August 5, 2012
As a mother dies in protest at her daughter’s detention, it’s time for Britain to take a stand
On 30 July, when Dang Thi Kim Lieng left home in the morning, her daughter assumed she was following her regular coffee routine. Instead she made her way to the offices of the Bac Lieu People’s Committee and self-immolated outside the building, the first such act of protest in Vietnam since the 1970s. She died on her way to hospital. Dang Thi Kim Lieng’s other daughter, Ta Phong Tan, is one of three bloggers from the website Free Journalists’ Club facing trial for "distorting the truth, denigrating the party and state" under article 88 of Vietnam’s criminal code, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
It wasn’t only concern for her daughter that prompted Lieng’s desperate act; in addition to their anxieties about Ta Phong Tan she and her family have also had to face harassment from the state, including threats of eviction. In March this year, Reporters Without Borders published The Enemies of the Internet, a report listing countries with the worst record on internet freedom. To no one’s surprise China topped the list of most enthusiastic jailor of netizens, but taking the silver medal, as it had the previous year, was Vietnam – alongside Iran. It isn’t only online dissenters who are targeted by the state – PEN International has a list of more than 20 writers, including poets and novelists, who are detained in Vietnam. Most of the accused are held under article 88, which is aimed at "propaganda against the state", or article 77, which outlaws attempts at "overthrowing the people’s administration". The laws are ambiguous enough to allow the authorities to use them against any critical voice.
The three bloggers of Free Journalists Club were supposed to stand trial on 25 July, but the date was unaccountably changed to 7 August and, in contravention of criminal proceedings, the court barred observers and family members from attending. At present, all three bloggers are being held in pre-trial detention: Ta Phong Tan, a former policewoman who has used her blog to criticise police abuses, has been held since 5 September 2011; Phan Thanh Hai, a law school graduate whose application to practice law was denied by the Ho Chi Minh Bar Association because of his blogging on controversial issues such as bauxite mining, has been held since October 18 2010; Dieu Cay, a human rights lawyer and blogger, was originally held on trumped-up charges of tax evasion in 2009 (well before the Chinese authorities used a similar strategy to lock up Ai Weiwei), and imprisoned until 19 October 2010 – the day that prison sentence ended his pretrial detention under article 88 started.
All this is taking place as Vietnam’s relations with the UK are getting significantly closer. In 2010 the two countries signed a strategic partnership agreement; in 2011 Vietnam was the second most popular emerging market for investors after China in a survey by UK Trade & Investment; and in April this year William Hague became the first foreign secretary to visit the country in many years, tweeting that Asia-Pacific was "a much greater focus of foreign policy under this gov."
There hasn’t yet been a response from the Foreign Office to the self-immolation. By contrast, the US embassy in Hanoi released a statement on 1 August expressing its sadness and calling for the immediate release of the bloggers.
As for the Vietnamese state’s response to Dang Thi Kim Lieng’s suicide – on Friday, after days of silence, officials said they were investigating the death; on the same day, one of the lawyers for the bloggers received a phone call from the court clerk to say the trial had been delayed once more. No reason was given. Ta Phong Tan remains in prison, and it’s unclear if she has been informed of her mother’s death. Surely it’s past time for the individuals, organisations and governments who speak out against repression in China and Iran to add their voices to the protests.
Source: By Kamila Shamsie for the Guardian.
Kamila Shamsie is the author of five novels, including Burnt Shadows which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, and has been translated into over 20 languages. She has also written a work of non-fiction, Offence: The Muslim Case. A trustee of Free Word and English Pen, she grew up in Karachi and now lives in London