The 88 Project, April 19, 2018: Blogger Dieu Cay – Nguyen Van Hai is one of the most prominent Vietnamese political activists. He founded the Freelance Journalist Club in 2007, one of the first independent press organizations within the communist regime of Vietnam to report on controversial social and political issues that state-owned newspapers failed to publish. Members of the FJC also organized anti-Chinese protests in 2007-2008 in downtown Saigon, which led to the persecution and arrests of many of its prominent members. Dieu Cay himself was arrested on this day ten years ago, April 19, 2008, when he was in hiding in Da Lat city. In this series of articles written for The 88 Project, he tells the story of his ten years journey, “the longest trip away from home” in his life, from the arrest in Da Lat city to his current activities in the United States where he’s living in exile, and offers his opinion on the state of the Vietnamese democracy movement today compared to where it was ten years ago.
TEN YEARS – A JOURNEY
by Nguyen Van Hai (a.k.a blogger Dieu Cay)
April 19, 2008
Internet café of Da Lat Post Office
As I shut down the computer, stood up, and went to the counter to pay, one of the two young men from the table behind me also walked up to the counter, standing close to hear my exchange with the cashier. My instinct was telling me something bad was about to happen. As I crossed the street to the glasses store on the opposite side of the street, he also crossed the street, following me closely behind. I looked at the small mirror for customers to try the glasses on the counter, and found him right behind me. I knew I was discovered. At that point, the most important thing I had to do was to find a place so that if they arrested me, there would be many people around to observe and announce this news to my friends. I was walking, so losing the tail was not easy. I went straight to Da Lat market and he followed closely behind while making phone calls for backup.
Through several rows of stalls in the market, I found that the market was not crowded enough to lose the tail, so I decided to go to the back of the market and down the stairs to the street, and then to Tung cafe. I strode quite fast; he was running behind me. As I entered the café, I ordered hot milk coffee and stepped directly into the restroom behind the kitchen and locked the door. The first thing I did was to send messages to my friends to tell them that if I didn’t contact them again within 30 minutes, it was because I had been caught. Then I deleted some contacts that my friends had just sent me, broke the USB, and destroyed the Sony laptop. Outside, the young man who followed me shook the restroom door so hard that the woman who was making coffee in the kitchen had to remind him: There’s someone in there, why do you have to jerk the door? Inside, I ignited a lighter to burn the piece of paper on which I had recorded some addresses, flushed the ash down the toilet, and banged the laptop really hard three times against the water tank to break it. I texted my friend one more time, removed the sim card, and flushed it down the toilet. Then I replaced it with an old sim and walked out calmly.
The coffee mug was already set on the table. As I lifted the cup to take a sip, I saw a police car already parked in front of the shop. Some police officers walked in straight to the table where I was sitting. I was drinking coffee while watching the police officer standing in front of me. He spoke first:
-Anh Hai, please follow us to Da Lat city police office to work.
-What work? Let me finish my coffee.
I drank the coffee and looked around. Many people in the shop started to notice me and the police officers. I knew that words about my arrest in this coffee shop would reach my friends by this afternoon. The police took me to the police station of Da Lat …
That was how I started the longest trip away from home in my life.
During 2006-2007, many people in Vietnam who were interested in the political situation of the country found each other through articles and political views they expressed on social media sites. Bloc 8406 was formed through an online registration form, calling for dressing in white on a specific date each month… I was particularly interested in the reactivation of the Democratic Party of Mr. Hoang Minh Chinh and the activities of the Viet Youth for Democracy established by student Nguyen Tien Trung. The activities of Nguyen Tien Trung in Europe and the United States had attracted the attention of many people in the country. At the BBC’s forum, Nguyen Tien Trung’s letter to the Vietnamese Minister of Education generated a lot of feedback. I contacted Nguyen Tien Trung then and through Nguyen Tien Trung I knew that more people inside and outside the country also had the desire to contribute to social change in the direction of freedom, democracy, and pluralism. On the day Nguyen Tien Trung returned to the country, we met many friends in Saigon and had meetings to discuss issues such as freedom of speech and freedom of association. We were particularly interested in the thousands of victims of forced eviction who came to Saigon from the South Western provinces to protest in front of the Second office of the National Assembly, because no so-called “elected by the people” delegates stepped out to meet the people and respond to their requests and no newspaper published any information about a month-long protest in the center of the city. Only the police was present in force to prevent and repress the city residents from supplying water and food to the protesters. We used blogs to share images of protesters, breaking down the silence and the cover-up of the whole state-owned press system. From that moment on, we wanted to have a common house, an organization that would be formed to exercise our freedom of the press and freedom of speech…
On September 19, 2007, the Freelance Journalist Club was founded with five founding members at the Coi Nguon coffee shop in Bien Hoa city. This was the first civil society organization to publicly operate a press in the communist regime, publicly reporting on prominent events in the country such as the collapse of the Can Tho Bridge, and coordinating the publication of communion prayers for the victims of the collapse of Can Tho bridge in Saigon Redemptorist Church. As hundreds of thousands of workers striked at Linh Trung industrial zones north of the city of Saigon and Binh Duong and none of the state press published about them, the Club continuously reported on the event. Phan Thanh Hai and I came to meet workers in the rented shelters to find out about their lives to share the information with the larger community. The activities of the Club started to be surveilled by the authorities. Through Nguyen Tien Trung, we got in touch with some European consulates in Saigon, who promised to take diplomatic actions if we were persecuted and arrested.
On social media sites, heated discussions occurred about political topics that were previously thought sensitive. The domestic movement began to flourish with multifaceted sources of information. I started traveling abroad to meet my overseas friends, looking for ways for them to coordinate with my friends back home, especially members of the Club.
Dieu Cay (center), at a public protest against China in December 2007 (source: Nguyen Tien Trung/Flickr)
At the end of 2007, China’s founding the Tam Sa city, which included the two archipelagos of Hoang Sa and Truong Sa of Vietnam, angered the Vietnamese cyber-communities. At the same time, the diplomatic note of Prime Minister Pham Van Dong was posted and shared widely on social media, angering people even more. The call for anti-China protests spread on the Internet led to a rally on December 9, 2007 with many artists, intellectuals and students taking part. Images shared on social media spread around the world and overseas compatriots also took actions in coordination. After my trip to Thailand, my friends in the FJC started to print Tshirts in preparation for the protest on December 16, 2007. Art students advised us on how to print the shirts. The room on the second floor at 84D Tran Quoc Toan street turned into a bustling printing studio from noon to late night. On the morning of December 16, 2007, we made an appointment at 57 Pham Ngoc Thach apartment complex, left the vehicles there and walked to the café at 47 Pham Ngoc Thach street. There we invited some more friends, boarded a bus, and unannouncedly we gathered in front of the Chinese consulate.
The protest, which took place from 8am to 2pm, was followed by an open forum at the park in front of the Presidential Palace. Police and security personel surrounded the protesters but waited for us to leave the consular area to crack down. Three members of the Club and I were arrested at Pham Ngoc Thach – Vo Thi Sau junction, and we were taken to different wards for questioning. I was strangled until I fainted in a taxi headed to Da Kao Ward, where I continued to be beaten by a group of four security officers and was questioned until 8 pm before I was let go.
Despite the persecution, when the images of the FJC flooded the Internet, the spirit of the Club was very good. We promised each other we would do it again the following week.
(to be continued)
Dieu Cay – Nguyen Van Hai
Translation © 2018 The 88 Project