But as far as political convictions in Vietnam go, I was one of the lucky ones. I’m of Vietnamese ancestry, yet by an unfair turn of fate, I was born in the United States. Vietnamese citizens who are fighting for their own rights suffer these medieval conditions for years, sometimes more than a decade, their stay behind bars directly tied to the whims of police, investigators, prosecutors and court justices who are all controlled by the one legal political party.
The injustice is palpable — and Vice President Harris can push to alleviate it when she visits Vietnam this week. As a representative of an administration that has promised to reemphasize the promotion of democracy and human rights, she has the chance to speak up for the release of native Vietnamese dissidents who have done nothing more than ask for what their own constitution guarantees them.
One of the few socialist republics left in the world, Vietnam is an authoritarian state run by a nominally communist party, ruling over a population that is among the most pro-capitalist and pro-American on Earth. The precipitous fall of Afghanistan reveals that the United States cannot simply impose liberal democracy on other countries, even if they share such affinities. The desire for rights and reform must come from the people themselves. And in Vietnam, it is.
Dissidents such as Pham Doan Trang, who has been integral to helping Vietnamese citizens understand their constitutional rights, co-founding a samizdat publishing house that produced political manuals empowering her fellow compatriots. Or Can Thi Theu, the matriarch of an imprisoned family of land rights activists, who with Pham and myself has helped dispossessed Vietnamese villagers by documenting and publicizing violent government land grabs, acting as counterweight to a press controlled by the state.
Then there is Nguyen Thuy Hanh, who provided pivotal financial support for these disenfranchised villagers and families of dissidents, crowdsourcing money and setting up independent funds. And Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, who, for advocating peaceful political reform, has suffered behind bars since 2009; he has conducted multiple hunger strikes that now have him on his death bed.
There are those who will cast the vice president’s pressure on Vietnamese leaders to release dissidents as yet another case of American interventionism. But such a view not only mis-centers the United States, ignoring the agency of native Vietnamese themselves who are jailed for demanding democracy; it is also historically myopic. Hopes for liberal democracy as we know it were set in motion before American boots ever hit the ground. It was Western-educated Vietnamese intellectuals who began agitating for basic rights, freedoms and equality when Vietnam was a French colony in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
These same desires for basic rights and freedoms continue to burn in the hearts of ordinary Vietnamese. I walked shoulder to shoulder with thousands of them on the day I was arrested in June 2018, and I’ve had the good fortune to meet, speak and work with many of them in the years since. The Vietnamese government itself recognizes the universality of these desires by enshrining these fundamental rights in Articles 14 through 43 of its own constitution; the Party just refuses to respect them.
Indeed, for Vietnam, the enshrinement of liberal rights is foundational, as is its affinity for the United States. Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence, which Ho Chi Minh delivered in 1945, references our own American version. “All men are created equal,” it reads. “They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
But the United States fatefully ignored Ho Chi Minh’s 1946 request for help in his fight to keep Vietnam free from the French. He would ultimately turn to the Soviets and the Chinese for assistance, and the rest, as they say, is history of the most regrettable kind. Let’s not ignore the pleas of native Vietnamese yearning to be free again.