Le Thi Cong Nhan
November 26, 2006
The Vietnamese government is one of those regimes whose repression is so narrowly concentrated that casual visitors - and even its own citizens, for some of the time at least - are quite unaware of it. Singapore, a very different country in most ways, has a broadly similar approach. Leave people alone as long as they are making money, creating silk paintings, winning Olympic medals and the like. But as soon as they assert themselves politically, as soon as they question the authority of the Party - then crush them.
Singapore uses the courts to do this. Vietnam - franker and less developed in its authoritarianism - uses the secret police.
A week ago, I visited two veteran dissidents in Ho Chi Minh City - Dr Nguyen Dan Que and the Venerable Thich Quang Do (and wrote about them here). They are men of the pre-war generation, who lived through most of Vietnam's 20th century tragedy - the Second World War, the French Indo-China War and the Vietnam War. Despite the continuing monopoly of the Vietnam Communist Party, the country has become prosperous beyond recognition in the past 20 years. For young people, there are opportunities which their parents could not have imagined. But even among those with the most to lose, there are young Vietnamese prepared to take on the authorities, and pay the price.
Last week I encountered one of them - the courageous and stubborn young woman pictured above, Le Thi Cong Nhan.
I say "encountered" because, despite a good deal of communication over the past few days, we have not exactly met. Since 13th November, Cong Nhan has been subject to harassment, intimidation and house arrest by "A42", the appropriately Orwellian code word for the Political Security Department of Vietnam's Ministry of Security. For a week these plain clothes goons picketed her apartment in Hanoi, preventing her from leaving her home at all, even to shop. On Wednesday, she was allowed out - to be interrogated at the Ministry of Security There she was informed that she free to move around Hanoi (in the company of surveilling goons), but that she could under no circumstances leave the city.
Why is the mighty Vietnamese Communist Party scared of Le Thi Cong Nhan? There are two reasons. The first is that she is a dissident, a founder member and spokeswoman for the newly founded Vietnam Progression Party (click here to read the Vietnam Progression Party manifesto, including application forms, if you're interested). As a movement, its platform is the bare democratic minimum - a multi-party system, free elections and a free press. But this is quite enough - for espousing similar goals, Dr Que and Thich Quang Do have spent decades between them in prison. The week before last, the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) forum was held in Hanoi which is why Cong Nhan and several other Vietnamese dissidents were confined to their homes - to prevent the possibility that George Bush or Shinzo Abe might find themselves confronted by them, and forced to explain what they were doing, cosying up to a regime that denies their basic human rights.
In Cong Nhan's case there's something else too, connected to the trial for drug smuggling which concluded yesterday in the town of Dong Hoi. Two British citizens of Vietnamese origins were convicted of heroin trafficking. In October 2005, Cong Nhan was named as the state-appointed defender for one of them, a 47-year old woman named Tran Thi Hien. Whether or not Ms Hien is guilty (and last week she admitted a part in the purchase and sale of huge quantities of heroin), she needs a good lawyer. Yesterday she was sentenced to lifetime imprisonment, but the maximum penalty for heroin smuggling is death by firing squad.
Why the Vietnamese authorities made the mistake of appointing a dissident as a defence lawyer in a high-profile case, I don't know - but Cong Nhan had the job and spent a year preparing to defend her client whom, she is convinced, played a minor role in the smuggling operation. "I wish to perform and finish my job and my duty serving my client," she wrote, "[however] this stupid communist dictator regime will deal with me!"
Cong Nhan would have given the sleepy Quang Binh provincial court a run for its money - so even after the Apec circus had come to an end, she was not allowed to leave her home. The court replaced her with a tame defence lawyer who had a total of four days to prepare his case.
She has had her land line and four cell phones cut off in the space of a few days. Only her mother and her sister were allowed to her apartment, to bring her food and supplies. Nonetheless she found ingenious ways of communicating with the outside world which I will not detail here, for fear that one of her few links with the outside world will be jeopardised.
On Wednesday, the goons of A42 took her in for questioning. They have provided no authority for their blockading of Cong Nhan and her home - no warrant, or court order, or documentation from a higher authority. The secret police do not even identify themselves, and in her presence use false names for one another. But Cong Nhan overheard one of them addressing the superior officer by his real name: Lieutenant-Colonel Thang of A42, Dong Da district and Phuong Mai precinct, Hanoi.
It's a sweet fantasy to imagine that one day, Colonel Thang will be held to account for his actions.
"I feel, and understand deeply [the reality of] freedom and democracy [under a] communist dictator," Cong Nhan told me.
I am being treated like a very dangerous criminal! Even our land line was cut suddenly without any reason by Hanoi Post on 1st November. when I called them to ask for the reason, the Hanoi Post said, 'We did it at the command of the Ministry of Security. You need not to lodge a complaint as we just can reconnect it by another command of them.' I said, 'Give me that command even a copy one.' They said 'It was just a verbal command.'
On 10th November, I bought another land line for my family. The police found out the number and cut our phone again just two days later. At the questioning on Wednesday, I told them, 'You are too inhumane cutting my family's land line.' The colonel, Thang, said, 'We have power to do that as you are [jeopardising] national security. There is only one party in Vietnam - remember that.'
On Tuesday 's Morning when I was still under house arrest (not city arrest like this moment) Doan Anh Thuy, a female lieutenant of A42 said to me, 'You should be happy that you are just being treated like this.' I said, 'Because I am still alive? Is that what you mean?'. She said nothing.
I had the impression that Cong Nhan was a veteran lawyer and fighter. The other day I found out that she is just 27 years old.
Here's an email address where you can write to Le Thi Cong Nhan: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here's a link to the website of Amnesty International with suggestions for action you can take if you feel moved by the situation of dissidents in Vietnam.
Posted by Richard Lloyd Parry on November 26, 2006 at 12:36 PM | Permalink