Duy Hoang, a Vietnamese-born American democracy activist who serves as a spokesperson for Viet Tan, an unsanctioned political movement in Vietnam, addresses the 2nd Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.
Duy Hoang: Good morning, it’s great to be here. I wanted to share with you how activists in Vietnam are using the internet to promote political change, and some ideas on how we can support internet freedom in Vietnam.
Three very simple statistics to begin with. The first thing is that the internet has grown very fast in Vietnam. Today there are over 25 million people using the internet in Vietnam. Now that’s a huge increase from 100,000 people in the year 2000. In just a decade, internet usage has gone up over 100 fold. Another statistic is that over half the Vietnamese population is under 30 years old. You can imagine, with such a youthful population, people are wanting change, not happy with the status-quo; they are also very tech savvy. Finally, the third statistic to keep in mind is that in a country like Vietnam, the entire media – all the newspapers, radio and TV – is controlled by the state. There is no independent media in Vietnam. You can see how the internet has huge potential for opening up this closed political system. There are a lot of young activists using the internet to raise awareness of issues. I just wanted to share with you some of these issues.
One of the issues that people are talking about is official corruption. Because the state media is unable or unwilling to report on a lot of the big problems, you now have citizen journalists who are talking about corruption. A group of bloggers created this site, and hopefully no one from the Nokia legal department is here, that uses a pun on ‘nokia’ in Vietnamese, meaning ‘that guy’, to talk about corruption. This is a completely user-generated site where people post online pictures of houses of high level Communist party government officials. These officials typically make reasonable incomes but tend to have very large houses. These bloggers are sharing with everybody where these senior leaders live, so this is an interesting blog.
Another watchdog group. They are using FLICKR. What they have are pictures of officials. [Referring to image] This gentleman happens to be the deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education in Vietnam. Users go on that FLICKR page and post comments about these individuals, about their business dealings, about their lack of credentials that they pretend they have. This is another way of getting information out, it’s done very anonymously. It’s almost like a wiki concept where anyone can come in and change information, and there are critiques and discussion on what is raised.
Another way that bloggers are helping to disseminate information is that they’re talking about repression. A couple of months ago a famous Vietnamese writer went to attend political trials of various dissidents and then she was turned away by police and brought home. That evening thugs, orchestrated by the security police, came to her home and beat her and her husband. But after they beat her, they arrested her for allegedly attacking her neighbor. The next couple of days the government newspapers in Vietnam published a picture of this man, her neighbor, who they accused her of beating. Bloggers actually downloaded the picture from government newspapers and looked at the digital properties of the picture. What they found out is that, first of all, there’s a timestamp on this picture on the ninth of October, 2009. But if you look at the digital properties, the picture was actually taken in 2005. Anybody can put a wrong time on their digital camera, that happens all the time. But, if you have the wrong time, there wouldn’t be two times between the timestamp and the XIF properties, it’s just going to be one time. If you look forward over here [referencing image], you see that this picture was actually photoshopped on the ninth of October around five o’clock in the afternoon; 5:14 pm it was actually photoshopped. So someone put the timestamp on that picture that evening. Interestingly, that timestamp was edited a couple of hours before the attack. Basically, police found this picture and used this picture to incriminate a dissident. In the past, that information would not have gotten. Now with bloggers as a watchdog, they were able to publicize this, and this has been used in defense of this dissident.
Vietnamese are using the internet to critique government policies. One of the big issues in Vietnam today areterritorial disputes with China and the perceived weakness of the Hanoi regime in addressing this problem. So bloggers have been talking about this and they’ve organized protests outside of Chinese offices and during the Olympic torch relay. They use the internet to coordinate the demonstrations. [Reference to image] This is a picture of bloggers in a central area of Saigon in the South wearing the t-shirt designed by reporters sans frontiers to protest the coming torch relay.
Another big issue in Vietnam is the environment. There is an ongoing effort by the government to mine bauxite in Vietnam’s central highlands. This has been extremely controversial and there is a whole movement online getting signatures opposing this policy and they have a website now that has gotten 20 million hits in less than a year. The interesting thing is this protest movement has now moved offline with little small-scale protests. One of the things bloggers did is they designed t-shirts talking about environmental and security concerns of bauxite mining. And, they launched a campaign to distribute these t-shirts within society. [Referring to image] Here are two famous bloggers who are wearing this shirt. This is one of the nice cases of digital activism translating into activities offline, on the ground. That is what activists are doing now.
The Vietnamese government is also aware of the power of the internet and would very much like to restrict the internet. But, because of business needs and foreign investment, they have to keep the internet open. But that doesn’t mean they’re not finding ways to restrict the internet. Human rights groups have talked a lot about how bloggers are arrested, how firewalls are erected. But in the last year, or more recently, in the last couple of months, the government has taken two new approaches to restricting the internet. One is [that] they launched a block on Facebook. But interestingly, they didn’t ban Facebook outright. They had ISPs restrict Facebook access to users but neither the government nor ISP’s would ever go on the record of ever having blocked Facebook. The reason is because there is such a large community in Vietnam using this social network that they’re afraid of the popular protest, the popular outcry, if they acknowledge blocking it. So, they tried to find ways to sabotage it, make people less willing to use it because it seems unreliable. But in response to this, a lot of Vietnamese have found ways around the government restrictions and there is a whole circumvention movement now helping people avoid the blocks. So, that is quite interesting.
The Vietnamese government will firewall certain sites that they don’t like but people can find ways to circumvent that. So [in] the last couple of months, they have done something new and alarming. They launched hacker attacks against popular sites; popular with people inside Vietnam but they are hosted abroad. This includes some very popular discussion forums like Viet x Cafe, sites of political organizations such as our website, the box site Vietnam site. So they are attacking sites hosted outside Vietnam. When they took down this site, they actually posted an announcement pretending to be from the webmasters saying ‘we have given up the struggle, we don’t want to have the website anymore so we’re closing the site.’ [Thus,]they’re having these fraudulent postings on the websites. This has a lot of implications because now the authorities in Vietnam are not only restricting internet use of citizens, residents of Vietnam, but they are affecting residents around the world who use these sites.
In conclusion, the internet is an extremely important tool, as we all know right, and digital activism, the blogosphere, is really dependent on an open and free internet. Some of the things we and other Vietnamese Democracy groups are pushing for is to support internet freedoms. I wanted to share three activities we’re doing and would love to invite the participation of you all in some of these efforts.
The first is the principle of internet freedom. Ultimately, this is a human rights issue, people have the right to express themselves. The Vietnamese government is a party to all sorts of protocols on human rights. So, we’re going to do our best to raise these issues, especially in the year 2010, when Vietnam is a member of the UN Security council and chair of OSEAN. There will be [inaudible] Vietnam hosted by OSEAN. There is the ASA meeting between Asia and the EU, in which Vietnam will play a big role this year. So, we will bring up the human rights obligations of the Vietnamese government and we’ll advocate for internet freedom. Along with advocating [to] the government, we will also be working with other stakeholders. such as technology companies, and reminding them of their corporate social responsibility to respect internet freedom. So that’s one endeavor.
The second endeavor is launching a circumvention movement in Vietnam, providing information through podcasts, through documents, on how to circumvent restrictions. Obviously, [this] an evolving cat and mouse game. But to provide the latest information to web security and web circumvention to internet users in Vietnam. If you think about it, circumvention is really a 21st century mode of nonviolent civil disobedience. In the past, people would have principled objections to unjust laws by certain laws. Today, circumvention is one way that digital activists, internet users, can express their views.
Finally, what we want to do is work for detained bloggers and internet activists. Three of the most well-known activists in Vietnam happen to be women: a lawyer, who was recently released from prison but is still under house arrest and police harassment, a writer, and an internet activist. Those three women are really the symbols of the Vietnamese Democracy Movement and a source of great pride for many of us. On the occasion of International Human Rights Day [which occurred] just yesterday, we are launching a campaign for their release. This is something that has gotten a lot of support from the diaspora community, from human rights groups, and also, very importantly, among people inside Vietnam. We are working on advocacy efforts both on the ground and internationally.
Those are a few ideas we have been working on. Thank you for your attention and I look forward to the discussion.