Testing the waters – young activist returns after three years

Tuan has campaigned for change in Vietnam during his years abroad

Tuan has campaigned for change in Vietnam during his years abroad

The return of a dynamic young blogger and political activist is being seen as a test of the leadership’s attitude towards dissent following last month’s party congress.

Nguyen Anh Tuan was detained on his arrival at Danang airport on January 31, after three years overseas, and questioned for several hours. His passport was also confiscated.

Friends and supporters expressed some relief that Tuan had been released the day after his arrival but cautioned that it was too early to say how the authorities would react.

Tuan was a top graduate from the National Academy for Public Administration, the training ground for many leading officials, but he spurned the opportunity for what could have been a promising government career.

He has travelled to more than 20 countries, building up contacts with civil society organisations across the world. Most recently, he worked for three months in the office of the Australian MP, Chris Hayes.

“I assume that he will not be allowed to leave again because his passport was confiscated and there is no guarantee that the police will give it back to him,” said friend and fellow activist, Trinh Huu Long, who also works from overseas.

“Travel ban is a very common tactic that the government uses to limit activists from connecting to the outside world. I think that there are at least 80 activists being barred from going abroad right now in Vietnam,” he said.

Police interrogation

Tuan himself was optimistic about the prospects for change before leaving for his hometown of Danang.

He had confidence that the body of opinion inside the Communist Party was leaning towards a more liberal approach and tolerance of dissent.

He accepted, however, that conservatives remained entrenched at top levels and that the police retained huge powers to suppress government critics.

He said that his initial interrogation by police had been interesting.

“One of them even told me that the concept of ‘civil society’ is being taught at many universities across the country. Hearing that truly made me happy because when I was in college, such concept was still unfamiliar in Vietnam. And, at least, to these security police officers, ‘civil society’ is no longer a strange concept and it also seems that they don’t have any ill will toward it,” he said.

His initial optimism, however, was tempered by the thought that many peaceful activists remain in jail, or are awaiting trial, and the police continue to harass and sanction physical attacks on independent bloggers, lawyers and human rights campaigners.

Tuan had openly challenged the authorities in 2011 when he wrote a letter to the public prosecutor’s office to show solidarity with a legal scholar and government critic, Cu Huy Ha Vu, who had been arrested.

His principled stance immediately drew the attention of the authorities and they are understood to have tried to keep track of his movements during his years overseas.

Tuan is admired by many fellow activists for his dedication to the cause of political change and for his courage in openly standing up for human rights and freedom of expression.