One day last May in Hanoi, Vietnamese police launched a sudden raid into the house and business of a long-famous blogger, Nguyen Huu Vinh, better known as Anh Ba Sam (meaning Brother Gossiper). Vinh and his assistant Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, a mother of seven-year-old twin children, were detained immediately.
The sudden raid and arrests apparently caught Vinh by surprise. The very high-traffic Ba Sam News at basam.info, however, stayed out of police control and kept on running. In fact, just five days after Vinh and Thuy’s arrest, his colleagues published a defiant statement, “Nguyen Huu Vinh was arrested, yes, but Anh Ba Sam will never be.” The statement carried implications of an even more powerful blogging and writing movement for change in Vietnam.
The arrest prompted a huge outcry among dissidents. The Vietnam Path Movement, a civil society organization that works to promote human rights inside of Vietnam, released a statement on May 7, stating, “By depriving Mr. Nguyen Huu Vinh, Mrs. Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, and other activists’ rights to freedom of expression, the Vietnam government adamantly refuses all contributions from the people toward building a stronger nation.”
The government hit back. Using media owned by the police and the army, the government accused Vinh and Thuy of “publishing online articles with bad contents and misleading information to lower the prestige and create public distrust of government offices, social organizations and citizens” under Article 258 of the Vietnamese Penal Code.
In one particular colorful posting, the police-owned newspaper accused Vinh of “reporting and commenting on current social and political issues of Vietnam with a deliberately critical tone”, “trying to make Vietnam look as bad and ugly as he is.”
Somewhere in the crowd, there was always him - the citizen journalist.
Photo courtesy of No-U Hanoi.
The man who wanted to light the candle
Nguyen Huu Vinh was not always the darling of the democracy movement. A former public security officer himself, Vinh was mistrusted at first. Born in 1956 to a high-ranking communist official, he had all the good reasons to himself become a high-ranking official, too, in the hierarchy of the communist state.
Right when Vinh was arrested, bloggers looked up his family background to be reminded that his father, Nguyen Huu Khieu, was twice the Vietnamese ambassador to the Soviet Union. As the Soviets were Vietnam’s “Big Brother” in the Cold War, being ambassador there was an enormous privilege, and as Vinh himself admitted in a short memoir in 2012, he and his family led a life that all the other parts of the society then could just dream of.
The house where he grew up is now the residence of the prime minister. “While butter, milk and the like were still unknown to people in Northern Vietnam, I just needed to take half a mile walk to number 2 Hoang Dieu street [a store dedicated to the upper echelon of the VCP] to get hot fresh milk, butter, pâté and bread.”
Vinh even met Ho Chi Minh once as a child of five, considered a special favor for Vietnamese in the North.
Most importantly, thanks to his family origin, he benefited from books that were totally inaccessible to ordinary people. One of such things, referred to as “special documents for reference,” were selected articles from foreign media translated by the Vietnam News Agency into Vietnamese. Vinh wrote:
“In the 1960s, these documents were labeled as ‘Confidential. No circulation,’ and only officials from ministerial level upward could access them. They would later on be provided also for lower administrative levels, and be sold at the end of the 1990s. No matter what, these documents helped to change me substantially during my years of ‘following the Party.’”
It was from those documents that he learned about the brutality of Mao’s China, which, ironically, was the ideal that the Vietnamese government at that time was trying to reach.
The Vietnam War escalated, and Vinh was evacuated to the countryside, where he saw the poverty for people in the lower rungs of the social. But his belief in the communist ideology only truly turned upside-down after the war ended in 1975, and he was able to view the deep rift between the “capitalist South” and the “communist North” of Vietnam. It did not take him much time to conclude that life in a capitalist system, with all its faults, was much more prosperous than and different from the one described in communist propaganda materials.
“My eyes were opened,” wrote Vinh, “and more than that, I ventured to spend a lot of time and money learning English and computer skills right from the days those things were strange to most people.”
To build a fire
“He was always determined, enthusiastic, and brave,” said Pham Xuan Can, a former classmate of Vinh’s at the Academy of Public Security who joined the public outcry online following Vinh’s arrest. Can recalled how Vinh became a student at the Academy, then became a public security officer before working at the Department of the Overseas Vietnamese. His experience of working with Vietnamese intellectuals in foreign countries, some almost in exile since 1975, added up with his past knowledge of “the capital South” to keep him obsessed by an idea, “how much social capital were wasted as a result of bad policies.”
In 1999, almost immediately after Vietnam’s adoption of the Enterprise Law, Vinh quit his government position and set up his own business, VPI, the very first private detective agency in Vietnam. Vinh’s business went well and its profits were enough for him to pursue other interests.
In 2005, when Yahoo!’s now extinct 360 blogging platform arrived, Vinh found blogging like any Vietnamese teenager. He created his Anh Ba Sam Yahoo blog in 2007 and initially filled it with articles he wrote for the state-owned media, until he realized the demand of Vietnamese people who want to know “what the world is thinking of us.”
So Vinh began translating foreign news stories about Vietnam, and his readership grew. Anh Ba Sam’s blog also provided source materials about China-Vietnam relations, which even until this day remains a politically sensitive issue.
Though Ba Sam won a relatively large readership for a political website, Vinh did not stop there. He went further in the cause of “enlightening the people” with the initiative of publishing a daily digest of the most important news items. Vinh also added his own comments, a mix of profound intellectual thoughts with cute, witty humor, and the comments became the characteristic of Ba Sam, winning the attention of hundreds of thousands Vietnamese speakers around the world. This was a quite high number, especially when the widely circulated Tuoi Tre Daily could only reach 200,000 copies or so.
“It’s up with the news 24/7. As might be expected, the blog has given particular emphasis to the stories that Vietnam’s state-supervised media has been unable to report. Its daily digest is the hook that has caught the attention of 100,000-plus regular readers,” David Brown, a former U.S. diplomat and an author whose articles were often translated and posted by Ba Sam, wrote on Asia Sentinel about the site in March 2013 when it was under a serious attack by “pro-government” hackers.
“Being on time, adhering to ethical codes of accuracy, neutrality and confidentiality of sources, and respecting copyrights, those are the principles that we kept to during the recent years,” said Dinh Ngoc Thu, now the main editor of Basam.info. Thu joined with Vinh in “news reviewing” in 2009, and the only reason why she was not arrested with Vinh and Thuy was because she lives in California.
Vinh’s connections with some people in the state apparatus, resulting from his previous positions in public offices, were also helpful news sources. However, at the same time, they raised suspicions about him being an “undercover police”. A haunting question for many was why Nguyen Huu Vinh was not arrested after such a long time? How could he “survive” many police suppressions of bloggers?
Now the answer is clear: It was just a matter of time.
Photo courtesy of No-U Hanoi, early 2014.
Police came in
The Vietnamese government, with mostly old faces, may not have noticed the power of the Internet, but its police machinery did so quickly. Anyone blogging about political issues will sooner or later found him/herself in trouble with the extensive network of police in Vietnam. So it was understandable that Ba Sam was identified very soon by the police as a rallying point of “anti-state” forces.
And it was a well-founded belief, anyway. Every dissident site in Vietnam, or in Vietnamese to be exact, has its own loyal readers. Ba Sam’s readers, as he described, incorporated many intellectuals and members of the Communist Party. A large proportion of them may still be loyal to the obsolete ideology of communism, and what they need is “fact as it is”, neutral and accurate without any state censorship.
Readers made up a close-knit community indeed, and readers themselves had readers – there were people who accessed Ba Sam mostly to read the comments by Vinh and other bloggers below each post. Many of such online commentators became famous to the “great family” of Ba Sam’s readers.
With only a small team in charge of both content providing and security ensuring, the site was subject to continuous attacks. Brown, the diplomat, wrote in sympathy:
“… on March 8, when the Ba Sam blog was thoroughly hacked. Several years’ reportage and commentary were deleted. The e-mail accounts of the blog’s editorial team were also compromised. The Ba Sam team has so far been unable to regain control of anhbasam.wordpress.com. That’s a manageable tragedy, however. All but a few days’ content was backed up on offshore servers.”
“… A naive reader might conclude that the Anh Ba Sam team are in fact renegades and grudge-bearing reactionaries based in the United States and dedicated to the overthrow of the Hanoi regime.”
The truth was that Vinh and his colleagues did not receive any financial assistance from anybody. In fact, as the economy went south, Vinh’s private detective agency also floundered and was almost on the brink of bankruptcy when Vinh and Thuy were detained.
One reader who met Vinh several times related her conversation with Vinh. Suspicious, the reader asked Vinh, “Why do you keep doing all these things?”
He replied, “Because I’m in a better position to do this than anyone else. So if I don’t do, I’ll feel guilty”.
And he explained, “Because I meet three conditions. First, my financial conditions are good enough. With VPI, I am not indigent. Second, I have Internet knowledge; and third, most importantly, I know them – the police – well. I was among them and I understand them.”
Yet, it seems he lost the battle in the end. The former public security officer did not expect his former colleagues to arrest him and was caught off-guard.
The sentence against him is expected to be harsh, as the police-dominated courts are always tough on those considered to have “betrayed” of their Communist Party origins. Cu Huy Ha Vu, another son of a cabinet-level Communist leader, was sentenced up to seven years of imprisonment in 2011. Vu, however, was released early and arrived in the U.S. in April, a month before Vinh’s arrest.
Optimistically, is it not a time for him to rest? He has worked too hard, struggled for too long in the past seven years, and exhausted himself as well as his colleagues. Despite the many readers he had, in the end, it was basically a fight in solitude.
But he kept blogging.
California, July 4, 2014