Beyond Bars: A Story of Defiance and Hope with Nguyen Tien Trung

Vietnamese pro-democracy activist and former political prisoner, Trung Tien Nguyen, addresses the 16th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for his remarks.

Full Remarks:

Right now, as I stand here today, nearly 100 million Vietnamese people are suffocating under the Communist Party of Vietnam’s authoritarian rule. As a former political prisoner of Vietnam, I’m here today to share my story of fighting for a democratic Vietnam and elaborate on why we so desperately need international solidarity in this fight.

My journey to freedom began when I was 19 years old, and I moved from my home in Vietnam to France to study Computer Science at INSA de Rennes. It was the first time in my life that I’d been able to search the internet freely. Without Vietnam’s Great Firewall, I discovered the harsh realities of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV).

The CPV, I learned, had been seizing properties from millions of Vietnamese citizens for their gain. Corruption was rampant, and countless individuals lost their lives in police custody due to torture. This information, hidden from me in my homeland, was readily available through overseas Vietnamese media outlets like the BBC, VOA, and RFA. I was shocked – how did I not learn this in school?

That same year, I’d witness my first democratic presidential election in France. I grew up believing in the communist propaganda that a multi-party system leads to chaos. This election debunked that belief for me.

The more I learned, the more I felt inspired to take action! In 2006, I penned a letter to the Minister of Education calling for educational reform. The BBC published this article, and it went viral. My parents called me, panicked and desperate for me to take the article down. The Secret Service had paid them a visit. But it was too late. By then, millions of Vietnamese expats had read the article and shared it with their relatives inside Vietnam. This moment marked the beginning of my public advocacy for democratic reform in Vietnam.

In 2006, I founded Viet Youth for Democracy to promote democratic ideals and human rights in Vietnam. Then, I joined the Democratic Party of Vietnam and became its leader. I was honored to meet world leaders at that time, including U.S. President George W. Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Then, in 2007, when I completed my Master’s Degree in Computer Science, I decided to move back home to Vietnam – even though many people warned that I could be arrested. Just a few months after I arrived back home, the General Secretary of the Democratic Party, Professor Hoang Minh Chinh, passed away. He’d inspired so much of my activism, so I flew to Hanoi to pay my respects. At the funeral, I asked my friend to take a photo of me, and for a split second, I unveiled a banner with the words “Democratic Party of Vietnam.” Publicly announcing the existence of a non-communist party was an unprecedented act of public defiance of the CPV.

Then, I was enlisted in the Vietnamese army. Every day, I felt like I was in prison. Without access to the internet, I was cut off from the world. Everyone in my squadron knew my story. They repeatedly denounced me, humiliated me, and threatened me. Again and again, they demanded that I swear my loyalty to the Communist Party. I refused.

So, they expelled me from the army, and arrested me that very next day for the charge of “overthrowing the people’s government,” along with my three colleagues Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, Le Cong Dinh, and Le Thang Long. In a 3-hour sham trial, they convicted me to seven years in prison with three years of probation. My colleague, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, was sentenced to 16 years in jail and five years of probation. He is still in prison today.

For four long years, they kept me in solitary confinement for 17 hours a day. When finally released from prison in 2014, I immediately went undercover and started my pro-democracy work again. I developed a network of pro-democracy allies, led four civil society groups, and advocated for Vietnamese prisoners of conscience.

But these two decades of fighting for human rights and democracy came at a steep cost. Secret agents in plain clothes guarded my home during the day, and they raided it at night. They threatened employers so that no one dared to hire me. They wanted to isolate me economically and socially.

My parents, my relatives, and my friends were constantly harassed. My parents both lost their jobs. My father even suffered from a heart attack in 2006 because of all the threats from the Security Service, but luckily, he survived. When I was in prison, my maternal grandmother died. The communist regime stopped me from attending her funeral.

And then, on Friday, August 18, 2023, security agents tried to kidnap me. It was around 6.30 am when I left my house to get breakfast for my family. Secret agents quickly surrounded me. As soon as I realized what was going on, I ran back home. It is standard practice to kidnap dissidents and torture them until they plead guilty. So, I quickly fled to Thailand to seek refugee status at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

But here is why this moment was incredibly inhumane. When the Secret Service tried to arrest me, my wife was nearly nine months pregnant and expected to give birth at any moment. They knew I was at my most vulnerable, and that is when they decided to pounce. But I was forced to flee the country, and my wife gave birth to my son alone. I didn’t get to meet him until he was three months old when they were granted asylum in Germany. Imagine missing the first three months of your son’s life!

And even since I’ve left Vietnam, their persecution hasn’t stopped. When my father passed away in November last year, I couldn’t attend his funeral. But you know who did attend his funeral? A small army of secret service agents in plainclothes. They monitored my friends and threatened them at my father’s funeral and they hoped I’d show up. That is the CPV. Their cruelty knows no bounds.

But here’s where YOU fit into this story. The communist regime of Vietnam is well aware that a democratic triumph in one nation can ignite democratic reform in Vietnam.

When the 2011 Arab Spring happened, prison authorities denied me access to books, magazines, and television, believing that the democratic revolutions in Arabian countries might inspire me and instill hope and bravery. The communist regime denounced the Arab Spring fiercely in the press, so I might read those articles and learn about what was happening in Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.

This fear of democratic influence is one of the reasons Putin invaded Ukraine. He knew that the Orange and Maidan Revolutions might inspire Russians to rise up in the name of freedom and democracy.

These authoritarian regimes will do whatever it takes to suppress democratic ideals – and they areworking together. If Russia emerges victorious in Ukraine, other autocracies will be encouraged to follow suit. China may escalate its ambitions toward Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, India, and Japan. Iran could further destabilize the Middle East. Dictatorship, like a virus, can spread rapidly, leading to a global disaster for human rights.

But just as dictators consolidate their alliances, we, the democrats, must also unite in our efforts. We must amplify each other’s voices and work together to put pressure on these authoritarian regimes.

The once all-powerful USSR crumbled in an instant. That could happen, too, in Vietnam. So, to the people of Vietnam and my fellow patriots scattered worldwide, have courage! Keep hope! You are not alone.

Together, with the support of democratic nations around the world, we will build a free and democratic Vietnam.

Thank you.

 

16th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, U.N. Opening, Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Transcript:

Right now, nearly 100 million Vietnamese people are suffocating under the Communist Party of Vietnam’s authoritarian rule. I was initially sheltered from these harsh realities that plagued my homeland. But fate intervened, and my awakening began.

When I was 19, I moved to France to study Computer Science. It was the first time in my life that I’d been able to search the internet freely. I was shocked to learn about how the Communist Party of Vietnam wields its authoritarian power. For decades, they have done everything they can to squash political opposition. They stalk, harass, imprison, and torture anyone who dares to disagree, showing little regard for human rights. This newfound awareness ignited a fire within me, and despite the risks, I became an advocate for democratic reform in Vietnam. 

So in 2006, I founded Viet Youth for Democracy, a platform dedicated to countering the oppressive regime. Then, I joined the Democratic Party of Vietnam. I worked tirelessly to promote human rights and democracy.

Armed with a Master’s degree in Computer Science, I returned to Vietnam in 2007. This decision would shape the next decade of my life. I endured army enlistment, imprisonment, and probation – a grueling nine-year journey marked by surveillance, social and economic isolation, and threats to my family. 

Despite the challenges, my determination remained unshaken. Right after being released in 2014, I forged connections with pro-democracy allies, led four civil society groups, and advocated for prisoners of conscience in Vietnam.

On that fateful Friday, August 18, 2023, the Security Service attempted to kidnap me. But I eluded their grasp. Fleeing Vietnam, I sought refuge in Thailand before finally finding safety in Germany. The German government granted my family political asylum. And on December 15, 2023, we arrived in our new home.

Today, as an advocate in exile, I recognize that authoritarian regimes transcend borders. Their impact reverberates globally.

So I stand before the world, urging international solidarity. Let us support democratic movements, combat dictatorship, and safeguard the fundamental rights of all.

Thank you.

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