HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — Endless lines of scooters zoom along avenues crowded with cars and trucks. Street vendors bustle around their stalls. It’s a regular, sunny morning in Vietnam’s largest city.
But in a quiet corner of a Starbucks where friends chat over lattes, a handful of men and women sit in a circle, grousing about their government.
“We came here since it is an international chain,” says 30-something blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh. “If we would meet in a local bar, the police would immediately shut it down to prevent us from having the meeting.”
In Vietnam, where the Communist Party is the sole legal political group, authorities strictly control the media. But the internet — and social media in particular — have sparked a peaceful explosion in dissident activity.
Nguyen started blogging a few years ago. At first, she wrote about family and the household. But later she felt impelled to turn to politics. Nguyen and her brethren are now part of a new wave of Vietnamese seeking freedom of expression.
“Through the internet, I found out that there are so many things that were totally different from the facts we had been told all our lives,” she says. “In our society you are not supposed to think for yourself or to dig deeper into things."
"There is only one truth: The one the government dictates," she added. "Vietnamese people are so afraid of authorities.”
At last count, there were more than 30 million internet users in Vietnam. As the community of netizens grows, the government is struggling to control the torrent of political discourse that’s now cropping up online.
"There is only one truth: The one the government dictates."
Reporters Without Borders notes that Vietnam has the most bloggers in prison of any country after China. In 2012, the latest year for which figures are available, prosecutors charged 48 bloggers and human rights activists, imposing a total of 166 years in jail sentences and 63 years of probation, according to the group.
Even so, Hanoi’s iron grip has bloggers smirking at ironies arising from it.
“Vietnam was elected to the UN Human Rights Council last year,” Nguyen says. “We printed copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and tried to distribute them to people in the streets but the police stopped us.”
Police arrested Nguyen once, but released her after 10 days. Now they routinely follow her. She’s also suffered violence that seems disproportionate for a mother posting her thoughts online.
“When the police beat me on the street, I was holding my 1-year-old son in my arms,” she says. “I told them that if this is how you are protecting the state, you are doing it in a very wrong way.”
Like other activists, government officials have also prevented Nguyen from traveling abroad, citing “national security.”
“I was invited to a seminar in Europe by Amnesty International,” she says. “At the airport they stopped me and denied me the right to leave the country — the police confiscated my passport. That is wrong. I should have the right to travel.”
"If we want change, we need to open our mouths.”
Another blogger, An Do Nguyen, used to work in a media company as a project manager of a television show. Due to her posts on Facebook, she lost her job.
“The police went to talk to my employer and made it clear they had to let me go,” she said. “When my boss refused to obey, they turned to my employer’s client. At that stage, they had no choice but to fire me.”
In a sense, the intimidation backfired. Unable to find another job, An now dedicates herself full time to a network of bloggers that has more than one hundred members — and which is growing, and includes party members.
“I have been writing articles on corruption and essays where I propose a multiparty system,” says Pham Chi Dung, a former military officer and Communist Party member who turned to blogging and activism. "I believe we need to develop a civil society in Vietnam.”
Pham was arrested on charges of conspiring to overthrow the government and anti-government propaganda, but released after five months. The threat of more prison time doesn’t dissuade him from speaking his mind online.
“I used to be afraid, but not anymore,” Pham says. “I don’t care if they put me [in] jail. If we want change, we need to open our mouths.”
Pham, Nguyen and other bloggers don’t hide their identities. Instead, they emphasize how they are waging a public battle for the hearts and minds of their fellow citizens.
“We are as transparent as possible about what we do,” says Nguyen. “That is also our strength. We even delivered an invitation to the police to attend this meeting as well.”
She points out two empty chairs. “Reserved” tags on both say they are meant for the police.
“They seem to prefer watching us from afar,” says Nguyen. “I can identify a few officers of the secret police around the coffee house.”
Their alleged presence is a testament to Vietnam’s police state, but Nguyen is gratified that they are letting the meeting continue.
“I do believe change is possible,” she says. “Two years ago I could not have ever imagined us meeting in public the way we are doing today.”
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