Today, the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson is peacefully anchored off Da Nang harbor in Vietnam, marking the first military-diplomatic visit by a US Navy vessel of that size since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. The visit is just one demonstration of the warming of relations between the US and Vietnam that has been going on in the shadow of an increasingly assertive China. However, we must not allow geopolitics to eclipse the arduous struggle being waged by human rights activists in Vietnam—especially Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh, known as “Mother Mushroom.”
The story of the 39-year-old mother is an instructive one, because it is representative of the spontaneous growth of grassroots civil society activism that has taken place in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam since the early 2000s. Quỳnh began her blogging career with rather humble intentions: to share parenting tips with other mothers in Vietnam. As time and circumstances wore on, however, she grew to become a dissident icon. How?
Her entry into sociopolitical activism occurred in 2006 when she started a new blog with a simple mission statement: “Who will speak if you don’t?”
Quỳnh’s activism covered human rights abuses in a number of fields: the suppression of religious freedom by state authorities and nationalist thugs, the ongoing geopolitical crisis in the South China Sea, and the plight of farmers being evicted from their land to make room for massive (often Chinese-backed) strip mines and hydroelectric power infrastructure.
As the rise of the Internet and especially social media allowed bottom-up civil society networks to form in the authoritarian, communist-ruled state, formerly isolated dissidents began to connect with each other and form cohesive groups. In 2013, Mother Mushroom founded the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers (NVB).
NVB’s mission statement declared that its goals were “to promote and protect human rights, including fundamental freedoms, democracy and dignity… Human rights promotion and protection will remain our aim as long as there are widespread human rights violations in Vietnam.”
Mother Mushroom became one of the most famous bloggers in the country, and as such, a target of surveillance and harassment by the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). In a 2014 profile, the Committee to Protect Journalists noted that she had to leave her home in disguise to meet her sources.
“It was ugly what was happening in our society,” Quỳnh told the CPJ interviewer. “My blog asked: Why must we agree with the government on everything? Why can’t we have different opinions?”
“I announce this is my opinion, that I have a right to write,” she continued. “I don’t attack any individual person. I just say I disagree with the Party… but if they want to arrest me, they can.”
And they would—when Mother Mushroom started reporting on the largest industrial disaster in modern Vietnamese history.
In April 2016, a Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation plant spilled toxic waste into the South China Sea, polluting over 100 miles of the Vietnamese coastline and devastating the local economy and food supply. At least 100 tons of poisoned fish carcasses washed up on the shore.
The Formosa environmental catastrophe—and the sheer intransigence of CPV officials in addressing the people’s concerns—rocked Vietnam and catalyzed the independent civil society movement, both digitally and on the ground.
“When challenged in an interview with the media, Formosa’s director responded, ‘Do you want fish or a steel mill?’ The local government, too, tried to conceal the truth, organizing swimming parties and catering seafood to officials. The central government, headed by Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, visited the Formosa plant and returned without making any statement,” wrote Nancy Bui, founder and president of the Vietnamese American Heritage Foundation, for Dissident in 2017. “In response, people across the country stood up. For the first time in decades, there were spontaneous protests in big cities like Saigon [also known as Ho Chi Minh City] and Hanoi. Thousands of people demanded clean water and a transparent investigation into the environmental disaster.”
Quickly, the regime moved to crack down. In October, Mother Mushroom was arrested under the auspices of Article 88—a passage of the Vietnamese legal code tailor-made for crushing freedom of speech.
Immediately, the US ambassador to Vietnam and the chief of the EU delegation condemned the detention and called for an end to the oppression of freedom of conscience in Vietnam. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein condemned Article 88 in a press release.
Quỳnh was held for eight months before facing a drumhead trial in June 2017 where she was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment for her journalism.
“She apologized to her mother and the two kids for what effect this has had on them, but she said they must be very proud of her,” one observer told AFP.
As of February 2018, Mother Mushroom is being held in a remote prison far from her family, and is reportedly suffering from hypertension.
As delegations from the USS Carl Vinson and US Ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink attend commemorative events and choreographed ceremonies consisting of an endless rote of CPV officials’ statements about bilateral relationships, new regional initiatives, and fresh cultural ties, they should listen also to the plaintive plea of another Vietnamese: Nguyễn Bảo Quyên, Mother Mushroom’s ten-year-old daughter:
“We love her so much, and just want her to come home.”
Interested in more from on dissent in Vietnam? Check out “Vietnam’s Online Free Speech Crackdown.”