Interview: Vietnamese activist evades agents, flees to Germany

Nguyen Tien Trung says security forces chased him in Vietnam and Thailand.
By RFA Vietnamese
2023.12.20
Interview: Vietnamese activist evades agents, flees to Germany Activist Nguyen Tien Trung.
Trung Nguyen Tien

Democracy activist and former prisoner of conscience Nguyen Tien Trung, his wife, and two children arrived in Germany for resettlement purposes on December 14, 2023.

Trung fled Vietnam for Thailand to apply for refugee status in August 2023 following heavy surveillance by Vietnam’s security forces who forced him to visit police stations multiple times.

Trung has been an activist fighting for democracy in Vietnam for more than a decade. He was arrested in 2009 on charges of “anti-State propaganda.” In 2010, he was sentenced to seven years in prison, along with other prominent activists such as Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, Le Cong Dinh, and Le Thang Long.

After being discharged from prison in 2014, he continued his pro-democracy activities in various forms, including writing commentaries and compiling reports on the Vietnamese government’s human rights violations and sharing them with the international community.

From a refugee camp in the city of Cologne, Trung told Radio Free Asia how he escaped Vietnamese security forces at home and in Thailand.

RFA: Congratulations to you and your family on having arrived in Germany. What are your feelings now?

Trung: I did not plan to come to Germany but the dangerous situation facing me in Vietnam forced me to leave my country.

My feelings are mixed. I am happy because my family has arrived in a safe place but I am also sad for having to leave Vietnam and my colleagues there. 

RFA: What dangers forced you to flee your home country?

Trung: In the early morning of Aug. 18, 2023, when leaving my home [in Ho Chi Minh City] to buy breakfast, I encountered five plain-clothed security officers who came out from a coffee shop at the beginning of the alley to my home. They stopped me and asked me to follow them to the ward office.

I asked whether they had any written summons for me, who they were, and why they stopped me. They replied that they did not have a summons, but I must go to the ward office. They also said that after I went to the ward office, they would send the summons to my home. However, I refused to go, saying this was a kidnapping plot.

After arguing with me for a while, they made eye contact with around five other security officers, who were sitting inside the coffee shop, asking them to come out. When they stood up, I counted them and realized that there were a total of around 10 security officers watching and wanting to arrest me.

Therefore, I had to run back to my home. Fortunately, I ran fast enough and was able to get in and lock the gate. Shortly after that, police officers in uniform came with an invitation, asking me to go to the ward police station for a meeting on the same day. I, of course, did not show up.

It was raining that evening. Noticing there was no one watching me, I decided to leave home and flee to Thailand. 

RFA: In your opinion, what had you done that led to the threat of you being arrested?

Trung: Firstly, for many years, I have always reported the Vietnamese Communist government’s human rights violations to international organizations and diplomatic missions of democratic countries [in Vietnam].

Secondly, I can say that I had put families of many prisoners of conscience in contact with foreign embassies so that the embassies could support them or lobby for the release of prisoners of conscience. This is what I have publically done since I was discharged from prison in 2014.

What I didn’t say publicly was my support for many Vietnamese civil society organizations. I stayed behind the scenes and did not want to reveal myself.

Recently, I was told by my friends that some had been kidnapped and forced to denounce and accuse me of enticing them to fight for democracy. Therefore, I realized they were looking for excuses to accuse me.

As they did not have any evidence to charge me, they planned to abduct me when I was going out to be able to have access to my mobile phone, and they wanted to arrest me based on my friends’ forced statements. That was their conspiracy. 

RFA: Can you tell us about your trip to Thailand?

Trung: I left home on the evening of Aug. 18 and arrived in Bangkok, Thailand on Aug. 23.

Like others, to be able to come to Thailand I had to go through Cambodia. I cannot be more specific as the information about the path to Thailand should be confidential.

RFA: How did you feel when you arrived in Thailand?

Trung: I was glad as I could at least get to the place I needed to go to, which was the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. However, I always stayed vigilant because, as you all know, Vietnamese agents are ubiquitous in Bangkok, and they successfully abducted Truong Duy Nhat and Duong Van Thai. Therefore, I was not that glad.

Despite my vigilance, Vietnamese security agents were still able to track me down in Bangkok. That was why the German government decided to grant me an emergency visa so that I could come to Germany early.

RFA: How did you know that you had been spotted by Vietnamese security agents in Bangkok?

Trung: When I was having breakfast at a market near my home [in Bangkok], I noticed someone was following me and [using Google to search for my photos] … Luckily, the person was sitting with his/her back to me.

When I glanced at their phone, this person turned their head to look at me. Therefore, I was able to see they were searching for my photos to verify it was me. I immediately left the eatery and also moved to a new place to live.

I informed several embassies about the incident and the German embassy decided to help me [leave Thailand] right away. Then I arrived in Germany on Dec. 14.

RFA: Looking back at your journey from Vietnam to Thailand and then to Germany, what do you think was the biggest challenge?

Trung: I think the most challenging time was when I had to cross the border between Vietnam and Cambodia. They wanted to kidnap me on Friday [Aug. 18], and on Saturday afternoon, I had already arrived in the province bordering Cambodia.

My taxi driver received a lot of calls from the call center and the call center was aware that the taxi was transporting me. I realized that the security forces had spotted my taxi, and I had been discovered as the call center was able to describe my appearance in detail. As a result, I had no choice but to leave that border province and return to Saigon [Ho Chi Minh City]. So, I failed to flee Vietnam on that Saturday.

On Sunday, I took another route, and fortunately, I was successful.

The fact that I was spotted and had to return to Saigon made me realize how severe my case was because only the security forces at the ministry level were able to mobilize various provinces’ and cities’ security forces to prevent me from leaving the country. I was very lucky to be able to escape from them.

RFA: During your stay in Thailand, was your family in Vietnam harassed by the local authorities?

Trung: The security forces did ask about me, but my family, of course, did not say anything. Quite a few of my friends were “kidnapped” and interrogated about my whereabouts, as well as forced to denounce me. I knew this as my friends messaged me after being released from police stations.

RFA: Do you know why the Vietnamese government had such a strong determination to hunt you?

Trung: I think there could be several reasons. Firstly, they may find my activities had caused some threats as I supported many domestic civil society organizations with many employees and strong abilities. Therefore, they were determined to wipe me out.

Secondly, the activists, who are good at English, have already left, and I seem to be the last one in Vietnam who can help prisoners of conscience speak up [and communicate with the international community]. Therefore, I was a thorn that needed to be removed.

Thirdly, it might be because Tran Huynh Duy Thuc is going to be released from prison. He is expected to complete his jail term in 2025. I guess that they did not want us to work together to fight for democracy in Vietnam and decided to take action to prevent this.

Those are all my assumptions. I actually don’t know their motivations/reasons.

RFA: Now you are in Germany do you have any worries or concerns?

Trung: As a pro-democracy activist, I, of course, still have many concerns. I don’t know what will happen to my colleagues still in Vietnam. I wish them all safety and security, and I hope that my departure/absence will bring them safety as their leader has left.

RFA: What are your plans for the future?

Trung: I will need to settle in first, then start to learn German to integrate into life here quickly.

Secondly, I will continue to pursue my ideal, which is to fight for human rights and democracy in Vietnam. And, of course, I will have to do it differently from what I did when I was in the country.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Translated by Anna Vu. Edited by Mike Firn and Taejun Kang.

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