HANOI - She’s just spent about eight hours being interrogated by Vietnamese state security officials at the airport after a flight from Europe, but the intimidation hasn’t shaken Mai Khoi’s focus.
“I’m busy,” she says on the phone over the clamor of rehearsing musicians hours later.
“I can’t talk, I have to practice.”
The outspoken musician, whose full name is Do Nguyen Mai Khoi, just released a new album titled “Dissent” and has learned to deal with pressure from Vietnam’s government as a matter of formality.
In a later call, she described how she was detained at Hanoi’s Noi Bai airport on Tuesday night after returning from a European tour and forced to recount the activities of her trip in painstakingly granular detail.
She said this type of “mental violence” isn’t new to her, but it is extremely disquieting in a country that has been giving long jail terms to activists who dare raise sensitive topics.
“No, to stay in Vietnam is not safe for me who wants to express freely, but I still have to stay here because I think it’s going to change. The censorship system’s going to change. The way they control people’s talk has to be changed,” she said.
Mixed signals on freedom of speech
Just which direction Vietnam is heading in when it comes to freedom of expression is not entirely clear. The country has been praised for huge strides it has made in LGBT rights, including rescinding a ban on gay marriage in recent years.
Bucking the regional trend, Vietnam is strengthening ties with the United States and other democracies to counterbalance the rapidly growing geopolitical influence of its old foe China amidst escalating tensions between Beijing and Hanoi over rival claims to the South China Sea.
Ina powerful diplomatic gesture, a U.S. aircraft carrier docked in Vietnam this year for the first time since the fall of Saigon, which was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the war.
This strategic alignment gives rise to hopes that increasing internationalism will lead Vietnam to greater openness, as does its current trajectory on international trade.
Vietnam has just signed on to the the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) — a deal linking the economies of 11 countries across a vast stretch of the Pacific rim — and is on the cusp of securing a huge free trade agreement with the EU this year.
Le Dang Doanh, a former economic advisor to the Vietnamese government and current party member, believes these trade deals could help push his country toward greater openness.
“And I really do hope that the… CPTPP and Vietnam-EU Free Trade Agreement, including some paragraphs on the freedom of the voter, on the commitment of Vietnam to international conventions, will help increasingly to provide a more open environment,” he said.
Surging Internet penetration, Le said, was also increasingly pushing public debate beyond the traditionally tight censorship of the state.
“The Internet infiltration in Vietnam is very high and also Facebook is popular so that Vietnamese society now is free to collect more information, people have more independent thinking and Vietnam is increasingly internationalized,” he said.
Yet at the same time, the persecution of activists has escalated alarmingly in the past year and often they have been targeted precisely for their social media activities.
In February, environmental activist Hoang Duc Binh was sentenced to 14 years in jail for live-streaming a protest over a massive spill of toxic waste across 200 kilometers of Vietnamese coastline that has decimated the fishing business and enraged the public.
Blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, who is popularly known by the alias Mother Mushroom, was handed 10 years in June for criticizing the government in interviews with foreign media and on her Facebook page.
Activist Tran Thi Nga was sentenced to nine years of jail in July for posting articles and videos to Facebook in which she accused authorities of committing human rights violations.
In total, Human Rights Watch found at least 10 activists had been sentenced in 2017 to jail terms between five and 10 years while some 36 had been beaten by plained clothed thugs since 2015.
Artists like Mai Khoi continue to speak out
Despite the risks, artists such as Khoi - who shot to fame as a state ordained pop star in 2010 before deciding art without politics was meaningless - remain defiant and increasingly high-profile.
After Khoi was blocked from an attempt to run for parliament in 2016, she met then-U.S. President Barack Obama during his trip to Hanoi to give him an alternate view to the official state narrative on the country’s progress.
Subsequent concerts have attracted uninvited guests from the police, but when she launched her new album late last month to a private audience no one came to shut it down.
The Vietnamese government recently released a statement flatly refuting claims Khoi has made that she has been targeted because of her outspoken music.
“The competent authorities of Viet Nam have never issued any performance ban on Ms. Mai Khoi,” it said.
Khoi feels less than reassured, but no less determined.
“I have to forget about the fear and music keeps me strong. My songs, my feelings, my emotions and the support from people around me keeps me strong and [I] have more power, I mean the power inside me to keep continuing what I’m doing now,” she said.