The Vietnamese blogger known as Mẹ Nam, or Mother Mushroom, missed meeting Melania Trump when the first lady awarded the International Women of Courage Award to 13 women in Washington on Wednesday.
Social activist Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh spent the day in a Khanh Hoa Province prison, where she has been held since she was detained on October 10 after posting about people dying in police custody.
Mother Mushroom, who started blogging under that name in 2006, is a founding member of the Vietnamese Bloggers Network. It is one of the few independent blogging groups in a nation where the ruling Communist Party tightly controls the media and writers.
She was charged under the Article 88 of the 1999 penal code for “spreading propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” The government has not set a trial date, and Mother Mushroom faces a maximum prison term of 12 years. The vaguely worded law has drawn international denunciation for the power it gives the government to suppress dissent.
The United States recognized Mother Mushroom for “her bravery for raising civil society issues, inspiring peaceful change, calling for greater government transparency and access to fundamental human rights, and for being voice of freedom of expression,” said Grace Choi, a spokeswoman for the State Department’s East Asia-Pacific Office.
U.S. diplomats in Hanoi and Saigon posted news of Mother Mushroom’s recognition to Facebook, attracting thousands of “likes” before the official ceremony.
“Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh’s dedication to exposing corruption, raising awareness about environmental protection, and reporting on human rights violations in Vietnam is an inspiration for activists everywhere and has made her one of Vietnam’s best known online activists,” said Choi, adding that since its inception in 2007, the award often has gone to women in prison for their activism.
Foreign Ministry Spokesman Le Hai Binh said bestowing an award on someone being investigated for breaking Vietnam's law was "not suitable and beneficial to the development of the two countries' relationship."
Bui Thi Minh Hang, an activist in Saigon, told VOA that the recognition of Mother Mushroom “is very timely” because other bloggers, such as Tran Thi Thuy Nga, also are imprisoned. “All the people who dare to stand up to fight, who dare to speak the truth in an evil regime like this, these are brave people."
Mother Mushroom’s blogging led to many arrests, but her life changed in 2009 after the government detained her for writing about a bauxite mining project that counted a state-owned Chinese company among its investors. Although Chinese influence in Vietnam’s economy is a politically charged topic, she was released without being charged after a week.
After that “landmark,” Mother Mushroom’s travel business and family life fell apart, according to her mother, Nguyen Thi Tuyet Lan, who, like her daughter, lives in Nha Trang. Since her daughter’s arrest, the blogger’s 90-year-old grandmother has become fearful, and her children, nicknamed Mushroom and Bear, have changed.
“Our lives are really difficult and threatened without Quynh,” Nguyen told VOA on Wednesday.
“I used to feel upset sometimes, because my family is under constant surveillance and harassment,” Nguyen said. “I told my daughter ‘let it go’ but she said, 'I cannot live irresponsibly. I might die, but at least I can do something for others and do what I want to do."'
Ha Tinh spill
Among her recent campaigns, Mother Mushroom has blogged about the government’s handling of a chemical spill at a Taiwanese-owned steel plant in the central Vietnam city of Ha Tinh. The spill that killed 80 tons of fish both embarrassed and worried the government. Images of piles of dead fish went viral worldwide, fishing communities lost income, and thousands of protesters demonstrated at the plant and in cities throughout Vietnam.
The April 2016 Ha Tinh fish kill is widely seen as having raised environmental awareness and activism among Vietnamese. The movement saw an early success when the Taiwanese-owned steel company accepted full responsibility for the fish kill and pledged to pay $500 million in damages for dumping toxic wastewater into the South China Sea.
“Although the government is denouncing her and detaining her, deep inside, they know she is doing the right thing,” said Nguyen. “I am very proud of my daughter because she has overcome the common fear [of speaking up against the government]. She has overcome her fear to stand up and speak in the common voice.”
This report originated with VOA's Vietnamese Service.