(New York) – Five Vietnamese bloggers are among an extraordinary group of 41 people from 19 countries who have received the prestigious Hellman/Hammett award recognizing writers who demonstrate courage and conviction in the face of political persecution. They are Huynh Ngoc Tuan, Huynh Thuc Vy, Nguyen Huu Vinh, Pham Minh Hoang, and Vu Quoc Tu (short biographies below).
“Like other Vietnamese exercising their right to free expression, many of the country’s growing corps of bloggers are increasingly threatened, assaulted, or even jailed for peacefully expressing their views,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, which administers the annual Hellman/Hammett awards. “By recognizing these five brave men and women, who have already suffered much and face on-going threats to their basic rights, we are honored to amplify the voices the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party wants to prevent from participating in public discussions of Vietnam’s many social and political problems.”
This year’s Vietnamese award-winners reflect the diversity of sectors in Vietnamese society whose critical and concerned voices the government wishes to silence: advocate of religious freedom Nguyen Huu Vinh (who blogs as J.B Nguyen Huu Vinh); rights defender Pham Minh Hoang (who blogs as Phan Kien Quoc); freelance journalist Vu Quoc Tu (known as Uyen Vu); novelist Huynh Ngoc Tuan; and the youthful political, social commentator Huynh Thuc Vy. All five have been persecuted for their writings.
Human Rights Watch said that the Vietnamese government systematically suppresses freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and persecutes those who question government policies, expose official corruption, or call for democratic alternatives to one-party rule. Writers and bloggers often face lengthy prison terms imposed by “people’s courts,” temporary police detention and onerous interrogation, intrusive surveillance by various authorities, restrictions on domestic travel and prohibitions on leaving the country, beatings by security officials and anonymous thugs, fines, and denial of opportunities for livelihood.
On December 16, 2012, the police at Tan Son Nhat airport in Ho Chi Minh city prohibited blogger Huynh Trong Hieu from leaving Vietnam for the United States to receive the 2012 Hellman/Hammett awards on behalf of his father, Huynh Ngoc Tuan, and his sister Huynh Thuc Vy, and confiscated his passport. According to the police, they acted upon a request from the police of Quang Nam province where the Huynh family resides. Two other 2012 Hellman/Hammett recipients, bloggers Nguyen Huu Vinh and Vu Quoc Tu, have been also prohibited from leaving the country (Nguyen Huu Vinh in August 2012 and Vu Quoc Tu in May 2010). Blogger Pham Minh Hoang is serving a three-year probation term, which restricts his movement within his residential ward.
In a recent case, the three founders of Vietnam’s Club of Free Journalistsand former Hellman/Hammett awardees, Nguyen Van Hai (who blogs as Dieu Cay), Ta Phong Tan, and Phan Thanh Hai (who blogs as Anhbasg), were sentenced to imprisonmenton September 24, 2012, for “propaganda against the state.” That same month, politically beleaguered Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung ordered the Ministry of Public Security to target blogs and websites not approved by the authorities, punish those who create them, and prohibit state employees to read and/or disseminate information published on these websites.
“As Vietnam’s government escalates its repression of an increasingly outspoken online community, it is more important than ever for the world to celebrate the work of the five Vietnamese recipients of this year’s Hellman/Hammett awards,” Adams said. “The world’s democracies should not just continue with business as usual in Vietnam. Instead, they should make the release of all writers and political prisoners a condition of good relations.”
Human Rights Watch also commemorated the life and work of the 1994 Hellman/Hammett award winning poet Nguyen Chi Thien, who died in exile on October 2, 2012. Revered as one of Vietnam’s greatest political poets, Nguyen Chi Thien symbolized personal courage and determination despite every effort by Vietnamese authorities to silence him over many decades. Nguyen Chi Thien was first detained in 1960 for questioning the Communist Party’s version of history. In 1979, during one of his brief periods of freedom, he barged his way into the British embassy in Hanoi to make available to the world hundreds of poems he had composed in his head and memorized while previously in detention, knowing that he would be arrested again. The poems were published under the title “Flowers from Hell,” becoming a worldwide literary sensation as he indeed languished in another series of Vietnamese jails.
About the Hellman/Hammett Awards
The Hellman/Hammett awards are given annually to writers around the world who have been targets of political persecution or human rights abuses. A distinguished selection committee awards the cash grants to honor and assist writers whose work and activities have been suppressed by repressive government policies.
The grants are named for the American playwright Lillian Hellman and her longtime companion, the novelist Dashiell Hammett. Both were questioned by US congressional committees about their political beliefs and affiliations during the aggressive anti-communist investigations inspired by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. Hellman suffered professionally and had trouble finding work. Hammett spent time in prison.
In 1989, the trustees appointed in Hellman’s will asked Human Rights Watch to devise a program to help writers who were targeted for expressing views that their governments oppose, for criticizing government officials or actions, or for writing about subjects that their governments did not want reported.
Over the past 23 years, more than 750 writers from 92 countries have received Hellman/Hammett grants of up to US$10,000 each, totaling more than $3 million. The program also gives small emergency grants to writers who have an urgent need to leave their country or who need immediate medical treatment after serving prison terms or enduring torture.
“The Hellman/Hammett grants aim to help writers who have suffered because they published information or expressed ideas that criticize policy or offend people in power,” said Lawrence Moss, coordinator of the Hellman/Hammett grant program. “Many of the writers honored by these grants share a common purpose with Human Rights Watch: to protect the rights of vulnerable people by shining a light on abuses and building pressure for change.”
Biographies and Writings of Vietnamese 2012 Hellman/Hammett Winners
Huynh Ngoc Tuan
Huynh Ngoc Tuan has written dozens of influential articles, commentaries, and a novella exposing social injustice and government repression. His writings promote human rights, democracy, and what he believes are the virtues of a multi-party political system. He was arrested in October 1992 for attempting to send abroad a novella and several short stories critical of government policies, for which he was charged with conducting propaganda against the Socialist state. In April 1993 he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, followed by another four years of probation that restricted his movement and activities. He nevertheless resumed his dissident actions, writing a memoir detailing his 10 years in various prisons. In 2007, he joined the pro-democracy grouping Bloc 8406.
In 2011, the police searched Huynh Ngoc Tuan’s house and confiscated a computer, computer accessories, and paper notebooks. He was fined 100,000,000.00Vietnamese Dong (about US$5,000) for using information technology to conduct propaganda against the state. Police pressure has made it impossible for Huynh Ngoc Tuan to obtain a secure job. Two of Huynh Ngoc Tuan’s children, Huynh Thuc Vy and Huynh Trong Hieu, are prominent young bloggers in their own right. They also suffer from police surveillance, intimidation, interrogation, and other forms of police harassment, such as confiscation of cameras and cell phones.
“In Vietnam, what dominates all social relations is not the law, but the will of the Communist Party. The Party has absolute power to make all decisions, ranging from the destiny of the nation to economic, culture and daily life of the people. The Party has ‘hard’ power including a prison system, a powerful police force, a big army and a system of ‘Law’ designed to serve this power. The Party also possesses ‘soft’ power including national resources, the press and media and the state-owned religious churches. It controls and dominates society using both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power in an attempt to turn the people into a herd of sheep, or a kind of puppet that is ignorant, powerless or complicit”.
– Huynh Ngoc Tuan, 2012
Huynh Thuc Vy
Huynh Ngoc Tuan’s daughter Huynh Thuc Vy is a young political blogger whose writing has spread extensively on the internet. Due to her father’s status as a political prisoner, Huynh Thuc Vy suffered discrimination during her childhood. She began publishing articles on the foreign-based website Dan Chim Viet in late 2008. Touching upon various social and political issues, Huynh Thuc Vy’s writing promotes a multi-party political system, freedom, and democracy, and urges young people to become socially and politically engaged. While teaching herself law, Huynh Thuc Vy has emerged as a proponent of a society run by rule of law and written in support of legal activists who have been imprisoned for their peaceful activism.
After the Huynh family home was searched and computer equipment and notebooks seized, Huynh Thuc Vy was fined 85,000,000.000 Vietnamese Dong (about US$4,250). Like her father, she has difficulty finding gainful employment because of police pressure.
“In Vietnam, one has to vote whether one wants to or not. Who you vote for is not important. It does not affect or change any national matter, whether big or small. It also has nothing to do with the life of any particular community of normal people.…
“To remain silent before such absurdity is to agree with such absurdity. It means a lack of responsibility to oneself and to society and the country. We must choose for ourselves a progressive society in which the right to vote and the right to run for an election must be carried out in a meaningful, democratic and just manner.” – Huynh Thuc Vy, 2011
Nguyen Huu Vinh
Nguyen Huu Vinh (also known as Jean Baptiste Nguyen Huu Vinh or J.B Nguyen Huu Vinh)is a prominent Catholic blogger advocating freedom of religion and fundamental human rights. He writes about such topics of great public concern as land confiscation, police brutality, abusive government policies, and repression of church and religious freedom. He is also well known for having written a five-part series of reports narrating in detail the appeal trial of prominent legal activist Dr. Cu Huy Ha Vu. In addition, Nguyen Huu Vinh composes poetry and short fiction commenting on social and political issues. His 2012 blogs have included the four-part satire “Meeting President Obama,” with himself as protagonist, in which he encounters Obama in a dream and the two of them discuss issues like freedom of speech and freedom of press.
Nguyen Huu Vinh has been subjected to intrusive surveillance, intimidation, interrogation, and detention. He has been assaulted twice by unknown thugs: first, in January 2010, for reporting police ill-treatment of parishioners during a land dispute between Dong Chiem parish and the local government; then, in July 2012, for blogging reports about anti-China protests at Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi. In August 2012, the authorities prohibited Nguyen Huu Vinh from leaving Vietnam to accompany his mother on a medical trip to Singapore.
I am walking along the road
What changes in the last sixty years do I see?
On the side, new villas are being constructed
Syringes and needles are thrown on the path
Drug addicts hang out nearby
They are the children and grandchildren of peasants
I asked what happened
They responded that there are many development projects
Fertile rice fields in the old days
Have become parts of these projects to please the leader
I am not sure if I was awake or in a nightmare
The countryside is “reformed,” yet individual family is destroyed
The old master of the land before, the peasants
Now become landless wanderers
A class of land petitioners grows every day
They used to toil the field,
Today they are drifting on urban streets…– Nguyen Huu Vinh, 2012
Pham Minh Hoang
Pham Minh Hoang (who blogs as Phan Kien Quoc) previously taught applied science at the Ho Chi Minh City Polytechnic University. In his blog, he has written about social and political issues, including workers’ rights, national destruction of Vietnamese cultural heritage sites, and environmental pollution. He has conducted free “soft” skills courses for young people, teaching them how to build self-confidence and how to form scientific views so they can be prepared for future careers. According to state media, in these courses, Pham Minh Hoang allegedly taught young people about civil disobedience.
Pham Minh Hoang was arrested on August 13, 2010, for his alleged affiliation with the officially-proscribed Viet Tan party, a group that once espoused rebellion against the communist government but later changed its approach to peaceful resistance. Human Rights Watch has found no evidence that Pham Minh Hoang has advocated or participated in violent action against the government. Instead, according to state media itself, Pham Minh Hoang’s “crime” is having written “33 articles that distort the policies and guidelines of the Party and the State.” He was convicted on August 10, 2011, by the People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City for “conducting activities to subvert the administration.” He was sentenced under article 79 of the Vietnamese penal code to three years in prison, to be followed by three years on probation. During his appeal trial on November 29, 2011, the People’s Supreme Court reduced his sentence to 17 months, as a result of which Pham Minh Hoang was released on January 13, 2012. However, he is currently serving his three years of probation, which confines his movement to the residential ward where he lives.
“For a long time, Vietnam’s human labor has been among the cheapest in the world. This has attracted many investors, primarily for labor-intensive industries. Now, Vietnam has become a big processing [country] in the region. The consequence of cheap labor is that the life of the worker becomes worse and worse. This leads to disputes, conflicts and collective work stoppages.
“If the state does not have a mechanism to protect laborers and keeps running after growth statistics, these conflicts will never end. Vietnam will never get rid of the processing status with its usual risk, uncertainty and dependency.
“Workers and peasants are not the only victims of the cost of political stability and economic growth. Another serious harm is environmental pollution, which has been and will continue to destroy the health of millions of people in the months and years to come.”
– Pham Minh Hoang, 2009
Vu Quoc Tu
Vu Quoc Tu (who writes as Uyen Vu) is a freelance journalist and a blogger. He worked for state-controlled magazines in the 1990s and started to blog in the mid-2000s. Vu Quoc Tu was a founding member of the Club for Free Journalists established in September 2007 to promote freedom of expression and independent journalism. During the first few months of its existence, club members covered newsworthy stories and events that were either suppressed or ignored by Vietnamese officialdom and the government-controlled media. For example, they covered wild-cat strikes by industrial workers in Binh Duong province, the trials of prominent dissidents such as Le Thi Cong Nhan and Nguyen Van Dai, 2008 street protests against the Beijing Olympics, land disputes between Catholic churches and local administrations, and the 2007 protests by Buddhist monks in Burma. Three other members of Club for Free Journalists have received Hellman /Hammett awards in the past: bloggers Nguyen Van Hai (known as Dieu Cay), Phan Thanh Hai (known as Anh Ba Sai Gon or Anhbasg) and Ta Phong Tan, all of whom are currently serving prison sentences for exercising their right to freedom of expression.
Vu Quoc Tu writes about social, economic, and political issues. He has also reviewed the Vietnamese translation of Orwell’s Animal Farm and the dissident poetry of Tran Vang Sao and Bui Chat. He has voiced support for imprisoned fellow writer Nguyen Van Hai.
Vu Quoc Tu lives with his wife, Le Ngoc Ho Diep, who blogs as Trang Dem. The couple has been subjected to intensive police harassment, including intrusive surveillance, interrogation, and beating. On May 1, 2010, police detained Vu Quoc Tu and Le Ngoc Ho Diep at Tan Son Nhat airport in Ho Chi Minh City as they were boarding a plane to Bangkok to go on honeymoon. The police held and interrogated them for several hours and forbade them from traveling abroad, contending this was necessary to protect Vietnam’s national security. Police pressures have also prevented Vu Quoc Tu from securing employment in Vietnam.
“… our participation in protests was a way to peacefully express our views. But the enthusiasm of Vietnamese youth from Hanoi to Saigon was rejected. Peaceful protests were crushed. I lost my job. Many others lost a place to live or a job to earn their living. The most enthusiastic protesters face the most difficulties. Some left our country… Patriotic people look at one another in reservation. But I still believe that these spirited young people, no matter how few of them, are like swallow that signal a Spring is coming for the country of Vietnam.” – Vu Quoc Tu, 2009