MUSHROOM AND BEAR

“Why did the fish die?”: The questions and Facebook posts that led Vietnam to imprison a mom blogger

With a blue fish painted on her cheek, a smiling Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh stares out from her Facebook page, where she writes in Vietnamese under the name Mẹ Nấm, or Mother [of] Mushroom. Nhu Quynh, a single mom and tour guide, began blogging over a decade ago adopting her daughter’s nickname as part of her writing name; in recent years she’s sometimes added on “Bear,” a nickname for her younger child.

Last week, Vietnam convicted and sentenced her to prison for a decade on charges of “conducting propaganda against the state.” The main evidence against her? A body of writing, some 400 Facebook posts about fish deaths, China’s intervention in the South China Sea, and police brutality in Vietnam. Her Facebook posts were described by the police as “a pessimistic, one-sided view that caused public confusion and affected the people’s faith [in the State].”

Nhu Quynh has described her writing differently, saying it was motivated by wanting to leave a better country for her children. She’s part of a wave of environmental activism that is growing in the one-party state where civil liberties and the press are severely restricted; in recent years Vietnam has seen public rallies over harm to marine life and to protect trees. Over years, from posting about parenting, she graduated to impassioned writing about the environment and human rights:

  • The 2016 fish die-off Nhu Quynh has often posted about the deaths of some 70 metric tons of fish in April 2016 that locals blamed on waste water from a new steel plant in the Ha Tinh province owned by Formosa Ha Tinh Steel, a subsidiary of Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group, a major investor in Vietnam. State-media first blamed the firm for the marine crisis, which hurt both fishing and tourism, but then back-tracked. The firm also initially said it was not to blame, sparking anger and protests.

    While heading to an environmental rally last May, Nhu Quynh was assaulted in a hotel lobby, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Later that month, Nhu Quynh made it to another rally and managed to hold up a sign asking “Why did the fish die?” Vietnam eventually officially blamed Formosa, which has promised to pay $500 million for clean-up and compensation. Security authorities cited signs they found in Nhu Quynh’s home, including one that says “Fish need water,” as part of their evidence against her, according to the OHCHR.

  • South China Sea In November 2015, Nhu Quynh called on people to rally (link in Vietnamese) against the visit of Chinese president Xi Jinping, citing detentions of fishermen as well as China’s treatment of its ethnic minorities. Vietnam and China have ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea. In an earlier post she criticized Vietnam’s stance (link in Vietnamese) with China over the South China Sea.

  • Deaths in detention Nhu Quynh and others compiled reports from state-owned media and put together a file called “Stop police killing civilians” about 31 people who died in police custody. The document was later criticized by the police: “[It] bears a hostile viewpoint against the people’s police force.” In October 2015, she shared a post about an account of police brutality, adding the heading: What should we do when someone has died at a police station?

  • Offline protests Apart from blogging, she also waged her battles in offline protests. She actively participated and advocated for activities to promote a freer political atmosphere and cleaner environment. In one 2016 rallying effort (link in Vietnamese), she painted a fish symbol on her son’s face and took her children with her to protest, and called on others to also join in. When some commenters criticized her for involving her children, she responded (link in Vietnamese) with a long post, excerpted below:

    “There are thousands of people in Saigon and Hanoi showing up in public to protest for a clean environment. While at home, I looked through the Facebook statuses of some friends and strangers; and there are comments that targeted parents who bring their children to the protest as an act of cruelty. Some people even said that the children have no awareness of environmental protection, why let their photo be taken with those messages and slogans to protect the ocean and the nature…

    Hence, I would like to have a few words, not to argue whether it is right or wrong; but to let you have a perspective of how to respect other people’s opinion which is different from that of yours.

    My generation has grown up in a scenario of lacking general awareness and knowledge as our predecessors, my father and my grandfathers, chose silence for the sake of their own safety. Now is my time, and it has to be different.

    When our family was watching TV a few days ago, my daughter said that she had a discussion with her classmates about the large number of dead fish found on the coast recently; and she asked me: What is the reason the fish die?! Is there something under the ocean!?

    I could not answer my daughter’s question as I, myself, do not really know the reasons why the fish die.Then, I and my daughter talked about the water pollution, street littering, and discussed what will happen to our body if we eat the food that is poisoned with toxic pollutants. Afterwards, my daughter agreed that we need to raise people’s awareness about protecting the ocean environment. She even herself designed, drew and painted her own slogan messages.

    My standpoint is extremely clear about the protection of the environment. Our children are the important factors that need to be protected and they deserve to live and grow up in a clean and fresh environment like any other countries in the world. Hence, in order to change the current situation, my children need to have their own viewpoint in this society as well.

    Some people said that bringing the children for walking hours under the sun is extremely cruel, and that act showed that you do not even love your own children, what else could you care about?

    However, I have a different perspective that my children cannot contract diseases or die because he or she walks under the heat of the sun for just one day, but if my kid grows up and is completely ignorant about this society, then his soul is really rotting and dying slowly.”

She was detained and allegedly assaulted by police several times before her current incarceration. One time she faced a $66 fine over her Facebook posts. When Civil Rights Defenders, a Swedish advocacy group, awarded her the title of Defender of 2015, she was not able to receive the prize in person as she was in detention.

At the same time as she was becoming an increasingly active blogger, Nhu Quynh continued to support her family, including her two children, 60-year-old mom and 90-year-old grandmother, by working as an independent tour guide.

Things came to a head last year. Nhu Quynh was arrested in October 2016 after she accompanied the mom of an imprisoned online activist to help her see her son. Her daughter, now 11, saw her being hand-cuffed and taken away by numerous police officers. Nhu Quynh’s son was just two at the time of her arrest. In March, the US awarded her its “Women of Courage” award. Numerous rights groups have called for her release, including the US-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, Civil Rights Defenders and Pen America.

“Her activism has been motivated in part by her strong views that her children should inherit a country where human rights, environmental protection, and rule of law are meaningful and part of everyday reality, and not just rhetoric spouted by the ruling Communist Party,” wrote Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

He added, “Many people both inside and outside of Vietnam admire Mother Mushroom for her straight-forward views, her unbending principles, and her bravery in taking action when she has so much at stake with her young family.”

Update: This post was updated to use given names instead of family name on second reference to conform with country style.

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