Interview: Voices Calling for Democracy in Vietnam Must be Heard

“In any society, when one group becomes very strong and takes away the rights of other groups, then that group becomes despotic and dangerous to society. Societies like that can’t be democratic.”  Dieu Cay said.


A week after being deported to the United States following his release from a prison in Vietnam, dissident blogger Nguyen Van Hai, also known by his pen name Dieu Cay, spoke to RFA’s Vietnamese Service about his plans to continue working to bring democracy to the Southeast Asian communist state. Hai, whose online articles had criticized communist rule and highlighted alleged abuses by the authorities, was arrested in 2008 and sentenced a year later to 30 months in jail on a charge of “tax evasion” but was not freed after completing his term. He was later charged with carrying out propaganda against the state and sentenced in 2012 to 12 years in prison. After being freed on Oct. 21, 2014, he was immediately deported to the United States.

Q: It has now been a week since you were freed from prison and came to the U.S. Most Vietnamese dissidents who have been forced to leave Vietnam and live abroad have had concerns that they will find it difficult to pursue the path that they followed while they were in Vietnam. What are your plans for the near future?

A: I have already been separated from that environment [while in prison] for six years, six months, and two days. So to say that I am now separated from the environment inside Vietnam is not correct. Now that I am abroad, I need time to adapt to this new environment and new life. I think that I can adapt quickly.

Q: The voice of an activist in exile may not be as effective as his voice in Vietnam. The government of Vietnam knows this very well, and that is why they force prisoners of conscience out of Vietnam whenever they have to free them. Can you tell us if you have found a new method of struggle?

A: Other people have asked me this question, and what I can say is this:  We worked as free journalists on the Internet, and the Internet has no borders. In Vietnam, we joined protests against China, encouraging a boycott of the [2008] Beijing Olympics. The Club of Free Journalists took the leading role in those protests. But when we were arrested, the protests still continued, and these later protests involved more people than the previous ones.

So, apart from having kindled a flame at the beginning, we didn’t need to join all the protests and we could still help our fellows, our people, and our movement, and at the same time initiate protests against China. Even though I have now gone abroad, there is no distance on the Internet. So I don’t think that I will not be able to continue my work simply because I am separated from the society of Vietnam.

Q: So your plan is to rejoin the activities of the club that you helped found?

A: Actually we have been working on it since right after I left the airport and arrived home and until today. We already have a group here. There is a group of people coming from Canada too, and we have been discussing our future plans. I am a person of action, so even though I’m not very well connected with the media, we are still carrying out our plan to work with people both inside and outside Vietnam.

Q: Has the development of the Internet been an advantage for you, compared with what other dissidents have been able to do?

A: I really like the books The World is Flat and The New Digital Age.  We have learned a lot from them, and we will continue to apply the lessons contained in those books. In this “flat world”—in this age of integration and development—traveling and communicating is not as difficult as it once was. So I can still work effectively abroad. I don’t think we should compare me with other dissidents, because I have only now arrived here. I respect them. Each one of them has made his or her own choice. And it is the same in movements generally—people make their own choices, each person can participate in different degrees. So I don’t want to comment on any comparison between myself and others.

Q: in Vietnam, the common opinion is that there will be no democracy as long as the communists are in power. But even if the regime is changed, people will still have to avoid installing another despotic regime in its place. What is your opinion about this?

A: I think that democracy’s main value is its respect of the right to freedom of expression. A political system must represent the people’s will. In any society, when one group becomes very strong and takes away the rights of other groups, then that group becomes despotic and dangerous to society. Societies like that can’t be democratic.

Q: It has been said that the government of Vietnam uses prisoners of conscience as hostages to exchange for favors from other countries, that it does not want to improve its human right record, and that it has played this trick many times.

A: The media needs to call attention to this. As for democracy activists, it is important that we raise our voices for those people who are still in prison. Thanks to the media, we can spread information, and if we fight hard, we can bring the prisoners’ voices to international organizations. We can make them pay attention and press the government of Vietnam to free our fellows.

Q: We have heard that people inside Vietnam hope you don’t give up, and that they feel that to work abroad you may have to join some organization, because it is not effective to fight alone. Can you comment on this?

A: I think that what they say is somewhat correct. But this depends on each group and on the work of each individual. We haven’t joined any particular organization, but we support all groups that can communicate the voices of other groups. If any organization needs media support, we will come and help. We are willing to use media to support any group that has the goal of fighting for democracy and freedom for the people of  Vietnam, for the benefit of our nation and our sovereignty.

Q: Compared to other dissidents who came here before, you were very warmly welcomed by overseas Vietnamese on your arrival. What do you feel about this?

A: I would like to take the opportunity with this interview to tell the overseas Vietnamese who welcomed me at the airport that I was very moved by their sincere feeling. That made me very happy. The fact that they have had different views about other dissidents who have gone abroad has depended partly on the media. Before, when media accounts were not balanced, there was a difference in the views of people inside and outside Vietnam. But as communication became easier, there was a balance, a better understanding between both groups. This led to a change in attitude. We are all Vietnamese. If everything that we do is for the country, for the people, then none of us will have gone against the benefit of our nation and people.

We believe in what we do, and we don’t have to worry about that. So in order for people inside and outside Vietnam to understand each other better, I would suggest that the media work harder. Before, the media was fully controlled by the regime, and they used it to dominate public opinion, to serve their own purpose. Because of this, many people inside Vietnam misunderstood the Vietnamese living outside the country. And the people outside could not get enough information into the country, so there might have been some misunderstanding there too. As people working in media, we need to boost the right to freedom of the press and expression inside Vietnam. If the media is balanced, we will share understanding, and this will bring solidarity and strength to the Vietnamese people.