Pham Doan Trang was arrested and charged under article 117 of Vietnam's penal code with "making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents and items against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam."
The author, Thomas A. Bass, recalls how he had met the beleaguered blogger last 2015 for his book "Censorship in Vietnam: Brave New World."
- Title: Pham Doan Trang Goes to Prison
- Publish Date: November 11, 2020
- Publisher: Common Dreams
I met Trang in Hanoi in 2015 and wrote about her work in my book Censorship in Vietnam: Brave New World. Here is a description of our meeting.
As I walk out of my hotel into the splash of color and bustle that marks Vietnam’s capital, I pass a woman with squids wriggling in the paniers of her bicycle and a flower vendor squatting over a bucket of tight-budded roses. Perched on plastic stools lining the streets are groups of neatly-dressed people eating breakfast, buying raffle tickets, chatting, and selling everything from electric fans to chicken soup. Songbirds brought out for their morning airing sing in their wicker cages. Vendors cycle down the street selling brooms, baguettes, bananas. Hanoi on a sunny morning is like a pointillist painting come to life, with the dots scurrying around the canvas, hailing each other in a whirl of rubber wheels and two stroke Chinese motors.
Near St. Joseph’s cathedral, I turn into a trendy café filled with black sofas holding young professionals skyping on their laptops. I order a coffee and sit for a few minutes before a woman with a noticeable limp and creased brow slips into the seat across from me. She is carrying a backpack that looks like it holds everything she owns. We introduce ourselves, and Pham Doan Trang begins recounting her life as a journalist.
Trang was born in Hanoi 1978. Her parents were high school chemistry teachers. Her mother worked in Hanoi, while her father was posted to the western highlands, where he spent fourteen years, before hunger and malaria forced him back to the city. Trang graduated with a degree in economics from Vietnam’s University of Foreign Trade. She attended when the school was on the cusp of big changes. Instruction in Russian suddenly flipped to English. “Facebook is where we get our news,” Trang says, “but very few of Vietnam’s thirty-five million Facebook users know how to speak English. So I think the duty of journalists who speak English is to tell the world what’s happening here.”
In 2000, Trang began working as a journalist for VNExpress, Vietnam’s first internet news site. Straightaway, she faced what she calls the “tragedy of the media” in Vietnam: censorship, self-censorship, government control, and the simple fact that “people are scared.”
“We have thirty thousand journalists in Vietnam.” she says. “Fewer than a hundred are political journalists, and fewer than twenty are democracy supporters. I can count them on my hands and feet. They face administrative sanctions, reductions in salary, fines, physical assault. Journalists are victims of the police state,” she says, before reminding me that every newspaper in Vietnam is state-owned. “If you include bloggers, every year there are hundreds of assaults on journalists, and lots of journalists have been put in jail for political reasons.”
Human Rights Watch estimates that as many as two hundred activists and bloggers like Vinh are currently imprisoned. Vietnam Right Now, a Hanoi-based human rights group, lists two hundred and fifty prisoners of conscience. “In 2013 I counted the number of political prisoners in Vietnam and came up with three hundred and twenty six, to be exact,” says Trang.
I ask Trang what the word “democracy” means to her. “The democracy movement is hardly a movement,” she says. “It’s unorganized.” The rest of her answer is straightforward. Democracy is the right to free and fair elections, organized political parties, majority rule with defense of minority interests, the rule of law, and freedom of speech and assembly. In other words, democracy is everything that we in the West take for granted and willingly compromise.
“In Vietnam, you can’t enter politics unless you’re a member of the Communist Party,” she says. “Those of us who want to get people involved in government, actively, effectively, and meaningfully ... we are just waiting for the day they come to arrest us.”
Trang has been “temporarily” arrested many times. A few days before our meeting, she was detained by the police for seven hours. “It happens all the time,” she says. She had organized a seminar supporting victims of torture. “All the organizers were arrested, and the seminar was cancelled. ‘This is an illegal social gathering,’ they told us. ‘You’re inciting public disorder and disturbing the peace.’”
“The longest time they held me in detention was nine days,” she says. Trang swipes through her phone to show me photos of police assaults and beatings. I stare at a young man whose hand was smashed with a brick when he was roughed up by plainclothes policemen. Trang is limping today from a recent attack that left her lying in bed immobile for two days.
Trang describes how Vietnam stage manages rigged elections, where one hundred percent voter turnout is matched by similarly large margins of victory. “A police state never tolerates the press,” she says. “The press is supposed to serve the interests of the Communist Party. The difference is that now we have social media. With other sources beside mainstream media, the state has lost its monopoly.
“Change is coming not because the state is more tolerant, but because it has lost control. It has to control the press plus the blogosphere. It has to deal with services based in the United States. The law requires Facebook to provide information to the police, and sometimes they do it. Google refuses, but Facebook complies. They work for profit, not for human rights. I have a Facebook account, which is more accessible than my blog, but I am wary about Facebook being more “cooperative” with the government than Google.”
“Vietnam is lost in the world technologically,” Trang says. “It’s way behind China.”
China began blocking foreign services as soon as they were introduced, and the Chinese market is big enough that even limited local services attracted large numbers of users. One unintended consequence of this reality is that Vietnam, unlike China, can block news only after it has been published. “This is why the Vietnamese government beats up so many bloggers and journalists,” Trang says. “It’s what happens when you can’t block information at the source.”
Instead of trying to ban Facebook and Google, the Vietnamese government has switched techniques. “They hack our accounts,” Trang says. “They report us to Facebook so that we lose our accounts. They set up fake sites to attack us. They defame us. They steal our personal information and try to blackmail us with it.”
“My phone is tapped,” she says. “I hear agents talking in the background. You begin to fear for your safety. It becomes too dangerous to speak about human rights. This is why so few people do it.”
“In the political culture of Vietnam, people don’t want to be different from other people,” she says. “You will be isolated from friends, family, community members. This is especially hard for women. Police pressure your employers to dismiss you. You can’t find a job. You can’t rent an apartment, or you find yourself being evicted in the middle of the night. Young activists have to sleep in the parks overnight. You can be attacked or arrested or sent to prison for a long time.”
Traveling to the Philippines, which does not require a visa for Vietnamese visitors, Trang secretly left Vietnam in January 2013. The following year, she received a fellowship from the German government to study public policy at the University of Southern California. After ten months in Los Angeles, she was offered political asylum in the United States but chose instead to return to Vietnam. In January 2015, she was arrested at the airport in Hanoi and told she was on a blacklist of people not allowed to leave the country.
“News about my detention went viral on Facebook,” she says. “They released me that night but told me I was banned from leaving Vietnam for ‘national security reasons.’” Today, one of Vietnam’s best political reporters is basically unemployed and unemployable.
Back in 2009, when Trang was working as a columnist for VietnamNet, she and two well- known bloggers were arrested in a crackdown on dissidents. Held for nine days, she was accused of making “advocacy tee-shirts” and leading protests against Chinese bauxite mining.
“They confiscated my lap top when I was in jail and opened it to find private photos of me with my former lover,” she says. “They tried to make me sign forty of these photos and confess to being in them. I refused to do this. Then they 'invited' my mother to the police station... They forced me to sign the photos and write a confession in front of my mother."
Trang slumps in her chair as she tells me this story. Her face is grave and unsmiling. “In tears, before the Tet holiday, I wrote a confession telling everyone that I could do nothing to defend myself and them. I asked them to forgive me,” she says.
“The police aren’t using physical torture and imprisonment, but something more subtle,” she says. “I suffered psychological trauma after that. I flash back to dozens of policemen staring at my photos, my body exposed before them. I cannot forget the way my mother looked that day—a traditional, soft-spoken woman who was then in her late sixties, wracked with misery and pain.”
“When I was offered asylum in the United States, I told the consular official, ‘I don’t want to be a burden. You have enough political refugees.’”
“‘You are not a burden. You are an asset,’ he told me. I have never heard these words in my own country, where I have been arrested and beaten many times.”
“On a national level, I see signs of hope in Vietnam. More and more young people want to build a democracy. Many others are declining to become members of the communist party. But here the phrase ‘anti-communist party’ means ‘anti-state.’ This is illegal. It is a crime.”
“For myself I see no hope. I no longer have the chance to live a peaceful life. No more love life. No more family life. No more privacy. I have to live as a public enemy, with police repression.
“You can never take the prison out of someone’s mind,” she says. “It becomes part of your life. I can never get those nine days of detention out of my mind, with the police preaching to me in front of my mother about morality.
“My scandal has given me a slave mind. Fear is all around, and the police take advantage of this.”
Trang invites me to attend a journalism class that she teaches once a week at a café on the outskirts of Hanoi. “These are very brave students,” she says. “Classes like this are raided by the police."
Trang explains how public meetings in Vietnam are blocked. “You have to leave your apartment one or two days in advance to get to a protest. Otherwise, the police shut you in. The government is scared to see young people gather in groups,” she says. “They’re afraid of what they might do in the future.”
The students begin asking me questions about journalism. “Are there occasions when journalists should not publish something?” “Is truth always the ultimate goal of journalism?” “Is there ever anything more important than publishing the truth?” They are polite, inquisitive, curious. They are doing nothing more than exploring the world around them, which, unfortunately, in Vietnam makes them criminals.
For these young people, “democracy” is not a plot to overthrow the government. It is a request to vote in elections that aren’t rigged. “Freedom of speech” is the desire to talk among themselves about Vietnam and the larger world. “The rule of law” is a wish to assemble in discussion groups, go to poetry readings, watch movies, and read books without being beaten and harassed. For someone like me, jaded by the hypocrisy laid on top of our basic values, it is a shock to be reminded of the sweet virtues of political freedom.