The following article is the sharing of Anna Nguyen, VOICE’s Director of Programs, on the occasion of the trip to advocate the human rights of the Vietnamese delegation in Europe.
“Surely, in the light of history, it is more intelligent to hope rather than to fear, to try rather than not to try. For one thing we know beyond all doubt: Nothing has ever been achieved by the person who says, ‘It can’t be done.'” – Eleanor Roosevelt
On the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), I reflect back on my week in Brussels. This week was definitely a learning experience for me, after an intense week of back to back meetings with Members of the European Parliament and European Commission, talking about the importance of human rights concessions that need to be made by the Vietnamese government prior to the ratification of the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) and the leverage the EVFTA can be used to demand for an improved human rights situation in Vietnam.
The EVFTA is a trade agreement between the EU and Vietnam, with hopes that once it’s signed, the EU will boost its trade and investment ties with Vietnam. ‘The EVFTA is an important stepping stone to a wider EU-Southeast Asia trade deal, something which the EU has been striving towards for almost 10 years. Vietnam, a fast-growing and competitive economy whose bilateral trade with the EU has quintupled over the past ten years, is equally keen on the deal, which according to the European Commission could potentially boost its GDP by 15%.’ (*)
Despite being 70 years since the UDHR was signed, human rights has taken a step back and our presence is still required to advocate for simple improvements in human rights. However, in each of my meetings this week, I was reminded how small of a fish we really are, in this huge ocean of diplomacy, trade deals, and agreements. We can talk for hours about the worsening human rights situation in Vietnam, and the staggering number of human rights defenders that have been sent to prison for their peaceful civil and political rights work (165 according to https://vietnamprisoners.info). We can go on and on about how much the EVFTA is needed by the Vietnamese government, not only because it could potentially boost their GDP, but also in order to be seen as balancing the interests between Conglomerate China and the West. We could continue to stress the power the EU has in pushing for the release of political prisoners and amendment to laws that infringe upon rights such as freedom of expression, and that if the EU wants to be seen seriously, they need to secure, at the very least, these demands before an agreement is signed.
Whether our voices actually amounts to real change is the real test. At times, I really wonder whether these meetings actually make a dent in any diplomatic negotiations. Whether the voice of civil society actors can really make an impact on how a country will be in the next 5, 10, or 100 years, and whether our input can shape how human rights and civil society organisations are able to safely and freely operate in a repressive country like Vietnam. After all, my voice is literally and metaphorically so small compared to this big arena of agreements and diplomacy, how much difference would I actually be able to make?!
But in the words of Mrs. Roosevelt, ”nothing has been achieved by the person who says, ‘it can’t be done.’” It is important to hope, to fight, even in the light of despair and deterioration. And surely, it is much more intelligent to try, rather than not to try.
Our goal for 2018 is to raise $650,000 to resettle 50 stateless Vietnamese refugees living in Thailand.
Some has been living there for more than 20 years, undocumented. Some has been hunted by Communist Vietnam.
Ho Thi Bich Khuong, a civil rights activist, fled to Bangkok in 2016. Her husband was “found dead”, she herself was arrested 3 times and served a total of 7 years in prison. Upon her release, police confiscated her house and shop, and barred her friends from giving her shelter. Her family was on the “attack-on-sight” list, her son almost died from a hit-and-run accident. Vietnam police made her life as unbearable as can be.
Her two children deserve a better life in Canada, so do 11 other families we are helping. They need your help, too.
The totally cost will be 650,000. $500,000 for income support (mandatory from Canadian government), and $150,000 for fees and paperwork.
We’ve held 14 fundraisers this year and raised over $250,000. That donation money came from the goodwill of thousands of Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese around the world. Unfortunately, it is only enough for 30 refugees. What will happen to the fate of the other 20? Who will go and who will stay? The answer is in your helping hands.
Help us achieve this goal. Help us bring them to Canada.
* Some pictures of Vietnamese refugees in Thailand:
Application Deadline: Midnight, Monday, December 31, 2018 (US Pacific Standard Time)
Vietnamese Overseas Initiative for Conscience Empowerment (VOICE) is seeking a dedicated Executive Director to lead our dynamic and growing US-based international organization.
VOICE is a U.S. 501(c)(3) formally established in 2007, with grassroots activities spanning the previous decade. VOICE’s mission is to advocate for Vietnamese refugees’ rights, and work as a catalyst for concrete and sustainable civil society development in Vietnam. To that extent, VOICE invests its resources in advocacy, capacity building training programs, and on-the-ground projects, through four key focus areas: freedom of expression, access to justice, environmental protection, and religious freedom.
VOICE is a leading civil society organization with a unique and effective long-term approach to civil society development in Vietnam. In alignment with our strategy, our team leverages in-depth country knowledge to identify synergy between the Vietnamese overseas community, its international partners and local Vietnamese civil society leaders’ needs and objectives to deliver on VOICE’s focused capacity building training and grant making strategies.
VOICE’s efforts are assisted and enhanced by our independent affiliates, which share our mission. Our partnership comprises of the following organizations: VOICE Australia, VOICE Canada, VOICE Norway, VOICE U.K., and Voice EUROPE based in Brussels, Belgium.
The Executive Director will be visionary and forward-thinking. The successful candidate must possess an awareness of critical needs and social and political issues Vietnam is facing; familiarity with VOICE operation in Southeast Asia; ability to identify and connect with other established nonprofits; knowledge of socio-political conditions at the community level; access to key stakeholders; and an understanding of the policy environments, particularly the U.S, and the EU.
The successful candidate will have strong operational experience and administrative acumen to make effective decisions regarding the future and growth of the organization. Ideally, the position will be based in the United States, with regular international travel; however, location is open to discussion.
The position reports to the Board of Directors. The Executive Director is responsible for operational and personnel management of VOICE international operations, with approximately 15 staff and 30 short-term and long-term interns and regular volunteers; fund development for and financial management of VOICE annual budget; long-range planning & strategic visioning.
Leadership & Strategic Planning
Provide leadership and work with Board, staff, volunteers, and affiliates to implement VOICErefugee resettlement program; and develop and expand VOICE’s civil society initiatives in Vietnam and beyond;
Lead the development of local, regional and international strategies, and take action to ensure implementation.
Develop initiatives and collaborative partnerships that advance VOICE’s goals across its areas of strategic focus.
Assess progress toward goals, making strategy adjustments as necessary.
Represent VOICE’s strategy before stakeholders, cultivating leaders, and establishing additional VOICE affiliates.
Work closely with grantors and grantees to elevate VOICE’s profile among human rights defenders in Vietnam, civic leadership, and other key stakeholders.
Communication & Collaboration
Develop and maintain effective relationships with VOICE affiliates and colleagues around the world; ensure that they are aware of, support and participate in VOICE’s strategy and its implementation.
Develop and maintain a productive network of professional relationships with key government, philanthropic, non-profit and community leaders, including those at senior levels.
Improve awareness and visibility of VOICE’s activities and achievements internally and externally; represent VOICE at key conferences and meetings, and drive the development of VOICE’s projects for internal and external support.
Communicate VOICE’s strategy to multiple internal constituencies including its interns.
Work closely with media relations and other partners to maximize coverage of and participation in events and projects.
Financial Planning and Management
Work with the Board and staff to prepare annual organizational budget
Work with the Board to secure adequate funding for the operation of the organization
Provide the Board with comprehensive, regular financial reports
Monitor and provide oversight to ensure timely and accurate reporting to funders.
Oversee re-granting projects, including review of grant proposals for Board approval, ensuring adherence to project plan, reviewing impact reports, identifying challenges and troubleshooting as needed
Ensure that the organization complies with regulations and legal requirements as stipulated by US Internal Revenue Services’ 501(c)(3) codes.
Fund Development and Grant Management
Participate in fundraising activities and events as appropriate
Work closely with the Board, staff and VOICE affiliates to identify funding opportunities and leverage international grantor relationships.
Report impact to grantors, affiliates, partners and other stakeholder, and help distill insights and lessons learned from VOICE’s various programs in and outside of Vietnam.
Human Resources Planning and Management
Recruit, hire, and manage an international team of (5) Program Directors and (up to 10) support staff, working in multiple offices in the US and Asia.
Oversee the implementation of the human resources policies, procedures and practices including the development of job descriptions.
Prepare annual staff performance evaluations; and provide training, coaching and mentoring as necessary.
Bachelor’s degree required; Master’s degree in a relevant field preferred
Minimum of 5-10 years of relevant work experience in policy/program development and implementation; demonstrated ability to think critically and strategically about program design and implementation
Experienced in organizational leadership and management, including strategic development, community engagement, budget and financial management, human resources and operations.
Familiarity, experience and commitment to advancing human rights
Passion for VOICE’s mission; deep knowledge of and experience related to civil society development
Experienced in grant-writing and grant-making and the non-profit sector; ability to fundraise and assess the leadership, track record, fiscal integrity and capacity of a nonprofit organization
Creative, flexible and collaborative with an ability to work in a multi-cultural and team-oriented environment, with commitment to equal opportunities and non-discrimination
Demonstrates a high degree of initiative; results-oriented, high level of attention to details and deadlines
Familiarity with international laws and policies, as well as Vietnamese laws relating to human rights
Outstanding written and oral communication skills in English; ability to represent VOICE in diverse forums and organizational relationships
Command of Vietnamese language a plus
Frequent travel, including internationally, is required
Salary: Competitive salary, negotiable based on qualifications, availability, ability to travel, country of employment and desired benefit package.
How to apply: email firstname.lastname@example.org, by deadline of midnight, December 31, 2018. with subject line: VOICE ED Search; One (1) PDF or Word Doc file/attachment, that includes all three (3) following items:
Cover letter, one page
At least three (3) professional references, listing:
relationship to applicant
country of work or residence
Additional references may be requested for short-listed candidates. Only short-listed candidates will be contacted.
NOTICE OF ACTIVIST NGUYEN NGOC NHU QUYNH’S RELEASE FROM PRISON
This afternoon October 17, 2018; activist Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (aka “Mother Mushroom”) was granted freedom from the Vietnamese government after almost two years of imprisonment. Today she was reunited with her family and they are on their way to the United States.
She is a strenuous human rights defender and environmental activist. Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh was awarded many prizes, including “Defender of the Year” by Civil Rights Defenders in 2015, and “International Women of Courage Award” by the U.S. State Department two years later.
Unfortunately, it was Quynh’s activism that triggered the Vietnamese government to detain her since October 10, 2016. She was consequently sentenced to 10 years imprisonment under the charge of “conducting propaganda against the State.”
The fight for Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh’s freedom has been continuously campaigned for the past two years by the Vietnamese communities inside Vietnam and abroad. They were supported by international governments and human rights organizations around the world. This pressure has forced the Vietnamese government to grant Quynh her freedom after two years of imprisonment. This result has indirectly proven that the 10 year sentence handed down to Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh was not only unlawful but also immoral.
We would like to acknowledge and show gratitude to all who have supported this campaign. Moreover, we strongly believe that not only Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, but all the prisoners of conscience detained in Vietnam deserve a life of freedom and dignity.
There is more to be done ahead. At present, VOICE is working towards building a strong and robust civil society in Vietnam. Our objectives are to demand the Vietnamese government to respect and adhere to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to campaign for the release of all prisoners of conscience.
To achieve our common goals, we ask for your continuous support in this journey.
The heart-warming words of an 84 years old supporter
Meaningful work is not easy. There are many terrible people in society. They are dirty and do not want anyone to look cleaner than them. They do not want anyone to become a lotus. They want to pull the lotus into the mud. But they are not able to succeed because the lotus will become a lotus! Around Trinh Hoi are several people who understand you, sympathize with you, admire your soul and great heart. If it wasn’t for you, who would help the suffering victims? I am one of the people who recognize your hard work. My check is very small compared to the amount VOICE needs, but it comes from the heart of a lady at 84 years old, with a small retirement (only 650 usd/month. I do not ask for SSI). I decided to cancel my trip to see family in Canada so I could send this money to VOICE, to encourage Trinh Hoi and the work done by VOICE. I wish Trinh Hoi and all of you to keep up your spirits.
VOICE in conjunction with other NGOs submitted contributions to the Universal Periodic Review
On July 12, 2018, VOICE in conjunction with CIVICUS, Human Rights Foundation, VOICE Vietnam, and the Civil Society Forum submitted contributions to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR). This report draws attention to the human rights violations occurring in Vietnam with particular focus on civil society, freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, and unwarranted restrictions on human rights defenders (HRDs) since its 2nd UPR examination in January 2014.
The UPR is a unique process, which involves a periodic review of the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States. The UPR is a significant innovation of the Human Rights Council, which is based on equal treatment for all countries. It provides an opportunity for all States to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to overcome challenges to the enjoyment of human rights. The UPR also includes a sharing of best human rights practices around the globe. Currently, no other mechanism of this kind exists.
During the last UPR cycle, the Government of Vietnam received 37 recommendations relating to civic space. Of these recommendations, 29 were accepted and eight were noted. An evaluation of a range of legal sources and human rights documentation addressed in subsequent sections of this submission demonstrates that the Government of Vietnam has partially implemented six recommendations relating to civil society space and not implemented the remaining 31. The government has persistently failed to address unwarranted restrictions on civic space since its last UPR examination and acute implementation gaps were found with regard to the rights to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression and the protection of HRDs and bloggers.
The United Nations’ Human Rights Council is scheduled to review Vietnam’s human rights obligations on January 22, 2019.
More information about the UPR process can be found here:
VOICE Presents Documentary on Imprisoned Vietnamese Blogger Mother Mushroom
Bangkok, 27 June 2018 – Noting the one-year anniversary of her first trial, VOICE reiterates its call for the Vietnamese government to immediately and unconditionally release citizen journalist, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, popularly known as Mother Mushroom, with a screening of When Mother’s Away, a moving portrait of Mother Mushroom and her family. Screening from 7:00PM at the FCCT.
When Mother’s Away is a personal portrait that follows the life of Mother Mushroom’s mother, Nguyen Thi Tuyet Lan, solely taking care of her two young grandchildren, while they struggle to continue on their lives and support Mother Mushroom, after she is sent to prison. In its depiction of an ordinary family facing an extraordinary circumstance, the film explores the themes of family and motherhood. Following the screening, VOICE will lead a panel discussion on the film and situation in Vietnam.
On 29 June 2017, Mother Mushroom, 38, was handed a ten-year prison sentence under Article 88 of Vietnam’s Penal Code, often wielded against those whose only crime has been to speak out for human rights. A blogger, known for her writing about police brutality, freedom of expression, land confiscation, and the Formosa environmental disaster, Mother Mushroom was held in detention following her arrest in October 2016 until hours before her June trial. At her appeal, November 30, family and friends assembled outside the courthouse and were attacked by thugs.
Since February 2018, Mother Mushroom has been held in a remote prison over 1000 kilometers from her home. Family visits are difficult and expensive. At her last visit, Mother Mushroom’s mother revealed her poor health. In May, Mother Mushroom underwent a 6-day hunger strike to protest against prison treatment. Her family’s request to send her basic medicine and the Holy Bible was denied by the prison authorities.
VOICE reiterates its calls for the Vietnamese authorities to comply with their international human rights obligations, and to immediately and unconditionally release Mother Mushroom, and urges the international community to intervene at the highest possible levels to support her immediate release.
VOICE continues to stand by Mother Mushroom’s call for all Vietnamese to continue fighting for their rights for a better and greater nation.
We each only have one life to live but if given the choice, I would still do it exactly the same… I hope everyone will soon raise their own voice and fight for their rights so that they can overcome their own fears, and build a better and greater nation – Mother Mushroom.
VOICE is a non-profit, non-governmental organization working in the field of promoting civil society development, advocacy for human rights, including refugee protection, and rule of law in Vietnam. Founded in 2007, VOICE’s mission is to empower individuals in order to envision a strong, independent, and vibrant civil society.
2018 Recommendations for US – Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue
Vietnam implements a number of vaguely-worded and restrictive laws to punish individuals for exercising fundamental rights including:
a. Freedom of Religion
Since the new Government of Vietnam came into power in May 2016, at least 59 human rights defenders have been arrested and imprisoned, many of whom are Christian fighting for religious freedom. The authorities have instigated state-sponsored assaults against those who dare to speak up, especially Catholic villagers in Central Vietnam whose lives have been adversely affected by the Formosa environmental disaster.
‘Hoi Co Do’ (The Red Flag Groups) have been formed and sponsored by the authorities in many parts of Vietnam to incite violence and hatred against parishes critical of the government’s policy concerning the Formosa incident. For example, on 17 December 2017, Parish Ke Gai of Diocese Vinh in Nghe An Province was attacked by hundreds of members of a Red Flag Group due to their activism in protecting the environment resulting in scores of parishioners being injured. See video clip below produced by the Redemptorist Church (with English subtitle):
This marks the first time a new tactic has been used by the authorities to set non-Catholics against Catholics. It is a deliberate state attempt to create tension and sow distrust between faith-based groups.
The independent Hoa Hao Buddhist Church has also suffered much throughout this past year. Buddhist ceremonies organized by the Church were shut down by the authorities and at least, fifteen (15) members of the Church were arrested last year. One of their leaders, Mr Vuong Van Tha, was sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment while his son was sentenced to 7 years on 23 January 2018.
Further, the authorities continue to harass and persecute religious leaders of unregistered religious groups by either demolishing their temple and confiscating the property (Lien Tri Temple in Saigon) or attempting to confiscate it (Thien An Monastery in Hue) or engineering direct attacks (including physical assaults) against many Protestant church leaders in the Highlands. Many of them are, to date, banned from traveling within and outside of Vietnam despite guarantees made in the new Law on Religion and Belief concerning freedom of religion and under Vietnam’s own Constitution.
b. Freedom of Expression
Freedom of Expression continues to be severely restricted by Article 258 (343), 79 (109), and 88 (117) of the Penal Code despite the latest amendments in early 2018.
Article 258, also known as ‘Abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens.’ (now revised as Article 343 in Vietnam’s Penal Code, which came into effect on 1 January 2018). Those who are convicted under this article face up to seven years’ imprisonment. Article 258 has been used to prosecute a wide variety of people for allegedly ‘abusing’ their freedom of speech.
Article 88, also known as ‘conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’ (now revised as Article 117) has been widely used to imprison those who raise their voice in whatsoever forms to criticize the government and the Communist Party. The range of penalties is between three and twenty years imprisonment.
Article 79, also known as ‘carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration’ (now revised as Article 109) is designed to prevent dissidents from organizing themselves to compete politically. This law can be used against anyone who peacefully organizes to oppose the party’s dominance or its policies. Organizers, instigators and active participants can face between twelve years to life imprisonment or capital punishment, while other accomplices can face between five to fifteen years imprisonment.
c. Freedom of Assembly
The Law on Association has not been adopted though at least 16 draft bills had been brought before the National Assembly in the past decade. The delay indicates the constant vigilance and reluctance of the authorities in enacting a law they consider to be ‘politically sensitive’. The latest bill itself, however, failed to be passed after many civil society organizations raised their concern about its repressiveness. Article 8, inter alia, bans every association from cooperating with foreign organizations or receiving foreign funds.
Association in the form of political organization or party is strictly banned. Members shall be charged with ‘carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration’ and given lengthy prison terms, including life imprisonment or capital punishment under Article 79/109 of the Penal Code.
The Law on Demonstration was scheduled to be discussed and passed by the National Assembly in 2015, however, it was removed from the agenda in 2016, 2017 and 2018. The National Assembly itself does not plan on bringing the law back to the table for discussions, while at the same time, the Ministry of Public Security – the government agency responsible for drafting this law – keeps delaying the submission of the draft law.
Independent labour unions are banned. Strikes must be registered under harsh requirements, and labour activists are subject to continuous surveillance and harassment.
GONGOs (government-organized non-governmental organizations) are given space for their activities on the condition that they work to further the government’s interests. While dozens of human rights activists are banned from traveling outside of the country, there have been many cases where GONGO staff enjoy the freedom to travel abroad and attend international conferences, in some cases, as police informers in disguise. Security officers are also said to put in a great deal of effort to cause splits between registered NGOs and independent ones. For example, human rights activists are often blocked from attending events held by registered NGOs.
d. Harassment of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs)
There are hundreds of bloggers (including Facebook users) and HRDs who frequently write about political and human rights issues in Vietnam. Since the most recent Party Congress early 2016, the Vietnamese government has arrested 59 activists, almost half of the total number of the current prisoners of conscience in detention. The fact that the arrested vary from human rights lawyers to anti-corruption students, from land-lost farmers to labor rights activists, from environmentalists to unregistered religious groups’ followers proves that the government is systematically applying a zero tolerance policy towards dissent.
In addition, travel ban is one of the tactics used by the authorities to further isolate Vietnamese activists from the regional and international civil society communities. Statistically, over 100 human rights defenders, including bloggers, are banned from traveling outside and within Vietnam. Human rights defenders travelling abroad have had their passports confiscated by police upon their return to Vietnam and many of them are placed on a blacklist forbidding them to travel again. As a result, these activists lose their chance to meaningfully participate in regional and international forums to raise public awareness of Vietnam’s human rights situation as well as to learn from fellow activists in the region.
1. Follow Germany’s lead by actively engaging with and calling on the authorities, particularly the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), to lift the travel ban against all HRDs, and refrain from imposing restrictions on their right to freedom of movement in the future.
2. Raise the cases of the following imprisoned human rights defenders and offer them asylum in the US even if some of them may not take up the offer:
• Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, ICT entrepreneur and blogger, sentenced to sixteen years under Article 79 in January 2010.
• Faith-based Bia Son group sentenced to ten to seventeen years (for followers) and life imprisonment (for the leader) under Article 79 in February 2012.
• Nguyen Huu Quoc Duy sentenced to three years for ‘anti-state propaganda’ postings on Facebook under Article 88.
• Nguyen Huu Vinh (aka Anh Ba Sam), blogger, sentenced to five years for blogging.
• Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thu Ha, sentenced to 15 years and 9 years imprisonment respectively after being found guilty under Article 79 on 5 April 2018.
• Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (aka Mother Mushroom), blogger, convicted under Article 88 on 29 June 2017 and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment leaving two young children behind without parental guidance and support.
• Hoang Duc Binh, environmental and labour rights activist, convicted of ‘resisting officers in the performance of their official duties’ under Article 257; and ‘abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State’ under Article 258 and sentenced to 14 years imprisonment.
3. Call for the grant of access to visit prisoners of conscience and to do so periodically. This will send a strong message to the authorities that cases of concern are being monitored.
4. Call for the elimination and/or amendment of vaguely-worded articles in the Penal Code, such as Articles 258, 88, 79 and Article 19 – holding lawyers criminally responsible for not reporting clients to the authorities for a number of crimes.
5. The US Mission in Hanoi to organize seminars (such as one on the upcoming UPR of Vietnam in early 2019) and invite independent civil society organizations to participate. This will counter the authorities’ policy in using all means to deny unregistered CSOs the physical space needed for their meetings and to encourage and legitimize their work.
6. Consider designating Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern as the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has recommended.
7. Use the Magnitsky Act as leverage for negotiation of the above.
Interview with filmmaker Duc Nguyen: “Nothing left to lose”
What is it like to have nothing left to lose, truly? When the skin you walk around in, when your barely satiated and surviving body, is – literally – your only remaining home? And it is threatened – by uncertainties, indefinitions of belonging, by physical dangers and deprivations, and burdened, emotionally and psychically, in the not-always-visible ways that having one’s moorings torn away will do to one? The “stateless” refugees whose stories documentary filmmaker Duc Nguyen profiles in his latest project,Nothing Left To Lose, are all-too-often overlooked cases in the refugee crisis. Some have abided in this limbo state–of “statelessness”–for decades.
Read more in our Q&A with Duc Nguyen, and follow Nothing Left To Lose on Twitter & Facebook to learn more about this situation.
Nothing Left To Lose
diaCRITICS: In a few words, can you tell us what your documentary Nothing Left To Lose is about? What inspired your journey to making this film?
Duc Nguyen:Nothing Left to Lose examines the things that one loses once being displaced in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. It’s also about abandonment and love. The story is about a group of approximately 100 Vietnamese stateless refugees who have lived in hiding for 25 years in Thailand and finally get a chance to find home. It is told through the viewpoint of a physician who came to Canada as a refugee child. But her childhood was marred by her father’s physical and emotional abandonment of the family. We explore the internal as well as the external effects of displacement. What is it like to lose your home? This is the main theme that inspires most of my work. But this particular story is unique in a way that these people have lost everything including their own identities to hang on the hope of resettling in the West. How they survived and built their lives in a foreign land without a legal status for a quarter century was fascinating to me. The strength and endurance of living hopelessly for so long by these people was inspiring to say the least.
dC: Your film follows the stories of several “stateless” Vietnamese refugees, some of whom have been stuck in Thailand in this condition of “statelessness” for decades. For our readers who have not seen your film and are not familiar with such stories, can you tell us, in brief, what does it mean to be “stateless”? Are these stories unique (and are they unique to the Vietnamese exodus, in particular)? Is there a prevalent reason why or how this has occurred to some refugees?
Each refugee experience has a unique pathway that could determine that person’s fate.
DN: A stateless person is someone who is ‘not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law’. Some stateless persons are also refugees. However, not all refugees are stateless, and many persons who are stateless have never crossed an international border. Not to get geeky, but this is the definition of statelessness from Wikipedia. In this particular situation, the people featured in Nothing Left to Lose were asylum-seekers first, then became stateless after their refugee claims were rejected by United Nation High Commission for Refugees in the 1990s. Back then, to curb the flow of refugees from Southeast Asia, UNHCR implemented a Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA). Any asylum-seekers who came to another country seeking asylum would go through rigorous screenings. If determined as a refugee, that person could be resettled in a third asylum country. If not, they must [be] returned to Vietnam. As the refugee camps were closing in Southeast Asia, the failed asylum-seekers were forced to “repatriate,” a softer term for “deportation,” back to Vietnam. This particular group of people chose to escape their refugee camp, and stayed in Thailand illegally. While their stories are unique to the Southeast Asian refugee experience, it is a piece of puzzle to the universal phenomenon of global migration and immigration happening today. I have made another documentary about another group of stateless Vietnamese in the Philippines called “Stateless.” They suffered the same fate. Failed as refugees, they decided to stay in the Philippines for 16 years before being accepted to the U.S. But the folks in Thailand are a bit different. For many of them, their ethnic identities were blurred, as some were mixed Vietnamese Cambodian or ethnic Chinese. And since Thailand is geographically bordered to Cambodia, some of them were regularly captured and deported to Cambodia. The stateless refugees in Thailand often falsified their identities as Cambodian so if deported they could have another chance to return to Thailand. So, border played a role here in their immigration pathway. Each refugee experience has a unique pathway that could determine that person’s fate. Timing is a also a big factor. But more importantly, compassion.
dC: Can you tell us a little about your process, your research, and your relationships with the “stateless” refugees whose stories you follow? How did you meet them? How long have you been working on documenting these stories?
DN: I started to discover the stateless Vietnamese in 2005 when I travelled to the Philippines to shoot my first documentary “Bolinao 52.” There I met with some of them and conducted interviews while they were being interviewed by the immigration officials from the U.S. for resettlement. I also got connected with Hoi Trinh, the human rights lawyer who lobbied for their resettlement. Later that year, about 2000 stateless Vietnamese in the Philippines resettled in the U.S. Some who didn’t get to come to the U.S. went to Canada and other countries. I followed several people in the U.S. as their lives progressed in the new country and eventually became U.S. citizens. That was the premise of my second documentary “Stateless.” Shortly after that, Hoi Trinh was asked to help a group of people in Thailand. At first, he reluctantly resisted. But over time, he decided to take on their cases. In 2012, we went to Canada and met with the Immigration Minister at the time, Jason Kenney. He had seen the positive outcomes from the folks that came from the Philippines. So the Canadian government created a discreet program to allow the folks from Thailand to come to Canada under the condition that the Vietnamese community would pick up the tabs. It means that each stateless person has to have sponsors who can financially cover the airfares, application fees, processing fees, and living expenses for one year after arrival. Plus, the community has to find housing, work, schooling and take care of the logistics for the stateless. Hoi Trinh then put on fundraising events all over the world and found necessary requirements to bring the long lost stateless from Thailand to Canada. Ironically, the stateless from the Philippines who resettled in the U.S., Norway and Canada gathered and footed the effort to raise necessary funds to bring their compatriots to the West. In Southern California, yearly they reunite in January to catch up with each other and plan the next deeds to repay back what they have been given, another chance to thrive.
The psychological effect of war is prevalent and penetrating for those who were in it and the people around them.
dC: What an amazing collective effort that must have been, and so much work and support entailed in setting “new” lives on course. What were some challenges for yourself in the making and/or distributing of this film?
DN: The biggest challenge in making films, this one or any that I’ve made, is finance. Making a film costs money, period. For this film, it was necessary to create a hybrid project which is a combination of commercial television series/personal documentary. We brought in a partner who was producing a health and lifestyle television series on local Vietnamese television channels. Hoi Trinh is a co-host on the show. So when we travelled to shoot on locations, Dr. Hannah Vu, our co-producer, also shot for her TV series and covered the expenses. We had virtually no financial supports from anyone except for a core group of supporters who have always been there. I invested my own money, in-kind services and time into building the film as we went along. We aimed to finish it in 2015 in time for the 40th anniversary of the end of the War. But we were short on funding. Then in 2016, I was contacted by a local PBS station in southern California. They were looking for Vietnamese-themed films to be part of a locally produced series to accompany the mega release of Ken Burns’ TV series “Vietnam War.” Of course, I pitched our project which was called “Freedom At Last” at the time. They liked it and said that they might provide some finishing funds. Months later, they came back and said there was no money but [they were] still interested. The program manager sent me a letter of interest. Then shortly after, she backtracked and said that in order for their station to represent this film, I would have to pay a representing fee. By that time, our core supporter, Center for Asian American Media came in with a finishing film fund, and our co-producer contributed some additional fund to complete the film in time for September 2017 release inline with Ken Burns’ series. The stations across the country needed to fill their airtime with Vietnamesque programming in Fall 2017 as PBS heavily promoted Ken Burns’ Vietnam War series. Nothing Left to Lose premiered in September 2017 and continued to air on various stations. That’s about making the film. For distribution, it’s a different story. I really didn’t think that Nothing Left to Lose would have a chance to be seen if it wasn’t for Ken Burns. Television programming is usually planned, strategized and scheduled ahead of time. Ken Burns’ series on the Vietnam War has been planned for years. It was a major television event for PBS and the local stations featured programs relating to the Vietnam War theme. Personal documentaries like Nothing Left to Lose, especially ethnic stories, don’t get the desirable exposure from the network. They often landed on the World Channel.
dC: What were some surprises or discoveries, any outcomes to celebrate, in the making and/or distributing of this film?
DN: Sometimes, the most compelling story happened right under your nose while you were busy chasing stories elsewhere. In our case, the emotional hook of the film belonged to one of the producers of the film, as it was narrated by and starred my co-producer Dr. Hannah Vu. When we began shooting in 2012 in Ottawa, Canada where she grew up, she mentioned that her father was still living there even though she had been transplanted to California for a while. That was all she said. I was curious as to why she didn’t visit her father on that trip. Not until much later in the production did she reveal about her estranged relationship with her father. Dr. Vu’s father was a South Vietnamese Navy officer who was in charge of a fleet around Saigon during the war. At the end of the war, they left Vietnam with the evacuation by the U.S. They resettled in Canada where they were sponsored. Dr. Vu grew up without the presence of a father. According to her, even though he was around, he never paid attention to his family, never took the family out on vacation, no dining out or playing with the children. In an interview, she quietly wept while explaining that as a kid, her father told her that she was no use for the family because she would not carry his name. Her children would never carry his name. As she became an adult, she wanted to prove him wrong. She studied hard to make a name for herself. But she had not spoken to him for over 20 years. But perhaps witnessing the hardships by the stateless in Thailand, she had more empathy toward her father who is living with dementia in a nursing home by himself. Dr. Vu has since changed her view of her father and is in the process to bring him to California where she is living.
What intrigued me about this story was how the Vietnam War affected people on so many levels. It left an indelible mark on those who fought in it and those in the peripheral ring. In the case of Dr. Vu’s father and many other South Vietnam veterans, losing the war was a major defeat for their pride. Those who were fortunate enough to resettle in the West focused so intensely on regaining their dignity through hard work. Sometimes they forgot about their family. The psychological effect of war is prevalent and penetrating for those who were in it and the people around them. In the process of making this film, I was able to gain a bit more understanding about conflict, abandonment, hope, love and loss in the context of war casualties.
The current name of the film, Nothing Left to Lose, is a derivation from the lyrics in Kris Kristofferson’s Me and Bobby McGee: “Freedom is another word for nothing left to lose.” When you are searching for freedom you may lose it all. So true.
dC: What would you most like viewers to take away or learn from seeing this film?
DN: There are two groups of people I would like to watch this film. One is the Vietnamese overseas community and the other is the general audience. For the first group of viewers which consists the diasporic Vietnamese community, I want them to get a deeper sense of understanding the role of the Vietnamese father. We often talked about “Mẹ Việt Nam” Vietnamese mom. But this film is dedicated to our fathers who have sacrificed much of their lives to give us what we have today. Many of them are quietly passing, taking with them their sorrow of losing the war. As I mentioned earlier, the story of Dr. Vu in the film and her father came as a surprise. However, her story of being estranged by her father was uncovered as healing process for herself and the film. I feel that the pain many of the men who served in the South Vietnamese military are carrying must be discussed in an open conversation instead of behind closed doors. Their stories should be told.
For the second group, the general audience, the ideas of home and nationality and citizenship are the forefront topics. As the immigration debate continues to rage on pop news circus, we need to look at the privilege of earning a citizenship of a country, any country. The basic human rights like travel, earning a living, education or ownership are determined by a document you have on you is preposterous. Being undocumented means being stripped of all rights. Especially at a time when the undocumented and the ex-felons are being hunted and deported back to their countries, being stateless, illegal or undocumented is being dehumanized all over again.
An Emmy Award winner, Duc Nguyen’s documentaries cover the subjects of home, immigration, war, conflict history and reconciliation. His work includes, Mediated Reality, a documentary about the tug-of-war between the U.S. and Cuba over 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez. Bolinao 52, a documentary about an ill-fated journey of a Vietnamese refugee boat that later won 2 Northern California Regional Emmy Awards in 2009 for Outstanding Achievement in Documentary and Outstanding Music Composition. Stateless, a documentary about a group of Vietnamese who were stuck in the Philippines without a home for 16 years, won an Audience Choice Award as well as a Spotlight Award in 2013 at the Vietnamese International Film Festival. In 2017, Duc produced, directed and edited his third installment for the Vietnamese boat-people trilogy, Nothing Left to Lose. It tells the story of approximately 100 Vietnamese refugees who have each lived in hiding for 25 years hoping to one day reclaim the dignity of being recognized as a person.