Dissidents' Deliverance

  • Share
  • Read Later
TIM LARIMER BangkokIn a 12-sq-m cell inside an isolated Vietnamese prison camp, Doan Viet Hoat's days were numbingly alike. He would wake up, practice yoga, eat a few spoonfuls of rice, walk in a circle for an hour or so, bathe with water from a small spigot, sleep. When it wasn't too hot, he would step out into a small garden attached to his cell and tend vegetables. That's all I did for four years, he says. That, and think.Hoat's incarceration ended last week when Vietnam freed the 55-year-old pro-democracy activist and at least eight other prominent political and religious dissidents. In a bizarre end to their Kafkaesque incarcerations, several shared a common prison outside Hanoi in their final three days behind bars. Next to Hoat's cell was Jimmy Tran, a Vietnamese-American convicted in 1993 of trying to blow up government buildings. Nearby was Thich Quang Do, head of an outlawed Buddhist church who was jailed in 1994 on charges of trying to overthrow the government. And there was Ly Tong, another Vietnamese emigre to the United States who in 1992 hijacked a commercial airliner, dumped anti-communist leaflets over Ho Chi Minh City and parachuted down to lead the revolution he thought the pamphlets would incite. The prisoners couldn't see each other, but they spoke by shouting through air conditioning vents. It was incredible to be together like that, says Tran, contacted by phone in California.The mass release of so many Vietnamese dissidents was unprecedented. Besides the high-profile cases, Hanoi set free more than 5,000 prisoners of all stripes. The move reflected, in part, the desire of Vietnam's recently installed government to make its mark. It's a tradition that the new emperor always lets free the prisoners of the old emperor, says Hoat's wife, Tran Thi Thuc. But economic considerations may have been the primary motivation. Vietnam desperately needs foreign investment to revitalize its moribund economy. Its poor human-rights record has strained relations with the U.S. and Europe and kept potential investors away. The E.U. this summer passed a resolution condemning Vietnam's treatment of dissidents. The release of Hoat & Co. is apparently designed to answer such concerns. The leadership finally realized these human-rights cases were obstacles in the way of developing the country, says an American who was involved in negotiations aimed at securing Hoat's release.PAGE 1  |  
Hoat is considered a brilliant, articulate thinker, and is a bridge between two worlds: the 2 million refugees who fled the country and those who stayed behind. Many dissidents inside Vietnam are jaded ex-communists; they have little credibility with the emigre community. But overseas activists have little relevance to their compatriots in Vietnam. Hoat is a rarity in his appeal to both camps. His political odyssey began in the heady days of the Vietnam War when, as a student, he demonstrated against the repressive regime of South Vietnam's Ngo Dinh Diem. That landed him jail for three months. After the communist victory, Hoat was arrested in 1976 in a sweep of thousands of intellectuals, English-speakers and former South Vietnamese soldiers. In 1988, soon after the country began flirting with economic reforms, Hoat was released. But the collapse of communism in Europe spooked Hanoi's leaders, and after Hoat published several issues of an underground pro-democracy newspaper called Freedom Forum, he was arrested anew in 1990 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Of course I knew the risk, he told TIME during a stopover in Bangkok on his way to the U.S. (Hanoi forced him to leave Vietnam.) But it's the destiny I had to accept.Destiny exacted a high price. While Hoat paced away years in his cell, his life passed him by. His eldest son, Long, fled the country in 1982 at the age of 14, part of the exodus of Vietnam's boat people. His next son, Hue, left the following year. When we were little, we didn't understand why our father had to be gone, says Long from his home in Minnesota. It is still very hard because he is our father--but he is also a symbol. Hoat knew that his being a national symbol provided little comfort to his children. But he made the decision to sacrifice his life--and his family's--for a cause. It's been all the more difficult since the cause has not achieved its goal--there has been no mass uprising in Vietnam, no Tiananmen Square, no Berlin Wall-type collapse.All of this raises a painful question for Hoat, Tran and the others: Was it worth it? They insist it was. In a small way, I helped change things, says Tran. It was worth every day in prison to talk to people on the other side, the communists, who want to change. Another dissident, physician Nguyen Dan Que, was also freed last week and has so far managed to stay in Vietnam. He languished in prison to make his point, says his brother, Nguyen Quoc Quan, who lives in Virginia. It's something Hoat well understands. Without this kind of pressure, says Hoat, the pressure from our own sadness, our own struggle, the international community cannot press them to change. Hoat says he would like to return to Vietnam, but doesn't expect that to happen any time soon. I would be arrested again, he says. I cannot keep silent.  |  PAGE 2