New tools in Vietnam’s opposition


By K. Oanh Ha
Mercury News

Diem Ngo, the San Jose-based leader of a Vietnamese pro-democracy group, once arranged secret meetings in the jungles of Cambodia for his underground network. Now from his base in San Jose, he’s in daily contact with his lieutenants and those of other dissident political groups inside Vietnam — thanks to e-mail, the Web and software that allows free telephone calls over the Internet.

Ngo’s activities illustrate how technology has propelled an opposition movement in Vietnam, connecting dissidents there with activist Vietnamese-Americans who have money and the potential, through Washington, to exert pressure on the communist government of their homeland. It’s a profound shift that contrasts with the refugee community’s past dreams of fomenting revolution by any means necessary.

“This is a technology war,” said San Jose cardiologist Ngai Xuan Nguyen, leader of a local pro-democracy group. All key members in his party have a cell phone and laptop, a luxury in Vietnam. “With the Internet, the fight for democracy has accelerated very quickly.”

The growing role of the Internet is highlighted in the case of Cong Thanh Do, a San Jose engineer and pro-democracy activist arrested last month in Vietnam. Do led a secret life, under the pseudonym Tran Nam, as a member of the People’s Democratic Party of Vietnam. Most members of the underground political party live in Vietnam. As Tran Nam, Do wrote online essays advocating democracy, human rights and a multiparty system in his homeland. He was also a regular source of information for human rights and free speech groups such as Amnesty International and Committee to Protect Journalists.

Do, as Tran Nam, was specifically cited in the indictment of a prominent Vietnamese dissident who was imprisoned in 2002.

“The government of Vietnam is very nervous about the Internet,” said Tran Hue, a leading political dissident in Vietnam. He spoke to the Mercury News via telephone from his home in Ho Chi Minh City. “They want to stop it but can’t.”

Do’s party emerged suddenly on the Internet a year ago. Just last week, another unheard-of political party in Vietnam used the Internet to announce itself.

“For many, many years we were working alone inside Vietnam,” said Tran Hue. “Now, we use the Internet to get the support of Vietnamese overseas in America and around the world.”

The Internet has also reinvigorated pro-democracy groups in San Jose. Vietnam Restoration Party, founded by Ngo, has more than doubled its membership in Vietnam in the past 10 years, largely due to the Internet, he said, though he refused to disclose any numbers.

“If you only have some political parties outside of Vietnam, they can’t do much,” said Ngo. “But if these groups have activities inside Vietnam, it’s more dangerous for the Vietnamese government.”

Vietnam’s government is taking notice — and clamping down. It claims to block the Internet only to protect its citizens from pornography. But a report last month by the OpenNet Initiative sponsored by Harvard University found that “most of its filtering efforts are aimed at blocking sites with political or religious material that could undermine Vietnam’s one-party system.”

Human Rights Watch estimates there are hundreds of Vietnamese nationals currently imprisoned for their political and religious views, many of them arrested in the past few years.

For three decades, critics of Vietnam’s one-party system have pushed for political reform, sometimes by plotting the military overthrow of the communist government. Even now, the fiercely anti-communist passions within the emigre community are loud and hard to ignore. Protests are not uncommon when officials from Vietnam visit the United States. In Orange County, one popular group considers itself the government of Vietnam in exile. The group’s leader has fought extradition to Vietnam, which accuses him of a failed bombing attempt on its embassy in Thailand.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, marked a turning point for many groups. Old-school talk of revolution gave way to non-violent political reform through a multiparty system. At the same time, political dissent in Vietnam began to take root.

“We saw that non-violence and introducing a new political system is the best way to topple down the communist regime,” said Ngo, whose San Jose group began with dreams of a coup. “Now, this is the more realistic approach.”

The pro-democracy movement inspired Nguyen Si Binh, a Vietnamese-American now living in Palo Alto, to return to Vietnam in 1991 to start an opposition political party. He was arrested in 1992 and imprisoned for 14 months. He still leads the group from Silicon Valley and is trying to build a coalition of opposition parties in Vietnam.

Increasingly, though, he and other activists are taking their fight to the Internet. Routinely, Web sites promoting democracy and human rights in Vietnam are shut down by hackers believed to be working for the government. The freedom fighters counter by using proxy servers to anonymously access the Internet from Vietnam.

“This is the period of the Internet, of information,” said Ngo. “Via the Internet we can send a message to the Vietnamese people and to the communists that the global movement of democracy can’t be reversed.”

Reprinted with permission of K. Oanh Ha, Mercury News

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