Freedom for Vietnam, Freedom for My Brother
March 17, 2004, 10:21 a.m.
On March 17, 2003, a year ago today, Vietnamese security police arrested my brother, Nguyen Dan Que, in front of his home in Saigon. A longtime activist for freedom in Vietnam, Que has been held in jail ever since, cut off from any outside contact.
His crime? According to the Vietnamese authorities, that evening he was on his way to a café to send out, via Internet, documents critical of the government. Later that night, police searched his home and seized his papers, among which was a press release rebutting a government claim (made five days earlier) that freedom of information reigns in Vietnam. The press release stated: "We are declaring to the world that all media in Vietnam are tools of the regime for the party's propaganda purposes. There are no private, independent newspapers in Vietnam, not even ONE." The press release urged support for the Freedom of Information in Vietnam Act of 2003, introduced by Representatives Ed Royce and Zoe Lofgren in February of that year.
I learned in May of last year that the Vietnamese government, under U.S. and other pressures, offered to release Que on the condition that he would leave Vietnam. But for Que, "forced exile is not freedom," and so he remains behind bars.
Que had previously turned down three other opportunities to leave his country. One such opportunity came when North Vietnamese troops rolled into Saigon in May of 1975. My family and I were fleeing in a boat, and Que came down to the port. He could have joined us, but didn't. Idealistic, he thought that as a highly trained physician he could make a contribution to the rebuilding of Vietnam after the war, even under a Communist regime.
He soon found he was wrong. When he challenged the government's medical policies for giving party officials priority over the poor, he was fired as chairman of the medical department of Cho Ray Hospital. Frustrated by the lack of basic human rights throughout the country, he and others formed the National Front for Progress. The Front explicitly embraced nonviolence in its efforts to get the government "to cut down military spending, invest in the welfare of the people," and hold free and fair elections. The National Front for Progress expanded rapidly, in the process gaining the support of many intellectuals. The group published two underground newspapers, both of which soon found a wide following among students and intellectuals.
Finding this intolerable, the government arrested Que in February of 1978 along with 47 fellow activists. Five died in captivity. When Que protested to prison authorities, he was locked up for two months in a five-by-six cell without sanitary facilities. In 1998, thanks in large part to a campaign led by Amnesty International, he was released. Again, he refused to emigrate. Instead, he became the first Vietnamese member of Amnesty International — and he refused to remain silent.
In 1990, inspired by the democratic movements in Eastern Europe, Que and some of his associates founded the Non-Violent Movement for Human Rights in Vietnam, and on May 11 of that year he issued a public manifesto calling for a nonviolent struggle to achieve a free, democratic, multiparty Vietnam. Afraid of Que's growing influence and the Movement's popularity, the regime arrested him again on June 14, 1990. In November of 1991, Hanoi held a half-hour sham trial and sentenced Que to 20 years of hard labor for "trying to overthrow the government."
In August of 1998, in response to international pressure, Hanoi relented. The regime once again said Que would be released if he went abroad. Again he refused, but was released anyway and kept under house arrest. And again, he refused to stay quiet.
From his home in Saigon, despite constant surveillance and harassment by the authorities, Que continued to write and distribute articles advocating free trade in Vietnam and criticizing the government's policies toward ethnic minorities and dissidents. His connections with the outside world were cut off, his laptop seized, and police watched his home day and night, keeping away visitors and harassing some foreign correspondents.
Nevertheless, Que somehow managed to get the word out to his supporters in Vietnam and in the United States. Last year, after he dared dispute publicly the government's statement that freedom of information exists in Vietnam, twelve Nobel Laureates including Torsten Wiesel, Nobel Laureate in medicine and chair of the National Academy's human-rights committee, asked the Hanoi government to release Que.
At the annual Vietnam Human Rights Day commemoration on Capitol Hill last year, Wiesel called him the Andrei Sakharov of Vietnam for having "steadily refused to abandon his vision of a free and democratic country and his efforts to achieve it."
Ten years ago, Congress and the president established May 11, the date on which Que issued his manifesto in 1990, as Vietnam Human Rights Day. In conjunction with congressional leaders of both parties, we have commemorated that day every May since 1994. We do so again this year, to keep alive Nguyen Dan Que's hopes for a free Vietnam — and the Vietnamese people's hopes for the same.
— Dr. Quan Nguyen, a physician in Northern Virginia, chairs the International Committee for Freedom to Support The Non-Violent Movement For Human Rights In Vietnam.