A lack of freedom of speech in Vietnam as a result of an activist Bui Tuan Lam being sentenced to prison

A lack of freedom of speech in Vietnam as a result of an activist Bui Tuan Lam being sentenced to prison
A photo of Ms. Le Thanh Lam, wife of Mr. Bui Tuan Lam, and their three daughters hold up banners demanding the release of Mr. Bui Tuan Lam (Image: Facebook Peter Lam Bui).


Anna Vu kim

Southeast Asia and Pacific and Human Rights Researchers

Global Human Rights Defence

The Da Nang government portal on 25 May quoted the indictment: "Between 20 April 2019 and 7 September 2022, Mr Bui Tuan Lam made and published 19 posts on the personal Facebook account 'Peter Lam Bui' and 25 videos and articles on the social media account Youtube (created, managed and used by Lam) with false, fabricated content, posting, distorting, defaming and libelling the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam." (VOA, 2023)

Mr Bui Tuan Lam has been frequently harassed and threatened by the police for his activism. In February 2014, Mr Bui Tuan Lam travelled to Geneva to participate in a civil society campaign for human rights during Vietnam’s Universal Periodic Review session at the United Nations Human Rights Council. When he returned to Vietnam, police detained him at the airport, interrogated him for hours and confiscated his passport. He has not been allowed to leave Vietnam since then (Human Rights Watch, 2023). While he lived in Ho Chi Minh City working as an advertising designer, the police pressured his landlord to evict him and compelled his employer to fire him. Mr Bui Tuan Lam was forced to move back to his hometown, Da Nang, where he opened a sidewalk food stand to earn a living. Police summoned and interrogated Bui Tuan Lam several times, and pressured him to close his noodle soup shop which he did for a few days (Human Rights Watch, 2023).

Mr Bui Tuan Lam, in 2021, has become very popular by filming himself imitating the flamboyant cooking gestures of celebrity Turkish chef Nusret Gökçe, or “Salt Bae”, days after Vietnam’s powerful minister of public security was caught on camera eating gold-encrusted steak at the chef’s restaurant in London (Al Jazeera, 2022). A video of the minister and his entourage being served the Golden Tomahawk steak – which sells for up to $2,000 – went viral in Vietnam, promoting questions on social media as to how government employees on modest official salaries could afford such luxuries (Al Jazeera, 2022)

In September 2022, Mr Bui Tuan Lam was arrested on bogus charges of “propaganda against the state.” Police kept him incommunicado for more than seven months, with the prosecutors claiming that he didn’t want legal counsel. When Bui Tuan Lam’s wife, Le Thanh Lam, successfully challenged this, the authorities retaliated by refusing to let her attend her husband’s May 25 trial in Da Nang. She still showed up outside the court, where police apprehended, manhandled, and dragged her in the street, injuring her legs. She said that police detained her for several hours, “searched every inch on my body” and “treated me as if I were no longer human.” They released her that evening, long after the trial had finished (Robertson, 2023).

Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch's (HRW) deputy director for Asia, told VOA after the trial:

"The imprisonment of Mr Bui Tuan Lam for simply sharing his opinion on Facebook shows that the intolerant violation of human rights by the Vietnamese government is clearly determined to erase any sign of dissent. Vietnam has become one of the worst totalitarian regimes in Asia, if not the world" (VOA, 2023).

Among the videos listed in the indictment are five recorded songs. Three are performances of a human rights song, “Return to the People,” written by the former political prisoner, Viet Khang. The lyrics open with, “Return to the people the rights to freedom; human rights; the rights to see, to hear, to speak; the rights to choose the truth and freedom; the rights to remove a dictatorship.” The second song, “Where is my Vietnam?” also by Viet Khang, contains content opposing China. The third is a famous anti-war song, “Mother’s Legacy,” written in 1965 by Vietnam’s most beloved song composer, the late Trinh Cong Son (Human Rights Watch, 2023). “The list of posts and videos listed as ‘evidence’ of Bui Tuan Lam’s ‘crimes’ shows the extreme lengths to which the Vietnamese go to block any sort of online criticism of the government,” Robertson said. “For the Vietnamese leadership, even songs are a threat to their monopoly of power.”(Human Rights Watch, 2023).

So far, the Vietnamese government has denied all allegations of human rights violations, claiming that it only arrests and imprisons those who "break the law"(VOA, 2023).

There are currently at least 170 people in prison in Vietnam for expressing views unacceptable to the communist party, or doing anything seen as a threat to the party's monopoly on power (Head and Thu, 2023).

Sources and further reading:

Al Jazeera (September 8, 2022). Vietnam arrests famous noodle vendor for ‘anti-state’ acts online. Retrieved on June 9, 2023, from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/9/8/vietnam-arrests-famous-noodle-vendor-for-anti-state-acts-online 

Head, J. and Thu, B. (May 25, 2023). Salt Bae parody: Vietnam noodle vendor jailed for five years. Retrieved on June 9, 2023, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-65705048 

Human Rights Watch (May 24, 2023). Vietnam: Activist Charged With “Propaganda”. Retrieved on June 9, 2023, from https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/05/24/vietnam-activist-charged-propaganda 

Robertson, P. (May 31, 2023). No Joking Allowed in Vietnam. Retrieved on June 9, 2023, from https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/05/31/no-joking-allowed-vietnam 
Trường, N. (September 7, 2022). Bùi Tuấn Lâm bị điều tra hành vi chống Nhà nước. Retrieved on June 9, 2023, from https://vnexpress.net/bui-tuan-lam-bi-dieu-tra-hanh-vi-chong-nha-nuoc-4508562.html 

Trường, N. (May 25, 2023). Ông Bùi Tuấn Lâm bị phạt hơn 5 năm tù. Retrieved on June 9, 2023, from https://vnexpress.net/ong-bui-tuan-lam-bi-phat-hon-5-nam-tu-4609691.html 

VOA (May 25, 2023).  Nhà hoạt động Bùi Tuấn Lâm bị phạt 5 năm 6 tháng tù và 4 năm quản chế. Retrieved on June 9, 2023, from https://www.voatiengviet.com/a/nha-hoat-dong-bui-tuan-lam-bi-phat-5-nam-6-thang-tu-va-4-nam-quan-che/7108560.html#comments 

VOA (September 8, 2022). Nhà hoat động Bùi Tuấn Lâm bị bắt. Retrieved on June 9, 2023, from https://www.voatiengviet.com/a/nha-hoat-dong-bui-tuan-lam-bi-bat/6736348.html