Visiting colleagues in Vietnam

March 29, 2013

In Vietnam, critical writers and bloggers are systematically persecuted. Following the PEN Cards Promo, Maartje Duin went to Vietnam to interview them.

In November I received a strictly confidential mail with strict instructions from PEN Netherlands.The organization is part of PEN International and stands up for oppressed writers worldwide. 
Attached was a list that is not allowed to circulate freely on the internet. There were names and addresses of imprisoned writers in countries ranging from Spain to Bahrain and Cameroon. The request was that a Christmas card be sent to each person. No Bethlehem Scenes or other religious symbols were allowed because some writers were persecuted for their religion: a simple greeting would suffice.

The most striking thing was the long list from Vietnam. Striking for me anyway, because I was planning to visit that country. But also because I knew little about how freedom of expression was limited there. 
I counted 24 names: poets, writers, journalists and bloggers, convicted of “spreading propaganda against the state”. Included among the names were published priests, pastors and a Buddhist monk – as well as a protest singer who, sentenced to life in prison, had become deaf and blind.

A card sent seemed a trivial protest, so I halfheartedly did as asked: I chose pictures of snowy windmills, with the requisite wish that the writers remained in “good health and spirits “. Would those cards really arrive? And what difference would they make? 
When my Vietnam trip approached, I asked PEN to mediate on my behalf. Who knew, I might be able to visit a writer in prison.

The Vietnamese government, I read, have been increasing pressure on dissidents in recent years. In September 2012 three critics disappeared for a total of 26 years behind bars, in January another fourteen were incarcerated – bloggers especially took the rap. A third of Vietnam is online and that number is rapidly growing. But the government is at a loss when it comes to dealing with this expanding public forum: political taboos are more openly discussed now than they used to, and nowhere can this be seen as clearly as on Facebook. Bloggers – forming the communist country’s only independent press – write about police corruption, land conflicts and China’s expansionism. So far, the power of the Communist Party seems immune to their criticism: Vietnam has no organized internal opposition. But the government is rather safe than sorry. They block Facebook, sabotage websites with spywpare and plant cyber cops on discussion forums. If a blogger is not caught, he is pulled from his motorcycle, followed, interrogated, beaten.

Shortly before my departure I received a message from a Vietnamese poet in exile, also an honorary member of PEN, who had managed to make contact with a variety of dissidents. I recorded my encounters with them, which have been published in the Dutch national newspaper Volkskrant and on Dutch public radio (VPRO, Bureau Buitenland).

Here I want to talk about two things in those reports that I wasn’t able to cover. First, the face of each writer lit up when I mentioned the name ‘PEN’. Certainly they knew that organization! The idea that you were not forgotten, one of them said, was so encouraging.

Secondly, let me tell you about poet / writer Nguyen Xuan Nghia – I got to talk to his son. (We chatted in a coffee shop in Hanoi’s old town, overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake. Here, in the morning, Vietnamese do gymnastics on the banks, in the evening they walk arm in arm under the weeping willows and tamarinds. Scooters, with their deafening crackle, can be heard in the distance.)

Thuy (25) was a gentle boy with a cross around his neck, he had recently converted to Christianity. He spoke broken English, and told me about his peers. “They think only of money,” he complained. “They believe that political prisoners undermine the state. I never say that my father is against the government: I say he advocates freedom. But most do not even know the difference between party, government and parliament. ”

Nguyen Xuan Nghia wanted democracy for Vietnam but it caused him many problems. In 2003 he lost his job as a journalist for the state media: his pieces were too critical. He kept going to demonstrations and advocated a manifesto for a multi-party state – controversial actions. On 11 September 2008, just after midnight, the police grabbed him from his bed and threw him in prison, where he had to wait more than a year for his trial. His eventual trial lasted only a few hours. 57 of his poems, short stories and articles served as evidence that Nguyen Xuan had offended the Communist Party and he was sentenced to six years in prison and three years of house arrest.

“My father is not doing well,” said Thuy. The poet suffers from various ailments that are poorly treated in the prison clinic. At night he lies awake in pain, in a cell he shares with twenty others. They sleep on the floor and use one single toilet. During the day they work on bamboo handicrafts and Nguyen Xuan teaches his cellmates English. They cook two meals a day, but supplies are expensive and of poor quality.

Yet apparently this prison, in Nghe An province, is much better than the previous one, where smoke billowed from a nearby brick factory and affected his lungs. The regime there was much more severe – a critical remark was punished with six months of solitary confinement, later followed by another three. In a cell of seven square meters, without light, and only a small hole for ventilation, he considered suicide more than once.

In Nghe An, he may again receive visitors, for an hour each month. Thuy’s mother makes the two day journey to the North Eastern province of Hai Phong, on the border with Laos, to see her husband. She takes food, drinks and books – which are allowed, as long as they are not about politics. The conversations are difficult, said Thuy, there is always a guard watching. But his father recently told them that in his mind, a book is forming. It is about his captivity and if he is released, in September 2014, he vows to put pen to paper.

Until that time, his son said he is reassured by interest from abroad. The poet may send or receive mail, but if you send a card to his wife, then she can bring him more indepth greetings. PEN International has the address – like that of many people in similar situations.

(This piece was commissioned by the, the magazine of the Dutch Association of Writers. Many thanks to Nina Teggarty for the translation. See also PEN Netherlands, March 29, 2013)

Source: Maartje Duin blog