Authorities in Vietnam have freed prominent musician Vo Minh Tri from prison after serving his full four-year sentence for writing politically sensitive songs, which he said he has “no regrets” about composing amid a territorial dispute between his country and China over the South China Sea.
Tri, a 37-year-old drummer who is also known as Viet Khang, was released early on Sunday and driven by police escort to his family’s home outside of Vietnam’s commercial capital Ho Chi Minh City, where he arrived late in the afternoon the following day, he told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“There was no family waiting outside—[the prison authorities] escorted me home,” he said, noting that his relatives were not allowed to pick him up from the prison because he is serving a two-year probation following his release.
“We left the prison at 7:00 a.m. and they stopped on the way for a meal. I couldn’t eat anything because I was too anxious thinking about how my family was waiting for me and the vehicle was too slow.”
Viet Khang said he felt “very happy after everything that has happened to me,” though he acknowledged that his “health is not very good yet” because he had just been released.
“I spent four years away from home, but in exchange I received support from many people [who helped me] overcome any difficulty I had to face,” he said.
The musician expressed thanks for “all of the support, courageous words, prayers, and everything else” he received during his incarceration, which he said he had never expected would be so extensive.
He said he has “no regrets” about writing his songs “Where Is My Vietnam?” and “Who Are You?”, which led to his December 2011 arrest and conviction the following October for “propaganda against the state” amid a crackdown on dissent not tolerated in the one-party communist state.
“Everything I did was done for a purpose—contributing to making the voice of the Vietnamese people heard,” Tri said.
“I am a patriotic musician—I love my country in my own way and I have nothing to regret. Many people understand what I was trying to say and they were able to understand it by listening to my songs. That is enough to make me happy.”
Tri, who is known for writing lyrics which rail against a widening income gap between Vietnam’s wealthy and poor, and against state crackdowns on activists protesting Chinese claims in the South China Sea, said he would return to his music soon after he had settled a few personal affairs.
“I have to tend to some family business first, because a few big developments require my attention,” he said.
“As for my career—just as for many artists—it is impossible to abandon. Singing, making music and making our lives more beautiful is what I do.
Tri’s conviction alongside 37-year-old songwriter Tran Vu Anh Binh drew condemnation from international rights groups and the U.S. Congress, who had called for their unconditional release. Binh was handed a six-year sentence on the same charges and is still in prison.
Meanwhile, Vietnamese blogger Ta Phong Tan, who was also recently released following four years in prison for “propaganda against the government,” expressed hope Tuesday that through sustained diplomatic and civil society pressure, U.S. engagement with Hanoi would lead to greater press freedom in her homeland.
In an interview with media watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Tan said that Washington should use the recently signed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement between Pacific Rim countries, including the U.S. and Vietnam, as leverage to pressure Hanoi to improve media conditions.
“Vietnam could benefit immensely from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The U.S. State Department should tell Vietnam that if they want good things from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, then first they must do good things for the Vietnamese people, including respect for human rights,” she said.
Tan called on the U.S. government to demand that Vietnam amends legislation so that it is consistent with international law. By doing so, she said, Hanoi would be made to uphold the conventions on human rights, freedom of the press, freedom of speech and against torture it has signed.
“The Trans-Pacific Partnership mainly emphasizes economic issues and the rights of workers. Journalism is a profession like any other occupation. If Vietnamese workers are to benefit from free association, as required by the Trans-Pacific Partnership, then those of us working as journalists should enjoy the same rights to their fullest extent,” she said.
A 47-year-old former policewoman who has received international awards for her work, Tan was sentenced to 10 years in jail in 2012 for "anti-government propaganda" after she was arrested a year earlier for writing in her blog Cong Ly v Su That (Truth and Justice) about human rights and democracy.
During her time in prison she staged several hunger strikes to protest poor conditions and mistreatment of fellow inmates. Tan's mother, Dang Thi Kim Lieng, died through self-immolation in 2012 in protest over her daughter being held incommunicado while in pre-trial detention.
The U.S. State Department negotiated her release nearly two months ago on condition that she leave Vietnam immediately, and Tan told CPJ she “had no other choice” but a life of exile in the U.S. after she was freed.
She is gradually adapting to her new life, she said, contributing to a Vietnamese newspaper in the U.S. and writing her memoir.
EU bilateral dialogue
Tan’s appeal followed a call from New York-based Human Rights Watch for the European Union to “press for concrete and measurable improvements on human rights” at its bilateral dialogue with Vietnam in Hanoi on Tuesday—the outcome of which it said should be made public.
Human Rights Watch said in a statement Monday that essential reforms include ending politically motivated trials and convictions, the release of political prisoners, guarantees on freedom of association and labor rights, and religious freedom.
“The EU should use this opportunity to make it loud and clear to Vietnam that friendly trade relations will be accompanied by increasing demands on human rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“The EU should insist that Vietnam agree to clear and verifiable benchmarks for progress, or Vietnam will simply make empty promises.”
Human Rights Watch noted that while Vietnam decreased the number of political trials and convictions in 2015 in order to gain favor during negotiations with the U.S. over the TPP and with the EU over the Vietnam–EU Free Trade Agreement, the country still holds at least 130 political prisoners.
It said that authorities appear to have changed tactics from arrests to intimidation and violence, with assaults against bloggers and rights activists worsening significantly during 2015.
While in every month pro-democracy campaigners have reported being attacked by plainclothes agents or police, no one involved in the assaults has been held accountable, the group said.
Reported by Kinh Hoa for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.