Vietnam’s Arrest of a ‘Modern Legend’

Longtime dissident tracked down in advance of party congress

To the many Vietnamese who don't subscribe unthinkingly to the version of truth uttered incessantly by their nation's state-supervised media, Pham Doan Trang, who was arrested in Ho Chi Minh City on October 7 and accused of carrying out anti-state activities, is a modern legend.

She is a will of the wisp, a slight, soft-spoken woman with a guitar and a mission, who travels the length of Vietnam to talk about democracy and political decency. Politics for the People, a book Trang wrote a few years back to explain basic concepts of participatory democracy, is hugely popular among young Vietnamese; they photocopy it and pass it from friend to friend. The book doesn't preach revolution, exactly. With examples immediately relevant to Vietnamese readers, it explains how to exercise the rights that their nation's constitution accords them.

At times of relative detente, Trang has had an almost civil relationship with Vietnam's ubiquitous police. Naively, some say, she believes that patient dialogue with the powers that be is the surest path to a more democratic future for her nation.

Sometimes the police just detain Trang for a few hours to lecture her on what they regard as her dangerous ideas. However, the police don't always just talk; Trang walks with a limp, the lasting result of a brutal beating several years ago by unidentified assailants.

Pham Doan Trang, now 42, was one of the first wave of Vietnamese dissidents to discover and exploit the power of the internet to open the minds of Vietnamese citizens. She has written on occasion for Asia Sentinel. Drawing on her experience as an investigative reporter for leading papers that publish under state supervision, she wrote in July, 2013, about "Freedom of the Press, Vietnamese Style." A month later, she contributed a story on Dieu Cay, a blogger serving a long sentence for refusing to confess his "crime" of "propagandizing against the State."

At times like right now, when the regime is preparing for a big party congress and the police are under orders to crackdown on dissent, Trang found it prudent to disappear from view for a while, helped to move unobtrusively about the country by a network of loyal friends. However, the cops tracked her down in Vietnam's southern megalopolis. Ironically, Trang's arrest came just a few hours after Vietnamese and American diplomats met online in a virtual iteration of the two nations' annual and routinely sterile "human rights dialogue."

It is not yet clear how the police found Doan Trang. The criminal charges lodged against her are serious. A conviction of "conducting anti-state propaganda" could put Trang in jail for up to 20 years. If that happens, she'll tough it out. Trang is not interested in living anywhere but Vietnam.

Our Correspondent’ prefers not to be named over threats to freedom of expression

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