Drive to break the spirit of environmental campaigners

Quynh remains defiant despite attempts to break her resistance

The Vietnamese authorities have moved the blogger, Mother Mushroom, to a new prison hundreds of kilometres from her home.

Her mother arrived at the jail near her home in Nha Trang to give gifts and supplies for the Tet holiday, only to be told that the blogger had been moved to a new prison at Thanh Hoa in the north of the country.

The vindictiveness of the move illustrates the zeal with which the Communist authorities seek to break the spirits of those that dare to defy it.

Quynh is reported to be in ill health, and her two young children and mother will now find it much harder to keep in regular contact.

Hyper sensitive

Much of the current wave of repression has been aimed at those associated with an environmental movement that sprang up on the central coast in the wake of the Formosa chemical spill in 2016.

The government is hyper-sensitive to any sign of organised opposition and took fright when mass demonstrations in local fishing communities drew support from city based civil society activists.

Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh had written an independent blog for years, under the name of Me Nam (Mother Mushroom), before she was finally arrested and charged in the autumn of 2016.

It was after she took up the cause of fishermen, whose livelihoods were damaged by the spill from the Taiwanese owned steel plant, that the authorities moved in to press criminal charges.

She is now serving a ten year jail term for conducting “propaganda against the state”, a harsher sentence than many observers had been expecting.

Quynh has emerged as a potent symbol of government repression in Vietnam.

Her calm and dignified defiance in the court room sent a message that she would not be intimidated by a vindictive government out to crush its critics.

Tools of repression

Her mother was told by the prison authorities that the decision to move her had been taken at a high level in the security establishment, showing the close political supervision of cases like hers.

Vietnam learned much from its associates in the KGB and the Stasi in perfecting the tools of repression.

Its campaigns against independent bloggers and other activists are carefully calibrated to exert maximum psychological pressure without attracting too much attention at home and abroad.

The bodies are not piling up on street corners, as in the Philippines, and villages are not erased and their inhabitants driven out and hunted down, as in Myanmar.

The Vietnamese security forces prefer subtler methods to intimidate, isolate and break the spirit of activists, although they are happy to sanction the use of carefully calibrated violence when they see fit.

Activists are closely monitored and made to feel vulnerable by the relentless presence of the police and their informers.

Government critics never know when the knock will come on their door and they will be hauled off for months of interrogation.

Rushed semi-secret trials can then be relied on to impose heavy jail terms.

Symbol of defiance

The courts, following the wishes of their political masters, have recently begun increasing sentences, from ten years for Quynh last year, to 14 years last month for Hoang Duc Binh, who reported on a police attack last year on a protest march by disgruntled fishermen.

In recent years, bloggers such as Quynh set out to test the limits of official tolerance, gradually increasing the amount of free debate in the public space.

The authorities have now seized the initiative and put the process into reverse. Quynh is a symbol of defiance and they want to show that they have the means and will to break her.