People languishing behind bars sometimes resort to desperate measures to get their grievances heard. Representational photo: iStock

“Only skin and bone, but his mind is very strong.” This is how Vietnamese political prisoner Tran Huynh Duy Thuc’s family described his condition after their most recent visit with him. Thuc has now been on a hunger strike for more than 50 days protesting the authorities’ refusal to respond to his recent legal petitions. Despite the pleas for help from his family and local activists, the international community remains eerily silent. 

Some human-rights organizations, even though aware of Thuc’s situation, have objected to the resort to hunger strike, calling the practice “violent.” And some activists have even argued that his hunger strikes are not the result of mistreatment. And so they remain silent as he suffers in a Vietnamese prison. 

During his 11 years in prison, Thuc has endured extremely harsh treatment at the hands of his jailers. Attempts have been made to poison his food, he has been confined to his small cell except for short periods on the weekends, and his eyesight has deteriorated because of extended periods in the dark. Furthermore, he has been exposed to extreme heat conditions during Vietnam’s intensely hot and humid summers, without so much as a fan to cool him off. 

Despite facing conditions that amount to torture, Thuc has stood up for the rights of himself and other prisoners in Vietnam, sometimes by leading multiple hunger strikes against the injustices committed by the authorities. Since 2018, Thuc has participated in three hunger strikes along with other prisoners. 

Thuc’s two strikes in 2020 were a protest against the judiciary’s failure to respond to his petition to have his sentence reduced based on changes in the 2015 Criminal Code that impose far less prison time for the crime of which he was convicted.

Thuc has refused to be exiled in exchange for an early release and is committed to fight for his freedom through domestic legal venues. 

While we at The 88 Project are concerned about the well-being of political prisoners, we contend that they have every right to participate in hunger strikes as part of their necessary political expression. Our job as human-rights advocates is not to judge them, but to make sure the message they try to convey is heard by competent authorities, even if sent via a hunger strike.

Organizations that are unwilling to support an activist’s hunger strike because of a “lack of mistreatment,” or because “hunger strike is a violence in itself,” should know that for political prisoners who languish behind bars in authoritarian Vietnam, sometimes a hunger strike is the only tool they have left to defend their rights to access to necessities or legal assurances.

Vietnamese political prisoners face harsh treatment that often amounts to torture, as documented in The 88 Project’s Report on Torture and Inhumane Treatment of Political Prisoners in 2018-2019. But they don’t have a legal mechanism to address their grievances, as the perpetrators (prison authorities) are also the ones supposed to address their complaints. In the case of Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, the court has ignored his appeal. 

When prisoners persist in asserting their rights via formal complaints, prison authorities retaliate by cutting off their connections with the outside world, either by transferring them to prisons further away from their families, or by denying family visits or even phone calls, and in some cases putting them in solitary confinement. 

Tran Huynh Duy Thuc is currently jailed in Prison No 6, Nghe An province, 1,300 kilometers from his home town. Even though his most recent hunger strike has put his health is in danger, prison authorities refused for a long time to allow his family to visit him, recently citing Covid-related restrictions. They were finally permitted to meet with him on January 10, 49 days after his hunger strike started. 

In the desperate situations many Vietnamese prisoners find themselves, putting their own lives at risk seems to be the only option they have to bargain with the authorities. Even a death suffered in an unsuccessful attempt at compelling the authorities to acknowledge an inmate’s demands could be considered meaningful in terms of highlighting the plight of prisoners.

This spirit is seen in Thuc’s recent statement to his supporters: “I’m sorry that I could not reach the end successfully with you all, but please keep moving forward on the path of enlightening our compatriots and the world, keep up the battles for human rights. Make the most use of my departure by pushing this struggle to its end by this year or the next.”

In Thuc’s case, we do not subscribe to the idea that he has not been subjected to mistreatment, and that therefore his hunger strike is neither relevant nor necessary. Thuc has faced constant mistreatment and discrimination during a decade in prison, most notably the suspected poisoning in 2018. The sentence against him is itself an injustice, and the procedural right to have his appeal heard by a court of law is being violated. 

The history of hunger strikes is highlighted by pacifism and praised as one of the most useful tools of resistance in the history of humankind. From Mahatma Gandhi to Nelson Mandela, from 19th-century female suffragists to black activists in the civil-rights movement, the hunger strike has been the last resort of marginalized, under-represented and unrecognized people. 

Arguing that they have to be physically mistreated to justify such a strategy deprives many of them of the only method of expression they have left to defend their rights, the last peaceful weapon that harms no one other than themselves.   

Time is running out. As Thuc’s current situation remains precarious, it is more important than ever that the international community speak out on his behalf and demand that his family and the public be informed about his situation. 

Human-rights organizations should call on the Vietnamese government to allow embassy officials to visit Thuc in prison to carry out independent investigations into his plight and for the Vietnamese government immediately to review and respond to Thuc’s legal petition.

Kaylee Uland

Kaylee Uland is co-director of The 88 Project, where she focuses on research into Vietnam’s human rights violations. She has been involved with the Project since its founding in 2012. Uland holds an MA from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

Nguyen Quynh Thien Trang

Nguyen Quynh Thien Trang is senior research officer for The 88 Project. She worked as a trainee lawyer in Vietnam for two years before getting a master’s degree in international law in Europe. Her research focuses on international human rights law, the law of armed conflicts, and global democratization.