Vietnamese Blogger Phạm Minh Hoàng: “I Cannot Be Stripped of My Citizenship”

Published June 19, 2017 in Episode 74

A Vietnamese educator who has been prevented from teaching, finds the last shred of his identity stripped from him: His Vietnamese citizenship. Professor Phạm Minh Hoàng learned out of the blue earlier this month that Việt Nam’s president had decided to take away his citizenship. The 61-year-old is a prominent blogger who writes about human rights, social justice, and corruption in Việt Nam. He’s a member of the pro-democracy party Việt Tân -- Loa is a project of Việt Tân. Hoàng, who holds dual French-Vietnamese citizenship, is now at risk of being expelled to France at any moment. On June 17, he went on the record from Sài Gòn, with Loa’s contributing reporter Lilly Nguyễn.

Lilly Nguyễn: Professor Phạm Minh Hoàng. For weeks now, you have been made aware that you may face deportation from your home country, Việt Nam. I just wanted to thank you for taking a moment to speak with Loa about your situation so that others can understand your side of the story.

Phạm Minh Hoàng: Yes, in early June, the French Consulate official (in Sài Gòn) invited me to come in. They did this because I am a dual French-Vietnamese citizen. They told me the news that the Vietnamese government decided to revoke my Vietnamese citizenship, a decision signed by President Trần Đại Quang.

According to the French Consulate, the decision was signed on May 17, however, at the time he told me this, even he had not seen the official decision, and of course, neither had I. The news sent shock waves through me because I think the decision to revoke my Vietnamese citizenship will result in my deportation. It is the last thing I would have wanted.

Because deportation from this country would mean that my family will be forced to be split up. Allow me to explain. Since I have French citizenship, my daughter is also a French citizen. If I am deported, she can go to France with me or at a later time. However, my wife, Lê Thị Kiều Oanh, is a Vietnamese citizen. She has to stay back to take care of her older brother, who is a disabled South Vietnamese war veteran. He was wounded during the Tống Lê Chân battle in 1973. My brother's situation is critical, he is almost blind, almost deaf and paralyzed on one side of the body. He needs constant home care assistance. In addition, my wife also has to stay back to take care of her elderly mother who is 80 years old. These are the challenges that sum up the difficult situation I face. Therefore deportation will certainly lead to family separation.

Lilly Nguyễn: When an AFP reporter asked about Việt Nam's decision at a press briefing, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lê Thị Thu Hằng said: “Phạm Minh Hoàng has violated the law and national security. The removal of citizenship was conducted in accordance with the provisions of Vietnamese law.” Why do they consider you a national security threat?

Phạm Minh Hoàng: To be honest, the law in Việt Nam is very arbitrary. Lê Thị Thu Hằng made remarks as just one representative from one law-enforcing body.  According to Việt Nam’s constitution, they charged me with violating national security, but they haven’t actually convicted me of anything at all, and yet, she still just declared that I have violated national security.

Secondly, what exactly is violating national security? What action is that? If you or any of the listeners followed my case in the past, I previously served 17 months imprisonment and three years of house arrest. After that period of time, I'd say my activism fell under the category of “light”. I wrote blogs and articles, I continued to express my views on issues like democracy, corruption, environment, territorial sovereignty. This is something that anybody could do, and to be honest, everybody should do -- it’s our responsibility to express those views.

Especially as an educator, even though I am no longer able to teach, I still have these rights, as well as the right to express my perspectives on the state's education system. My actions have been peaceful, and I never use vulgar or inflammatory speech.

So I've shared this information with my friends and family, as well as with current and former activists, and they all agree that the government is targeting Việt Tân, as I was previously convicted as a Việt Tân member. And after I was released, I still continued to write, so they just claim that all of those actions are for Việt Tân. We can call this type of intimidation attempts to deter and punish -- that is their language -- anybody that has any association with Việt Tân, and of course punishment of the organization itself. That’s the way I see it.

Lilly Nguyễn: Human Rights Watch calls the decision to revoke your Vietnamese citizenship a “ completely unjustified abuse of human rights [that] marks a new low for Hanoi's treatment of political dissidents.” Is the Communist Party simply trying to get rid of you?

Phạm Minh Hoàng: Yes, that is also my feeling as well as others. In general, dissidents, even if they do not necessarily belong to a party, or an organization, but when their actions are considered "harmful to national security” --and I'm using quotation marks here because we can understand the accusation “to be harmful to national security” in any way we want--the government uses all types of measures to isolate or eliminate these dissidents, and I haven’t mentioned the measure of force yet. And when they have failed to isolate or eliminate them, then like in my situation, they use the expulsion measure, to make me go abroad, to minimize the harm to them, and that is what is happening now.

Lilly Nguyễn: Have there been other cases where activists have been expelled or subjected to deportation or are you an isolated case?

Phạm Minh Hoàng: I had the opportunity to talk with the AFP reporter in Hà Nội, this is the first unique case happened.

Lilly Nguyễn: Going back to the formal decision to revoke your citizenship, which was signed by the president of Việt Nam, Trần Đại Quang. The decision was based on Articles 88 and 91 of the Constitution and the Law on Vietnamese Nationality of 2008. Those provisions deal with the duties and powers of the president, so in other words, the president of Việt Nam used his executive power to revoke your citizenship?

Phạm Minh Hoàng: Yes, exactly as you say, he referred to Articles 88 and 91 of the Constitution, which give him authority to strip a person off his citizenship. However, he used the Citizenship Act as the reason for revoking my citizenship. But the Citizenship Act has dozens of articles. Which articles did he refer to? Did I violate a particular one or all of them?

Secondly, and just as important, the lawyers told me that even if I violated national security, they can not revoke my citizenship. Allow me to explain:

The Citizenship Act of Việt Nam stipulates there are two subjects that can be stripped of their citizenship. The first is a foreigner, like a French, or an American, who applied for Vietnamese citizenship. The second is a Vietnamese who has Vietnamese citizenship but lives abroad. These two subjects, if they violate the law, including endangering national security, then the president has the authority to revoke their citizenship.

Phạm Minh Hoàng with a sign declaring "I am Vietnamese." (Photo: Facebook/Phạm Minh Hoàng)

Phạm Minh Hoàng with a sign declaring "I am Vietnamese." (Photo: Facebook/Phạm Minh Hoàng)

Secondly, I live in the country. Obviously, I'm not one of the two subjects mentioned above. So I can not be stripped of my citizenship, no matter what I do.

The lawyers also explained that actually it's the document signed by President Trần Đại Quang that violates Vietnamese law.

Lilly Nguyễn: You’re a dual French-Vietnamese citizen -- but you’ve now declared to renounce your French citizenship. In a time when many people dream to live in a free country, you made the decision to rather stay in Việt Nam and face government retaliation. Please help us understand this decision.

Phạm Minh Hoàng: My decision, I think, is very normal. Every Vietnamese has the wish to live on the land that he was borned and raised. Like everyone, I also wish to live, to work and even to die here, that’s normal. My wish is very strong, and I think it will overcome all obstacles. When they notified me of the decision to revoke my citizenship, I thought of how I could give up my French citizenship first, so that they can not take away my Vietnamese citizenship. My reasoning is a very simple one.

Back to the question why there are people who want to leave Việt Nam, I think they leave reluctantly, because they too, like everyone else, love their homeland. I know many people who want to go live abroad. I also know many people abroad who want to go back to our homeland, but circumstances do not allow them. All are very sad images of our country. My choice is also a painful one. With my choice I want to share all the pain of my country Việt Nam today.

Lilly Nguyễn: You have stated that you will not leave your house to avoid any risk of forced expulsion. How has the news affected your day-to-day living?

Phạm Minh Hoàng: Right now, as I am talking to you, they are sitting in front of my house about 15 meters away. They follow all the moves I make. As soon as I step out of the house, they start to follow me. As you can imagine, it is very stressful it is to live under these circumstances. They follow me, but they haven't gone as far as stopping me. But if you and your listeners put yourself in my shoes, you would see just how stressful it is. Right now, if I just stepped outside to buy a bowl of crab noodle soup or a pack of sticky rice - they will still follow me. Many people tell me to just pretend they’re not there, but it’s not easy to do that. In a regime like this in Việt Nam, they use any measure they can to isolate you and terrorize your mind. This is the situation I am forced to live with. I always try to adapt so that I can continue to live here.

Lilly Nguyễn: What are your options now?

Phạm Minh Hoàng: After I found out the Vietnamese government wanted to revoke my citizenship, I, along with my friends overseas and inside Việt Nam, have spoken out against their decision. We especially tried to reach out to the French government and other governments that support freedom. I had a tiny bit of hope that the negotiations would produce positive results for me. However, as you know, they won’t let us know how the negotiations went. Once they have succeeded or failed, they will let me know so I can make plans for my life. I’m living in a constant state of waiting.

I have done everything I could, but no one can predict the results. In my case, I have to prepare for the worst that could happen, like getting deported.

Lilly Nguyễn: Have you met with the officials in the French Embassy since receiving the notice? What are they saying? What should you expect in the days ahead?

Phạm Minh Hoàng: The French embassy, through their diplomatic channels, are very careful with their words, even though they consider me to be a reliable person, someone who fights for Freedom, Equality, and Fraternity- the three values of the French Republic. To some extent, they respect me. However, in their capacities as embassy officials and diplomats, they can only protest up to a certain extent. Even when in conversation with me, they express their respect for my work, but they consider Việt Nam's revoking of my citizenship an internal issue. France can’t do anything- because Việt Nam has sovereign rights. They don’t have the ability to intervene in Việt Nam's decision to deprive a citizen of their citizenship of their citizenship.

Lilly Nguyễn: When you first heard about this decision, in a heartfelt letter to your friends, the Facebook community, and your supporters about your current situation, you wrote:

“November 1973… I remember the day like yesterday, moving to Paris to study. As the plane flew over Sài Gòn’s skies, I looked outside the window and said I would return to build my homeland, in shambles from war.”

Professor Hoàng, you left Việt Nam in 1973 and eventually came back to Viêt Nam in 2000. During the past 17 years since you came home, have you been able to fulfill your dream (to build your homeland), at least in some measure?

Phạm Minh Hoàng: My dream has definitely not been fulfilled because our country is still facing many problems, from politics to the environment, health, etc. I am under no illusion to solve all of them. My country is in disarray, so I haven’t achieved my dreams. For now, I am proud and at peace with myself. During my ten years teaching at Bách Khoa University, I tried my best to be a professor- sharing with my students the  knowledge that I gained abroad and during my own studies.

I am proud of the fact that compared to my colleagues during that time, I tried hard to teach with conscience. I put the students above everything else, and the student’s rights above everything else. I put in a 100 percent effort to impart my knowledge to my students. That is my greatest accomplishment. Even though my career went unfinished, I was arrested and wasn’t allowed to teach, I am still proud. I still thought, as a Vietnamese proverb goes, “Man proposes, God disposes.” I did my best and Heaven decides the rest.  

As a Catholic, I have to find mental strength in God at this time. I told my family and priests who visited me that God has arranged for me to come back to Việt Nam, to be imprisoned, and now for me to leave again. Each time God closes a door that prevents me to do something, He also opens another door. With this belief, I continue to try to live to serve my community and country. And I hold on to this belief to continue to live and work for the days and months to come.

Lilly Nguyễn: Thank you again for spending time and speaking with us on Loa. Do you have any last comments before we close?

Phạm Minh Hoàng: The last thing I want to say is thank you to everyone around the world who has supported me. More than that, some have made efforts to contact diplomats to help me out. Their efforts make me feel like I am not alone in this battle. I won’t feel lonely in following days and I wish everyone good health and we will struggle shoulder to shoulder for democracy in our Việt Nam.

Read the original interview in Vietnamese in our Web Exclusive.