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Dr. Nguyen Dan Que and Freedom of Information in Vietnam

It is just a year ago today (March 17) that security police arrested my brother, Dr. 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, completely isolated from any outside contacts.

His crime? According to the Vietnamese authorities, that evening he was on his way to an Internet café to send documents critical of the government via internet. Later that night, police searched his home ,seized his papers, among which was a press release rebutting a government claim five days earlier that freedom of information reigns in Vietnam. “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” Que wrote in the press release, and in it he urged support for the Freedom of Information in Vietnam Act of 2003, introduced by Representatives Ed Royce and Zoe Lofgren in February, 2003.

From an intermediary, I learned in May last year, that the Vietnamese government, under U.S. and other pressures, offered Dr. Que’s release if he would agree to leave Vietnam. But for Que in his own words: “forced exile is not freedom”. So he remains behind bars. Three times before he had opportunities to leave Vietnam. One was when North Vietnamese troops were rolling into Saigon in May 1975. He came down to the port from which my family and I were fleeing in a boat. He could have joined us as “boat people,” but he didn’t. Idealistic, he thought that, as a highly trained physician, he could make a contribution to rebuilding Vietnam after the war, even under a Communist regime.

He soon found out he was wrong. When he challenged the government’s medical policies, for giving Party officials health-care 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 his fellows formed the National Front for Progress. The Front explicitly embraced nonviolence in its effort to get the government “to cut down military spending, invest in the welfare of the people” and to hold free and fair elections. The National Front For Progress expanded rapidly, in the process gaining the support of many intellectuals. It published two underground newspapers which soon found a wide following among students and intellectuals.

Finding this intolerable, the government in February 1978 arrested Que with 47 fellow activists. Five died in captivity. When Que protested to prison authorities, he was placed in a five-by-six foot cell without sanitary facilities for two months. 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 keep silence.

In 1990, inspired by the democratic movements in East Europe, Que and some of his associates founded the Non-Violent Movement for Human Rights in Vietnam, and in its name on May 11 that year he issued a public manifesto calling for a non violent struggle for a free, democratic and multiparty Vietnam, drawing on traditional Vietnamese values. Afraid of his growing influence and the movement’s popularity, the regime arrested him again. on June 14, 1990. In November 1991, Hanoi finally held a half-hour sham trial that sentenced him to 20 years of hard labor for “trying to overthrow the government.”

In August 1998, after further international pressures, Hanoi relented. It once again said he would be released if he would go abroad. Again he refused, but was released anyway, though under house arrest. Also, he refused to stay quiet.

From his home in Saigon, despite being under constant surveillance and harassment by the authorities Que continued to write and distribute articles with titles like “Time to Open Up” advocating free trade in Vietnam and “The Abuse of Montagnard Political Refugees,” criticizing the government’s policy toward ethnic minorities… and the government continued tactics aimed to intimidate him and cramp his style. He never got back his personal credentials, his phone line was cut off, his internet account cancelled, his laptop seized. Police watched his home day and night, keeping away visitors and even harassing some foreign correspondents.

Yet, to the dismay of authorities, Que somehow get word out to supporters in Vietnam and the United States. It was apparently too much for them that last year, at a time when a bill on the subject was under consideration in Congress, he dared dispute publicly the government statement that freedom of information exists in Vietnam Twelve Nobel Laureates, including Dr. Torsten Wiesel, Nobel Laureate in medicine and chair of the National Academies’ human rights committee, have asked the Hanoi government to release Dr. 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 U.S. Congress and the President established May 11, the day Que issued his manifesto, as Vietnam Human Rights Day. In conjunction with Congressional leaders of both parties, we have commemorated that day every May since 1994. We will do so again this year to keep alive Dr. Nguyen Dan Que’s hopes, and the Vietnamese people’s hopes, for a free Vietnam.

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.

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