chairman Smith introduced the four witnesses to speak, nearly 100 Vietnamese individuals languished in jails as prisoners of conscience, some subject to torture, almost all subject to deplorable conditions. Their crimes, according to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, were an attempt to “overthrow the people’s government.” But these peaceful activists, whose weapons never extend beyond blogs and calls for greater democracy, are solely the casualties of a hostile government that rejects, and violently so, the fundamental rights to freedom of religion, expression, and assembly.
The hearing welcomed the first Vietnamese member of Congress Joseph Cao, Dr. Nguyen Ding Thang, the CEO of an aid organization devoted to marginalized Vietnamese, and Human Rights Watch General Counsel Dinah PoKempner — but the most stunning witness was “Anthony Le” (alias), a member of the Vietnam-based Brotherhood for Democracy. Upon being recognized by Chairman Smith, Anthony abandoned whatever safeties were afforded to him by his alias and introduced himself by his real name. A small act of daring, this was only an introduction to a greater story of defiance at home.
The Brotherhood for Democracy (BFD) is a human rights advocacy group founded by human rights lawyer Nguyễn Văn Đài with the purpose of better coordinating pro-democracy movements throughout the country. The members of this group, mostly comprised of bloggers, organizers, and activists, are deemed by the government to be among the chief enemies of the state: dissidents in Vietnam have been systemically targeted, frequently beaten, and unjustly imprisoned by the government. Even Dai, who has received accolades from the global community for his work in civil rights education and empowerment, was beaten and robbed during a human rights forum tour in 2015. A week after his assault, he was arrested and has been held incommunicado since. Not even his wife, Vu Minh Khanh, has been allowed to visit him.
Dai’s story is one in one hundred. Hồ Văn Hải, a medical doctor and online activist who advocated for accountability in relation to the Formosa ecological disaster, was sentenced to four years in prison. Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh, also known as Mẹ Nấm (Mother Mushroom), was arrested for running a blog that was critical of government corruption and land confiscation and was sentenced to ten years in prison; she is in poor health and has been denied medical assistance. Anthony Le’s decision to speak at the Foreign Affairs hearing was daring in the face of this: he could become, though in many ways is, one of those stories.
“I personally have been far from home from August 2015 till now,” Anthony said before the committee. “I am lucky to have safety here in the United States but my wife and children continue to be harassed, my wife has been attacked by local police within the confines of her home and my children have been detained while travelling to school to question them about me. Police have installed 5 cameras around my home in Saigon and anyone who approaches my home is questioned immediately after. No one has come to my home over the past 2 years.”
Anthony’s decision to come to the United States was certainly to seek asylum — but beyond that, he is seeking justice. He spoke of Pastor and BFD President Nguyen Trung Ton between furtive glances behind his shoulder, and how he is still unable to walk properly after being beaten with an iron bar. He told stories of labor activists being attacked and human rights bloggers being detained — many of them his friends — but did so with hope for a better future in Vietnam, calling for assistance in making this hope a reality. Chairman Smith, whose opening statement in the hearing was “U.S. policy failed the Vietnamese people” spoke with a shared sentiment, assuring Anthony that his pleas for the U.S. to pressure Vietnam to release prisoners of conscience would be heard. With a bill introduced by Chairman Smith himself being considered in the Committee, the Vietnam Human Rights Act, (the language of which includes putting Vietnam on the Countries of Particular Concern list), it seems that this could just be the case.