Brushing off pressure from Hanoi to pick someone else, the South Korean May 18 Memorial Foundation gave Vietnamese doctor and dissident Nguyen Dan Que its 2016 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights. The award is a recognition of "individuals, groups or institutions in Korea and abroad that have contributed in promoting and advancing human rights, democracy and peace through their work.”
In Que’s case, he has a vast body of work that includes the founding of the pro-democracy and nonviolent National Progressive Front and High Tide of Humanism movement, which advocates for basic human rights and free elections. He also co-founded the Vietnamese Blogger Network and the Former Vietnamese Prisoners of Conscience organization to continue pushing for human rights and democracy in Vietnam. Even when given the opportunity to leave the country, he chose to stay through imprisonment, hard labor, torture, and house arrest.
He was unable to accept the award in person because the Vietnamese government refuses to allow Que to travel outside Saigon where he lives. He shared the award with the Malay election reform organization Bersih 2.0. Que discussed the award and the democracy movement in Vietnam with RFA’s Vietnamese Service reporter Gia Minh.
RFA: Many of your fellow activists have welcomed the news that you have won this prize. Do prizes like this have an impact on the democracy movement in Vietnam?
Que: It has inspired people a lot. In our democracy and human rights movement at present, we see a lot of young activists who know how to work very well on the internet. They act just like a rapid action team against the fierce repression by the government. As you may know, the spirit of May 18 was charged up despite repression from [former South Korean leader] Chun Doo-hwan's government. That spirit led South Korea to its present prosperity. I think that same spirit has encouraged many young Vietnamese activists.
RFA: You’ve been given humanitarian awards before. Does this one have a special feel for you personally?
Que: This is the only award given to me when I’m not in prison. The others were given to me when I was serving my prison time. Another special thing about this award is that this time it was submitted by domestic activists, more specifically Vietnamese Women for Human Rights. This award is also for Asia, and particularly Southeast Asia. Other awards were proposed by Western entities. Not only do I like its uniqueness, but because of that this award inspires our movement.
RFA: Young people now seem more willing to be devoted to the democracy movement. Do they approach you, and what do you tell them based on your experience?
Que: Many have come to visit me, not only now, but also a long time before. Even though I’m under strict monitoring by the police, I told bloggers to push forward on building a network of bloggers. The Vietnamese Women for Human Rights representatives also visited me, injustice victims visited me, many people. The new path for our movement has become clearer for everybody including young activists, civil society, and independent labor unions.
RFA: How do they do that?
Que: For young activists, I told them there are two points. First, they have to get rid of the notion that men are better than women. Second, I told female activists that women account for 50 percent of the world population so gradually their contribution to society has to be equal. I told them that they have to join the movement right now, at the beginning, because their role will be very important when a new government is born.
The current situation is very exciting. Students don’t want to follow all the government’s rules, and they face repression from the ministry of education. They met me and asked for my support in setting up a league of students in cities and provinces. I encouraged them. They want to have a more humane education, and they don’t want to maintain this educational system. Some university professors also met with me. I support all movements of students, young activists, and professors.
I told prisoners of conscience that they need to be together regardless of their different associations. When they are released, they need to form an association, and so now we have the Vietnamese Prisoners of Conscience association established in 2014.
RFA: There is the belief that civil society in Vietnam can’t unite. As a long-time human rights activist, what do you think about this?
Que: I can say this: After 1975, people of both sides, North and South, have found a new fight. This is not a fight against the Chinese and the communists. This directly deals with the consultation capacity of the communist party using the power of grass roots. It is a fight against the communist party’s policies, their wrongdoings in Marxist-Leninist economic policies. This is the fight of the whole people. It is not like before, and it is nonviolent. After many years under repression, now social groups have joined our fight. Let them join. We share the same goal. The situation will change.
Translated by Viet Ha for RFA's Vietnamese Service.