Published October 9, 2015 in Episode 20
Resistance to oppression is in the Vietnamese people’s DNA. Since the Vietnamese Communist Party imposed its one-party rule throughout the country in 1975, the space for resistance has grown. Isolated voices of dissent in the 80s and 90s gave way to the emergence of un-sanctioned groups today.
Việt Tân, the Việt Nam Reform Party, is one of those un-sanctioned groups. It was formally established 33 years ago this week with a mission to mobilize the people to reform Việt Nam.
“A revolution cannot happen without revolutionary individuals. Nor can it happen without a revolutionary organization. Thus we hold this to be true: we must have a revolutionary party in order to have a revolution.” - Hoàng Cơ Minh, founder and first chairman of Việt Tân
After the end of the war in 1975, Hoàng Cơ Minh, a Rear Admiral in the Republic of Việt NamNavy, and a handful of young fellow revolutionaries laid the foundations for a long-term reform movement powered by the Vietnamese people. For more than three decades now, activists in Việt Tân have worked toward fighting injustice, promoting human rights, and enabling a sustainable democracy.
Since then, the conditions for participating in the movement have changed. Once unfathomable, today, Việt Tân members inside Việt Nam are openly speaking out and taking action.
Đặng Ngọc Minh is member of Việt Tân from the Mekong Delta and a former prisoner of conscience. A housewife, she counts herself as an activist, both for her daughter -- also a Việt Tân member, currently serving eight years of arbitrary detention -- and for the many farmers who have lost their land to the state.
For Minh, it was the party’s principles of nonviolent action that motivated her participation: “I knew of Việt Tân’s peaceful tactics and principles of nonviolent struggle, so I decided to join so that we can stand together in this struggle. Especially inside Việt Nam.”
Minh has only lived in Việt Nam and in Thai refugee camps. But even for those who long ago left Việt Nam, the desire to see democracy in their motherland, tugs at their hearts.
Phạm Minh Hoàng, a long-time Việt Tân member, had studied in France and lived there for almost three decades when he decided to go back to Viêt Nam for good in 2000.
Hoàng says, “I wanted to directly participate in the struggle for human rights and democracy for Việt Nam. I already had French citizenship, and I believe that the fight from abroad, is necessary. But there has to be direct contributions, what I call direct confrontations with the Vietnamese regime.”
Those confrontations didn’t come without consequences. Hoàng was a mathematics lecturer at the Hồ Chí Minh City University of Technology when he was arrested for blogging and organizing leadership courses. His writings were deemed acts of “terrorism” and “inciting social disorder.” The educator spent 17 months in jail, followed by three years under house arrest. He says that those who decide to challenge the regime know what risks they are taking.
Hoàng believes the opposition movement in Việt Nam is still in its infancy. Right now, the focus for groups like Việt Tân, and others such as the Việt Nam Path Movement and Brotherhood for Democracy among many others, is to work together and build strength in numbers.
Yet Việt Tân was not always a public opposition force. The party, like many other dissident groups, originally operated underground to minimize persecution. In 2004, Việt Tân went public with a coming out event in Berlin, where the iron curtain fell. CNN covered the event.
Going public was a strategic decision to inaugurate a new phase in the struggle: to challenge the Communist Party head-on. Today, Việt Tân takes on international advocacy along with grassroots mass mobilization efforts in Vietnam. These strategies are based on the tenets of nonviolent tactics and civil disobedience of people-powered movements, such as those led by Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.
An essential principle of any people-powered movement is that any one person can make a contribution in his or her own way, both from within but also from the outside.
Maria Stephan, senior policy fellow at the United States Institute of Peace and co-author of the book Why Civil Resistance Works, explains that external actors, such as those in the diaspora and allies in international human rights organizations, play a crucial supportive role.
“We know that external actors are always the secondary players in these local, nonviolent campaigns and movements,” says Stephan. “External actors can play very important roles in helping to amplify the voices of local activists, which is particularly important in closed or closing spaces when having access to media and journalists is difficult.”
For Việt Tân, taking the struggle to the masses means waging large public awareness campaigns that both draw support for activists inside and overcome the stigma of a formerly underground movement.
Dan Đổ Huỳnh, youth leader and former president of the Union of North American Vietnamese Students Associations, says that perception is a limitation on the movement, but believes it can be overcome.
“I think it can be a bit paralyzing for young people who might want to contribute to the movement or in some cases prevents people from even learning about it. I think the stigma comes from well-intentioned people who have opinions about the movement but then those opinions get misinterpreted into facts.
Let’s continue to educate folks on what the movement is all about--that it’s not some taboo or scary thing but quite simply, it’s a group of people who care very deeply about the current and future state of Việt Nam and believes that the status quo is unacceptable.”
The internet has played an amplifying role for peaceful movements of recent years: from the uprisings to oust dictators in Tunisia and Egypt to anti-corruption campaigns in India. In a challenging space where information is filtered and media is state-owned however, Việt Tân relies on online tools for offline impact.
Đặng Ngọc Minh holds hopes for the Vietnamese people to be united in a common struggle.
“As a former prisoner of conscience and just like so many others who have been released and continue the struggle in Vietnam; we have a sincere longing - that the communities abroad, that the young generations and those who didn’t grow up in Việt Nam but still have a love for their motherland – that we may unite. With that energy and force from within and abroad I hope that one day we will be able to overcome this regime and live together in a country we all love.”
The idea of self-determination was once a revolutionary idea, one that rings true to this day. But the struggle still needs revolutionary people to do the work of resistance, of peaceful actions for change.