A Starving Blogger's Vietnam Crusade

As I write this story, it is the thirty-eighth day of Dieu Cay's hunger strike. Word that Vietnam's most famous blogger has been refusing food since June 20 seeps out from the prison where he's confined on a trumped up charge of propagandizing against the state. The 61 year-old dissident is protesting harsh treatment meted out to prisoners who refuse to confess their ‘crimes.’

I've never met Dieu Cay. When he was first jailed in 2008, I was still a reporter who'd grown up during Vietnam's boom years, and hardly paid attention to politics. Dieu Cay is old enough to remember the American War and the hard days that followed it.

Dieu Cay's blogging opened a window for me. It met readers’ demand for free access to true information, which is not the information provided and distorted by the state-owned press, in the interest of the regime and ruling Communist Party.

I'm not unique; a whole generation of bloggers has learned from Dieu Cay's example as a writer who spoke truth to power. What I know of him and recount below, I've learned from his friends.

His real name is Nguyen Van Hai, but for years he's been better known by his folksy pen name, Dieu Cay, or ‘peasant's pipe.’ He grew up in Haiphong, the port city 100 km to the east of my own home town, Hanoi, and served in the famous Gold Star Division of the People's Army. Almost certainly Dieu Cay was in the armed forces while the ‘American War’ still raged. He would have been 22 or 23 during the war-ending Ho Chi Minh campaign.

The young soldier found the south congenial, and when he was demobilized, he decided to stay there. In those days it was unusual for northerners to start up businesses, but Dieu Cay opened a coffee house in Ho Chi Minh City. On the side, he traded photographic equipment and rented out a few apartments. Before long, he was well off and well-known. Dieu Cay's friends describe him as easy-going, warm-hearted, charming and charismatic, equally at home in artistic and academic circles or just chatting with students or poor people.

Fast-forward now to 2005, the dawn of internet blogging in Vietnam. A new service, Yahoo 360°, was an overnight sensation. Unheralded, it destroyed the regime's monopoly control of public communications. For the first time, anyone with access to an ISP could post to a forum where they could trade ideas with unprecedented freedom. Blogs sprang up. By 2007, some of these were tackling political issues, with particular attention to escalating tension between Vietnam and China.

Dieu Cay emerged as the most popular of these political bloggers. He posted stories and photos that told about people's lives. With a laptop and a camera, Dieu Cay travelled about, talking with disadvantaged people. He interviewed farmers who'd lost their land, young women who sewed garments for export in sweatshops, construction workers who lived somehow on wages of less than 20 US cents per day. Investigating a spectacular worksite disaster, Dieu Cay uncovered evidence of corruption that may have led to the death of more than 50 workers.

He posted to his blog a heavily satirical account of his attempt to secure the eviction of a Communist Party member who'd appropriated one of his own flats. Dieu Cay's complaint was turned down. For his pains, a fine was levied for “inciting social disorder” and his writing about social justice and the corruption of the courts took a darker turn.

As the popularity of his blog surged, Dieu Cay attracted the attention of the state. Policemen were detailed to keep an eye on him. Undeterred, Dieu Cay with a few friends established the Free Journalists Network (FJVN) in September 2007. The organization was, of course, completely unauthorized and therefore technically illegal.

FJVN bloggers were on hand three months later when protests erupted against China's high-handed claims in the South China Sea on successive Sundays in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Their photos and reports were relayed abroad by Vietnam's resident foreign press. Dieu Cay stood out at the demonstrations, a magnet for young people who gathered around to hear his comments.

As participants in the second demonstration dispersed on the afternoon of December 16, the popular blogger was intercepted by police. “Hey,” a motorcyclist is said to have cried out, “Why are you arresting that man?”  “He's a thief,” one officer replied. “He's a drug dealer,” added another. For several hours, Dieu Cay was interrogated, not about drugs or theft but about the protests, and then released.

The next Sunday, the third week of unauthorized anti-China demonstrations, Dieu Cay was pre-emptively detained. This time he would be held for two days and thereafter would be under tight police surveillance. The state rolled out its arsenal of informal repression. Dieu Cay's businesses were sabotaged by “strangers.” Patrons headed for his café would be waved away from parking spaces. Potential tenants for his flats were scared off. An audit was launched; officials demanded that he produce contracts for rentals made ten years earlier. The blogger was knocked flat in a suspicious accident. He was regularly summoned to the police station for interrogation. On occasion he was grilled from 8am until late into the night about his activities and those of his FJVN friends.

Dieu Cay refused to appease his persecutors. Online, he continued to chronicle the Kafkaesque turn his life had taken. Then in March 2008, telling friends but not the police that he needed a rest, the popular blogger slipped out of Ho Chi Minh City. Dieu Cay's disappearance triggered a nationwide manhunt until, on April 19, he was (according to the police report) “urgently arrested” at an Internet café in Da Lat, a town in the mountains northeast of HCM City.

A few days later, his home was searched. The police sought evidence of “anti-state activities” but found none. Family and friends’ relief was brief, however. Dieu Cay was charged with tax fraud; while holding him incommunicado, the police had sprung a trap set months earlier, when they had ordered the local tax department not to accept overdue payments either from the blogger or his tenants.

Lawyers who volunteered to represent Dieu Cay were neither allowed to meet with him nor to know the date set for his trial. They were not allowed to introduce evidence that he had been set up. In September 2008, Vietnam's most popular political blogger was sent to prison by the HCM City People's Court.

The state wasn't finished with Dieu Cay, however. A day before he was to be released, having served his two and one-half year sentence for tax fraud, another a member of the FJVN, AnhBaSG, was taken into custody. Dieu Cay's release order was cancelled. He was held under a new charge: spreading propaganda against the state.

Not until almost two years later, September 24, 2012, was Dieu Cay tried along with AnhBaSG and a third member of the FJVN, Ta Phong Tan.

As the trial approached, Vietnam's blogosphere buzzed with indignation. Thousands signed an online ‘open letter’ to the head of state demanding “freedom for Dieu Cay.” International human rights organizations submitted their own pleas. Communist Party media hit back, attacking Dieu Cay ad hominem and other ‘anti-state bloggers’ in general. Dozens of bloggers converged on HCMC, some making the 36-hour trip by train from Hanoi.

The trial was in principle public, as Vietnamese law requires, but the room was packed with trolls. Supporters of the defendants had to run a police gauntlet. Friends, colleagues and followers who tried to attend the trial were intercepted and roughed up, their tee-shirts with the legend “Free Dieu Cay — Freedom for the Patriot” torn off. Those who protested were dragged off to a nearby police station for interrogation. The police jammed cell phone signals and harassed those gathering near the court, seizing their phones and cameras. Not even Dieu Cay's ex-wife and son were allowed into the courtroom.

A guilty verdict was only three hours in coming. AnhBaSG had apologized for blogging and promised to cut off all ties with anti-state elements. He was given a four-year sentence. Dieu Cay was put away for another twelve years. Ta Phong Tan was equally unrepentent; she drew a ten-year term.

Three months later, an appeals court confirmed the sentences given the three bloggers. Contrary to the regime's hopes, however, the verdict has not intimidated Vietnam's online dissidents. The dominant emotion expressed in online postings has been anger, for example, that the state would punish the free expression of opinion more harshly than murder.

The punishments meted out by the Hanoi regime and the arrests this spring of several more prominent bloggers have not stopped other dissidents from blogging. It's rather the opposite; for every blogger that's struck down, several others rise to take his place. state and party media say the political bloggers are the subversive vanguard of an international conspiracy against the Hanoi regime, a charge that rings increasingly hollow. The thousands of disenchanted young Vietnamese who post and comment regularly on dissident blogs and FaceBook sites believe that democratization is an inevitable process. All that is needed, they believe, is for enough citizens to see through the hollow pretensions of the post-revolutionary one-party state.

The fight will go on.

According to family members, imprisoned blogger Dieu Cay ended his hunger strike after 35 days after receiving assurances that Vietnam's Office of the Public Procurator would review his complaint that rights such as family visits and access to books and writing materials were being withheld from prisoners who refused to acknowledge their ‘crimes.’

The original version of this post appeared on Asia Sentinel.

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