In the past, my mother used to tell me: “Teaching does not make us rich, but gives us the opportunity to know a lot of people and have equal status with everyone in society.” Yes, thanks to this career, I can have the opportunity to contact many powerful people and also get to know many others, especially young people. One of those people is Pham Thi Doan Trang, who has been mentioned in the mass media recently.
Although Trang always introduces everyone that I am her lecture, I really dare not accept this honor. It is true that Trang is a student of K35 of the Foreign Trade University and it is true that I taught her but only one subject per semester in a class of approximately 100 students. She did not show anything so my impression of her was extremely faint. Foreign Trade is a university with many beautiful boys and girls. At that time, Trang was only a quiet girl, not pretty, and not well-dressed, and her academic achievement was only good.
On the contrary, the knowledge I taught at that time did not have much value for her work after graduation. Later, I learned that at that time, she worked more outside the house, participating in writing articles, and translating, so she did not have much time for studying. Thanks to that achievement, right after she graduated, she was recruited by VietnamNet, the most famous online newspaper in Vietnam at that time, and she used to be a good writer helping this newspaper maintain its leading position for a while. I have also read many very sharp and enthusiastic articles about her in the newspapers of VNN, Tuoi Tre, and Ho Chi Minh City Laws and very admired, proud that the alumni of our university have been so brilliant and sharp beyond our generation. Her writings show a passionate heart for the country and a thorough understanding of the topics she chooses even at a very young age, so I believe she will have an open future in journalism. So in 2008, I was completely surprised when I heard that she was arrested, even fired!
Later I learned that she was detained for 10 days and being treated so badly turned out to be for a very stupid reason. She and many more people, including writer Trang Ha, organized to print and promote the sale of T-shirts with pictures of the Hoang Sa (Paracels) and the Truong Sa (Spratlys)! That year was the year of the Beijing Olympics, the whole world was so angry by the insolent acts of the Chinese fans, such as beating protesters abroad Many countries have to cancel or go through barns to avoid objection. And the Vietnamese are excited about all Chinese athletes wearing shirts with a map of China including Hoang Sa – Truong Sa. The Vietnamese state at that time acted very confusingly when, on the one hand, it was against China’s claims of sovereignty over these two groups of islands, on the other hand, it suppressed Vietnamese people who did the same actions!
A series of people were arrested at that time but no one understood why! Even later, Trang humorously recounted that she was only able to participate in the shirt design and promotion, had not seen the shirt yet, in other words, “The shirt I have not worn once” but she was arrested and accused of protesting but could not understand anything. One person who knew of the incident told me that police hacked Trang’s Yahoo Messenger page, (at that time there was no Facebook or any other social networking site), printed dozens of pages, could not find evidence calling for violence. But they still arrested her. As far as I understand, they are just afraid of influential individuals, wanting to silence independent voices, afraid to offend China, not because those individuals violate the law. But that unnecessarily cruel behavior, although it can quiet public opinion in the short term, has a deeper consequence that has turned a series of young enthusiastic people from just wanting to criticize society in a peaceful way to become fierce fighters.
After she was released, I tried to contact her purely out of concern but failed. Friends told me that she did not want to meet anyone because she was afraid to involve everyone as she was always monitored by the police. Because of that, I can only text her and ask about her, knowing that she is participating in the project of writing books about the East Sea (South China Sea), so I feel assured. We only officially met again during the marches for a Green Hanoi, during the campaign against the city’s government plan which aimed to cut down aged trees in Hanoi’s center. Up to now, no one understood the reason for the stupid decision to cut down 6,700 trees in a city that was so lacking in trees. Although the protest against tree felling has been very active, thousands of trees have died unjustly in just a few short days, leaving the result that Hanoi has become the city with the highest air pollution index in the world now!
Although we belonged to different groups, we collaborated to organize the marches together. I witnessed Trang’s enthusiasm and commitment in the movement. She was always at the forefront of the protests so she always faced more risks, even when the authorities arrest her, she could be able to escape, but watching girls in ao dai for the first time on a march be dragged onto the bus. She rushed to get arrested together, to still cover them. As a result, Trang was beaten to bleeding in the abdomen and suffered a serious knee injury, which followed her until much later, making her unable to move freely.
Even though the injury is always painful, and she was hunted to the point that she can’t stay still, Trang still doesn’t stop working. Every report on human rights and civil society in Vietnam has her name on it. I personally admire, but always worry about her. I hope she can find a way to fight more peacefully, have a stable life for medical treatment, and have a happy personal life. So I am very happy to know that she has the scholarship to study in the US, I advise her to study for a master’s degree to gain more knowledge for her work, if possible, she should stay abroad at least until she is well.
But after a year of research, she came back to Vietnam because she said that she can’t live far away from Vietnam, only here she can do what she wants to do. And yes, Trang’s books and articles have proven that she never leaves her ideal. I do not know where Trang is, nor do I try to find out because I know it does not help Trang, may even put her in danger. I do not understand anything about her work, we only occasionally talk about mutual friends and I find that despite many difficulties, Trang is always interested and enthusiastic about everyone … I always think, if the government knows how to listen, exchange, but not violently arrest and suppress enthusiastic people like Trang, so far she is still a brave journalist, with many articles and actions contributing to building this society for the better, not standing on the opposing side, leaving both sides at a disadvantage as now.
Most people only know Trang is a tough woman, a sharp writer, an enthusiastic activist, but few people know that Trang is also a dreamy, romantic girl. She sings very well, especially the Beatles’ songs, plays the piano very sweetly, and also has a passionate relationship. Like every other girl, she loves her mother very much (her father died early), she likes to take care of her own family, she also wants to make up in her free time, she wants to gather her friends in lovely cafes, ask about the situation of each other … Trang used to tease me as “I travel around the South and the North, never met a lecturer like you,” and I replied that I have never met a student who is brave, stubborn, and has a special fate like her.
Hearing the news that she was arrested, I was not surprised because Trang had been preparing for this day for a long time. However, we still cannot help but worry about her. Reading the letter she left, not asking for anything for herself, but just hoping that her imprisonment will become a promotional highlight for the new election law and her works, I, even more, admire her. I just want to send my best wishes to her and hope that Vietnamese society will change soon so that talented and enthusiastic young people like Trang can peacefully contribute to the society, not be forced to stand in the opposition like now!
Hopefully one day, we can join Trang in singing “Connecting big arms” by musician Trinh Cong Son on this Vietnamese land.
The author Nguyen Hoang Anh is a doctor and lecturer at the university in Hanoi –