One of Vietnam’s most prominent dissidents, Doan Viet Hoat was held as a prisoner of conscience in various detention, labor and re-education camps for almost 20 years. In a country tightly controlled by the state, his underground pro-democracy newsletter Dien Dan Tu Do (Freedom Forum) was among the few vehicles for independent reporting in Vietnam. It drew comparisons to the banned dissident literature of the former Soviet Union.
Born Dec. 24, 1942, Doan received a doctorate in education and college administration from Florida State University in the United States and later worked as a professor and vice president at Saigon’s Van Hanh University. While there, he also edited the university magazine, Tu Tuong (Thought), until 1975. Denounced for his ties to the United States, Doan was arrested and imprisoned without trial on Aug. 29, 1976. Doan, who had been calling for economic reform, was accused of being an anti-communist reactionary, put in a re-education camp and released in February 1989 after 12 years of imprisonment.
Despite advice from friends to join his two sons and brother in the United States, Doan decided to remain in Vietnam and pursue his ideals peacefully through his writing. Within months of his release, Doan edited and published the first issue of Dien Dan Tu Do, a typed newsletter publishing a variety of articles from Vietnamese living abroad, as well as pro-democratic domestic viewpoints.
“A new struggle has started,” Doan wrote in the January 1990 issue of Dien Dan Tu Do. “It is the war against poverty, backwardness and arbitrariness. It is the aspiration toward a rich, strong, progressive, free and democratic Vietnam. And in this new struggle, there can be only one winner, the nation and people of Vietnam; and only one loser, the forces of dogmatism, arbitrariness and backwardness.”
Doan put out four issues of Dien Dan Tu Do, which were passed hand-to-hand by readers, before he was arrested by the police at his home in Ho Chi Minh City on Nov. 17, 1990, and held incommunicado for six months. Seven other contributors to Dien Dan Tu Do were also detained without charge.
After nearly three years of jail, eight journalists were tried and found guilty of “founding a reactionary organization” and “conspiring to overthrow the government.” Doan, who was forced to represent himself in court, received a 20-year prison term. “I am not against anybody. I am a democrat, and I accept all people,” Doan said at his trial. “It would be more appropriate to say that the communist party is against me, because they are against democracy.” The sentences of his colleagues ranged from eight months to 16 years in prison.
After an appeal in July 1993, Doan’s sentence was reduced to 15 years’ imprisonment and five years of restricted freedom. He continued to write in prison during the next six months and managed to smuggle out a few essays on human rights, accomplishments that caused his captors to transfer him to increasingly harsh and more remote prisons. While imprisoned, Doan suffered from high blood pressure, kidney stones and failing eyesight, conditions exacerbated by hard labor and a lack of proper medical treatment.
Doan, who was kept in solitary confinement throughout much of his imprisonment, was released on Aug. 28, 1998 under a presidential amnesty timed to coincide with Vietnam’s national day. He was immediately expelled from Vietnam, flown to Thailand and traveled to the United States where he reunited with his family. Doan is now a Scholar-in-Residence at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Despite spending 19 out of 21 years in captivity, Doan’s commitment to free expression has not dimmed. “Every one of us should be free to express his opinion, to speak his mind on questions of culture and ideology openly and legally, and to have political rights if we are to have a country that is truly free,” Doan said upon his release.
Doan’s ideals have earned him the high praise from various press freedom organizations. He received the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award in 1993, the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 1995 and the World Association of Newspapers’ Golden Pen of Freedom in 1998.