The Struggle for Freedom: A Vietnamese writer championed by the U.S. remains in prison

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Ellen Bork
George W. Bush Institute

Pham Doan Trang, an imprisoned journalist and author, wasn’t among four political prisoners Vietnam released in connection with President Joe Biden’s visit to Hanoi in September.  

But Trang is among the most prominent of Vietnam’s 260 political prisoners. She was arrested Oct. 6, 2020, and sentenced to nine years in prison in 2022 after being convicted of “propagandizing against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” for her writing about marine ecology, human rights, and religious freedom and interviews she gave to Radio Free Asia. The Biden Administration included Trang among 23 political prisoners championed in its social media campaign, #WithoutJustCause in January 2023.    

Notably, her arrest was carried out hours after the conclusion of the 24th annual round of the U.S.-Vietnam human rights dialogue – an unmistakable signal of the contempt Hanoi has for American human rights policy.  

Still, the Biden Administration is hailing upgraded ties between the United States and Vietnam, which are reflected in a new “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.” Despite the president’s denial, the partnership is widely understood as part of the effort to enlist Hanoi in responding to China’s aggression in the Indo-Pacific.  

Furthermore, the contents of a “private agreement” between Hanoi and Washington that is said to address Vietnam’s human rights and religious freedom haven’t been made public. 

The administration’s confidence in Vietnam’s suitability as a partner in its Indo-Pacific agenda is baseless. So is a U.S. official’s claim that, with regard to political prisoners, the “increased partnership and the strengthened relationship gives us the vehicles and the processes we need to keep working” on human rights with “Vietnamese friends.” That is a familiar echo of the failed engagement policy Washington pursued with Beijing: It avoided confrontation in the hope of future concessions, only to see Beijing grow more powerful abroad and repressive at home.    

In the meantime, Trang needs urgent medical care, and Vietnam’s human rights performance is getting worse.     

From blogger to activist to prison  

Born in 1978, Trang was raised by her schoolteacher parents in Hanoi. According to a profile in The Vietnamese, an English language online publication Trang helped found, she immersed herself in the internet after discovering articles about economics posted there were more accurate than available state-approved books. Trang began writing her own blog – in 2006, by her own account – to practice her English.   

Soon, however, she began to write about the poor and vulnerable, those “struggling to survive, working countless jobs … pedaling cyclos and bicycles, repairing shoes, [and] carving chopsticks.” She gravitated toward subjects that were considered off-limits, co-authoring a biography of a gay Vietnamese man and writing about Sino-Vietnamese relations.  

Early in her career, she worked for state publications, but after run-ins with the police – including a nine-day detention for participating in a protest against environmentally damaging bauxite mining operations in Vietnam’s central highlands – she began to write independently. She eventually published books including Politics for the Common People, A Handbook for Families of Prisoners, On Non-Violent Resistance Techniques and Politics of a Police State 

The Vietnamese American lawyer Tran Quynh-Vi met Trang in 2014 while Trang was on a   fellowship at the University of Southern California. The women became friends and founded The Vietnamese and Luat Khoa, a magazine that seeks to help Vietnamese learn about law, the constitution, and their rights.  

“I know what it’s like to be involved in matters related to ‘courts’ with a voice too weak to have any say, not knowing what to do or who to believe, never mind using the law to defend oneself,” Trang wrote at the launch of the magazine. The name, Luat Khoa (Law Department in English) refers to the law school that existed in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) before 1975 and which Vi says Vietnamese still revere. Together, the women also founded a U.S.-registered nongovernmental organization, Legal Initiatives for Vietnam, which Vi heads.   

By the time Trang was due to return to Vietnam in 2015, persecution of civil society and independent writers was intensifying. Vi and other friends met Trang at a friend’s backyard to urge Trang not to go. Trang, however, was firm in her decision. She would go back, even though she expected to be imprisoned, likely for a long time.   

“She told us that every country needs to have a generation that will give up everything for the future to be better,” Vi recounted to me with emotion when we met last month while she was in Washington to advocate for Trang on Capitol Hill and in the administration. Vi said she realized herself, “I want to be that generation, too.”   

When Trang landed at Ho Chi Minh City’s airport, she was detained for 15 hours. Over the next several years, she moved frequently, living in hiding to evade police. However, she suffered repeated police beatings, including when they broke her legs in 2015, Vi told me. Those injuries continue to plague her in prison. Police detained her in 2016 to prevent her from attending a meeting with President Barack Obama in Hanoi.  

Expecting to go to jail, she prepared a document with the heading: “Just in case I am imprisoned.”   

In it, she asked first that people take care of her elderly mother and defend her family from official harassment. Anticipating that authorities would attempt to discredit her, she stressed: “I will not admit guilt, confess, or beg for leniency; do not believe police if they say or indicate otherwise.” She would not renounce her books or views. And she wrote, “I will always assert that I want to abolish dictatorship in Vietnam.”   

Vietnam won’t prioritize U.S. over China 

The U.S. appears to believe historic enmity between Vietnam and China will lead Hanoi to cooperate in Washington’s strategic agenda for the Indo-Pacific. 

“We shouldn’t forget Vietnam’s socialist identity,” Zachary Abuza, Professor of National Security Strategy at the National War College told me. “The party-to-party channel between Vietnam and China is very strong.”   

Abuza is skeptical of the upgrade in ties and the belief among American officials that Washington can draw Hanoi toward the United States.  

“It’s true,” Abuza told me, “Vietnam faces a territorial threat from China – but Vietnam’s rulers don’t see China as an existential threat to their rule. They do see the U.S. as an existential threat. China has vested interests in the survival of Vietnam’s communist system.”   

American officials also hope Vietnam’s communist party leadership will act out of character in other ways, for example by abandoning its drive for total control in pursuit of objectives like combatting climate change. Vietnam is jailing environmental activists even as the United States and other G7 countries plan to provide $15.5 billion to fund climate change initiatives. Six have been imprisoned over the past two years. One of them, Ngo Thi To Nhien, a green energy expert with experience working for the World Bank, USAID and the United Nations, was arrested just days after President Biden’s visit.  

Trang’s urgent situation 

Trang is largely cut off from the outside world and has been moved to a more remote prison, making it difficult for lawyers and family to achieve even the limited access they are allowed, Vi told me. They have expressed concern about her mental state as well as her physical condition. Trang’s medical care in prison is inadequate. Her family’s request to pay for a private doctor to visit the prison has been refused. 

Trang has frequently expressed her desire to remain in Vietnam, rather than go into exile. In the letter she wrote before her arrest, Trang said she doesn’t want to be “a pawn for the government to trade.” When they deport a political prisoner, Vietnam’s rulers “gain trade deals, neutralize a rallying symbol for the people, and falsely appear to respect human rights, which hedges calls for political reform.” Instead, she wants efforts to free her to be coupled with systemic change, such as steps toward free elections.  

Nevertheless, Vi believes Trang might consider going abroad to alleviate her mother’s stress and anxiety. That should be Trang’s choice to make. 

The Biden Administration may hope that by stressing a new strategic relationship with Hanoi, it will get both cooperation against China and achieve progress on human rights and political prisoner releases. It may well end up with neither.