Ho Chi Minh City
The taxi’s tires swished in the afternoon downpour as we sped down Nguyen Kiem Street. It was rainy season in Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnamese shopkeepers, armed with waist-high bamboo brooms, attempted to clear the flooded sidewalks, but the deluge only intensified. I paid the driver and ducked into a cafe, leaving behind the buzzing motorbikes and neon-lit clothing shops of Phu Nhuan District. I settled into a dark corner on the top floor and ordered a sua da, oil-black coffee served on ice over a thick layer of tooth-achingly sweet condensed milk.
Do Nam Hai arrived several minutes later. He had a tan, round face and wore the pleated khaki pants and tucked-in polo shirt that in Vietnam signals time spent abroad. He walked confidently, but with some exaggeration–as if he were trying to convince himself and whoever might be watching that it was OK for him to be there.
“Are the police here?” I asked him.
“Yes, of course. They are downstairs,” he replied, smiling almost sheepishly, as if an unwanted guest had tagged along. On cue, a head popped up from the stairs below, scanned the room, located our table and disappeared. This would happen several more times during our conversation.
Do Nam Hai, 48, is one of Vietnam’s most outspoken political dissidents. In various petitions and articles circulated on the Internet, he has called on the ruling Communist Party to step aside and allow multiparty elections. He has also demanded that the government grant its citizens freedom of speech, assembly and religion. For his trouble, he now endures daily harassment and monitoring by the secret police. They repeatedly cut his phone line and prevent him from seeing his friends. He has been unemployed since 2004, when his boss, under pressure from the police, fired him from his position at a bank. Just recently, in this very cafe, the police beat him and hauled him off for one of many interrogation sessions. He hasn’t been to prison yet, but he has no illusions.
“One day, I think I will go to jail,” he told me. “But I believe that what I am doing will make the country better. I am not scared.”
The Communist Party maintains strict one-party rule in Vietnam. It prohibits political opposition, owns and operates the domestic media, and tightly controls most aspects of the country’s civic life. It deals swiftly and harshly with its critics, who have been rare since the North forcibly reunited the country in 1975. Those who have dissented tended to be lone intellectuals who published secret newsletters for tiny audiences, or artists who cloaked their critiques in layers of symbolism. To criticize the government openly was to sign up for a life of isolation and prison, a path few chose.
That all changed in April of 2006. A group of dissidents including Do Nam Hai drafted two pro-democracy manifestos and posted them online. If the police response was predictable (“Four hours after we posted one, the police confiscated my computer. Then they confiscated me!”), the public’s was not. More than one hundred people signed the petitions initially, an astonishing feat made even more so by the signatories’ decision to disclose both their names and addresses. Eventually, more than 2,000 people inside Vietnam signed, along with 30,000 Vietnamese overseas. The group came to be known as Bloc 8406, after the date of the second petition, but also in a conscious evocation of the former Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77. The signatories come from all parts of the country, which is significant in Vietnam, given the cultural distinctness of its northern, central and southern regions. They are doctors, lawyers, scientists and even a former officer in the North Vietnamese Army. The country has not seen organized opposition on this scale in decades.