Interviewed July 2011
Doan Viet Hoat is a writer, scholar and former longtime prisoner of conscience from Vietnam. He has been called “the Sakharov of Vietnam,” a reference to Soviet dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov. Hoat protested the South Vietnamese government's suppression of certain Buddhist religious leaders in the 1960s while still a student.
In April 1975, when North Vietnam took over South Vietnam, Hoat remained in Vietnam. He was imprisoned in 1976 when the Communist government embarked on mass arrests of South Vietnamese intellectuals.
He spent the next 12 years in a cramped cell shared with 40 other prisoners.
Upon his release, Hoat began publishing an underground magazine entitled Freedom Forum (Dien Dan Tu Do). After a few months, he was arrested and detained without trial for two years. In March 1993, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for “attempting to overthrow the people's government.” Throughout his imprisonment, Hoat continued to issue statements on democracy and to offer criticisms of the regime that were smuggled out of prison. He was then sent to a labor camp in a remote part of the country where he spent four and a half years in solitary confinement.
In 1998, after intense international pressure, Hoat was released and sent into exile. He now lives in the United States and continues his activities to promote human rights and democratic reforms in Vietnam.
They knew that I was editor of the newsletter. So they charged us first of propaganda against the government of communist regime. But then they moved up the charge to overthrowing the government or the regime. And they put us on trial and I was sentenced first to 20 years in jail. But then I protested against that.
At first they treated me very, very badly. And they accused me of counter-revolutionary, that means trying to overthrow the government and the regime. They didn’t beat me as other criminals, the prisoners. Most political prisoners were not beaten physically but mentally harassed or very badly treated. Like cutting the food or isolating you in a cell by yourself for many days, even without any clothes, with only shirts and a bowl of rice for the whole day and a very small cup of water for the whole day, for example. And cutting food sent from family. They didn’t allow me to receive the food sent from family, or even meet my wife and my children, if they thought that I didn’t cooperate with them, for example.
So, physically that’s all they did. But mentally it’s very tough. You have to endure a lot of mental torture, in that sense. And sometimes, especially during the last four years, I was isolated for four years without being able to meet or talk to even any other prisoners. And in the room there’s no paper, no book, no pencil, no paper. You just have to stay with yourself. And then that’s for four years, the last four years.
You cannot set up a movement openly in prison, of course. But because we lived together –, especially for myself, I was in prison for eight years the second time – for the first four years, I was allowed to stay with other prisoners, political, mostly in one room and in one area, one camp. So we could meet. We could talk. We could discuss things quite easily. So that helped me. Because then I help other prisoners, mostly younger than myself, to know more about politics in general, about the situation of Vietnam. We tried to educate them sometimes, even English so they can learn English.
But mostly we talked about politics, and we even smuggled in a small radio to listen to BBC or VOA for example. So that’s what we tried to do. For myself, I tried to write some essays, some articles. And my friends, my prisoner friends helped to smuggle it out, because they could go out of the camp to the field to do labor work.
I was not allowed to go out of my room, so they helped to smuggle out my writing. And then those writings were sent home to my family and they sent out to America, to the Vietnamese overseas community. And they translated it into English and circulated it around the international communities and NGOs. So my case was well known by international community through my writings.
I wrote about violations of human rights inside the prisons. And I wrote about the demand for democracy and freedom for Vietnam. I tried to raise my voice from prison – and other prisoners’ voices. So that’s what I could do, and my friends could do too, and we helped each other to do that.
Vietnam is a country of nearly 90 million people in Southeast Asia. In 938 A.D., it achieved independence after a millennium of imperial Chinese rule. Vietnam was ruled by a series of dynasties until it was colonized by France in the mid-19th century. It was occupied by Japan in World War II. From 1945 to 1954, French colonial forces battled Vietnamese forces in the first Indochinese War. France withdrew, leading to the establishment of two Vietnamese states – communist North Vietnam and South Vietnam, allied with the west. War between the North and South began in 1954 and continued until 1975. American forces began arriving in 1955 and the U.S. military effort dramatically expanded in the 1960s.
With the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 1973, North Vietnam intensified its war against the South. In 1976, the country was officially reunified under communist control. Over one million South Vietnamese were sent to reeducation camps and millions left the country as refugees. In the late 1970s, Vietnam intervened in Cambodia’s civil war, leading to military conflict with China.
The economy stagnated due to communist policies and the challenges of recovery from the decades-long civil war. In 1986, the government began instituting market-oriented reforms, which allowed for greater economic freedom while maintaining strong government control. These reforms, known as doi moi, have led to dramatic economic growth. In the first part of the 21st century, Vietnam has been among the fastest growing economies in the world. The country has become increasingly integrated into the world economy, joining organizations such as the World Trade Organization and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Despite the progress, issues like income inequality and corruption remain major challenges for Vietnam.
Communist political control remains firmly in place. There are no legal opposition parties or political movements. The media remains under tight state control. In recent years the Vietnamese government has devoted special attention to suppressing free expression on the Internet. Authorities have arrested and imprisoned dozens of bloggers and have blocked access to Facebook and other social networking sites.
Religious freedom remains a contentious issue. The government has targeted religious believers who worship outside officially recognized churches or protest government takings of church property. The government has lashed out against Catholic, Protestant, and Buddhist groups and activists, as well as the human rights lawyers who attempt to defend them. These and other prisoners of conscience are typically charged with crimes such as “abusing democratic freedoms,” using “freedom of religion to injure the national unity,” and “fleeing abroad to oppose the government.”
Some political or religious activists who are members of certain ethnic minority groups are subjected to particularly harsh treatment. Several hundred Montagnards, an overwhelmingly Christian ethnic minority in the Central Highlands, are currently imprisoned for their participation in protests demanding religious freedom and an end to confiscation of traditional Montagnard lands. Other targets of persecution are the Khmer Krom, ethnic Cambodians who believe the Vietnamese government is systematically suppressing their traditional culture and Theravada Buddhist religion, and the Hmong and other hill tribes in the northwestern provinces whom government officials sometimes order to renounce their evangelical Protestantism.
Freedom House’s 2013 Freedom in the World report categorized Vietnam as “not free.” The nation received a freedom rating of six overall – five in civil liberties and seven in political rights – on a scale where one is the most free and seven the least. In Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net and Freedom of the Press reports, the nation categorized as “not free.” The people of Vietnam are denied the right to change their government by peaceful means, and the government severely restricts freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and religion.