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October 29, 2013

Vietnam’s Latest Trial Shows New Generation of Activism

by Marianne Brown

 A man in Vietnam has been convicted of "abusing democratic freedoms" for using the social media site Facebook to campaign for the release of his brother, a jailed government critic.  It is the latest case involving a new generation of Internet-based activists.
 
Thirty-year-old Dinh Nhat Uy was put on trial Tuesday for posting information on his Facebook page in support for his brother, who is serving a four-year jail sentence for distributing anti-government leaflets.

Vietnamese defense attorney Ha Huy Son says that after a brief trial, a court found Uy guilty Tuesday of using the social media site to criticize the government.

Son said Uy received a 15-month suspended sentence for “abusing democratic freedoms” under Article 258 of the penal code.

According to a translated copy of the indictment posted on political blog Duan Luan, which translates as “The People’s Comment,” Uy’s Facebook posts allegedly included “fabricated, defamatory, and offensive contents toward the state, organizations, and individuals”.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, says the indictment against Uy was unusual because it centered on his use of the social networking site.

“Even though there have been other cases in Vietnam that have involved people that have put things on Facebook, I would argue that this is one of the first cases in Vietnam where Facebook has been central to what he’s being charged with,” he said.

Uy’s case highlights a new generation of political activism in Vietnam, a country of 32 million Internet users out of a population of around 90 million.

Over 70 per cent of the country’s Internet population use Facebook, and despite being sporadically blocked by some internet providers, the social network has become a vibrant platform for the country’s political bloggers.

Vu Sy Hoang, a social activist based in Ho Chi Minh City, was among thousands of people taking part in a vigil at a church in Ho Chi Minh City on Sunday to show support for Dinh Nhat Uy and his family ahead of the trial.

“I think now there’s a new generation of activists, Internet activists. They are very young, brave. They used blogs and social networks to exchange information and they express their feelings, their commentary,” said Vu Sy Hoang.

Although most political activists use social media, observers says the younger generation raised during a period of economic prosperity have their own approach in discussing political reform.

In the past in Vietnam, discussing reforms was predominantly the territory of intellectuals. But now, says Jonathan London from Hong Kong’s City University, the internet is opening the discussion to a wider audience.

“We’re seeing the introduction or diversification of modes of political expression. And of course the appeal of social media in Vietnam is that it offers Vietnamese something very special, freedom of expression, which is unmediated political speech. This is something that is really new to Vietnam and of course it’s exciting for people,” he said.

As Vietnam’s political bloggers seek to inform and influence the country’s millions of internet users, the state is struggling to understand and regulate this new platform for political discourse. London says Uy’s trial illustrates that tension.

“On one hand Vietnamese of all stripes are dealing with a changing social and political discourse, I think that’s very interesting and complex process in its own right and on the other hand this question of politics. What we’re seeing is the struggle to see what in fact constitutes free speech in Vietnam,” he said.

Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch says he believes the charges against Uy were aimed at intimidating activists and their families from following his example. Many relatives of dissidents already take to the internet to garner support for their cause.

Nguyen Tri Dung, the son of jailed blogger Dieu Cay, also uses his Facebook page to campaign for his father’s release. He said he knows he could be targeted by Article 258 but he is prepared for the consequences.

“I don’t know what Kha and Uy think, but my thinking is that we do it for the future. I have a son and I think about it a lot. So I think what I’m doing here is for him and my mother will understand that,” he said.  

According to Human Rights Watch, 61 activists and dissidents have been convicted in Vietnamese courts this year, up from around 40 in 2012. Robertson says he is concerned the latest case indicates the trend will continue.