November 12, 2017
Pressure on dissident singer who met Barack Obama reflects broad crackdown
By James Hookway, Wall Street Journal, November 10, 2017
HANOI—Vietnamese singer Do Nguyen Mai Khoi came face to face with the reach of her country’s security forces after she met with President Barack Obama in Hanoi in May last year.
Ms. Mai Khoi was among several dissidents who were invited to meet with Mr. Obama during his visit. She had recently tried but failed to make the list of independent candidates for the country’s legislature, which does little to challenge the ruling Communist Party.
When she arrived home, four policemen knocked at her door and tried to make her acknowledge that she owned a Facebook page which criticized the security forces. She refused, fearing she would be arrested on the spot.
“They have called my parents in for questioning, raided two of my concerts, asked my landlord to kick me out of my house, refused my permit to live in Hanoi, and put me under constant surveillance,” said Ms. Mai Khoi, who is now 33. “Some of my best friends are no longer friends with me,” she said.
The pressure Ms. Mai Khoi faces reflects what human-rights groups say is the largest and most persistent crackdown in the communist state in years. Vietnamese officials didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article.
It comes as Vietnam is again in the spotlight as the host of this year’s annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. President Donald Trump used a speech at the summit on Friday to champion his America-first trade policy.
Amnesty International says Vietnam is currently holding at least 84 political prisoners or dissidents for crimes such as “spreading propaganda against the state” or “abusing democratic freedoms.” In many cases they have been prosecuted for posting critical comments on Facebook.
The latest blogger to be convicted, a university student named Phan Kim Khanh, was given a six-year prison sentence last month. The 11-year-old daughter of another jailed dissident, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, wrote to first lady Melania Trump to help free her. Ms. Trump awarded Ms. Quynh the State Department’s International Women of Courage Award in March, and the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi has lobbied for the release of Ms. Quynh and other dissidents.
Ms. Mai Khoi, who is now putting together her first album with her new band, The Dissidents, has drawn comparisons to performers such as Lady Gaga and Russia’s activist group Pussy Riot. To some extent, her fame has helped protect her. Diplomats and executives such as Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent Alphabet Inc., have sought out her views.
The U.S. has taken concrete steps to expand trade with Vietnam, dropping the arms embargo last year and making it a “comprehensive partner” in 2013. The two countries signed another ‘joint vision statement’ during Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s visit to the U.S. this year.
Mr. Obama, during his May 2016 visit, hailed a new era of relations with Hanoi but also spoke of concerns about free speech, freedom of assembly and government accountability.
Successive American administrations have emphasized trade and diplomatic ties more than they have encouraged more personal freedoms, said Nguyen Quang A, a prominent economist who once headed Vietnam’s first independent think tank.
The move toward more autocratic forms of government in China and Russia, where many of Vietnam’s top leaders studied during the Soviet Union years, have also added to the sense that there will few, if any repercussions from the crackdown.
“The authorities are thinking, ‘OK, we are in a safe space here’,” said Mr. A.
Mr. A and some other commentators said a similar pattern is unfolding elsewhere in the region. Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai academic based in Tokyo, notes that the military leadership of Thailand, also an APEC member, is tightening its hold on power, and Cambodia’s strongman Hun Sen has ordered opposition leaders arrested and accused the U.S. of plotting to unseat him, something Washington denies.
Myanmar’s campaign to clear ethnic-Rohingya Muslims from its western border region, meanwhile, is turning the country in an aggressively nationalist direction and derailing American efforts to nurture a fully functioning democracy on China’s eastern border.
This note of pessimism is particularly strong in Vietnam, where experts such as Carlyle Thayer at Australia’s Defence Force Academy have estimated that as many as one in six working-age Vietnamese work for or provide information to the state security agencies and police.
Since January 2016, the Party has attempted to stifle a range of protests. Demonstrations and online campaigns on issues such as land rights for farmers, highway tolls and environmental issues have put security officials on edge.
U.S.-based cybersecurity firm Volexity this week warned that hackers it believes to be aligned with the government had attempted to infect antigovernment websites with malware to track their visitors.
President Tran Dai Quang, a candidate to succeed Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong as the leading figure in the Politburo, also recently called for more surveillance of Facebook and other social networks, complaining that some people used them to “undermine the prestige of the leaders of the party and the state.”
Well-known blogger Nguyen Chi Tuyen, better known as Anh Chi on Facebook, said police are trying to stifle the spread of smaller groups in case they encourage other people to stage larger demonstrations against Vietnam’s leaders.
“They want to stop us inspiring other people to speak up, too,” he said.
Ms. Mai Khoi, meanwhile, is trying not to provoke the authorities too much until she completes her album, which switches the perky agitpop tracks for which she was best known for her darker, folk-and-jazz inflected songs such as “Re-Education Camp.”
Once it is out, she said, she plans to visit the U.S. to explain what’s happening in the country to congressional leaders—if Vietnamese authorities agree to renew her passport