When she was just 20, Tran Thi Nga, shown above, got a job as a live-in domestic worker in Taiwan through a broker, and then moved on to factory jobs. It took many years but Thi Nga eventually realized that as a migrant worker she had been mistreated. On her return home, she became an activist for labor and political rights.
That journey landed her in prison on Tuesday (July 25), after a Vietnamese court handed her a nine-year sentence, to be followed by five years of probation. Thi Nga, who lives with her partner and four children, was arrested in January and charged under Vietnam’s Article 88, for spreading propaganda against the state—making her the second woman blogger to be imprisoned on that charge in less than a month. At the end of June, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, a blogger and single mother also known as “Mother Mushroom,” was sentenced to a 10-year prison term.
Both women are part of a wave of bloggers being harassed, arrested and imprisoned by Vietnam, many of them female, and often in relation to Facebook posts. In addition to Facebook, the government case against Thi Nga also consisted of videos that covered topics including water contamination by a steel plant last year, China’s stance in the South China Sea and land rights. Some 400 Facebook articles (pdf, p. 3) formed the case against Mother Mushroom, who wrote passionately about Vietnam’s environmental problems, saying she was doing it because she wanted a better future for her two young children.
Vietnam’s female bloggers have come to political activism from a variety of personal experiences as internet access has expanded in Vietnam. Nguyen Ahn Tuan, the editor of the online news site VietNamNet, has written about how Vietnam began deregulating the internet in 2000, going from one provider to 18 (pdf, p. 19) in less than a decade. Internet penetration has expanded, going from 12% to 44% (paywall) between 2005 and 2015, and helping Vietnam become one of the most active users in Southeast Asia of foreign social media sites such as Facebook, although it’s a one-party Communist state like China.
Despite the risks, other bloggers have spoken out. The Network of Vietnamese Bloggers has pledged to help Nhu Quynh’s family raise her two children in her absence. In a June Facebook post, another member of Vietnam’s female blogger activist community, who has a picture of Nhu Quynh as her profile photo, said she would do what she could to help Nhu Quynh’s children and mother. She also shared a post about the latest sentence. That blogger too has faced harassment in the past, after being beaten and stripped in 2012, and then placed under government surveillance.
This May, a fourth woman, Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, was released after three years behind bars. She was held in 2014 for posts published on two blogs started by a policeman-turned-blogger with whom she worked, as was the blogger she worked for.
The sentencing of Thi Nga came just a day after the detention a man who had also posted about the contamination of ocean waters last year by a Taiwanese steel plant in one of Vietnam’s worst environmental disasters.
The US advocacy group Human Rights Watch says Vietnam is in the midst of a crackdown on bloggers and activists, and has called on donors to put pressure on Vietnam over the issue. Amnesty International UK called for Thi Nga’s conviction and sentence to be reversed, and added: “The government is destroying the lives of brave individuals and their families simply to intimidate others from raising their voices.”