Vietnam’s online civil movement will not be silenced despite the jailing of a prominent blogger and government critic, a local activist says.

Prominent blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh was arrested in Nha Trang last week. Quynh, 37, who is known by her pen name “Mother Mushroom” (Me Nam), was charged with "propagandizing" against the state, according to reports.

New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) describes Quynh as “one of Vietnam's most prominent and outspoken bloggers” and says her arrest comes “amid an intensifying government clampdown on dissent.”

Tuan Nguyen, 26, is responsible for civil society issues at VOICE, a human rights group in Vietnam. He says there are at least 150 political prisoners currently serving sentences in Vietnamese prisons. In the first nine months of this year, at least 10 activists and bloggers had been detained, arrested, prosecuted or sentenced for their human rights work.

However, Nguyen believes Quynh's arrest will not silence other anti-government bloggers.

In the wake of her arrest, support for Quynh from Vietnamese people and the global community will “encourage other bloggers and activists to continue their work because they may feel that righteousness is on their side,” Nguyen told The News Lens International from Hanoi today.

He says that while many bloggers and activists have been jailed recently, the local human rights movement continues to attract increasing numbers.

“The saying 'what can't kill you will make you stronger' could be applied to this case,” he says.

Vietnam has one of the highest Internet penetration rates in Southeast Asia. In about 15 years from 2000, the number of Internet users skyrocketed from 200,000 to 40 million, representing more than 40 percent of its 93 million people. According to Sweden-based Civil Rights Defenders, the rise of the Internet and rapid uptake of smartphones – there are more than 130 million active mobile subscriptions in Vietnam – “dramatically” lowered the barriers for human rights advocates to disseminate information, which hitherto was both dangerous and costly.

Nguyen says Vietnamese, “especially the youth,” distrust state-owned media and consider social media to be more reliable, leading to bloggers and Facebook users playing an “increasing role in all aspects of social and political life in Vietnam.”

“Not only working as citizen journalists to provide alternative info to official media agencies, they have also collaborated with emerging civil society groups to organize most of the activities of civil resistance around the country, thereby promoting effectively activism and civil rights in Vietnam,” Nguyen says. “Social media now creates the only free public sphere for people to not only discuss all contemporary social and political issues, but also to encourage civil participation into politics.”

A journalist takes a photo of a live screen from the courtroom showing Vietnamese prominent blogger Anh Ba Sam whose real name is Nguyen Huu Vinh (L), and his assistant Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, during their appeal trial in Hanoi, Vietnam September 22, 2016. REUTERS/Kham

Government crackdown

The Vietnamese government has a long record of suppressing its critics. But several recent developments have seen the government become “more confident,” Nguyen says, and led to an “escalation” of its crackdown on the movement for human rights and democracy. That includes the regime's change of leadership in January, which saw the appointment of the former minister of Public Security as the State President and has given more power to the Ministry of Public Security, in addition to the regime upgrading its relations with the U.S.

This year, bloggers Nguyen Huu Vinh, Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, and Nguyen Ngoc Gia have been sentenced to prison on anti-state charges for their journalistic activities, CPJ says.

Quynh, who is considered a pioneer of the Vietnamese activist blogging network and now mainly writes via her Facebook account, was detained for over a week in September 2009 after writing about land confiscations. In 2014, she alerted foreign diplomats and non-government organizations that she feared arrest after being questioned by police. And while she has continued to work on many social issues – land rights, environmental issues and freedom of expression among them – Nguyen suggests authorities may targeted Quynh after her recent involvement in the rare public protests held after a steel mill owned by Taiwan's Formosa Plastics caused a mass fish death in April.

“On Oct. 2, more than 10,000 locals in the affected area gathered in one of the largest protests in Vietnam after 1975, surrounding the Formosa mill while police ran away,” Nguyen says [sic]. “In order to flex its muscle and get back its confidence, the government needed to arrest someone.”

CPJ also notes that Quynh had recently written about 31 cases of civilians dying in police custody.

Still, Nguyen appears optimistic about the long-term direction of the human rights and democracy movement in Vietnam.

He says because of the impact of the Internet in Vietnam, demand for human rights, civil liberties and democracy has increased to an extent that the country can “never go back.”

“Therefore, all suppressing actions by the government including the recent arrest may delay, but can't stop this trend in Vietnam's society,” he says.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole