Vietnamese journalist Pham Doan Trang, now in hiding after publishing a political book, in a file image. Photo: Wikimedia
Vietnamese journalist and activist Pham Doan Trang, in a file image. Photo: Wikimedia

“I don’t know why they hate me and my book so much. After all, it’s just a textbook,” says Pham Doan Trang, a prominent Vietnamese journalist and blogger who has recently gone into hiding to avoid arrest.

In late February, Trang was brought in for questioning over her book and recent articles by public security authorities but later released. Her Hanoi home was subsequently surrounded by plainclothes police, effectively putting her under house arrest. She managed to slip away and is now holed up in a secret location.

This comes amid the ruling Communist Party’s ongoing clampdown on dissidents and activists. Dozens have been arrested in recent months and many have been handed lengthy prison sentences.

“The problem for us is that a communist police state like Vietnam dislikes its people to broaden their political awareness and their participation in macro affairs,” Trang told Asia Times this weekend.

“From elementary schools to universities, from schools to offices, we all are taught that politics is either dirty or too noble for the ordinary people to be involved in,” she adds.

Trang hopes to change this mentality with her latest book Chính trị bình dân, or Politics for the Masses. Observers reckon it is the reason for her latest scrape with the authorities.

Performers dance with large national flags marking the 87th anniversary of Vietnam’s communist regime. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

But the book is hardly a polemic, nor a declaration for political change of the same ilk as the “Manifesto on Freedom and Democracy for Vietnam”, a landmark text published in 2006 by a group of activists and intellectuals known as Bloc 8406.

Instead, Politics for the Masses reads more like a textbook on political science with short chapters that explain concepts like democracy, rule of law and separation of powers. But, importantly, it is written in very basic Vietnamese language designed to appeal to the everyday reader.

“I explain these concepts and illustrate them with Vietnamese stories. Or, it can be said that I put knowledge of these ‘abstract’ things into a totally Vietnamese context for the Vietnamese readers to grasp. I tried to use a journalistic language that is easy to read,” she says.

Nguyen Chi Tuyen, a prominent human rights defender who goes by the online name “Anh Chi”, says one problem facing Vietnam’s growing pro-democracy movement is that many people have only a basic understanding of politics and the workings of government.

“They just follow what the Party tells them,” he says. “But it’s not only the working people; activists also lack knowledge about politics. We’ve never had any training courses about these topics. We must educate ourselves.”

A policeman blocks photographers from taking pictures during a protest in front of the Opera House in Hanoi. Photo: Reuters/Nguyen Lan Thang

But while there have been attempts at organizing such courses it remains a precarious endeavor in Vietnam. When activists try gathering to study together they are often dispersed or intimidated by the secret police, Anh Chi says.

Worse, they can be arrested for “reactionary actions” and charged with carrying out “propaganda against the state,” illegal under the Penal Code’s dreaded Article 88 which allows for maximum 20 year prison penalties. “So Trang’s book is very useful and important for us at the moment,” he adds.

Since its publication late last year, Politics for the Masses has become immensely popular among Vietnamese young-population. It is available to purchase in hardback though the authorities have reportedly seized shipments from its foreign-based publisher.

Instead, copies of the book are now widely shared on social media, the chief vehicle for samizdat in present-day Vietnam. (It can be assessed as a PDF for free here.) Trang hopes to raise funds for an organization that supports political prisoners, so donations are being asked from readers.

“The more people read it, the happier I am,” she says. “I am so happy with its popularity that I think I can accept any bad consequence that it brings to me.”

Vietnamese at a sidewalk coffee shop in Ho Chi Minh City in a file photo. Photo:iStock/Getty Images

Trang is actually sanguine about the political awareness of most Vietnamese. She says that in sidewalk cafés people are talking politics every morning: “From the latest arrests in the government’s ‘anti-corruption’ campaign and new faces in public offices, to new regulations to control the internet,” she says.

But the problem, she says, is that people aren’t aware they can get involved in politics, like speaking out in public, instead of just confining themselves to “talking politics for fun in sidewalk cafes.”

Indeed, raising political awareness and increasing participation in political events, like protests and demonstrations, is one of the main objectives of the pro-democracy movement.

The movement was certainly aided when a Taiwanese-owned Formosa steel plant slopped tons of toxic waste into the sea in 2016, polluting 200 kilometers of Vietnam’s central coastline and killing vast quantities of fish.

The environmental disaster gave rise to some of the largest street protests seen in Vietnam during over four decades of authoritarian communist rule.

What’s more, some analysts think the resulting protests that lasted for months, and still crop up even today, galvanized once disparate activist groups, including labor rights activists organizing for independent unions, urban liberals pushing for democracy and rural workers fighting for land rights.

Vietnamese protesters demonstrate against Taiwanese conglomerate Formosa during a rally in downtown Hanoi on May 1, 2016. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

One Hanoi-based activist who requested anonymity says the Vietnamese people are being cheated by the Party, which continues to assert: “Don’t worry, everything is taken care of by the Party and ordinary people don’t need to worry about these things.”

The latest Party administration, installed after a top-level reshuffle at the last Communist Party Congress in January 2016, has been making populist noise about tackling corruption and improving the lives of the poor. But observers note the same noises were being made as far back as the 1980s, to little avail.

A report presented at the Sixth Party Congress in 1986 warned apparatchiks to raise efforts in tackling corruption, individualism and profiteering, while also asserting that some Party members had “lost their class consciousness,” employing a Marxist phrase.

“The problem for us is that a communist police state like Vietnam dislikes its people to broaden their political awareness and their participation in macro affairs” – Pham Doan Trang

The warning obviously wasn’t heeded as Vietnam last year was ranked the second most corrupt country in the Asia-Pacific on Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer report. Over 65% of Vietnamese respondents to the survey said they had paid bribes to access public services, including schools and hospitals.

Moreover, wealth inequality has been widening in Vietnam since the 1980s: a report published last year by Oxfam Vietnam contends the country’s richest people earn more in a day than the poorest Vietnamese earns in 10 years.

In 2014, there were 210 “super-rich” people in Vietnam – those with net worth of more than US$30 million. Their combined wealth was roughly equal to 12% of the country’s GDP, a situation that has likely become even more concentrated since.

Readers of Trang’s political book would be helped to understand the discrepancy between the Party’s socialist manifesto and the widening capitalism-driven wealth gap between rich and poor.

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