Vietnamese Dissidents: Absent from the Western Mind

Vietnamese Dissidents: Absent from the Western Mind

On October 8, 2009, a woman from Hanoi named Tran Khai Thanh Thuy was on her way to Hai Phong, a city on Vietnam’s coast, to witness the trial of six pro-democracy activists. But she would never reach the courthouse. Instead, she was met by a police roadblock and ordered to return to her house until further notice. That night, two intruders entered her home and beat her with bricks in front of her husband and daughter, as police officers looked on from outside. The police then arrested Tran Khai Thanh Thuy and charged her with assault.

Tran Khai Thanh Thuy’s trial took place in February of this year and lasted one day. A key piece of prosecution evidence was a photo of one supposed victim with a bandaged head, which Vietnamese bloggers later showed had been crudely altered. “It’s a fabrication and total slander,” Tran Khai Thanh Thuy said of the charges. “I protest this trial, and I did not come here to suffer this.” The court sentenced her to three and a half years in prison, but she did not hear the verdict because the judge had thrown her out of court for talking out of turn. Human Rights Watch issued a statement calling the trial “Kafkaesque.”

This was not Tran Khai Thanh’s first run-in with the authorities. She spent time in prison in 2007 for writing articles that criticized the government and called for multi-party democracy. Rights groups and foreign governments consider her a prisoner of conscience and are calling for her release. She is at least the sixteenth pro-democracy activist to be imprisoned in Vietnam since October 2009, in what the U.S ambassador to Vietnam described as a “spike” in human rights abuses.

There has indeed been a spike, but it is part of a much larger—and more historic—story. For the first time since reunification in 1975, the ruling Communist Party faces a sustained and organized challenge to its legitimacy. Political dissidents from all walks of life have come together to call for elections and political pluralism. The movement is small, but it is growing, and, judging from the severity of the crackdown, the authorities are taking it seriously.

Yet the outside world has barely noticed. As a journalist who has worked in Southeast Asia over the last five years and who is in contact with pro-democracy activists in Vietnam, I’ve often wondered why the movement has not captured the world’s imagination like similar movements in China, Burma, and Zimbabwe. Whatever the reasons for this, you are likely reading about Vietnam’s pro-democracy movement for the first time.

The story began on April 8, 2006, when a group of activists posted a petition online called “Manifesto 2006 on Freedom and Democracy for Vietnam.” More than two thousand people—lawyers, former Communist Party members, Buddhist monks, Catholic priests, writers and intellectuals from all parts of the country—risked arrest and signed the document. They became known as Bloc 8406, ...