Vietnam’s government regularly encourages political prisoners to relocate overseas in the hopes of using their release to improve its standing in the global community, according to a Vietnamese blogger and activist who moved to the U.S. last month after being suddenly freed from jail.
Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh—known by her blogger handle Me Nam, or Mother Mushroom—won a surprise release from a 10-year jail term for “anti-state propaganda” on Oct. 17 and flew to the U.S. city of Houston a day later with her elderly mother and two young children.
International rights groups had long championed her cause, and while they welcomed her release, they said that she should never have been jailed for her work blogging about human rights abuses and corruption in Vietnam, and more recently voicing criticism over Vietnam’s policy toward China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Speaking to RFA’s Vietnamese Service on Tuesday, the 39-year-old said she and other political prisoners were pressured by the government to leave Vietnam.
“The Vietnamese government’s consistent policy is to encourage political prisoners to move overseas,” she said in an interview.
“Depending on the situation, [authorities] select who would be released so that they might receive economic benefits or an improved standing on the world stage.”
Arrested in October 2016, the 39-year-old Quynh was sentenced in June 2017 to jail on charges of spreading “propaganda against the state” under Article 88 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.
Quynh's detention, during which she staged several hunger strikes, was one of the more high profile cases of activists handed heavy sentences as part of an ongoing crackdown by the one-party state in the Southeast Asian nation, which holds more than 100 political prisoners and adds more to the list every week.
Quynh told RFA that during her detention, prison authorities “used my relatives to pressure me.”
“[The security agents] told me what I had done would be a burden to my mother and [my children], and tried to make me think that what I did was wrong,” she said.
“They tried to persuade me to leave the country. I thought that deep inside they still had human sympathy and were speaking truthfully … But when I was imprisoned, I realized that none of them were good.”
According to Qunyh, she tried hard not to think about her family while she was held in pre-trial detention, because otherwise she “might do whatever they want to be released as soon as possible.”
“The important thing was not letting the person [monitoring me] know how happy or sorrowful I was,” she said, adding that she “had to ‘be like water.’”
Activism in exile
But when Qunyh was sentenced to 10 years in jail and assigned to a prison labor detail, she could not help but think of her children growing up without a mother, and she began to question herself.
“When I was sentenced to 10 years, I prayed and thought that maybe I had gone too far,” she said.
“I had done so much because of my beliefs, but I began to wonder if it was time to think of the children, and I thought that I might have been wrong.”
When Qunyh was suddenly released last month, she took the opportunity to protect her family by relocating them to the U.S., where she has vowed to keep speaking out on human rights back in her communist nation.
She said Vietnam’s policy of sending political prisoners out of the country “won’t make any impact on social and political campaigns” and could actually serve to “help the movement inside Vietnam.”
“It’s not important whether one is inside or outside Vietnam,” she said.
“What is important is what we want to do and how we carry it out.”
Other Vietnamese bloggers have echoed Qunyh’s claims that Vietnam appears to have adopted a policy of sending critics into exile or using them as diplomatic bargaining chips. China’s communist regime used a similar tactic with jailed dissidents in the 1990s as it lobbied to enter the World Trade Organization and to host the 2008 Olympic Games.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by An Nguyen. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.