Việt Nam’s Zombie Uprising

Published July 20, 2015 in Episode 13

A Vietnamese rap song hit the internet in early January of this year. Young Vietnamese, listening on their mobile phones stumbled on it, and it hit them like a brick.

The artist, Nguyễn Vũ Sơn aka Nah, had dropped the equivalent of an F-bomb onto their airwaves.

Nguyễn Hoàng Vũ, who did not want to give his real name for fear of reprisal, counts himself as a member of this Zombie movement.

The 25-year-old says, “The song confirmed the deep problems we saw in our society: corrupt officials, the selling of our land, or the Spratly Islands. The youth here is mad at the government’s timid handling of it all. When young people heard the lyrics, they got excited, because it put out in the open what we wanted to say. That’s how the Zombie movement got started, from those young people.”

The Zombie image is a direct reference to Nah’s song, which is so subversive and provocative, it’s mostly referred to only by the title’s initials: ĐMCS. It translates to “Fuck Communism”.

It is inspired from these few lines:

The whole generation has been brainwashed. What a misfortune!
They’re like zombies that will only waste our bullets
Hate the Communist Party but won’t fucking dare to speak up–you’re as good as mute

Vũ says those verses refer to his generation. “In this song, Sơn wants to say that the young generation has had their facts, their history changed by the Vietnamese Communist Party. The truth has been completely buried,” he says. “So I think, Zombie here refers to people to have had their brains taken away, or stuffed with information that’s completely false or not real.”

The rap song inspired an anonymous activist to draw up a caricature of a Zombie: a skull devoid of a brain, with holes for eyes, and a clenched jaw. The design was uploaded under the anonymous Facebook page Zombie Nguyễn.

Soon young Vietnamese began to use that logo as their avatars and declared themselves Zombies. But in doing so they wanted to co-opt the image of a brainless generation.

One 19-year-old, a student from Sài Gòn, says he saw the Zombie logo and wanted to become part of the movement. I'll call him Minh because he also did not want to reveal his real name for fear of harassment.

“Before I heard about the Zombie, I knew a little bit about my country,” Minh recounts. “But after I heard Nah rap like that, I felt compelled to search for the truth. When I heard Nah, that’s when I learned about the Tết Offensive massacre in Huế. Those are truths that the government, they’re not public about. That’s what I thought and that’s why I went to find out.”

But that’s as far as the Zombie movement went. Though both Minh and Vũ self-identify as “members of the movement,”  they say, it’s just people putting the Zombie logo up online, sharing news articles and information of corruption or human rights abuses.

Vũ says he was one of the first people to join the movement. It's just a loose affiliation, he says, with no real structure.

“We don’t have a frontman or a ringleader. And there has never been any  organization founded by the name Zombie. It’s just simply through one song and from there we felt that, the truth needed to be exposed. So we just link together through Facebook and news articles. We share the news with each other to expand our knowledge and to know the truth that has been kept hidden for so long.”

The members often don’t even know each other in real life.

Even the incident on July 11, the mass arrest of Zombies, was not preceded by any big plans.

“If you call it a plan to meetup, it’s already complicating the issue, because it was just going to be a get together. Take photos, get to know each other.” Vũ insists, “There really was no other purpose.”

“I was really surprised when they, and Phi, were arrested,” he adds. He lives far from Saigon so he hadn’t attended the meetup.

One Zombie, who did attend, was Minh.

“I heard sirens wailing. A girl, wearing a Zombie shirt, was taken away. And officials just told her to get on. She didn’t resist. She was pretty docile. They went on to arrest others, my friend videotaped it all,” he recounts.

The video shows a crowd gathering around a truck, uniformed officials, not in police uniform, seem to be ushering people onto the back of the truck.

“There were people, who weren’t even wearing Zombie shirts. They were wearing t-shirts with some faces with beards, some cartoons. Those people were arrested too!” he remembers.

Minh had gotten to the scene late, and only caught the tail-end of the commotion.

“Actually that day, I was running late,” he says. “I was busy with a few things, so I wasn’t wearing a Zombie shirt. So I was left alone, I wasn’t harassed. I saw those around me, whoever wore a Zombie t-shirt was arrested. They seemed very surprised. They never even understood what was happening. So they were just quiet and stepped on to the cars and were taken away. It was really sad, they didn’t even know why they were arrested.”

Some of the students who arrested were just eleventh and twelfth-graders. Minh says more than 20 people were arrested. All of them were released after a day in custody - except for one: Nguyễn Thanh Phước, a rapper who goes by Nguyễn Phi.

It was Phi who posted the call for the get-together on his Facebook. After 48 hours in custody, five police officers took Phi home and raided it for Zombie t-shirts. In the process, authorities confiscated his computer.

But his family still hasn't received an official explanation for his detention. They and those arrested and later released did not want to speak out.

Vũ says, “One really strange thing is that all of those who were released, they have said very little. And they are very reserved when they say anything. All the information we have about that day, I don’t know what the security police told them but they are very afraid.”

Like the other youth, Phi was taken to Detention Center No. 4 on Phan Đăng Lưu Street in Sài Gòn. He’s been held for more than a week now, without an official arrest warrant.

I called the detention center and asked if Phi was still held there. The man at the other end of the line tells me first, I’ve got the wrong number. Then he tells me to call back during office hours. Next he tells me to come to the center in person. And then he hangs up.

Nguyễn Văn Đài, a lawyer and founder of the Committee of Human Rights has faced harassment and arrest himself. He read Phi’s facebook post calling for the meet-up.

“I saw his statement on his facebook and a video clip that show he and his colleagues on the street,” Đài says. “I didn’t see any action that violate the traffic law or any other law in Việt Nam.”

He says neither activity broke the law. In fact, he argues that the investigation agency is violating Vietnamese laws by holding Phi without cause or evidence: “According to the criminal law in Vietnam, within 24 hours, after the investigation agency detain him, the investigation agency must inform his family what law he violated.”

He says the agency hasn’t presented any evidence. “[U]ntil now the investigation didn’t show anything that Nguyễn Phi broke the law of Việt Nam.”

Đài posted tips for the Zombies on his Facebook, informing them they have the right to remain silent when detained, the right to a lawyer, the right to know the reason of the arrest and the right for their families to be notified.

The arrested youth were afforded none of these rights. Minh says they were asked: Why are you wearing that t-shirt? Who sold it to you?

He says the government’s action will only backfire.

“We have the right to wear whatever we want,” he says. “I’m very upset. Really, very upset.”

He says he wants to see the Zombies evolve: “I hope the Zombie movement will move forward at an even higher level. It won’t just stop at being an internet movement. There will be people, who will create a real Zombie organization with a real purpose. That’s my hope.”

Vũ, on the other hand, says the arrests show that government is afraid of the Zombies. He wants them to open their eyes.

“I have a message. We young people really want to care and we want our country to have a foundation for progress. We want to have an education that’s more open. So that we can learn and contribute to the country in a positive way. I don’t want everyone to look at us Zombies, or any young person, and think we only know how to play. We’re not like that. And I want the police, the government, to change the way they see us Zombies.”

Nguyễn Phi’s fellow Zombies have begun using the hashtag “#FreePhi” to call for his release.

The Zombies say this injustice has only made them more determined to rise up.