Kailash Satyarthi, Doan Viet Hoat & Nguyen Dan Que
1995, India, Vietnam
Kailash Satyarthi, Doan Viet Hoat & Nguyen Dan Que

When Doan Viet Hoat received his PhD from Florida State University in 1971, his hope was to return to Vietnam and concentrate on upgrading Saigon’s Van Hah University into a modern, world-class university.

Vietnam had other plans. In 1976, Hoat was imprisoned as part of a mass arrest of intellectuals. For the next 22 years, Hoat was shuttled from prison to prison, eventually spending four and a half years in solitary confinement. Hoat’s personal confinement didn’t diminish his commitment to his people’s freedom, however, and he continued to publish statements on the importance of democracy from prison.

In September 1998, after intense international pressure, Doan Viet Hoat was released from prison and sent into exile. Hoat now lives in the United States, where he continues to advocate for human rights and democracy in Vietnam as chairman and president of the International Institute for Vietnam.

Speaking to Kerry Kennedy in 2000, Hoat described what drives him: “Time has passed too slowly for my country and my people, and left a long history of suffering. So these thoughts make me unable to keep silent--my knowledge, vision, and love of country urge me to speak. And I always believe that truth, justice, and compassion will prevail, no matter how strong the dictators are, no matter how bad the situation might be.”

Dr. Nguyen Dan Que has faced multiple arrests, imprisonment, and constant surveillance for his nonviolent human rights work. But none of it has deterred him from promoting democracy in Vietnam. After his 1978 detention for criticizing Vietnam’s political system, he founded the High Tide Humanist movement, which works to promote human rights in Vietnam and advocates for more comprehensive social welfare programs for the Vietnamese people. In 1990, he was once again thrown in prison, this time for calling for a smaller Vietnamese military. He received the 1995 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award while behind bars.

Upon his release in 1998,  Que was kept under house arrest. Not only was his movement restricted, he also could not use any type of outside communication. Despite this, Que continued to speak out. In 2003, he was arrested after sending a message to his brother from an Internet café. His letter, meant as a public statement, urged the government to fulfill its pledges to respect the freedom of the press. For this, he was put on trial without representation and was sentenced to 30 months in prison for “abusing democratic rights to jeopardize the interests of the state.”

Thankfully, Que was released in 2005, but has been held again since 2011 for calling for a peaceful Arab Spring-style uprising. His courage and perseverance in the face of oppression demonstrate his commitment to the vision of Robert F. Kennedy.

On Kailash Satyarthi’s first day of school, he encountered a boy his age sitting at the school’s gates. But instead of preparing to study, he was shining shoes. When Kailash asked his teachers why the boy was working instead of attending school, they had no answer. When Kailash ginned up the courage to ask the same question of the boy’s father, the man replied, “Sir, I have never thought about it. We were just born to work.”

As Kailash recalled in his Nobel Prize lecture, “This made me angry. It still makes me angry. I challenged it then, and I am challenging it today.”

Kailash hasn’t just challenged the reality of child labor and slavery around the world: he has utterly transformed it, leading a global movement to ensure that children receive the education they deserve. Since founding Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save Childhood Movement) in 1980, Kailash has rescued about 80,000 children from slavery; in 1998, he led a global march against child labor, which led to a new international law that banned the practice.

Despite these accomplishments, child slavery remains a real problem. In India, for instance, official estimates place the number of child laborers at five million, while Kailash says it as high as 60 million. He is determined to see every one of those 60 million receive a proper education.

“I refuse to accept that the shackles of slavery can ever be stronger than the quest for freedom,” he says.