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.
The biggest problem now is between Vietnam and China, as we see on newspapers around the world. It has become a very open issue now. But some years ago, four years ago, five years ago, not many people, even Vietnamese people inside Vietnam, knew about that. Because the Communist party leaders tried to deal with China secretly, with the border first, the land borders, and then with the sea.
But then because some news leaked out from the high-level leadership. One of the things that leaked out was concerning the bauxite exploration in the highland areas of Vietnam. There was news about three years ago that Vietnamese leaders had signed an agreement with the Communist leaders in China to allow them or the companies, the Chinese company, to go to the highland areas in central Vietnam to explore the bauxite mines there, to exploit the mines there.
And highland areas, Central Highland area, is a strategic area of Vietnam. If anyone controls that area, they can control the whole Indochina because of that strategic highland area. So that brought up serious issues. And so intellectuals involved in raising up the issues. Even General Vo Nguyen Giap, the famous general of [the Battle of] Dien Bien Phu, wrote a letter to the leaders against that, opposed to that program, that treaty, secret treaty.
But some company, a Chinese company, had brought workers there. And they began to work already. So that’s why some intellectuals decided to set up a special website -- they called it the bauxite website -- to bring this issue into the public. And since then, that movement has involved tens of thousands of people reading the bauxite websites and discussing about that. And many blogs were created by people who were concerned about that problem.
And then some other events happened in the South China Sea, where Vietnamese fishermen were captured by the Chinese ship. And that was also brought up to the public by the blogs, by what we call non-official media, mostly Internet. So it is now becoming a national issue. Everybody knows about that. And that’s put the Communist leaders into a very bad situation. They cannot go against a national interest. But they could not say that we are against China openly. So I think this is a new, new movement.
If they crush those movements, they are pro-China. They are against the people. They are against Vietnam. So they cannot do that. So that’s why they cannot crush the people who brought up the issue of bauxite or South China Sea issues. They cannot. So I think this is new, very new. And this is more potential and more difficult for the dictatorship. It’s not political yet. But I think it’s very political.
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.