Activist-singer Mai Khoi: ‘Every Vietnamese woman needs to understand her rights’

'Freedom of expression has never been protected in Vietnam and it remains very bad now,' she says.
By Cao Nguyen
Activist-singer Mai Khoi: ‘Every Vietnamese woman needs to understand her rights’ Vietnamese musician and activist Mai Khoi at the international airport in San Francisco, on way to meeting to press Facebook to stop abetting government censors in Vietnam, on Oct. 19, 2018.

 Singer Do Nguyen Mai Khoi rose to stardom in 2010 after winning the Vietnam Television song and album of the year awards, and has ben described as her native country’s Bjork or Lady Gaga. Tired of having to submit her work to government censors, Mai Khoi nominated herself to run in Communist Vietnam’s National Assembly elections on a pro-democracy platform. Her turn to political activism led to repeat detention, punishment and thrats to her safety – along with prizes for her advocacy, including the Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent and the Four Freedoms Award. Now living in exile in the United States and unable to go back to her homeland, the 39-year-old Mai Khoi spoke to Cao Nguyen of RFA’s Vietnamese Service for International Women’s Day.

 RFA: Can you please tell us where you live now and how’s your life?

Mai Khoi: I am talking with RFA from a beautiful city in Pennsylvania. I am participating in a residence artist program and working on a multimedia story-telling project named “Bad Activists”.

My life here is very interesting. I have the opportunity to meet with artists and activists from various countries, including those from Sudan, Bangladesh and Africa. It’s interesting because we are in the same situation. We all fought for values of freedom and human rights and were forced to leave our home countries for safety and security reasons. We are now living together in a very lovely place.

RFA: You are known as a singer and activist fighting for freedom of expression. What achievement in this area pleases you the most and what are the plans that you haven’t been able to fulfill?

Mai Khoi: Over the past three years, my friends and I have been fighting against AK47, or the Cyber Security Forces in Vietnam, in order to protect the freedom of expression on social media. The achievement that I am most proud of is to have been able to create enough pressure on Facebook so that it had to change its policy. Facebook has removed many groups of public opinion workers in Vietnam who used to report political dissidents on purpose in order to get their accounts closed down and to muzzle them.

Although the human rights situation in Vietnam is still very bad and the Vietnamese government continues to arrest and punish political dissidents who express their opinions online, this can be seen as a small success and contribution of myself and my team.

It’s a shame that I had not been able to complete many things that I and my team in Vietnam were working on. Three years ago, I had to leave Vietnam immediately because the police threatened to arrest me.

The police had detained me several times and according to our experience, they were likely to imprison people whom they had temporarily detained many times. At that time, I thought it was unnecessary for me to stay in prison, therefore I decided to leave before they could take action.

RFA: What is your assessment of the level of freedom of expression in Vietnam now? What are you doing now to support and advocate for this right in Vietnam?

Mai Khoi: Freedom of expression has never been protected in Vietnam and it remains very bad now. Those who take to the streets are often arrested, watched and punished. Things are even getting worse now as those who express their opinions on social media can be fined and imprisoned. As a result, we have to continue fighting, taking action and have a faith in what we are doing.

My team and I keep working and creating pressure on Facebook so that they will change other policies in order to protect freedom of expression and activists’ Facebook accounts.

Facebook needs to do more, and pressuring them is necessary. What I have been doing is to work with international media to create pressure on them and advocate for their further actions.

Nowadays, social media plays a very important role in organizing activities, movements and creating pressure for policy changes. As social media has such a great power, authoritarian governments often try to eliminate it. However, not many understand what I am doing.

Mai Khoi performing during a concert in Ho Chi Minh City,  Aug. 13, 2015. Credit: AFP
Mai Khoi performing during a concert in Ho Chi Minh City, Aug. 13, 2015. Credit: AFP
RFAWhile many people love you and support your cause, you also receive criticism from not only the Vietnamese government but also from political dissidents. How do you respond to the criticism?

Mai Khoi: When conflicts or arguments emerge, I often keep quiet and focus on the direction that I have chosen. That’s the only way.

I’ll keep working on what I have been doing to contribute to changes, the rightness, human rights and other values of freedom. I don’t care about groundless and ignorant criticism.

RFA: Do you have any wishes or words for your fellow Vietnamese women foe International Women’s Day?

Mai Khoi: In Vietnam, up to 63 per cent of women have experienced a type of violence, whether physical, mental or economic. Sixty-three percent of women having been abused by their men is a big and sad number. I really hope that the Vietnamese government will pay sufficient attention to this issue and make efforts to change it.

The most important thing is every Vietnamese woman needs to understand her rights. Once they have a good understanding, they will use their rights properly and not allow violence and abuse. They will also be able to become the person they would like to be.

RFA: Are you afraid that your safety will be threatened if you return to Vietnam?

Mai Khoi: I haven’t gone back to Vietnam not because I worry about my safety. At present I cannot return to Vietnam and make contributions. I will return when necessary.

I think no one can be completely safe in Vietnam as human rights are not protected. If you say something a little bit contradictory to the authority’s opinions, you could be on the verge of being fined, arrested and punished.

RFA: What do you wish Vietnam will be in the future?

Mai Khoi: I wish Vietnam would have democracy, a multiparty regime and universal human rights would be protected, and all political prisoners would be released. I wish Vietnam will not have political prisoners.

Translated by Anna Vu.


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