Vietnam's Communist Party Jails its Most Trenchant Critic
Pham Doan Trang was merely telling the government to honor its rights commitments
By: David Brown
The Vietnamese authorities are about to try Pham Doan Trang next week just for insisting that they honor the guarantees of civil liberties set out in Vietnam's constitution.
In a photo taken on the night she was arrested, Trang is clearly exhausted, worn down by years on the run. Flanked by two policemen, one in uniform, the other plainclothes, Trang is walking away from the camera. She wobbles as she walks, the consequence of injuries suffered at the hands of other policemen years earlier.
Doan Trang is accused of 'conducting propaganda against the State.' Three documents and two interviews, one with the BBC and the other with Radio Free Asia, have been adduced as evidence of Trang's subversive intent. When -- not if -- she's convicted, she could draw 12 years in prison.
In the years before her arrest, Trang wrote prodigiously. Though banned, her books have circulated widely on the internet or in photocopy. Her blog was hugely popular.
One of her books is a primer on how the people of Vietnam can (and implicitly should not hesitate to) exercise their constitutional rights. Much of that book is quite matter-of-fact, a nuts and bolts explanation of the concepts and rules that govern a democratic society. It gets edgy when Trang demonstrates that Vietnam's political institutions and practices fall far short of the ideal.
In the "Handbook for the Families of Prisoners," Trang shows that however 'normal' Vietnam's laws and their enforcement may seem to be to most Vietnamese, they are in fact but a brutal simulacrum of international norms.
When she meets with friends, Trang uses simple language to expose the institutional hypocrisy of the ruling Party, a monolith that has espoused liberal principles when convenient but has never believed in them or put them to work. She picks up her guitar and sings hopeful songs. Trang's unique subversiveness lies in her pretense that Vietnam's institutions are in fact as they are described by its constitution, i.e., democratic, so that all she has been doing is teaching folks how to be good citizens.
Trang, now 43, didn't become a radical all at once. At thirty, she was an idealistic reporter who celebrated the coming of the internet. In a few short years, social media had wired millions of Vietnamese into unprecedented discussions of edgy political issues: should the state allow a Chinese company to strip mine for bauxite in Vietnam's central highlands? shouldn't the state stand up to Chinese claims of sovereignty over the seas off Vietnam's coast?
When Trang's reportage offended government censors, she was fired from her newspaper jobs. Unemployment was ironically liberating; as an independent writer and blogger, Trang documented landmark events: a national debate over constitutional revision, mass demonstrations in support of the Vietnamese coast guard's confrontation with a Chinese flotilla that invaded Vietnam's EEZ, more demonstrations protesting the felling of the ancient trees that shade Hanoi's streets, nationwide protests when toxic discharges from a Taiwan-owned steel mill decimated fisheries along the coast of six provinces.
In 2014, Trang traveled abroad to advocate for political freedoms in Vietnam. Back home, Vietnam's civil rights campaigners were showing some muscle. Typically they leveraged alleged regime passivity in the face of Chinese encroachment to turn out scores of thousands of demonstrators in the nation's major cities.
On her return to Vietnam, the police now singled out Trang for special attention. They would follow her, harangue her, and detain her when she was invited to meet foreign visitors, famously including US President Barack Obama.
The tide was turning against what was now called the Democracy Movement. At a congress late in 2016, the Communist Party chose leaders who were intent on cleansing Vietnam's public space of what they perceived as rabble-rousers. The national police were unleashed; within a few years, the number of activists in detention tripled. Thousands of draftees were assigned to troll social media and, one by one, to pick off dissident bloggers. Rather than lose a lucrative advertising market, Facebook and YouTube caved to regime demands that it, not they, would decide which posts were unacceptable.
When the police finally came for Trang in October 2020, Vietnam's Democracy Movement had become a raggle-taggle band that's oddly obsessed by Trumpism and verges on irrelevance.
Shortly before her arrest, Pham Doan Trang vowed not to accept exile in lieu of imprisonment.
"Instead of doing something that increases human freedom," Trang told the BBC, "the regime is able to score points by releasing an activist. It's a catch-and-release tactic that allows them to ignore the need for fundamental change. The regime can look good by releasing us and hope to gain something from other countries in exchange. That's why I hope, if I go to jail, my incarceration will not be something they can abuse and exploit, but instead create pressure against the government, forcing it to change."
Those are brave words, but there's virtually no chance that Vietnam's current set of leaders will consider even small concessions to human rights crusaders. Vietnam is a Leninist state. Some five million of the nation's 98 million citizens are members of the Communist Party (CPV). The party brooks no challenge to its absolute authority. Cadre are taught that the Party supplies Vietnam's vital integrative force, the formal and informal rules and compliance procedures that govern politics, structure economic activity, and regulate social relationships.
The 77-year-old Nguyen Phu Trong is a man in a hurry. He's nearing the end of his 11th year as the CPV's General Secretary and he's not so healthy anymore. For half a century, Trong has made it his mission to suppress the heresy of “self-evolution.” As long as he is at the helm or succeeds in passing power to others like him, the party won't engage with its critics. "Civil society" is a banned expression. The Ministry of Public Security reports to the CPV's Politburo, not to Vietnam's government. Leaders like Trong are adamant that there will be no kinder, gentler Party, no 'Communism with a human face.'
In principle, this ought to concern Asia-Pacific democracies. In practice, they don't seem much concerned. They're maneuvering to draw Vietnam into a quasi-alliance against Chinese pretensions to hegemony in East Asia. When Hanoi's deeds fall far short of promises made in trade treaties and a quarter-century of human rights dialogues, neither the US nor its allies fuss much.
In Vietnam, there will always be idealists, but for now, it is almost impossible to imagine change. The party-state isn't interested in independent thinking or grassroots problem-solving. Further, for as long as the regime can deliver stability and 6-plus percent annual growth, Vietnamese youth are much more likely to join the CPV than to seek to topple it.
While democrats like Pham Doan Trang and her friends rot in prison, their apparatchik contemporaries will suffer nothing worse than long hours in tedious Party meetings, a small though soul-destroying price to pay, perhaps, for a steady job and opportunities to trade favors for a bit of wealth.
David Brown is a former US diplomat with wide experience in Vietnam and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel. Pham Doan Trang’s writing has appeared in Asia Sentinel