Exiled from Vietnam: The Fight for Freedom of Speech with Minh-Hoang Pham

Vietnamese scholar and former political prisoner imprisoned for his dissident blogging, Minh-Hoang Pham, addresses the 14th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.

On repression in Vietnam:

“Many people imagine Vietnam as a tourist paradise, a place above is the sun and below is a peaceful life. But the truth is completely opposite.”

“In Vietnam, for crimes of a political nature, prisoners do not have the right to see a lawyer before the investigation ends.”

“I am not a criminal – I’m a professor & a writer. But Vietnam’s government has become so paranoid – they squash free speech and arrest people on the most minor suspicion.”

On being arrested: 

“In January 2010, I organized courses on soft skills for young people, skills like public speaking, teamwork skills, problem solving skills, conflict… All of this knowledge is extremely useful, but it is not taught in universities in Vietnam at all. When the police learned of this, they arrested me.”

“Over the course of many months, I had to go through extremely intense interrogations.”

On being forcibly deported: 

“For months I didn’t leave my home because I knew I would be arrested.”

“Then on June 23, 20 people burst into the house to drag me away. I asked them to give me a few minutes to change clothes, they refused and I was dragged out while only wearing a pair of shorts and a nightgown.”

“My wife and children ran after me but the police pushed them into the house and locked the door from the outside.”

A call to action: 

“Demand that Vietnam respect its commitments on human rights & impose sanctions if they do not. We must intervene now before it gets even worse.”

Full Remarks (In Translation)

Many people imagine Vietnam as a tourist paradise, a place above is the sun and below is a peaceful life. But the truth is completely opposite. In Geneva you can wear a sign saying “Switzerland join NATO”, in Paris you can shout “Macron, resign” and no one will do anything to you. But in Vietnam if you wear a tee-shirt with the words “Respect the freedom of the press”. Optimistically you have to say goodbye to your dear family in 10 years or more.

My name is Pham Minh Hoang, 68 years old. When I was young I witnessed a lot of pain because of the war between the two South and North Vietnam. I have seen a soldier returning home in a coffin. The image of a dead solider, his body drained of blood and soaked his clothes. Since then I dreamed of going to France to study & to return home to Vietnam to after the war ended.

I still remember a few hours before my plane left the airport, my mother hugged me and said: “I gave birth to you 13 years ago, but this is the first day I don’t know where you will sleep tonight”. In tears, I told myself that no matter what, I will return to Vietnam.

Two years later, on April 30, 1975, the war ended and the whole country fell into communist hands. My spirit is broken when I see millions of people leaving the country, that is the image of the Boat People in 1979, or the image of hundreds of thousands of people sent to hard labor and then died in prison camps. And from that moment on I began to write articles about my thoughts on the tragedies of the Vietnamese people. I published them online using a pseudonym – [name], meaning [translation].

And then after 27 years of settling in France, I returned to Vietnam to I became a professor of mathematics in a prestigious university: Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology. These 10 years were the best time of my life because I love to pass on knowledge to future generations.

However, life did not turn out the way I expected. The police began to monitor me when they learned that I kept in contact with members of Viet Tan (VietNam Reform Parti – VT), a political organization that advocates building a free and democratic Vietnam by means of political means. nonviolent method.

In January 2010, I organized courses on soft skills for young people, skills like public speaking, teamwork skills, problem solving skills, conflict… All of this knowledge is extremely useful, but it is not taught in universities in Vietnam at all.

When the police learned of this, they arrested me.

I was extremely worried because I did not know why I was arrested. Over the course of many months, I had to go through extremely intense interrogations. After that investigation I found out that they had absolutely no idea I had ever blogged until I let them know. They were happy because they thought they had found a reason to accuse me, but looking at more than 20 articles I wrote, the police were completely disappointed because these articles were only intended to promote democracy as well as protect the environment. and absolutely not in the character of “subverting the government”. However, they still thought I wasn’t telling the whole truth and so they went all the way to the University, pressuring my students to sign a petition accusing me of “talking about politics” and “recruiting people for me”. party (Vietnam Reform Parti, VT) ». However, the vast majority of students refused. They said frankly: “If our teacher is guilty, let the law handle it, but we cannot denounce what he did not do”.

In Vietnam, for crimes of a political nature, prisoners do not have the right to see a lawyer before the investigation ends. And so it was only a few days before the trial that I got to see the lawyer. I thought this meeting was just him and me because we needed to talk to figure out the best ways to defend me. But when I walked in the room was full of political police officers with cameras. When the French Consul General objected, the police said that “it is to protect my health”.

Even though it was a public trial, only my wife could enter as a witness, even the Consul General of France could only attend via television. During the trial, all the important questions of the lawyer were answered by the judge and the prosecutor. They sentenced me to 3 years in prison and 3 years of probation under house arrest, for the crime of “Conspiracy to overthrow the people’s administration”.

I then appealed the sentence and then, with the intervention of the French government, European countries, the US, as well as organizations fighting for human rights and the Vietnamese diaspora, the sentence was reduced to 17 months.

After I finished my prison term, I went home and had to continue for 3 years with house arrest. This means that when I leave the house, I have to ask for permission.

And even after three years, when my house arrest ended, political police often stand guard at my door. Once they disguised themselves as thugs, holding knives to prevent us from going out, there were times when they guarded me for 9 consecutive months and 24 hours/24.

In mid-2016, I organized an exchange about the United Nations Charter on Human Rights and the Constitution and Laws of Vietnam. The goal is to let activists know the rights and laws to avoid going to jail like me. However, only 15 minutes later, the police rushed in to arrest them all. They isolated each person for questioning. Personally, they confiscated all laptops and projectors and interrogated them for 3 days. They asked again and again what the purpose of this seminar was, did I receive money or direction from anyone to do it? I remember a policeman pointed at me and said ferociously, “Fortunately for you, if my son attends this class, I will kill you”. I wanted the secretary to put that in the minutes, but I was exhausted after 11 hours of non-stop questioning, and they would certainly deny saying it, too.

Although they did not arrest me this time (because no crime was found), they judged me as a potentially dangerous person for the regime and they found a solution that I did not expect: the President of Vietnam had stripped me of my Vietnamese citizenship. When I heard the news, I was stunned because this is the second time my dream has disappeared. I immediately wrote to the French Ambassador in Ha Noi to request the cancellation of French citizenship first. With this action, I would rather stay in prison in Vietnam than return to Paris. But it was too late.

For months I didn’t leave my home because I knew I would be arrested. Then on June 23, 20 people burst into the house to drag me away. I asked them to give me a few minutes to change clothes, they refused and I was dragged out while only wearing a pair of shorts and a nightgown (Vietnam’s weather is very hot). My wife and children ran after me but the police pushed them into the house and locked the door from the outside.

I was taken to a detention center while I waited to negotiate with the French government about deportation. They asked me to write a letter stating that I returned to France voluntarily, not forced. Of course I immediately refused.

An hour before being taken to the airport, a policeman told me, “I know you haven’t changed your mind, but don’t forget that your wife and children are still in Vietnam”. I don’t think it’s necessary to answer such threats.

I am not a criminal – I’m a professor & a writer. But Vietnam’s government has become so paranoid – they squash free speech and arrest people on the most minor suspicion. In 2017 Vietnam unveiled a new military unit called “Force 47” with 10,000 soldiers whose job is to identity members of the opposition online, largely through Facebook posts. Vietnam’s abuses haven’t reached the level of many countries represented here today – they’re escalating dramatically. Vietnam has many trading partnerships & alliances with your countries. Especially as many Western countries try to distance themselves from China, Vietnam is seen as a good source of cheaply manufactured goods. That is how you hold our government accountable.

Demand that Vietnam respect its commitments on human rights & impost sanctions if they do not. We must intervene now before it gets even worse.

Sincerely, thank you.

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