Dissident Voices: Nguyen Van Dai retains his optimism

Allowed more freedom than before but Nguyen Van Dai is still closely watched.

Allowed more freedom than before but Nguyen Van Dai is still closely watched.

Human rights defender, Nguyen Van Dai, does not lie awake at night wondering if Big Brother is watching him.

He knows he is.

The police recently installed two video cameras across the street from his apartment – one trained on his front door and the other on the space where he parks his motorcycle.

Mr Dai was released in March after four years imprisonment followed by four under house arrest. He is now trying to press forward with his campaign for basic freedoms in Vietnam.

Since his release he has been followed by government agents, and he was attacked and beaten by plainclothes auxiliaries. He says the intimidation only ended after the intervention of foreign embassies. Despite this he remains doggedly optimistic about the prospects for  change in Vietnam and believes conditions will improve.

“Everything depends on international pressure, particularly from the United States and European Union,” he told Vietnam Right Now.

“The government badly wants to conclude the TPP (the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement) and so will be careful not to crack down too hard at the moment.”

Since his release he has been allowed to travel to Ho Chi Minh City and the Central Highlands, where ethnic minority Christian groups face severe repression for their activities.

He says he was followed everywhere but was able to hold meetings with known activists.

Sentenced for conducting "propaganda against the state". Picture courtesy AFP

Sentenced for conducting “propaganda against the state”. Picture courtesy AFP

Nguyen Van Dai came to prominence as a human rights lawyer in the years after 2000. He is also a prominent campaigner for religious freedom.

He was arrested and charged with using anti-state propaganda during a big crackdown on dissent in 2007.

He believes there is currently a little more space for dissidents and activists to conduct their activities, including more freedom to travel inside Vietnam.

However the change seems largely tactical. He sees no clear sign of a change of heart at the top levels of the leadership.

“We must force the party to accept the right of association and freedom of movement,” he says, arguing that the government has already lost the ability to control what people say and write because of the explosive growth of social media.

For all his optimism, Mr Dai must still bear the weight of fear and anxiety that comes with defying authority in such a repressive society.

He is haunted by memories of his time in prison, particularly the first ten months after his conviction.

“At the beginning I was kept at prison in Hanoi,” he says, “and we were not given clean water. We had to strain the water through our socks. The food was really bad – just dirty vegetables and rice.”

Later he was transferred to a camp outside the capital with other political prisoners. Conditions remained Spartan but the prisoners were able to cook their own meals and receive food from their families.

So why does he continue with his campaign for human rights and basic freedoms when the state can pick and chose its victims at will and make an example of any activist at any time ?

“I would stop immediately if I was not optimistic about the future,” he says, “but the mood in society is changing fast, I can really see progress over the last three years.”

He says that students and other young people used to be too frightened to get involved in civil society groups. Now he says many are contacting him through Facebook, asking how they can contribute.

International human rights groups say that Vietnam is currently holding some hundred and twenty prisoners of conscience, including thirty bloggers.

The government has been obliged in recent years to allow more open discussion of controversial issues, particularly the tension with China over the South China Sea.

Unlike China it has not been able to control social media very effectively. Analysts believe the authorities have missed the opportunity to ban Facebook without risking a serious backlash. The social media network has more than thirty million users in Vietnam and is widely used by government critics to air grievances.

However the apparatus of state control remains fully in place.

Activists are monitored; some are followed; others are harassed and some beaten up by police auxiliaries and other state agents.

Independent observers believe there have been no high profile arrests – and long prison terms – this year for one reason alone.

Vietnam is seeking support from Washington in its confrontation with China and does not want to give its opponents in the United States the opportunity to block any progress on the TPP.

Mr Dai says he wants to use the opportunity to build up a network of government critics.

He is organising training sessions and discussion groups in the hope that a core of activists will be in a position to operate once the political space opens up.

He has friends from law school who joined government ministries who he says are sitting on the fence and would join an opposition movement if it grew stronger.

Other analysts are far less sanguine, saying critics of the government and Communist Party remain extremely vulnerable and isolated.

Mr Dai’s determination to bring change dates back to his time as a worker in East Germany at the close of the 1980s.

He was struck by the high standard of living and quality of life in East Germany and couldn’t understand why everyone was talking about unification so passionately.

Then the Berlin Wall came down and he crossed to the other side.

His eyes were opened to the degree of development that could be achieved under a different political system. When he returned to Vietnam he was troubled to find that people knew very little about the outside world, including German unification, and didn’t dare criticise Communist rule.

“The Communist government has held Vietnam back. We should be the richest country in South East Asia, but we are not, we are one of the poorest. It’s the political system that is holding us back,” he says.

Like the government Mr Dai is also hoping for the conclusion of a TPP agreement.

The deal he says will include the right to organise free trade unions and he is confident the government will not be able to back track because of pressure from Washington.

He believes the labour movement and disgruntled farmers who have lost their land will eventually join the struggle for a more democratic system.

That, he argues, will be the real key to change.

In the meantime, Nguyen Van Dai and those like him stand alone against one of Asia’s best equipped, best trained and most sophisticated systems of state control.

It doesn’t look like an even contest.