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PRISONER OF CONSCIENCE

By Dr. Nguyen Quoc Quan

Far Eastern Economic Review – February, 25th 1993

Let me tell you about my brother Nguyen Dan Que. Like me, he is a doctor. Unlike me, he decided to remain in Vietnam after the communist takeover.

My brother chose to stay because he wanted to bring medical care to the poor and, as it turned out, to work for democracy. Off and on this commitment has landed him in prison. He was most recently found guilty in November 1991 of "trying to overthrow the peoples government." The trial was a sham. After a brief court appearance during which he had no legal representation and was not allowed to speak for himself, he was sentenced to 20 years of hard labour.

The Vietnam that my brother knows is not the same Vietnam most people imagine when they read about its investment opportunities, its economic liberalisation and its trendy nightGroups. News of East European prisoners of conscience get full play in the American press. But when my brother – whom US Sen. Robert Kerryhas likened to Vaclev Havel – was thrown back into jail, it merited little attention.

Before the communist takeover of Vietnam, my brother Que was both chief of the Department of Nuclear Medicine at ChoRay Hospital and an assistant professor of medicine at Saigon Medical School. Our family was originally from the north, and our father was both a teacher and a patriot who at age 25 joined the Vietnamese Nationalist Party. When the French returned to Vietnam after World War II, the communists lured the Nationalist Patty into a coalition; after exactly three weeks, they liquidated all its leaders.

Our father was one of those assassinated by the communists. I was only six years old at the time, but I grew up hearing vivid accounts about the massacre. People in Hanoi were terrified when they woke up to find 200 bodies on Lake Hallais and another 50 bodies at the headquarters of the Vietnamese Nationalist Party on On Nhu Hau Street. My father's murder led my mother to drum into our heads never to get involved in politics. Evidently the lesson was lost on my brother, who adored my father and his principles.

In 1954, after the Geneva Peace Accords that divided Vietnam into North and South, my mother brought her five children from Hanoi to Saigon. I was 14, my brother 12. In 1956 my eldest brother, also a doctor, brought Que to study in Hue while I remained with my mother. We both went to Saigon Medical School in the early to mid-1960s, where he landed a spot on the faculty. In 1968, he was awarded a World Health Organisation scholarship to study endocrinology in Europe.

In 1974 he turned down a job offer at the UN to return home. When our country fell in 1975, I offered him the chance to flee Vietnam with me – but he declined. He told me that he wanted to continue to teach medicine and serve the poor; he said that as a doctor the communists would not harm him. He was wrong.

In 1976, disgusted by the official corruption and abuse of power that kept the poor from adequate health care, my brother openly criticised government policy. Frustrated by the lack of basic human rights throughout the country, he and some friends formed the National Front for Progress. The movement 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 elections.

The National Front for Progress expanded rapidly, in the process gaining the support of many intellectuals. It published two underground newspapers: The Revolution, for young people and students, and The People's Revolution, for the general population. The communists found this intolerable, and in February 1978 Que was arrested with 47 fellow activists. He was held in prison without trial for 10 years. During this time he was tortured, beaten and chained in solitary confinement. For two months he was incarcerated in a five-by-six-foot cell with no sanitary facilities.

In 1988, after an intensive international campaign by Amnesty International, he was finally released. Upon leaving prison, he again refused to emigrate and instead became the first Vietnamese member of Amnesty International.

In 1990, inspired by the democratic movements in East Europe, Que and some associates founded the Non-Violent Movement for Human Rights in Vietnam. That May he issued an appeal 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.

But the movement has not died – and my brother's efforts have attracted international admiration. In 1991 he was invited by US labour union president Lane Kirkland – who has compared him to Andrei Sakharov and Lech Walesa – to be the guest of honour at a Solidarity raily in Washington. A year later he was nominated for the Nobel peace prize by a bipartisan group of American senators and congressmen. The US Congress has further passed a concurrent resolution calling for his unconditional release, and French President François Mitterrand raised his case during his recent visit to Hanoi. Amnesty International has also designated him a "prisoner of conscience," and the BBC calls him "the moral voice of Vietnam."

As you read this Que remains in a rural labour camp in Xuyen Moc, about 150 kilometres southeast of Saigon. US Congressmen and human-rights activists who have asked to see him have been denied permission. He remains just one of the many intellectuals, artists, and clergymen – Buddhist and Christian – who are prisoners in the Vietnamese Gulag.

The Vietnam of my brother remains the real Vietnam of today. Before Hanoi normalises relations with the outside world, should it not release prisoners of conscience such as Owe and normalise relations with its own people first?

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