HO CHI MINH CITY — It was mid-morning the day 20 police officers from the Vietnam People’s Public Security barged into a downtown Saigon kindergarten and laid their gazes on Pham Chi Dung. Before the startled looks of parents, teachers and children, he was taken away. Among those staring was his three-year-old son, who he had just dropped off moments earlier.
This was one of three times in 2015 during which Dung, 50, was arbitrarily arrested by police in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and taken into custody, before being subjected to hours of interrogation and psychological coercion. Hopes lay in him confessing or producing self-incriminating evidence to having committed a crime which in most countries is a human right.
“They made me look like a terrorist,” he said.
Dung is one of Vietnam’s active dissident bloggers who dares to challenge the state’s control on media and defy its draconian laws on criticizing the government. He and another activist blogger sat for interviews earlier this month following a string of recent crackdowns on Vietnamese bloggers to explain their struggles, compare Vietnam’s censorship to that of Thailand and explain the international community’s role in their quest for a free press.
A former 30-year card-carrying member of the Communist Party of Vietnam, Dung, like others, fell out of favor and was imprisoned for being outspoken. It didn’t silence him. Upon his release, he continued exposing many government irregularities. He helped found and is also president of the Independent Journalist Association of Vietnam, which aims to bring to light cases of human rights abuses committed by the Communist Party.
To date, his agency has reported on notable intraparty scandals involving nepotism, land encroachment and corruption. Though its website, the Vietnam Times, is inaccessible in Vietnam without help of a proxy server, it most recently condemned the detention of two iconic activist blogger dissidents: Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh aka “Me Nam,” and Ho Van Hai. They were arrested in October and charged Nov. 2 with propagandizing against the state under Article 88 of the Penal Code. They face up to 20 years in prison.
Two months ago, appeals began in the cases of Nguyen Huu Vinh aka “Ba Sam” and his colleague Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, who were sentenced in March to five years in prison for “abusing democratic freedoms” and plotting to overthrow the government.
“It’s normal,” Dung said, saying there tended to be many arrests toward the end of the year. “The police want to finish their year having ‘achieved’ something, so they target arrests.”
Dung feels there is a wind of change blowing through the country, something which has led authorities to enact tougher measures on critics for fear of revolt. Cracking down on dissidents, he said, merely instigates more efforts to promote free speech.
“It encourages further acts of expression,” Dung said. “The demand for democracy is very high, the economy is suffering, the corruption is terrible and the people have lived under dictatorship for a long time.”
“The top 5 percent controls the economy and people hate the government, but they are silent,” he added. “They cannot express themselves for fear of persecution.”
The persecution he speaks of is one Dung contends with on a daily basis. While Dung and his compatriots are freedom fighters to their supporters, the government sees them as threats to the nation’s stability through their alternative views on governance, civil society and freedom.
“To this date there are three policemen who sit by the coffee shop next to my house monitoring my moves and following me around,” Dung said, sounding almost accepting of life under constant surveillance.
Realities such as these have earned Vietnam its low marks on transparency and reflect its place in the rank of worst nations in which to be a journalist.
“They want to reduce the influence of the [association] because they don’t want people to be informed about what really happens in the country,” Dung said.
A Growing Movement
Among those standing with Dung to promote press freedom is Dinh Cong Le.
Le, 48, is a former lawyer who first raised questions about human rights abuses in 2003. He was arrested, and in 2009 had his license to practice law revoked after he and four activists were accused of conducting propaganda against the state. One of them is still in jail serving a 16-year term.
“I was given a five-year sentence, but thanks to pressure from the international community I was released a year early. Instead I was put under house arrest for another three years,” Le said.
Le is also a leading blogger advocating for press freedom. Followed widely by internet users in and out of Vietnam, his critical Facebook posts gather thousands of likes within hours.
Such fame comes at a price. Le’s problems are similar to those endured by Dung.
“We face a lot of difficulties. I am followed around. When I travel to other regions such as the north of Saigon, I am followed,” Le said. “Today I am here, but tomorrow I could be in jail again.”
Early last month he was on his way to Vung Tau, a port town at the mouth of the delta, for a conference.
“Suddenly more than 100 policemen came to arrest our group of 30 people,” he said.
Le and his party were repeatedly beaten, taken in and kept in police custody for 10 hours. After being subjected to a grueling interrogation, he was the last one to be released. It was after midnight.
“They released us in the middle of a dark highway at 1am. I didn’t know how to get back to Vung Tau because they took my phone and my luggage. I had to walk for half an hour on the dark freeway until I found a taxi,” he said.
Article 88 vs. Article 112
Asked to put censorship in Thailand in the context of Southeast Asia, especially Thailand, Dung said Article 88 is less abstract than Thailand’s Article 112, which punishes insults to the royal family by up to 15 years in prison per offense.
Where Thailand’s lese majeste law has grown to be more broadly applied, Vietnam’s encompasses all of the state.
“It is more detailed than Article 112, but this only applies to the monarchy, while Article 88 applies to all of the government. The police can relate anything to criticism against the government,” he said.
Le found the problem to be less severe in Thailand because venerating the King is a deep and ingrained tradition.
“We understand if there is a law to protect the King,” he said. “It’s understandable because there is a long history of respecting him. In Vietnam we cannot compare.”
“Thailand at least has a history of multi-party democracy. Here they don’t want us to criticize the Communist Party. In Vietnam, criticizing the Communist Party is like criticizing the King in Thailand,” Le said, adding that the fundamental difference was that while one controls the entire political system, the other is apolitical.
Le and his colleagues are limited to making their case from home, as the government finds them enough of a threat to prevent them from traveling.
“Last August I was invited to a conference on civil society in East Timor. I was about to board the plane when they told me I wasn’t allowed to leave,” Le said.
Backing their efforts are significant international actors such as the European Union and the United States, whose ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius called for the release of Me Nam in October. U.S. Political Chief Charles Sellers praised the Independent Journalist Association’s work in July during U.S. Independence Day celebrations:
“I want to thank all of you for your dedication to work peacefully and patriotically to ensure Vietnam’s citizens enjoy the benefits of independent journalism,” Sellers said.
Dung, who spoke proudly of this moment, went on to add that the United States consulate hoped they would lead the way to Vietnamese press freedom.
Going forward, he is concerned about the regression on conditions Vietnam agreed to under President Barack Obama to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership after President-elect Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to kill the deal.
Le believes progress has been made to the point the government is being pressured to listen to opinions other than their own. Citing the suppressed anger of the Vietnamese for the impunity shown in various scandals such as one of the nation’s worst cases of toxic waste dumping, he sees a weak political system on the brink of collapse.
“The government is scared that we will continue to raise our voices. On Oct. 22 there were protests against Formosa Plastics Group, which the government was unable to contain,” Le said. “They don’t want this to escalate even further. We are liabilities to them because we keep raising the issue. They don’t want the phenomenon to spread to other regions or cities,” Le said.
Fearless about being arrested again for his blogging, Le claims not to be scared, having already served a jail term and having nothing to lose.
“Nobody wants to be arrested. But if I am arrested again for raising my ideas, it will prove once again that the government does not want to change,” he said. “I fear for people who have never been to jail because they are scared. They always look around when they try to say things.”
Glimmers of Hope
Despite the current climate, both bloggers see reasons to be hopeful. Dung thinks his organization will eventually be recognized by the government and allowed to operate openly.
“Perhaps by 2017,” Dung said with hopeful eyes. “We want to be a hub for open expression, as a precondition of civil society for Vietnam’s future.”
Le, exultant about the importance of his free press movement, remarked upon the expanding blogging community, comparing what he is doing to the germination of a seed – which he hopes will bloom one day.
“The day our ideas flourish, Vietnamese society will change,” he said. “For bloggers and activists like myself, our futures are uncertain. We never know when we may be arrested. But our ideas are certain. One day, they will become true.”