Vietnam Justice Works in Strange Ways

US citizen ‘folk hero’ freed as crackdown on dissidents intensifies

On October 21, the Vietnamese government released Michael Nguyen, a 55-year-old family man from southern California, into the custody of the US Embassy. A day later, back in California after 26-plus months' incarceration, he was reunited with his family back home in Orange County, California's 'Little Saigon,' where according to the Los Angeles Times, he is a folk hero.

Nguyen is probably not the sort of individual who actually makes bombs in his basement. More likely, he just hangs out with other folks who knock back a few beers and fantasize with him about overthrowing Vietnam's party-state regime. According to Vietnam's police, however, Nguyen tried to act out his fantasies. His timing was really bad -- as clumsy, apparently, as his security practices.

After he'd spent two years in a Vietnamese prison, though in no way representative of Vietnam's community of political dissidents, Nguyen became a pawn in the Hanoi regime's annual dialogue with the US on civil liberties. Just two weeks earlier, US and Vietnamese officials had met for their annual bilateral discussion of human rights (this year it was held virtually).

Securing Nguyen's release was surely one of the principal objectives of the US side. And ironically, at almost the same time that the two sides were wrapping up, Pham Doan Trang was arrested on a charge of "making anti-state propaganda." And, unlike Michael Nguyen, when home-grown Vietnamese dissidents are arrested, they are denied visitors or packages from home unless they confess their guilty intent.

Doan Trang, a legendary campaigner for civil liberties, doesn't preach violence. She's an educator, not an agitator. Since she turned in her state-issued license to practice journalism more than a decade ago, Ms Trang has tirelessly traveled throughout the nation, urging her fellow citizens to assert, peacefully and uncompromisingly, the rights that Vietnam's constitution guarantees to its citizens. It is a bit of a stretch to label such action "anti-state propaganda," but that's the charge that the Hanoi authorities have hung on her.

Trang will have plenty of company in prison while state prosecutors prepare an indictment. When Michael Nguyen was arrested in July 2018, Vietnam had 147 political prisoners in custody, according to The 88 Project, which keeps close track of civil liberties issues in Vietnam. In October 2020, the same group counted 254 who are incarcerated in prisons and 'detention centers,' either awaiting trial or serving sentences for such crimes as "abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state."

Although they are collectively termed 'dissidents' by the foreign press, Trang and other Vietnamese who speak out against the policies of the party-state are a diverse group with diverse agendas. Some challenge the Communist Party's monopoly of power. Others object variously to its repression of unsanctioned religious groups or independent labor unions. Some dissidents challenge the regime's censorship of print and electronic media, or its policies that limit farmers' rights vis-a-vis land developers or that result in the despoiling of the environment in the name of economic growth.

Michael Nguyen’s case is another matter, one characterized by what seems to have been outright bumbling at a time in July 2018 when tensions were high. Police arrested Nguyen and two young Vietnamese friends for "talking about, assigning roles, organizing propaganda, planning to buy weapons, calling on people to participate in demonstrations and seize government offices in HCMC and Hanoi." It was just weeks after demonstrations broke out across Vietnam to protest the government's alleged intention to grant Chinese investors extraterritorial privileges in three "special economic zones."

Nguyen and the two young men, Binh and Phi, the indictment said, corresponded by Facebook posts and e-mails beginning early in 2017. In August 2017, he'd traveled to Vietnam to meet his new friends. They had introduced him to a fourth conspirator, a man named Phong who claimed to have organized a “Special Action Unit.” Nguyen allegedly gave Phong US$2,000 to buy weapons and other supplies.

Nguyen returned to Vietnam in June 2018. According to the indictment, this time the three met in Binh's father's home in Bien Hoa, a city 30 km northeast of Ho Chi Minh City. They'd made plans to organize a big demonstration. Then they had traveled to Vietnam's south-central coast to recruit others to their scheme. There, on July 7, they'd been arrested.

Nguyen, Binh, and Phi were tried 11 months later, convicted of "activities aimed at overthrowing the people's government," and sentenced to prison terms of 12, 11, and 10 years respectively. Katie Porter, the congresswoman whose district includes Little Saigon, and the US State Department campaigned tirelessly for Michael Nguyen's release.

Nguyen’s family and those of his neighbors settled in Southern California as refugees after the collapse of the anti-Communist South Vietnam regime. They have worked hard, prospered, and assimilated more or less. Many still cling to the notion that someday, somehow, Vietnam's Communist regime will be overthrown and they'll be able to "return home."

Life for Nguyen in a Vietnamese prison was doubtless unpleasant, but in spite of his bumbling effort to generate a revolution in Vietnam, he was allowed to have monthly visits by Embassy officers (likely bearing packages from home). He could hope for release, knowing that the State Department was pressing his case.

The same is not true, it is feared, for Pham Doan Trang. Not very long ago, Vietnam's dissidents could reach a large audience via the internet. That is much harder now; under General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, the regime has upped its disruption game, criminalized online speech, and by threatening to shut down their revenues, bent both Facebook and Youtube to the government’s will.

This year, a new fissure has opened within Vietnam's community of dissidents: who's for and who's against US President Donald Trump? Trump's character flaws and his indifference to civil liberties are difficult to perceive from Vietnam. Much easier to see is the stiffer American posture vis-a-vis China, which Vietnamese attribute to Trump himself. China, or specifically the Vietnamese Communist Party's alleged subservience to its Chinese "big brother," is anathema to a substantial fraction of Vietnam's intelligentsia, and they've been vocal.

A freethinking blogger with a big following wrote recently that "I know that if I write of the Trump presidency's disastrous impact on American political scene, I will lose many friends who are infatuated with Trump. American politics have a big impact on Vietnam, linked to the struggle for democracy and human rights here. While Trump has been in power, Vietnam's Communists have squeezed the people just as much as they liked, and that's why I personally cannot help but point out the ugliness of his regime."

This blogger is in a distinct minority among Vietnamese freethinkers. Trump commands the allegiance of a distinct majority of Vietnamese-Americans, also, particularly those for whom the scars inflicted by defeat remain raw. At least to that extent, the dissidents in Vietnam and the bitter-enders in Little Saigon share common ground.

David Brown is a former US diplomat with extensive experience in Vietnam. He is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.

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