The Vietnamese Communist Party’s desire to suppress the bravest and noblest voices knows no ends. Human Rights Watch puts the number of political prisoners at more than 130. The 88Project – so named after the dreaded Article 88 of the previous Criminal Code – puts the number of imprisoned activists at 269, and another 143 at risk.
Now to be added to that growing inventory is Pham Chi Dung, a fearless and enlightening independent journalist. This Thursday, he was arrested by the Ho Chi Minh City police for disseminating articles and information against the state. He “seriously violated the law” and was “very dangerous” to public order, the police said in a statement. If jailed, he faces between five and 20 years behind bars. Arrested on similar charges in 2012, he spent seven months in prison. Knowing how repressive the Communist Party and its court lackeys have become of late, however, one imagines that prosecutors will appeal for the longest sentence.
Dung was the first person I met when I started covering Vietnamese politics in 2014. Our meeting began badly when my translator became too nervous to ask the questions I had written down and bolted. Through a combination of Vietnamese, English and French, we muddled through. With a pencil-thin mustache, slender, lanky frame and mop of hair, he first stuck me as looking like a photograph of George Orwell I once saw. And his spirit struck me as Orwellian (in the positive sense of the word) in an Orwellian (negative sense) system.
His writings about the economy, as would be expected of someone who holds a PhD in economics, are prescient and biting, and they excel at trying to answer questions few are even bothered to ask (which always tend to be the most interesting sorts of questions). One of his latest pieces for Voice of America, dated October 31, for instance, cast doubt on Vietnam’s official GDP growth rates and critiqued the perilous debt that the Communist Party is lumbering the state with. His views on foreign policy are always informative, especially in the often confused and misunderstood realm of Vietnam-China relations. His ability to dismantle the intricacies of what happens within the Communist Party is irreplaceable. Most important, he is unafraid. Just scroll through the list of his recent articles for VOA to see the sheer variety and guile of his penetrating questions.
Perhaps it is the finest honor for a journalist working in a dictatorship to be called a threat to the state, but Dung’s articles are neither insurrectionary nor unpatriotic. His view, as he told me years ago, was that the Communist Party needed to be held to account. “The party is at a dead end. It is nowadays on the side of rich people; there’s no longer any socialism and inequality is rising,” he told me.
Indeed, he had educated himself out of the Communist Party, but not out of the ideals of freedom and equality that it was supposedly founded to promote. After graduating from the military institute, he joined the party aged 25 and served in Ho Chi Minh City’s security bureau for 16 years – and in many of those later years secretly writing articles under a nom de plume.
After his arrest and imprisonment in 2012, he resigned from the Communist Party – at the same time as Le Hieu Dang, a 40-year party member and civil-rights lawyer, quit the party and founded the banned Social Democratic Party in 2013.
“I used to have a burning desire to contribute to an equal socialist nation,” Dung wrote of his resignation in an open letter. “However, what the Communist Party has done as a totalitarian leader … has made me and many other party members go from disappointment to desperation.” Shortly afterward he helped create the Independent Journalist Association of Vietnam, an organization that was never going to receive permission from the Communist Party to operate, but operated regardless. Living up to the appeal of Vaclav Havel, Dung along with numerous other brave journalists and activists live “as if” Vietnam is free; as if fundamental human rights like free speech and free thought can be taken for granted.
In August he was singled out for slander when the state-run media broadcast a “documentary” called Opposite: The Reverse Side of Social Media, which attempted to portray independent journalists and activists as conspirators. “I challenge any party organization, radio stations or VTV station” – a state-TV station on which is was broadcast – “to point out any incorrect facts from my articles or interviews, or to show where there is any misrepresentation or agitation,” Dung retorted, adding that he had the right to sue them. “I know that it will be very difficult to win in a court in Vietnam,” he noted, “but I may be able to sue them in court later, not right now.”
Dung’s arrest comes amid a litany of detentions and a widespread crackdown by a Communist Party that has grown more paranoid and flailing since 2016. Will the international community, namely the US, at least try to do something about this? Probably not. The Vietnamese Communist Party has been pampered and indulged by successive US administrations, especially Barack Obama’s, in the belief that America must hold on to a strategic alliance with Hanoi because of its opposition to Beijing’s aggression in the South China Sea. What US foreign-policy makers ignore, however, is that the Communist Party would likely destroy itself if it were to align fully with Beijing, as nationalistic and anti-Chinese sentiment dominates Vietnamese society, and already it is derided as a Beijing puppet. Washington actually has far more wiggle room when it comes to demanding human-rights improvements in Vietnam than it thinks.
“US policy has failed the Vietnamese people. This is a bipartisan criticism. We have enriched Vietnam’s Communist leaders and coddled their interests at the expense of the hope and desires of the Vietnamese people for liberty and human rights, which they are striving to achieve but have been, unfortunately, repressed,” said Representative Christopher Smith at a hearing of the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations in June 2018.
Not only that, successive US administrations have, if you believe some, killed every attempt by Congress to pass punitive measures against Vietnam. At the same hearing, Smith also let slip that, after four occasions trying to pass a Vietnam Human Rights Act, it was rebuffed by the Senate. “It got over to the Senate. Holds were put on it. John Kerry always put a hold on it,” he said, referring to the former senator who was secretary of state from 2013 to 2017.
“But we know the Podesta Group worked overtime to defeat it, and we know there are other lobbyists who were trying to defeat it,” he added, referring to the millions of dollars the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington has paid Podesta Group, a lobbying firm run by the Podesta brothers, over the years. John Podesta was chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and chief of staff to then-president Bill Clinton. Tony Podesta is a board member of the Vietnam-based Grand Ho Tram Strip casino, whose owner, US billionaire Philip Falcone, reportedly helped Trump’s lawyer Marc Kasowitz arrange a telephone call between then-president-elect Trump and the Vietnamese prime minister in December 2016.