One year ago on June 29, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh found herself in prison, staring down a 10-year sentence. It has not been an easy year. Far from it. Prison authorities have made life unnecessarily difficult for Quynh, withholding letters from her friends, tampons and pads, medicine, and even the Bible. Because the government intentionally places political prisoners in remote prisons, her mother and children — and her lawyer — are unable to visit her often. Her mother says her health is failing; most recently, Quynh has said she feels so unsafe, it amounts to “mental torture.”
Quynh was arrested for publishing a series of Facebook posts critical of government and other human rights activities, and has been charged with “conducting propaganda against the state,” the regime’s charge of choice to use against its critics. Since early 2016, Vietnam’s authoritarian leaders have launched a repressive campaign targeting dissenters for sharing their opinions in the streets and online. More and more activists have been detained — Vietnam boasts more than 100 political prisoners — and recent cybersecurity and media regulations give the authorities new weapons with which to censor free speech. The trend is deeply concerning — but, as the recent protests in Vietnam demonstrate, there is more to the story. These new regulations are backfiring and failing to pull the breaks on a parallel trend: the democratic awakening of the Vietnamese people.
Before Quynh’s arrest in October 2016, she was a well-known and respected critic of the government. She developed a taste for activism after studying foreign languages in university, and found a passion for independent journalism. She joined a nascent group of Vietnamese writers who took to social media to share their articles, and went on to co-found the Vietnamese Bloggers Network. Since becoming an activist, Quynh has always had to worry about government persecution to some degree. She was arrested multiple times before 2016, and was even beaten by police. But still, she had a lot of space to dissent online, because the Vietnamese government was very late to regulate the internet and social media; Vietnamese’ social media users — now 50 percent of the population in a country of 90 million people — quickly developed an online culture of political discourse.
However, the regime has strategically shifted dramatically after the January 2016 Communist Party Convention. Under the leadership of the re-elected and newly empowered party head Nguyen Phu Trong, the government launched a campaign to arrest and silence members of opposition groups and any online critics. A few months later, Quynh joined the massive protests opposing the government’s handling of a toxic spill along the central coast. This was not the first round of environmental protests on the subject, but the new leadership met this first challenge with violence, internet shutdowns, scores of arrests, and aggressive targeting of prominent activists and reporters like Quynh. The government, under the guise of “rule of law,” used ambiguous criminal charges in a biased judicial system as weapons against these activists.
After months of harassment, Quynh was arrested without a warrant in October 2016 and later indicted under the infamous Article 88 for “conducting propaganda against the state.” She was held incommunicado for eight months until a closed trial on June 29, 2017, and was swiftly sentenced to 10 years in prison. At the time, the sentence was surprisingly lengthy and caused an outcry among international press; now, it’s the new norm for dissidents and has become expected. A higher court later affirmed her sentencing, and she was strategically held incommunicado again in the following days until the expiration of her appeal date.
And yet, Quynh, her family, and her allies in the activist community have found reason enough for hope. According to Thao Dinh, an activist working with the Vietnamese civil society group VOICE, the government has been emboldened by the global rise of authoritarianism and a shift away from human rights in diplomacy. But the intensifying crackdown on human rights defenders had an unexpected result: the increase in censorship has actually forced activists working alone to join forces.
“They [activists] are organized better than before, because they have to be. Of course, it doesn’t show on social media, but in our circles we can see that people have to work closer with each other and have to discuss strategically [in order to effectively protest the government],” Dinh explains. “We have a lot of people who are standing up for their rights, and the number of activists is increasing also.”
The same applies to the regime’s increasing attempts to censor and spread propaganda on social media, Dinh explains: “I believe that the number of internet users is too big to be shut down. They can’t close what they opened already.”
Dinh says that the current protests in Vietnam — which began in response to a bill that could allow the government to create special economic zones for Chinese business owners — have also included calls for better representation and greater accountability in government. Protesters have carried signs calling for democracy and opposing potential censorship under the new cybersecurity law. And even more surprising, citizens that have never before taken political action are starting to call their representatives and sign Change.org petitions — forms of political participation that are practically unheard of in Vietnam.
These are signs of a political awakening among the Vietnamese people. Since early 2016, several activist campaigns — including a notable one where celebrities like musician Mai Khoi ran for office — have sought to bring more people into the political process, and several experts have commented on the exponential growth in the country’s activist and opposition communities. Quynh’s own mother, Nguyen Tuyet Lan, is an excellent example of the enduring spirit of the Communist Party’s critics. Ever since Quynh’s arrest, Lan has started posting to the Me Nam Facebook account and her own Facebook page, with long updates on her daughter’s condition and fierce critiques of the government.
The Communist Party’s abusive treatment of Quynh and other persecuted activists is unconscionable, and it deserves more attention, more outcry, and more international pressure. This first year has been hard to endure, and Quynh still faces nine years of detention. And yet, in an example of true heroism, Quynh continues to fight. According to her mother, Quynh has recently started a hunger strike to protest conditions in jail, and continues to believe fully in Vietnam’s democratic future: “My daughter has always tried to raise her voice to change the society. Her desire is that everyone will overcome fear to protect their right to speak and to build a prosperous country and a better society,” Lan said. “She is not afraid of her 10-year sentence. She told me that there is a way to fight for the better in jail and she is fighting in her own way.”
Prachi Vidwans is a research associate at the Human Rights Foundation. Joy Park is its legal counsel for Asian countries.