Pham Doan Trang’s Interview Before Her Arrest: Our Freedom Is Not A Commodity

In this short but succinct interview that was filmed prior to her arrest, journalist Pham Doan Trang discusses her activism in starkly personal detail. Trang explains her goals and wishes, not just for herself but also for the groups she’s been involved with. She describes certain negative patterns she sees with many human rights organizations in Vietnam and suggests ways to improve.

Trang also exposes the cynical attempts by the regime to exploit activists like herself and rejects the idea of their being used as pawns by the government. In a letter left behind before her recent arrest, she implores others to carry on and not give up. Most importantly, Trang reiterates what she wants for Vietnam and asks the international community to not treat her case with any higher priority than other prisoners of conscience in the country.

Video source: Chuyen Cua Thinh

English subtitles: The 88 Project 

Phạm Đoan Trang – Monologue

00:00 “I don’t need freedom just for myself; that would be too easy. I want something much greater: freedom and democracy for all of Vietnam. That may sound too big or far-fetched, but it really is possible if everyone lends a hand.”

00:11 My truest wish is to lift people up.

00:18 I often joke with myself that I’m a person who spends her youthful years lifting others up.

00:24 What does that mean? Provide them with knowledge, skills, information and respect. Lift them up and let them know they’re respected.

00:36 Make them feel they are human, have worth and deserve to live a good life.

00:44 I want to change Vietnam in a way that people are respected more, treat each other with more love, compassion and trust.

00:58 Sometimes that’s enough to show signs of progress. Not just economic development, but progress for the country as a whole.

01:08 But even economic progress requires mutual trust. Without trust it’d be difficult to work together. It’d be difficult to do business, to cooperate, to produce.

01:19 The people don’t trust the government and the government doesn’t trust the people. People don’t trust each other. Thus we can’t do things together. We can’t accomplish big things..

01:27 Therefore we must improve communication, improve our media, education, and publishing.

01:34 So even though I do many things, they tend to be miniscule, detailed, and hard to talk about because they are just small things.

01:45 But taken as a whole, there’s a common thread throughout, and that’s the desire to lift people up and bring the readers knowledge.

01:55 Give them information and an understanding of what it’s like to live with a spirit of democracy, with common decency and accountability.

02:06 Perhaps it’s possible to do this via books and newspapers, especially books of different types – print, audio, video, etc.

02:20 Although we cannot control whether or not we’ll be arrested or go to prison, remember: your freedom is not something they can exploit for their own gains. If you get imprisoned, try to make the risks to them for jailing you greater than the rewards they might gain.

02:34 I’ve noticed there’s a particular characteristic of the democracy movement in Vietnam.

02:42 And that is, an activist would do his or her things for some period of time then get arrested and be thrown in jail.

02:47 Then the community, both inside and outside the country, would start a campaign to free them.

02:56 Free X! Free Y! Free Z! And so on.

03:00 After a while they’re released and allowed to leave the country. And that’s the end of it.

03:07 I think for an activist, especially someone who is strong and committed, to spend some time in jail and then go abroad and just end it there, this is something of a waste.

03:20 I feel that the life cycle of an activist is too short, however meaningful it might be; it’s not enough to effect any real changes.

03:31 I’ve also come to realize that the Vietnamese government knows this and takes advantage of it.

03:40 Instead of bringing real and meaningful reforms to the legal framework overall, revolutionizing the system, changing specific laws, or increasing basic freedoms for citizens,

04:00 instead of doing those things, the government just arrests and then releases some individual activist.

04:06 In that way it can score points for respecting human rights and  international covenants and so on.

04:10 In other words, using catch-and-release in a calculated manner, they can ignore the need to make real and fundamental changes,

04:16 avoid addressing issues that are a matter of life and death for the country, or key to the country’s development.

04:28 The state has been taking advantage of this. It doesn’t suffer anything for arresting us, but can look good to the world for releasing us. All the while ignoring reforms.

04:41 To them it’s very beneficial, so why not do it? Just arrest people and then release them.

04:45 In exchange, they will be able to get trade deals, sign contracts to buy weapons and so on and so forth.

04:56 As for the activists themselves, after paying the price by spending time behind bars, they deserve to have a respite from suffering and even emigrate abroad, even if it means the end of their activism.

05:16 I don’t criticize them for that, they deserve it. But in the end it’s Vietnam and the Vietnamese people who are short-changed.

05:26 Because after all these years of struggle there’s still no progress.

05:33 That’s why I hope that if I or some other activist must go to jail, it will actually mean something. It has to create a certain pressure against the government, forcing the regime to change.

05:49 It must not be something for them to abuse and exploit. We are not a commodity for the government to barter, or to make trade deals with other nations

06:03 to benefit only those in power, but not the common people. We reject being treated as a commodity like that.

06:11 I feel if we have to go to jail, our sacrifice must be meaningful, that it must be a goal and we must achieve that goal.

06:20 That goal could be to increase pressure on the Communist government to change.

06:27 Should I go to prison, I hope that all the things I’ve been working on will continue as before, if not even stronger.

06:37 I’m not in favor of seeing any organization lay low whenever a member gets arrested.

06:48 On the contrary, what’s most needed is for everyone to act more forcefully.

06:52 There’s nothing worse than watching an organization disintegrate like a busted beehive when its leader is arrested.

07:00 Because when that happens, the police see that their tactic is effective. They can hurt many by capturing just one, so why not do it?

07:08 It’s like cutting off the head of a snake and getting the whole nest. And so they keep doing it.

07:16 Therefore, I think it’s extremely important to organize our work and prepare our personnel psychologically and with the proper skill set so that they can continue to function if one of us is arrested.

07:32 If they can’t continue then that’s our fault for not preparing them and helping them be strong enough to stand up for themselves.

07:46 I can’t blame it on suppression from the authorities — that’s always a given. As long as the Communist regime is in power, oppression will never end.

07:55 If I’m arrested, I’d like everyone to campaign for me via individual channels. If you support me, please disseminate the following messages:

08:08 “I support new election rules, I’ve read books by Doan Trang,” or “I support Doan Trang, therefore I support new election rules and her books,” or “We demand free and fair elections for Vietnam,” or “Independent candidates must be allowed to run for Parliament…”

08:26 1. Please take care of my mother for me, don’t let her feel that she’s alone. Security police have been harassing my brothers and sisters-in-law also; please help protect them too.

08:50 2. I will not plead guilty; I won’t beg for clemency. Anything said otherwise by the police will be fabrications and lies.

08:58 3. But I do admit: I am the author of the books “Politics for the Common Man,” “Taking Care of a Prisoner,” “Non-violent Resistance,” as well as all the other books and articles written under my real name. I also affirm that I’ve always wanted to abolish Vietnam’s authoritarian system of government. I want to be mentioned as a writer who’s striving to help her people understand the intrinsic values of freedom and democracy, and who’ll always fight to change society for the better.

09:20 4. If possible, please help me get my guitar. To me, my guitar is like the Bible to a Christian.

09:34 5. I’m not concerned about the number of years I might have to spend behind bars, therefore I don’t need any lawyers to argue for a lesser sentence for me — this is something that’s beyond their capability in today’s Vietnam anyway. Instead, I’d like for my lawyers to set up a channel of information exchange between me and those on the outside.

09:50 6. Don’t give me preferential treatment over other prisoners of conscience.

10:00 7. If you’d like to campaign for my release, please start from the third or fourth year (from the time of my arrest), and please associate the campaign with the objectives I’ve set above. My ideal scenario is one where I’m freed without being forced into exile and where my stated goals are realized.


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