In early 2011, a Western fiction-writer asked me, “Why are Vietnamese bloggers so silent? From what I have witnessed, I found that the Vietnamese government is as repressive as is the government in Iraq, Iran, or Myanmar… but the world appears blind to that. The world only knows about the dictatorial regime in Myanmar, while Vietnam is known as a model of dynamic economic growth. They learn about that from bloggers in Iran and Iraq, and from the leading opposite Burmese magazine Irrawaddy. They know nothing about how repressive the Vietnamese government is and how much its people are suffering. Why? Is it because Vietnamese bloggers just talk to themselves?”
Such was an embarrassing question that I had never thought of before. Nor did I know anything about the dissident Irrawaddy in Burma. Nonetheless I heard about Burma as an oppressive authoritarian state. I was not alone in thinking so: Many people in the world must have thought the same about Myanmar, while very few knew there was another Vietnam – the real Vietnam bearing such rhetorical praises as “the economy is dynamic, women are beautiful, foods are good, and people are friendly and hospitable.”
I told the writer that although there were some prominent political bloggers in Vietnam, they were known only within their community, or the community of those concerned about politics. Such community was very small and its members tended to isolate themselves, which was why even the people inside the country knew little about them, not to mention the outside world.
The writer disagreed. He said in every country, those concerned about politics only account for a small proportion. The more authoritarian a government is, the more its people are discouraged from participation; they are told to live “in peace and harmony” and to care of themselves rather than of a wider community.
I gave another answer, that the world's little knowledge of Vietnam may originate from the fact that Vietnamese bloggers did not blog in English and, more importantly, there was not any media to bring their voices to the world. My answer seemed to be most relevant given the limited time frame of just a sidewalk cafe talk, so we both agreed to that explanation.
One of the first efforts to internalize Vietnam's human rights issues.
Courtesy of Anh Chi's Facebook page.
“I write these lines for my fellow citizens”
Ten days later, the Arabian Spring spread to Egypt when over 50,000 people joined a protest rally in Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011. The protests lasted for 18 continuous days. On January 31, Al Jazeera correspondents reported that the demonstrations had grown to at least 250,000 people (1). And these protests stemmed from calls on some activists' Facebook pages.
Profoundly inspired by the North African Revolution 2.0 it seems, Vietnamese political bloggers began to use the Internet to share information and create networks. On June 5, 2011, the first anti-China protests since 2007 took place in both Hanoi and Saigon, marking the bloggers' first efforts to connect offline.
Almost one year later, in April 2012, bloggers became the early pioneers in reporting on the notorious land eviction in Van Giang district, near Hanoi. Thus a great step forward had been taken since the “summer of protests” in 2011 until this media campaign by the alternative media in Vietnam. Now bloggers did not just wait for the mainstream media to report news before they cited those news stories, adding some cynical comments. They went further by:
- writing commentaries and analyses, even finding supplementary facts. Despite the emotional style which may sometimes reveal their non-professionalism, they filled the vacuum left by the mainstream media which in most cases would only report news without producing any in-depth analysis;
- conducting interviews with alleged victims of human rights violations, whom the mainstream media may sometimes feel reluctant to meet, either for fear of “sensitive elements” or because they wanted to keep “neutral”.
Jessica Ryan, an independent journalist from Oslo, told me once that she was surprised by the way the Vietnamese journalists kept neutral, “If they work for state-owned media and want to stay objective, they should write about the people as opposed to the government. Give the people a voice. That, I think, is impartiality and neutrality.”
Though much progress has been made, alternative media in Vietnam still aims mostly at the Vietnamese audience. In other words, bloggers still “talk to themselves” or “write for their fellow citizens” only. News stories in English, if any, came as a result of the accidental attention by some foreign reporter about Vietnam's human rights situation via his/ her individual contact network.
Soldiers and police were deployed to implement the Van Giang land eviction on April 24, 2012.
Photo by an anonymous blogger.
International attention – is it worth?
Some said it was useless that the world knows what is happening in Vietnam, especially human rights violations in the country, because even if the story is told, the international community will hardly do anything. After all, Vietnam's issues must be resolved by the Vietnamese people who live inside their country. This is also true to the democratization movement in Vietnam.
Yes, it is true, after all, that things in Vietnam must be done by the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese are the owner of their life.
But we need to always look for the best. In the era of globalization, being open to the world is better than closed. The bloggers' struggle for freedom rights will certainly gain better results if it catches the attention of the international community. Most significantly, the Vietnamese government, with its long-established tradition of being “oppressive at home, humble outside”, tends to flinch from outside pressures rather than domestic ones. Ismail Wolf, Executive Director of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said, “It's easier for a neighboring government to raise the issue of human rights to the Vietnamese government than the Vietnamese people do.” While communist governments dislike transparency and openness, they all like appreciation.
Asked if the Vietnamese government was afraid of international public, a senior official at the UNHRC, who requested to remain anonymous, replied, “I would say “interested”, not “afraid”. They may not be afraid, but they are interested to know what the world thinks about them. They care about governments in countries where there are public opinion influencing media. For this reason, I am confident that international media is very important... Regarding human rights violations in Vietnam, I believe that if such stories get in the international news, the Vietnamese government may feel upset.”
China, a big and assertive country as it is, provides an example of how international media can bring pressure to its domestic affairs. In September 1999, Zhang Jicheng, reporter for the Henan Science and Technology Daily, on his train to Zhengzhou, heard two fellow passengers from Wenlou village say their villagers had fallen ill for a strange disease. From his subsequent investigation Zhang found an awesome fact: The people of Wenlou contracted HIV through selling plasma at local blood collection centers. Sources said that in one extended family with fifty or sixty people, nearly everyone was HIV-positive.
Zhang wrote his news report, but his editor declined to publish the article. He then sent his report to Huaxi Dushibao, a newspaper in Sichuan. On January 18, 2000, Huaxi Dushibao ran Zhang's report about the “mystery illness” in Henan. Local propaganda office ordered Zhang to be removed from his position (but his newspaper secretly protected him by just shifting him to another position).
Four months later, on May 11, Dahe Daily ran a ten-page feature entitled “AIDS in Henan”. Less than a year later, its editor was removed from his postion.
The real bombshell only came when Elizabeth Rosenthal's 1600-word story, “In rural China, a steep price of poverty: dying of AIDS” appeared in the New York Times on October 28. Wenlou became world news. This put a great deal of international pressure on China to face its HIV/AIDS problem. (2) The Chinese government later on began developing policies to control HIV and pay compensations to people who contracted HIV from tainted blood transfusions.
1. 'Protestors Flood Egypt Streets', Al Jazeera News, February 1, 2011/ Wikipedia
2. David Bandurski and Martin Hala, “Investigative Journalism in China: Eight Cases in Chinese Watchdog Journalism”, Hong Kong University Press, 2010, p. 43-44