15 years – a journey

0
25
Dieu Cay (center), at a public protest against China in December 2007 (source: Nguyen Tien Trung/Flickr

Điếu Cày Nguyễn Văn Hải

“In an authoritarian State, there is no need for Freedom of the Press, Freedom of speech that State still works well. But, in a Democratic State, a State of the people, by the people and for the people is impossible!. Vietnam has more than 700 newspapers and magazines, hundreds of radio and television stations and thousands of websites. But in many events, there are many participants, lasting many days, right in the center of big cities, but not covered by the press?. That is not normal, those “unusual” things not only stop the free flow of information, but also stifle the desire of millions of people to raise their voices.

In a democratic society, people have the right to know all information related to their living environment. When the press refuses to be a journalist, people will do it their own way.”

The last words of Dieu Cay Nguyen Van Hai before the communist court.

_______________________

ARREST

April 19, 2008

Internet café of Da Lat Post Office

As I shut down the computer, stood up, and went to the counter to pay, one of the two young men from the table behind me also walked up to the counter, standing close to hear my exchange with the cashier.

My instinct was telling me something bad was about to happen. As I crossed the street to the glasses

store on the opposite side of the street, he also crossed the street, following me closely behind. I looked at the small mirror for customers to try the glasses on the counter, and found him right behind me. I knew

I was discovered. At that point, the most important thing I had to do was to find a place so that if they arrested me, there would be many people around to observe and announce this news to my friends. I was walking, so losing the tail was not easy. I went straight to Da Lat market and he followed closely behind while making phone calls for backup.

Through several rows of stalls in the market, I found that the market was not crowded enough to lose the tail, so I decided to go to the back of the market and down the stairs to the street, and then to Tung cafe. I strode quite fast; he was running behind me. As I entered the café, I ordered hot milk coffee and stepped directly into the restroom behind the kitchen and locked the door. The first thing I did was to send messages to my friends to tell them that if I didn’t contact them again within 30 minutes, it was because I had been caught. Then I deleted some contacts that my friends had just sent me, broke the USB, and destroyed the Sony laptop. Outside, the young man who followed me shook the restroom door so hard that the woman who was making coffee in the kitchen had to remind him: There’s someone in there, why do you have to jerk the door? Inside, I ignited a lighter to burn the piece of paper on which I had recorded some addresses, flushed the ash down the toilet, and banged the laptop really hard three times against the water tank to break it. I texted my friend one more time, removed the sim card, and flushed it down the toilet. Then I replaced it with an old sim and walked out calmly.

The coffee mug was already set on the table. As I lifted the cup to take a sip, I saw a police car already parked in front of the shop. Some police officers walked in straight to the table where I was sitting. I was drinking coffee while watching the police officer standing in front of me. He spoke first:

-Anh Hai, please follow us to Da Lat city police office to work.

-What work? Let me finish my coffee.

I drank the coffee and looked around. Many people in the shop started to notice me and the police officers. I knew that words about my arrest in this coffee shop would reach my friends by this afternoon.

The police took me to the police station of Da Lat …

That was how I started the longest trip away from home in my life.

RALLY

During 2006-2007, many people in Vietnam who were interested in the political situation of the country found each other through articles and political views they expressed on social media sites. Bloc 8406 was formed through an online registration form, calling for dressing in white on a specific date each month… I was particularly interested in the reactivation of the Democratic Party of by its former party’s president, Mr. Hoang Minh Chinh, and the activities of the Viet Youth for Democracy established by student Nguyen Tien Trung. The activities of Nguyen Tien Trung in Europe and the United States had attracted the attention of many people in the country. At the BBC’s forum, Nguyen Tien Trung’s letter to the Vietnamese Minister of Education generated a lot of feedback. I contacted Nguyen Tien Trung then and through Nguyen Tien Trung I knew that more people inside and outside the country also had the desire to contribute to social change in the direction of freedom, democracy, and pluralism. On the day Nguyen Tien Trung returned to the country, we met many friends in Saigon and had meetings to discuss issues such as freedom of speech and freedom of association. We were particularly interested in the thousands of victims of forced eviction who came to Saigon from the South Western provinces to protest in front of the Second office of the National Assembly, because no so-called “elected by the people” delegates stepped out to meet the people and respond to their requests and no newspaper published any information about a month-long protest in the center of the city. Only the police were present in force to prevent and repress the city residents from supplying water and food to the protesters. We used blogs to share images of protesters, breaking down the silence and the cover-up of the whole state-owned press system. From that moment on, we wanted to have a common house, an organization that would be formed to exercise our freedom of the press and freedom of speech…

FIGHT

Anti-China protest by the Freelance Journalist Club in Saigon, 2008. Source: Nguyen Tien Trung Flickr

Anti-China protest by the Freelance Journalist Club in Saigon, 2008. Source: Nguyen Tien Trung Flickr

On September 19, 2007, the Freelance Journalist Club (FJC) was founded with five founding members at the Coi Nguon coffee shop in Bien Hoa city. This was the first civil society organization to publicly operate a press in the communist regime, publicly reporting on prominent events in the country such as the collapse of the Can Tho Bridge, and coordinating the publication of communion prayers for the victims of the collapse of Can Tho bridge in Saigon Redemptorist Church. As hundreds of thousands of workers striked at Linh Trung industrial zones north of the city of Saigon and Binh Duong and none of the state press published about them, the Club continuously reported on the event. Phan Thanh Hai and I came to meet workers in the rented shelters to find out about their lives and to share the information with the larger community. The activities of the Club started to be monitored by the authorities. Through Nguyen Tien Trung, we got in touch with some European consulates in Saigon, who promised to take diplomatic actions if we were persecuted and arrested.

On social media sites, heated discussions occurred about political topics that were previously thought sensitive. The domestic movement began to flourish with multifaceted sources of information. I started traveling abroad to meet my overseas friends, looking for ways for them to coordinate with my friends back home, especially members of the Club.

Dieu Cay (center), at a public protest against China in December 2007 (source: Nguyen Tien Trung/Flickr)

At the end of 2007, China’s founding of the Tam Sa city, which included the two archipelagos of Hoang Sa and Truong Sa of Vietnam, angered the Vietnamese cyber-communities. At the same time, the old diplomatic letter of Prime Minister Pham Van Dong that recognized China’s claims of these two archipelagos in 1958 was posted and shared widely on social media, angering people even more.

The call for anti-China protests spread on the Internet led to a rally on December 9, 2007 with many artists, intellectuals and students taking part. Images shared on social media spread around the world and overseas compatriots also took actions in coordination.

After my trip to Thailand, my friends in the FJC started to print T-shirts in preparation for the protest on

December 16, 2007. Art students advised us on how to print the shirts. The room on the second floor at 84D Tran Quoc Toan street turned into a bustling printing studio from noon to late night.

On the morning of December 16, 2007, we made an appointment at 57 Pham Ngoc Thach apartment complex, left the vehicles there and walked to the café at 47 Pham Ngoc Thach street. There we invited some more friends, boarded a bus and unannounced, we gathered in front of the Chinese consulate located in the center of Saigon.

The protest, which took place from 8am to 2pm, was followed by an open forum at the park in front of the Presidential Palace.

Police and security personnel surrounded the protesters but waited for us to leave the consular area to crack down. Three members of the Club and I were arrested at Pham Ngoc Thach – Vo Thi Sau junction, and we were taken to different wards for questioning. I was strangled until I fainted in a taxi headed to Da Kao Ward, where I continued to be beaten by a group of four security officers and was questioned until 8 pm before I was let go.

Despite the persecution, when the images of the FJC flooded the Internet, the spirit of the Club was very good. We promised each other we would do it again the following week.

On December 23, 2007, as members of the FJC entered the Diamond Plaza area near the Chinese consulate, they were surrounded and I was taken into custody at the Diamond Plaza shopping center.

However, Nguyen Tien Trung managed to take a series of pictures and shared them with the BBC.

January 9, 2008 was Vietnamese Students’ Day. We gathered at Chi Lang Park to prepare slogans and banners for the coming days.

January 19, 2008 was the most memorable day. On that day, with all members in black uniforms in front of the city’s Opera House, the FJC raised banners that showed the Beijing Olympics symbol altered into five handcuffs (by Reporters Without Borders) and the motto “Hoang Sa – Truong Sa forever belong to Vietnam.”

Although all protesters were arrested and taken to Ben Nghe ward police, everyone’s spirit was optimistic.

Since then, hundreds of summons have been sent repeatedly to members of the FJC to limit their movement, communication, and contact with other groups to organize demonstrations.

In those unforgettable days, Vietnamese social media was filled with the news and images of the protesters. Phan Thanh Hai and I traveled to Manila for a conference and met with friends overseas to discuss the development and support for FJC activities and the domestic movement. Thanks to our overseas supporters, we were known by many international organizations and newspapers.

On my trip to Thailand to learn about “nonviolent struggle,” I realized that in Vietnam there would not be demonstrations with millions of participants any time soon. In fact, we are at the assembly stage, so the tool for connecting the people who want to change Vietnamese society is to form and develop a free media network, and through this network, gather people.

From there, the FJC launched the “People Journalism” movement so that everyone can participate in the network and contribute to building and developing a strong free media network.

We also advised each victim of unlawful land seizures in District 9 to open a blog to tell their story of injustice and connect with famous bloggers who could help to convey the information to the community at home and abroad.

Shortly after my trip to Thailand, I was wanted everywhere and arrested in Da Lat. Then the authorities sentenced me to 2.5 years in prison and immediately re-arrested me right after the completion of the first sentence. I was forced to go through a grim and unlawful investigation process for two years. Then I was sentenced, this second time, to 12 years in prison and 5 years of probation, along with two other members of the FJC. During my first 7 years of prison time, I was transferred 20 times, back and forward among the 11 prison camps, “around the world of the Vietnamese communist prisons”, from Ca Mau to western Nghe An.

In our difficult years in the camps, we political prisoners always followed what was going on outside. We were happy to hear that the number of people joining the Internet was increasing, along with the number of people participating in social media. We understood that the increasing use of the Internet and social media was making it more and more difficult for the communist authorities to cover up and shape the information, and getting more people to awaken and participate in the movement. The stronger the free media network is, the more developed the movement becomes. The Internet is a real revolution. Now with Facebook with the live-stream feature, Twitter, and Instagram, etc., nothing can stop the freedom of information.

RELEASED

On October 21, 2014, I was rescued from the communist prison and arrived to the United States thank to the US Government and particularly, the US State Department on their human rights missions to save the prisoners of conscience.

On my first night arriving in the United States, I was eager to connect to the Internet to read, to see that the movement had grown dramatically, with the number of participants multiplied several times compared to the 2006-2007 period.

The Facebook site has many functionalities and allows up to 5000 friends, far exceeding the number 300 allowed years ago by Yahoo 360. It was very moving to see the images of tens of thousands of protesters in Saigon, Binh Duong in 2011.

Since being expelled from my country, I have met officials in the U.S. State Department and legislators including Senator Dick Durbin, as well as members of international non-governmental organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, Amnesty International, and Freedom House. I have appeared internationally on radio and television to call for the release of my friends who are still in prison.

Most recently, on May 1, I met with President Obama. I told the president of my goal for freedom of the press in Vietnam, and called for his help in securing the release of all prisoners of conscience and the abolition of vague laws that Vietnam uses to deprive the Vietnamese of their freedom.

The growing movement of Catholics in the Central region against the Formosa company for polluting the environment included protests by 20,000 Catholics, prompting Formosa to fall. Prayers of communion for prisoners of conscience and images of the activist community mobilizing for the release of prisoners of conscience is touching. Those activities encourage people who are free to follow those who were arrested and continue to fight on their behalf. The past two years, many brothers and sisters have been arrested, brutally beaten, and sentenced to heavy prison sentences, which has made the human rights situation in Vietnam worse. The pro-Chinese communist leadership is sabotaging the country, quelling the democratic movement with fierce repression. The pressure of the international community and of the United States seems not to be enough to deter the Hanoi government.

In March 2015, I joined my friends to set up a communication network including two websites, baothamnhung.com and vietnamweek.net and Facebook groups which created forums to discuss issues on human rights, freedom of press, anti-corruption, and criticizing the communist government ; policies on repressing democracy. These media activities have supported and promoted the anti-Formosa movements. Formosa is a Taiwanese/Chinese steel factory that was built in the coastal line of Ha Tinh Province that polluted and destroyed the entire marine eco-system in the middle region of Vietnam in 2016. The toxins released to the environment had killed the entire fishing industry and made people sick from consuming toxic sea products. These media activities also supported and promoted the anti-Cybersecurity law in 2018 that the Vietnam government used to suppress and imprison the people who dared to raise their voices.

In 2021, I began to collaborate with SBTN, a major Vietnamese television station in the US through the Weekly Vietnam News program focusing on Human Rights for Vietnam and delivering the voices of the Prisoners of Conscience and their families to the Vietnamese community abroad.

DOMESTIC REPRESSION AND CYBER SUPPRESSION

In 2018 the Vietnamese Government introduced a bill to create three Special Economic Zones in Van Don, Van Phong and Phu Quoc which are located in the North, Middle and Southern areas of Vietnam

This bill was strongly protested by people across the country. There had never been such widespread union among tens of thousands of Vietnamese people trying to express their voices over the fear of losing land and territories to China through these long term land leases of the Special Economic Zones. The communist authorities were afraid and had fiercely suppressed the movements in the country. Thanks to these widespread protests, the Special Economic Zones bill was withdrawn.

During the past four years, the number of brothers and sisters fighting together in the civil society organizations, the bloggers, the environmental groups and the press have all been suppressed. The number of brothers and sisters in Hanoi have been arrested and imprisoned the most. The COVID-19 pandemic also provided the communist authorities with reasons to isolate and suppress the movements.

Almost no protests have taken place during the past few years. During the pandemic, even though the communist authorities have defied the basic rights for the people, they still imposed the Directive #15  and Directive #16  by sending the army to enter Saigon City to isolate many residential areas, track down and arrest people who were in close contact with or suspected of COVID-19 infection. They were sent to the quarantine concentration centers, exposing them to even more risks of being infected and treated them very badly with minimal to no food or basic human needs supplies.

In the last four years, many bloggers and brothers and sisters have been arrested, brutally beaten, sentenced to very heavy prison sentences, driving the human rights situation in Vietnam to worsening depths. This is due to the pro-China communist leadership group overthrowing the country, drowning the democratic movement with fierce repression. The pressure of the international community and the US does not seem to be enough to slow down the Hanoi authorities.

DONG TAM MASSACRE IN 2020

The massacre in Hoanh hamlet, Dong Tam commune, Hanoi is an example of the suppression of the free press in the country and the suppression in cyberspace.

The Vietnamese government carried out an attack on Hoanh hamlet, Dong Tam commune at 4 am on January 9 th , 2020, brutally murdering Mr. Le Dinh Kinh, 84 years old, who represented the people there.

Many villagers were injured by tear gas and rubber bullets. About 30 people were arrested. According to the state media (provided by a single source, the Ministry of Public Security), three policemen were also killed. This conflict revolved around a land dispute that was ongoing for many years between the villagers who had lived there for many generations in the Dong Tam Commune and the government. The government took additional fields away from the farmers and granted them to their economic interest groups alleging that the farmers invaded the military land. Before being murdered, Mr. Le Dinh Kinh, in one of his video clips, had shared that he was holding many original important documents of their land ownership dated from the pre-electronic era. The most important witness was therefore eliminated and the documents disappeared during the raid and military attacks in the early morning darkness of

Thursday, January 9 th , 2020.

After the attack, the authorities completely isolated Dong Tam commune, preventing any independent press reporters from accessing the scene to find out what truly happened.

When eyewitnesses posted details of the incident on social media, the government launched a massive propaganda campaign to conceal and distort the truth. The government targeted the activists, independent journalists and locals to prevent them from exposing the evidence and the truth.

The police also arrested several people in Can Tho, Quang Ngai and Dak Nong for reporting or voicing opinions about the brutal and illegal attack in Hoanh hamlet, Dong Tam Commune, which was contrary to propaganda that the Ministry of Public Security wanted to spread to direct public opinion. Trinh Ba Phuong, a famous land rights activist, who was very active in delivering the news of the attack in social media about the case, was also in danger. The authorities succeeded in pressuring Facebook to remove videos and posts about the Dong Tam massacre, and concurrently, the Government’s massive teams of commentators had caused many Facebook accounts of the activists to be deactivated through hacking and false reporting campaigns.

On January 13, 2020, Pham Doan Trang, one of the famous civil activists in Vietnam, called for the establishment of the group “Actions for Dong Tam” via her Facebook page for delivering many clips and news of the incident at Hoanh hamlet in Dong Tam Commune. In the group&#39 ;s Facebook pages, she and her team members uploaded new videos and photos provided by the victims of the Hoanh hamlet in Dong Tam Commune to expose how bloody and brutal the authorities were. Vietnam’s mainframe television system also published the first images of the arrested villagers on the same date. The victims’ faces were covered with bruises. State-run media claimed that these 22 people, including Mr. Le Dinh Kinh&#39 ;s two sons, Le Dinh Cong and Le Dinh Chuc, had been indicted under the charges of "murder" and "resistance of law enforcement officers" that they claimed causing the death of three police officers. All were being held and not allowed to see lawyers. Those charged with "murder" risked severe sentences, including potential death penalties.

A video posted on social media after the attack also exposed that Ms. Du Thi Thanh who was Mr. Le Dinh

Kinh’s wife, describing how she was tortured and forced by the attackers to give false statements that went against her own husband and sons.

All pictures and videos were sent by family members of Mr. Le Dinh Kinh, a victim executed at his own house in the bloody crackdown, to Ms. Can Thi Theu and her two children, Trinh Ba Tu and Trinh Ba Phuong. The online community only knew about the massacre through the Facebook pages of Ms. Can Thi Theu and her children before being shared to the other social media platforms and pages.

Pham Doan Trang cited that the Dong Tam incident had become much more serious, which required strong actions. The purpose was to verify and disclose actual information, and seek justice for all parties involved. She announced the establishment of the group “Actions for Dong Tam” and invited several courageous activists to be the core members in Vietnam including Cấn Thị Thêu, Trịnh Bá Phương, Trịnh Bá Tư, and Phạm Đoan Trang (Pham Doan Trang), and other core members outside Vietnam including

Nguyễn Trường Sơn ( Trường Sơn Nguyễn ) in Taiwan, Will Nguyen (Will Nguyen), and myself, Nguyễn Văn Hải (Van Hai Nguyen) in the US.

DONG TAM REPORTS

The reports on the background of Dong Tam land disputes and the details of the attacks as well as the damages, the deaths, the threats and many other visual evidences of the Hoanh hamlet’s victims in Dong Tam Commune had been successfully exposed to the world. Viet Khang (a musician who was also imprisoned by the Vietnamese authorities and then arrived in the US under political asylum like my case)and I had timely forwarded these reports to the US Congressman Alan Lowenthal and other Human Rights Organizations in January 2020. Soon after that, the major newspapers and Vietnamese television stations published many offensive articles defaming the “Actions for Dong Tam” group.

Those were also the signals that led to the arrest of all four members of the “Actions for Dong Tam”

Group in Vietnam. On June 24, 2020, Ms. Can Thi Theu and her two children, Trinh Ba Phuong and Trinh Ba Tu as well as her friend, Ms. Nguyen Thi Tam, a supporter of the Dong Tam victims, were all arrested.

Pham Doan Trang was arrested in Ho Chi Minh City on October 7, 2020. All four core members of the “Action for Dong Tam” group and Ms. Nguyen Thi Tam in Vietnam were prosecuted according to Article 88 (Anti-State propaganda) and sentenced to a total of 41 years in prison.

OVERSEA MEDIA DISRUPTION AND SUPPRESSIONS WITHOUT BORDERS

On the media front, the communist authorities are spreading money to sneak in and manipulate the overseas Vietnamese media. Some government moles rise up and attack the prominent activists of the overseas communities and domestic communities. They tried to destroy the movements while the brothers and the sisters were being severely persecuted at home. Many Websites with domains rooted from Vietnam specialize in spreading fake news to attack the democracy of the United States such as vietstarusa.com, haingoainews.com. These websites worsen the division among the Vietnamese

American communities, making them no longer trust the American electoral system. Some YouTube channels, at the behest of the communist government, chose times to simultaneously attack the community activities, dividing and weakening the Vietnamese communities.

On the social media front, the Vietnamese authorities put pressure on Facebook to delete many activist groups and Fanpage pages that have large numbers of members and followers. “Servers’ Tents” group that exposed corruption evidence by comparing many officials’ multi-million dollar mansions with their low salary amounts of just several hundred US dollars per month. They could not justify their luxury and lavish life. “LEU CUA DAY TO” group’s page was active for 4 years with 74k members, was deleted by

Facebook in December 2, 2020. My Fanpage was active since 2011, with 113k followers and was also

suddenly deleted on August 28, 2022 (https://www.facebook.com/dieucayclbnbtdvn ) without any violation or warning.

Whatever we tried to create and operate for a while would be eventually deleted, the war on social media faces so many difficulties. While my friends and I spent a lot of time operating our media with our own very limited funds, the Vietnamese communist government uses its powerful resources and manpower on their payroll constantly attacking our work. It is really not a fair battle.

During the time leading up to the election in the US, I worked with some friends to create a program to counteract the fake news. We posted and compared the fake news with the real news and supported the real news with verifiable sources. We traced the origins of fake news websites which normally were rooted from Vietnam. We warned the oversea Vietnamese audiences of the conspiracies and manipulations from these fake news websites. As soon as we exposed the evidence of some fake news sites, these sites immediately hid their domains ownerships and addresses. I hope that the US government will pay more attention to the activities of websites with domains originating from Vietnam that spread fake news and damage American democracy.

Despite being oppressed at home and manipulated abroad, the activists became stronger and the methods of fighting also evolved to a different level. We have all worked to overcome our fears. The media and communication activities of the activists over the years have become fruitful.

The communist government has lost control on the media front and they are no longer able to conceal, orient, and easily retaliate against the online community as they used to. The false propaganda was exposed immediately that made people lose faith in a group of ignorant and inhuman communist leaders. 

They revealed their natures as being "cowards to the enemy and evil to the people.”

REGRET OR NOT?

The movement has had its ups and downs. The communist authorities have also realized the dangers it creates, so they fiercely oppress activists in the country and divide those in the diaspora in order to prolong the survival of a regime that has entered into decadence.

Let’s figure out together the difficulties and find ways to adapt, to develop the movement in unity. Do not be discouraged!

Let’s identify and paralyze the infiltrators who have hindered the advancement of the movement, so that we have a stronger overseas community that will support the domestic movement.

Fifteen years is a long time in a person’s life. It was a journey full of bitter and harsh suffering. But those who have chosen this path never regret it.

Me neither…

——————

Since being expelled from my country, I have met officials in the U.S. State Department and legislators including Senator Dick Durbin, as well as members of international non-governmental organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, Amnesty International, and Freedom House. I have appeared internationally on radio and television to call for the release of my friends who are still in prison.

Most recently, on May 1, I met with President Obama. I told the president of my goal for freedom of the press in Vietnam, and called for his help in securing the release of all prisoners of conscience and the abolition of vague laws that Vietnam uses to deprive the Vietnamese of their freedom.

683500cookie-check15 years – a journey