Q&A with Pham Doan Trang

I speak to Pham Doan Trang, a prominent Vietnamese journalist, from her secret hideout about her latest book, Politics for the Masses.

 

Pham Doan Trang is one of the most well-known and respected Vietnamese journalists and bloggers. In late February, she was brought in for questioning over by the authorities over her latest book, Politics For The Masses, but later released. Her home was swiftly surrounded by the police though she managed to escape and is currently in hiding.

I spoke to her this weekend about her latest book, Chính trị bình dân, or Politics for the Masses; about political awareness among Vietnamese; and the future of Vietnam. 

Read my recent article on Trang published by the Asia Times (Talkin’ about a reformation in Vietnam). She also featured heavily in a recent column article I wrote for the Diplomat (Will Vietnam’s Communist Party Ever Change Its Ways?)

A PDF copy of her book, currently only available in Vietnamese, can be found here.

 

Q: You said in an interview with Radio Free Asia last year that your book is about educating ordinary people about politics. Do you think enough people are interested in politics?

A: Maybe I’m naïve and wrong, but I think Vietnam is fortunate enough to have quite a good citizenry, in the sense that the Vietnamese people are smart and love “talking politics”. Walk down the street and sit down at any sidewalk cafés in the morning, and you’ll find people talking about all kinds of politics-related topics; from the newest arrests in the Party’s “anti-corruption” campaign to new faces in public offices; from drivers fighting BOT toll stations to the new regulations to control internet.

The problems are that, firstly, people just confine themselves to discussing politics or grumbling over some bad government policies, rather than doing anything to interfere into the policy process. And, secondly, they do not know that they can do something – at least speak up in public – rather than just talking politics for fun in sidewalk cafes.

Were there a democratic government, these people would form a good citizenry. At least, a young, enthusiastic and smart population should be a great asset for any nation.

Q: Do most people stick to the government’s instruction: “Everything is taken care of by the Party and ordinary people don’t need to worry about politics?”

A: So sad, but true. The vast majority think everything is taken care of by the Party or preordained; that they have no role in the policy process – they may not even know what a policy process is.

Q: What can be done to raise ordinary people’s political awareness and interest in politics?

A: For a democratic government this is not a big problem. After all, it’s political awareness, not knowledge about quantum physics, genetics or astronautics.

The problem for us is that a communist police state like Vietnam dislikes its people to broaden their political awareness and their participation in macro affairs. From elementary schools to universities, from schools to offices, we all are taught that politics is either dirty or too noble for the ordinary people to be involved in.

Faculties of political science focus strongly on preaching Marxism-Leninism and what they title “scientific socialism”. But how does the rhetoric of the nineteenth century compete with the Internet, social media, game, movies and other stuff of the world today? Even mainstream and traditional media must compete with Internet-media for audience.

Q: What are your thoughts on journalism in Vietnam today?

A: As a journalist, I simply think of myself as a story-teller. And to attract the audience’s attention I should make my stories as appealing as possible. They must be true, or fact-based, of course. Apart from ethical conduct, journalists in countries like Vietnam (and China) must really tell the truth to the public, because the truth, as it is, is appealing enough; we need no exaggeration.

What I did with Politics For The Masses is just provide basic concepts of political science in general – not just Marxism or Leninism or the like – but also democracy, legitimacy, rule of law, separation and fusion of power. Undoubtedly, people in the West might take these things for granted, but in Vietnam we may lose a lot of time arguing about the good and bad sides of democracy, and whether Vietnam needs a democratic government.

I explain these concepts and illustrate them with Vietnamese stories. Or, it can be said that I put knowledge of these ‘abstract’ things into a totally Vietnamese context for the Vietnamese readers to grasp. I tried to use a journalistic language that is easy to read. So, in the end, the book does not just give academic definitions and interpretations regarding very unfamiliar subjects to Vietnamese readers, but also tells stories of contemporary Vietnam.

For foreign readers who can read Vietnamese, they may find in here the history of the democratization movement in the country since 1985, which has had so many ups-and-downs; so much suppression and political repression.

Q: Are you happy with the popularity of your book? I believe it has been shared on social media a lot.

A: I am so happy with its popularity that I think I can accept any bad consequence that it brings to me.

Q: Are you happy with it being distributed for free online?

A: The more people read it, the happier I am. And I’m grateful to anyone who helps me distribute this book for free.

Q: Do you think the police are hunting you because you wrote a book aimed at ordinary people, not just for liberals and academics?

A: Some people say it’s because of the title, Politics For The Masses, or for ordinary people, and the ruling Communist Party dislikes that. Others say it’s because of the author: Had it been another person, the police might not have hunted him/her.

I don’t know why they hate me and my book so much. After all, it’s just a textbook.

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