The following is a diaCRITICS Q&A with The 88 Project’s founder Huong Nguyen.
DIACRITICS: In a few words, can you briefly tell us, what is The 88 Project and how did it begin? Why is it important?
HUONG NGUYEN: The 88 Project is a 501(c)(3) organization that works to raise awareness about, advocate for, and support activists at risk and political prisoners in Vietnam. It takes its name from Article 88 of the 1999 Criminal Code (“propaganda against the socialist state”) which has been used by the government to criminalize peaceful dissent and imprison political activists. Together with Kaylee Dolen and Ella Gancarz, I founded the Project in 2012 after noticing that there was not enough information available on Vietnamese political prisoners in English, which made it more difficult to advocate for their release. Today, we continue to focus on the documentation of the situation of political prisoners and activists at risk, and collaborate with other domestic and international human rights organizations for advocacy and assistance efforts.
The work we do is important because advocacy and assistance require reliable information, which goes beyond merely names and dates of arrest and trial. On our website and our database of political prisoners, we provide weekly updates on political prisoners and activists at risk, translations of their writings, and interviews with activists and former political prisoners and their families. Our database includes not only facts on a prisoner’s activism and details of imprisonment, we also include information on the health condition, family situation, advocacy actions taken, and financial assistance appeals for specific prisoners.
We aim to bring out the human dimension of the stories of the political activists. They are first and foremost individuals with aspirations of a better life for themselves and their families and their society. And their persecution affects the well-being of their loved ones, especially the young children and elderly parents. We hope that readers can relate to their experience and lend a hand in the advocacy and assistance efforts for them.
DC: What is your role and mission with The 88 Project? What led you to this work, and where are you based in the diaspora? Do you (and others contributing to The 88 Project) work in Vietnam?
HN: As one founder of The 88 Project, I continue to serve on a part-time basis as the Editor of our websites. I oversee the production of content for the website and database and review all translation and writing materials before they get published. Being bilingual and having the privilege of being part of a trusted network of dedicated and talented Vietnamese human rights and democracy activists, my mission is to build the bridge between the domestic and international human rights movements in order to support the activists back home. To be a human rights activist within an authoritarian regime is not only dangerous, it’s also often a lonely endeavour as the majority of people don’t understand you. My mission as an editor of The 88 Project, but also as a Vietnamese translator and researcher, is to help them to be understood and protected, and to let them and their families know that they are not alone.
I started this work after those who were close to me in Vietnam were arrested amidst a political crackdown in summer 2009. As I embarked on a long journey to advocate for their release, I realized how easy it was for the public to forget about those brave activists once the furor in the media about their arrests and trials died down, and how hard it was, and still is, to remind people of those who are languishing in prison for many years only for expressing and acting upon their political or religious beliefs. It’s our mission to keep their stories alive, so that they and their families are not forgotten.
I am based in the greater Chicago area. Our main contributors are based outside of Vietnam. But we work closely with a network of activists inside the country.
DC: The 88 Project looks like it involves a lot of research. Given the complexities of information dissemination and censorship issues in Viet Nam, can you tell us (vaguely, you do not have to give specifics) how you find your information, and how you know which sources to trust, or which ones to question?
HN: Our work involves research, yes, but also a lot of conversations – conversations with the families and friends of the activists at risk and conversations with fellow Vietnamese activists to obtain and verify the information. Having a trusted network matters, as well as being trusted within the network. After a decade dedicated to the issue, we are privileged to have both, and we strive to continue to work closely with other activists, domestic or international, to coordinate for the common goal.
The Internet and the growth of social media in Vietnam also helps tremendously in our work. It is now easier than ever to communicate with the families and activists in Vietnam and anywhere in the world. We just have to keep up with technology and ensure we are using the securest means of communication to connect with the families and activists back home.
DC: Can you tell us, in brief, some statistical information about dissenters and human rights issues in Viet Nam? Some of our readers might be unfamiliar with the realities of human rights issues in SE Asia. Can you share some demographics? Who are the people most at risk, in these situations?
HN: According to our database of political prisoners, as of April 13, 2018, there are at least 14 activists being held in pre-trial detention and 123 activists serving a prison sentence, with 54 among them serving a sentence of more than 10 years. Among the prisoners, 15 of them are women, 46 are ethnic minorities, and 83 advocated for religious freedom. There are many other activists at risk who are not in prison, but who are being harassed and watched on a daily basis because of their peaceful dissent. In recent years, the government has employed repressive measures other than arrests, such as physical assaults, evictions, and death threats to family, to make the lives of political activists more difficult and deter them from engaging in further activism. We don’t have updated statistical data on them as there’s no systematic documentation of the situation of unimprisoned activists at risk (we’re working on it!).
One of the most contentious political issues in Vietnam is the land rights issue – forced evictions of farmers from their land for development or economic projects, which result in a new class of landless farmers (“victims of injustice” – “dân oan,” as they refer to themselves). Another issue is the environment, where the government puts the interests of foreign investors and economic growth over the environment and the well-being of its own citizens. The Formosa environmental disaster is illustrative of this issue, and along with it, a new wave of activism that unites ordinary citizens and political activists against the authorities. There’s also the issue of labor rights, where workers of foreign owned factories work in poor conditions with low pay yet they can’t organize in independent unions or exercise their rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly to protect their interests. And let’s not forget the ethnic minorities in the highlands and members of unsanctioned religions such as Hoa Hao and Cao Dai, who are distrusted and persecuted by the Party-state because of their religious practices (and the organizational capacity that comes with practicing their religions). So, the people most at risk in Vietnam right now are farmers and workers (ironic in a so-called socialist state that was founded on the principles of empowering the proletariat), urban environmentalists, and ethnic minorities and religious practitioners.
DC: Are there any particular figures or stories about human rights in Viet Nam that you would like to share about in brief here?
HN: There are many figures and stories to share, each of them admirable and special in their own way, and I’d like to invite diaCRITICS readers to check out our database of political prisoners and our weekly newsletter to learn more about them. Here, let me highlight the case of Tran Huynh Duy Thuc and allow me to appeal to diaCRITICS readers to help sharing his brilliant mind and spirit with the broader world.
Tran Huynh Duy Thuc is a successful entrepreneur and economist, the founder of one of the first Vietnamese companies to reach the global market. He was arrested in May 2009 for writing a blog to advocate for economic and political changes and for his association with the unsanctioned Democratic Party of Vietnam. He was sentenced to 16 years of imprisonment in January 2010 – a particularly high sentence at the time, only because he challenged the legitimacy of the judges who tried his own case (how can the judges who are members of a political party be impartial in deciding the cases of alledged members of an opposition party?). It has been almost nine years since Thuc’s arrest, yet his spirit remains as strong as ever. He must have sent hundreds of letters home to his family and friends, which are full of insights on current domestic and international affairs and philosophical matters, as well as poems and songs he composed. There should be a bilingual collection of selections of Thuc’s creations and writings in prison. That is such a daunting task, so I would like to appeal to Diacritics’ readership of bilingual authors, translators and editors to lend a hand in this effort.
DC: What do you most want readers to know about human rights conditions in Viet Nam? What is the best way for those out in the diaspora to follow, engage, act?
HN: The human rights conditions in Vietnam have improved compared to 50 or even 20 years ago, but it’s not because the government had become less authoritarian (it has not). It’s because the government has become less able to control and command the society, now that the country has joined the global economy and the citizenry has tasted some degree of freedom of information and freedom of expression, online at least. Let’s not forget the political dissidents, the minority who have asserted their rights within the authoritarian regime and pushed the boundaries of the political constraints to extend so that more ideas gradually become normalized and accepted within the regime. As long as Vietnam is still a one-party regime, those advocating for political pluralism will still be harassed and imprisoned and systematic violations of human rights will still occur. And even when there’s political transformation, democratization is not irreversible and human rights protection should be a continuous effort.
The best way for those out in the diaspora to engage and act is to follow what is going on in the country, share the information, and participate in the advocacy and assistance efforts at the international level. On the information front, our newsletter provides concise weekly updates that are easy to follow. For other Vietnam-focused human rights news and in depth analysis, follow The Vietnamese – a magazine launched recently by a team of young Vietnamese lawyers and journalists turned activists, Vietnam Right Now, and Defend the Defenders.
To act, you can join the regional branches of organizations such as VOICE, which are doing great work on the international advocacy front with a team of young activists coming from both inside Vietnam and the diaspora. On our website, we also have a list of actions issued by international human rights organizations, such as letter writing, that you could participate in (it can also be a group activity).
If you would rather engage quietly, helping the families of political prisoners is a way to meaningfully contribute to the effort. We have suggestions on cases to support and foundations to contribute to on the Support the Families page of our database website. You could also consider joining our team of volunteer translators and editors to work behind the scenes to help us share more stories of the activists at risk.
Huong Nguyen, editor of The 88 Project, is a Vietnamese researcher and translator based in the greater Chicago area.