Vietnam-Mai Khoi-Song Writer-Artist-September 2017

Do Nguyen Mai Khoi, a Vietnamese pop star, singer and musician, was in Taipei last weekend for a human-rights forum, where she spoke of how the Vietnamese government has limited her freedom of expression by raiding her concerts and prohibiting her from performing in public – she now only performs at underground venues.

In an interview with Asia Times, Mai explained she can no longer announce concert venues by cellphone text or on Facebook, given the recent passage of Vietnam’s cybersecurity law. She must now “organize in secret” and keep the invitations limited to a small audience – preferably to include a foreign diplomatic official.

Mai Khoi came to fame as the winner of Vietnam Television’s Album of the Year Award in 2010, which included Song of the Year “Viet Nam.” Born and raised in the southern coastal city of Cam Ranh, she learned to play the guitar from her father (a music teacher) and played piano in her father’s wedding band as a teenager.

After winning several singing competitions, Mai attended a musical conservatory in Ho Chi Minh City for three years, then went on to release seven albums and tour the US, Europe and Australia.

Nowadays, she continues her musical career in Hanoi with her new band Mai Khoi Chem Gio, which recently released a socially critical album titled Dissent. Beyond her music, she is increasingly using her voice to confront Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party over its repression of political activists, a campaign that has drawn support from the Vietnamese public and international human-rights groups.

In 2016, she nominated herself for Vietnam’s National Assembly on a pro-democracy platform. Although she was not allowed on to the ballot, her activism eventually led to a meeting with then-US president Barack Obama in Vietnam. In sharp contrast, she had a harsh greeting for Obama’s successor Donald Trump during his visit to Vietnam last year, holding a sign saying “Piss on you Trump” for his misogynist views and his refusal to discuss human rights with Vietnamese leaders.

Her democratic advocacy has resulted in police harassment, the raiding of one of her concerts, and a ban on her performing before the Vietnamese public.

This year, she shared the Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent, established in 2012 by the New York City-based Human Rights Foundation (HRF), and joined previous recipients such as Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and the Russian protest group Pussy Riot.

Last month, Mai met with Facebook officials in San Francisco as part of her campaign to “Keep the Internet Free,” given the recent passage of a cybersecurity law in Vietnam requiring global technology companies to set up local offices and store data locally.

Mai was in Taipei for the Oslo Freedom Forum hosted by HRF on November 10.

Mai also commented on the so-called Formosa fish-kill incident of 2016, Vietnam’s largest environmental disaster, involving the dumping of toxic waste on to a 200-kilometer stretch of coastline by the Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation.

After the deaths of some 100 metric tons of fish in four central provinces, Formosa finally admitted responsibility in June, pledging US$500 million in compensation to some 186,000 fishermen, fish farmers and others whose livelihoods were destroyed.

Yet when asked by Asia Times whether all of the $500 million reached those affected, Mai said “most were only given some bags of rice and 500,000 dong” – $25 – while others “decided to move to Thailand” to earn a living.

The environmental disaster led to large-scale and widespread protest, which Vietnamese authorities were quick to dispel.

Despite the crackdowns on political protests, including the protest over 99-year special economic zones in June and citizens now being “a little bit scared,” Mai said political protests would continue, but in “small groups,” although adding that organizing training courses in human rights or on the environment are “most dangerous” and “under censor.”

She added that protests were increasingly being organized by word-of-mouth, and not on Facebook given the deletion of fake names used by some activists in Vietnam.

As a proud Vietnamese, it is clear Mai Khoi fears for the future of Vietnam, as an increasingly authoritarian model of governance takes hold in Hanoi with echoes of that other Communist regime across the border.

Despite the challenges, Mai appears driven to use her voice and her music to raise awareness concerning human rights and to fight for democratic rights among her fellow Vietnamese, as typified by the song she sang in Taipei:

Let’s speak our voice
Step out from the fear
Step out from the silence
Speak the voice from our hearts.

Gary Sands is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, US News and World Report, Newsweek, The Diplomat, The National Interest, EurasiaNet, and the South China Morning Post. He spent six years in Shanghai, four years in Ho Chi Minh City, and is now based in Taipei.