Mother Mushroom: One of Vietnam’s suffering activists

A tougher penal code and systematic violence mean times are tough for environmental activists across Vietnam.

By Oliver Ward

The Facebook page of Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh shows a happy, smiling single mother, blogging under the affectionate nickname Mẹ Nấm (Mother Mushroom). Now, Mother Mushroom is beginning a ten-year prison sentence. Her crime was “conducting propaganda against the sate” – a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 20-years imprisonment.

The case highlighted the lack of freedom of expression in Vietnam. The numerous national security laws are vaguely defined and frequently used to arbitrarily charge protestors and environmentalists speaking out against the government.

Vietnam has a human rights problem

Mother Mushroom was arrested in October 2016 and has remained in police custody since. For the first seven months, she was reportedly only fed anchovies and spinach soup. In an act of humiliation, she was denied access to underwear and sanitary pads. She was also unable to contact her mother and two-year-old son until 29 June 2017.

For activists on the street, they are forced to suffer systematic violence. The number of Vietnamese political prisoners has been steadily declining. In 2013, there were 160 political dissidents put on trial in 2013. By 2015, this was down to 110. During the first 9 months of 2016, this figure had dropped to just 19.

This allowed the Vietnamese government to boast an improved record on human rights on the international stage. They received praise for their progress in human rights from the Obama Administration. Nguyen Phu Trong, head of the Vietnam Communist Party, was even invited for a White House visit.

But the reality is, physical attacks on demonstrators are rising. Masked, anonymous men and plain clothed officials carry out violent abuses against activists. In 2013, there were 18 reported physical attacks on bloggers and online activists. This figure rose to 31 attacks in 2014, and in 2016, 20 incidents of violence were reported against more than 50 activists.

In reality, little progress has been made. Prominent lawyer and human rights activist, Nguyen Van Dai describes how a dozen masked men forced his taxi to stop in Nghe An province. They dragged him from the car and beat him with sticks.

Nguyen Anh Tuan, a 27-year-old pro-democracy activist, has had his passport confiscated and faces continuous police harassment. The Vietnamese government stripped another activist blogger of his citizenship and deported him to France.

Recent legal reforms have made the situation worse

In November 2015, the National Assembly introduced stricter punishments and made it a crime to “take action in preparation” to criticise the government. Human Rights Watch Asia Director, Brad Adams said, “it’s bad enough for Vietnam to use vague laws to imprison peaceful critics” he added, “but it’s even more outrageous to lock up someone for five years just because the government arbitrarily decides that they are preparing to criticise the government”.

Another new reform will make it illegal for lawyers not to inform the government about potential “security crimes” committed by their clients. The law is another reform designed to curb online activism and freedom of expression.

Environmental issues cause significant problems for the Vietnamese government

Mother Mushroom is not alone. There are currently 112 environmental bloggers and activists serving prison sentences in Vietnam for their activism. Environmental issues unite all segments of the population and have become a serious problem for the Vietnamese government.

The Vietnamese government have traditionally painted environmental activists with the brush of foreign stooges. They would accuse them of attempting to destabilise the country and of doing the dirty work of foreign governments. One of the problems with current environmental issues is that it is the Vietnamese government themselves who are protecting foreign governments.

It was a Taiwanese company that caused the mass fish deaths on the North Central Coast. Of the 50 major toxic waste scandals in 2016, 60% were caused by foreign companies. The Vietnamese government’s decision to crack down on protestors shows their appetite to endorse foreign governments, not the activists.

Initially, increased trade with the US and the EU looked like it would put pressure on the Vietnamese government to clean up their human rights abuses. However, Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the TTP means this is unlikely to happen. During Donald Trump’s state visit in May, the topic of human rights was not discussed.

The only way to end this injustice is for the international community to put pressure on the Vietnamese government. Trade is the only leverage they will listen to. As China is their largest trade partner and a fellow human rights abuser, the future does not look promising.

In court, Mother Mushroom said, “Each person has only one life, but if I had the chance to choose again I would still choose my way.” Everyone has one life. But, why should they spend it behind bars for standing up for Vietnam’s delicate ecosystem?