A Radio Free Asia blogger from Vietnam is missing after he fled to Thailand to seek political asylum with a UN refugee agency, fueling fears in the exile community that he has been abducted by Vietnamese security agents.
There has been no word from Truong Duy Nhat, a weekly contributor for RFA’s Vietnamese Service’s blog section, since Jan. 26. He last communicated with Washington-based RFA editors two days earlier over his commentary on the growing opposition movement in Venezuela and the prospects of change in Communist-ruled Vietnam.
“We are extremely concerned about the safety and well-being of Truong Duy Nhat," RFA President Libby Liu said on Tuesday. "We hope to hear from him as soon as possible about his whereabouts and to be assured that he’s not in any danger,” she said.
Nhat’s disappearance has sent a chill through the Vietnamese refugee community in Thailand and prompted a call from Human Rights Watch for Thai authorities to investigate. RFA has also reported his case to the State Department and staff of several U.S. lawmakers.
Exile sources said that Nhat had gone to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees, or UNHCR, in Bangkok on Jan. 25 to apply for refugee status and they subsequently lost contact with him.
Thailand-based associates of Nhat, who requested anonymity because they feared for their own safety, said that he went missing on Jan. 26 during a visit to Future Park, a huge mall on the outskirts of Bangkok. One of the sources said Nhat was “arrested” at an ice cream shop on the third floor of the mall.
Thai police said they don't have Nhat in custody.
“We’ve checked through the list of detainees, we don’t see him, Truong Duy Nhat, on the list,” Police Colonel Tatpong Sarawanangkoon, who is in charge of the detention section at the Immigration Detention Center in Bangkok, told RFA.
The UNHCR was tightlipped, citing privacy concerns. Associate external relations officer Jennifer Harrison said: “Due to reasons of confidentiality and data protection, we are unable to comment on [or even confirm/deny the existence of] individual cases.”
Afraid to talk
Nhat's wife, who is in Vietnam, and their Canada-based daughter are afraid to talk about his fate, exile sources said.
The family believes Nhat left Vietnam for Thailand about three weeks before they heard he had gone missing, according to thevietnamese.org, an online magazine run by a group of Vietnamese activists and independent journalists.
The authoritarian Vietnamese government of Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc is at present holding more than 200 political prisoners, including rights advocates and bloggers deemed threats to national security, according to Nguyen Kim Binh of the California-based Vietnam Human Rights Network.
The government controls the news media, censors the internet, and restricts basic freedoms of expression.
Nhat himself served a two-year-imprisonment in 2014-2015 for his activism after being arrested in May 2013 and held in detention until his trial.
Human Rights Watch, or HRW, said Thai authorities have to investigate the case of Nhat, noting that he had come to Bangkok for the sole reason of applying for political asylum. The U.S.-based group called for the authorities to “consult with his family until he is found."
HRW said Vietnam’s embassy in Bangkok may also be able to shed light on the blogger’s whereabouts.
"[T]he Thai authorities have an urgent obligation to seriously investigate this disappearance,” Phil Robertson, HRW's Bangkok-based deputy Asia director, told RFA, noting that the group itself did not yet know what had happened to Nhat.
"If it turns out that Vietnam and local Thai officials are found to be involved in his disappearance, there needs to be serious consequences for everyone responsible,” he said.
Robertson accused Vietnam of "consistently engaging in hostile surveillance and harassment of Vietnamese and Montagnard [minority] who fled the country to escape political and religious persecution, and this includes activities in Bangkok."
"Pursuing dissidents and demanding the Thai government shut down events about human rights and democracy in Vietnam is just part of what makes Hanoi stand out as one of the worst rights abusing regimes in ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations],"he said.
"So there is every possibility that the Vietnam Embassy may know much more about Truong Duy Nhat’s mysterious disappearance than they are letting on," Robertson said.
The circumstances of Nhat’s disappearance in Bangkok remain murky. But California-based blogger Nguyen Van Hai, who served in the same prison with Nhat before Hai’s release in 2014, and Germany-based blogger Bui Thanh Hieu said they suspect Nhat was abducted by Vietnamese security agents in Thailand.
"We are looking at the possibility that he has been abducted," Hai, who writes under the name Dieu Cay, told RFA.
"We know he arrived at Bangkok and went to the UN’s office to apply for refugee status. If for any reason Nhat now appears in Vietnam, it must be against his will," he said.
Sources say that Vietnamese exiles have inquired about Nhat's whereabouts with hospitals and various district offices in Bangkok but to no avail. An associate of Nhat’s said his disappearance was also reported to Thai police late last week.
Fighting in the Party
Nhat is based in Da Nang city, next to Prime Minister Phuc's home province of Quang Nam where there is infighting within the Vietnamese Communist Party. He may have been privy to information that could be detrimental to the prime minister, activists said. Nhat had previously worked for a police newspaper in Da Nang, also Phuc’s stronghold.
Blogger Hieu said he suspected that Vietnamese military agents abducted Nhat from Bangkok on the orders of the prime minister.
"I think the prime minister wanted Nhat arrested at any costs because he has information about his faction in Quang Nam province [in Da Nang]," Hieu, who writes under the name 'Wind Trader,' said on his Facebook page.
This is not the first time the Vietnamese government has been accused of abducting its citizens from abroad.
Last year, a German court jailed a Vietnamese man almost four years for helping his country’s secret services kidnap a former oil executive from a Berlin street in 2017 and smuggle him back to Vietnam.
Ex-oil executive Trinh Xuan Thanh was seeking asylum in Germany at that time and his disappearance soured bilateral relations, with the German foreign ministry accusing Vietnam of breaching international law.
Thanh was subsequently tried and jailed for life on corruption charges in Vietnam.
Reported by RFA's Vietnamese Service and BenarNews. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai and Matthew Pennington.