U.S.-trained human rights lawyer Le Cong Dinh, 46, was released from prison in 2013 after serving more than three years for “activities aimed at overthrowing” Vietnam’s one-party Communist government. Speaking to RFA’s Vietnamese Service by telephone from his home in Ho Chi Minh City, where he is serving probation, Dinh recounted the day North Vietnamese forces took the city, ending the Vietnam War. Following is an abridged transcript of the interview:
Dinh: The memory of April 30, 1975 is still with me. I was seven years old. We went to school as usual up until that day. The evacuation happened on the streets and at the U.S. Embassy. People ran to the embassy and boarded helicopters. I saw those scenes as I passed by and the images still linger in my mind. On April 30, all of the children in my area went out on the streets to see the liberation forces or watched it on TV. On TV, we saw the transition committee organize meetings where the portrait of Ho Chi Minh and the flags of North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (the Viet Cong) were hung. I was surprised and asked my dad who the person was and he said “Ho Chi Minh.”
As I grew up I started to understand more about the war. I was taught about the war according to the government’s distorted perception. Just like many other generations who grew up in this new regime, I was only familiar with the propaganda.
When I was in university, through talks with my relatives and friends, I gained a greater understanding of the issue. I started to study about our history and looked for books to read. But most of the books back then were published by the government, so how could I fully understand it? That was why I had to look for books published before 1975—books from my own family and especially those of my own elder brother. Those books really changed my thinking. I had a new perception about our history around the age of 17 or 18. I wanted to have a comprehensive, multi faceted understanding of the country’s history.
RFA: After you were arrested, the mainstream media wrote that your family was a revolutionary family and enjoyed privileges due to this. Did your family receive any privileges after April 30, 1975?
Dinh: In 1975, after the reunification, my father became a member of the new regime, but many things happened after that which made him realize he had been deceived, such as the policies [the government] applied to many people in the south. Those policies included the detention of South Vietnam veterans and civil servants of the South Vietnam government, and capitalism reforms. He saw these policies as inhumane.
Before 1975, people tried to save their money and work legally to lead normal lives, emulating the middle class. But now they were categorized as capitalist, their assets were confiscated, and their families were forced to relocate to new economic zones.
Of course, when looking at my background, they still thought of my family as a revolutionary family and that was why when I was at the lower court, I said “I think my family—including my grandfather, uncle, father and aunt—all followed the revolution, however I chose a different path.” I stated that very clearly, but when I saw the footage on YouTube … [the authorities] cut that part out and dubbed in different words. They made it seem as if I said that because I had gone against my family tradition and achievements, I felt regret.
RFA: Forty years after the war, prisoners from re-education camps have returned home. But now there exist new prisoners of conscience. What does this show to the world?
Dinh: From what happened to veterans who served the South in the past, we can see that the new government’s policy sought to take revenge on them. The new government had no leniency and offered no reconciliation—that was why they had implemented the re-education policy.
From today’s prisoners of conscience, everybody can see that this is a despotic regime whose members only want to hear words that please their own ears, who expect the people to follow their will, and who will not tolerate dissenting opinions. That is why there are political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. I only voiced my own opinions and they considered it to be a threat by hostile forces. This shows the world the consistent policy of all communist regimes. Europe, Asia and especially the U.S. have not seen any change in their authoritarianism.
The number of prisoners of conscience is increasing. This shows us the fear in the minds of [Vietnam’s] leaders. They are always afraid that their power will be taken away due to the influence of intellectuals and dissidents, and the only way they have to respond is to crack down on them and imprison them. They think that is the best way to stop all opposing voices.
Reported by Mac Lam for RFA’s Vietnamese Service.