The picture of Vuong Van Tha’s arrest is a striking one—the shirtless dissident smiles serenely as he’s being hauled off by two state security policemen in full riot gear. Tha’s calm is all the more remarkable given that his modest home in An Giang province had been besieged by police, state security, and nationalist thugs who used a high-pressure water cannon to bombard it—an attack that sent several women and children to the hospital.
After the May 2017 assault, Tha, his son Vuong Van Thuan, and two male cousins were taken into custody and detained for nearly ten months. In late January 2018, the 49-year-old Tha was sentenced to twelve years’ imprisonment. His son received a sentence of seven years, and the two cousins, Nguyen Nhat Truong and Nguyen Van Thuong, both received six years.
What crime had this small band of activists committed? They had flown the flag of the Republic of Vietnam, better known as South Vietnam, on “Reunification Day”—the public holiday that celebrates the fall of democratic South Vietnam to the Soviet- and Chinese-backed communist North.
Tha has long been a thorn in the side of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). He was arrested in 2012 for allegedly “abusing the rights to freedom and democracy to infringe upon the interests of the state [or] the rights and interests of individuals”—an Orwellian crime if ever there was one—and imprisoned for three years. He has repeatedly denounced the CPV’s authoritarian communist rule both on social media and in the public square, as well as held “gatherings to illegally evangelize.”
Indeed, evangelism is a crucial aspect of this case. All four men are members of the Hòa Hảo sect, a local Buddhist tradition that originated in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam in the first half of the twentieth century.
Practitioners of the Hòa Hảo faith and other religious minorities are deeply distrusted and harassed by the paranoid CPV. As a result, they are often the most outspoken dissidents against the authoritarian regime’s single-party monopoly on power. Religious organizations not controlled by the regime are also increasingly becoming foci for civil society organization and peaceful protest—both of which are seen as dangerous and subversive by authorities in Hanoi.
“Unsanctioned groups of all kinds—religious or not—are restricted and often outright banned by the Vietnamese government,” Kaylee Dolen, content manager for The 88 Project, tells Dissident. “The government often frames arguments against these groups as ‘national security’ matters, stating that religious and other groups pose risks for the state because they believe information they disseminate or the causes they advocate for shift allegiances away from the state and prompt criticism of the government.”
The 88 Project is a nongovernmental organization that supports and encourages freedom of expression in Vietnam by sharing the stories of and advocating for Vietnamese activists who are persecuted because of their peaceful dissent. The organization takes its name from Article 88, a section of the penal code in Vietnam that criminalizes “propaganda” aimed at the communist regime.
According to Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Article 88 effectively makes it a crime for any Vietnamese citizen to enjoy the fundamental freedom to express an opinion, to discuss or to question the Government and its policies.”
“In general, activists in Vietnam face surveillance in the form of being followed by plainclothes agents and having restrictions placed on their movement within the country and abroad. They also face harassment and intimidation from police or pro-government persons in the form of traffic stops, interrogations, confiscations of phones and other items, and even physical attacks,” Dolen continues. “For religious practitioners specifically, I have heard of religious events being disrupted and religious leaders being prohibited from travelling or from meeting with foreign diplomats.”
The 88 Project recently launched a searchable Vietnamese Political Prisoner Database to raise awareness about the many political prisoners being held today in Vietnam. According to their database, 101 activists are currently imprisoned and 32 are detained awaiting trial.
According to his profile in the database, Tha is scheduled to be released on May 18, 2029.
Nevertheless, despite the increasing crackdown on religious liberty, freedom of expression, and independent organization, civil society in Vietnam is on the rise. Activism against corruption, land seizures, and environmental catastrophes like the 2016 Formosa steel mill disaster is mobilizing more and more Vietnamese citizens to demand civic rights. If Tha is any indication, the fear of reprisal and imprisonment is not enough to silence the people of Vietnam.