EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared in New American Media.
A picture paints a thousand words, but an image taken from the state-controlled television in Vietnam and circulated widely on the Internet can convey the struggle of an entire people. Flanked by two angry-looking policemen, a man sits bleary-eyed, his mouth covered by the hand of an out-of-uniform policeman behind him.
Name: Father Ly Van Nguyen. Sentence: Eight years imprisonment. Crime: Carrying out propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
During the trial on March 30, Father Ly Nguyen’s mouth was physically muzzled after he recited four lines of his own poetry.
“Communist trial of Vietnam A lewd comedy for years Jurors a bunch of baboons Servants of dictators, who are you to judge?”
International human rights groups condemned the sentencing, which took only five minutes without a defense lawyer. “This sentence means Father Ly will be a prisoner of conscience for the fourth time in two decades,” noted Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia Pacific Director, Tim Parritt. “It is indicative of a broader crackdown on dissent by the Vietnamese authorities that has been intensifying since the country held the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) meeting last November.”
Vietnam intermittently plays a cat and mouse game with its political dissidents, arresting and releasing its most famous activists while those less visible are disappeared. Since March, however, Vietnam has launched one of the worst attacks on dissidents in 20 years. Among those arrested with Father Ly were Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan. All three were charged with carrying out propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, under article 88 of the Penal Code. If convicted, Le and Dai face sentences of up to 20 years in prison.
The arrest and subsequent disappearance of lawyers Le Quoc Quan and Tran Thuy Trang, however, are particularly alarming. Both are well known. After returning from a fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy in the United States, Quan was arrested March 8, and charged with attempting to overthrow the Hanoi regime. The day before, Trang, another young lawyer in Ho Chi Minh City, was reportedly arrested by 60 security police. She has not been heard from since. According to Human Rights Watch, Trang’s family was forced to sign documents promising not to discuss the arrest.
Speculations abound. Why now? Vietnam, after all, has been granted membership in the World Trade Organization and made its entrance to the world’s economic stage last November when it hosted its first Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation conference. Its Gross National Product has been growing at a steady and impressive seven percent for the last several years, and while political dissent is not allowed, its population is experiencing far more personal freedoms than during the cold war. Many are allowed to travel overseas. Private capitalism is all the rage. Movement within Vietnam is permitted freely. There’s a middle class with disposable income and access to the Internet. Vietnamese media, too, while still controlled by the state, have proliferated and some have been pushing the envelope to cover stories of corruption and even official wrongdoings.