"I wanted to send a message to the people who wanted to fight for freedom that the dictators could not win by putting us in jail. I wanted to prove that you cannot, by force, silence someone who doesn't agree with you."
Doan Viet Hoat is known as the Sakharov of Vietnam for his intellectual range and outspoken role as leader of the democratic movement, even from the prison cell. Hoat protested the South Vietnamese government's suppression of Buddhists in the 1960s while still a student. He went to study in the US and got a Ph.D. in Education in 1971. Returning back to Vietnam in 1971, he concentrated on upgrading Van Hanh University (a Buddhist private university in Saigon) to the world level of a modern institution of higher learning. In April 1975, when North Vietnam took over South Vietnam, Hoat stayed in Vietnam.
By 1976, Hoat was imprisoned when the new authorities embarked on mass arrests of intellectuals, and he spent the next twelve years confined to a cramped cell, shared with forty others. Upon his release, Hoat began publishing an underground magazine, entitled Freedom Forum (Dien Dan Tu Do). Only months later, he was detained without trial for two years, then in March 1993, sentenced to twenty years in prison for "attempting to overthrow the people's government." Throughout his imprisonment, Hoat continued to issue statements on democracy and to offer criticism of the regime that were sent out of the prisons clandestinely. The Vietnamese government transferred Hoat from one detention center to another, in an attempt to silence him, but everywhere he went, Hoat's charismatic temperament won over fellow prisoners and guards alike, who sought his counsel and carried out his letters. Finally, Hoat was sent to the most remote prison in the country, Thanh Cam Labor Camp, Thanh Hoa province, and all prisoners were removed from the cells adjacent to his own. He spent four and a half years in solitary confinement until, in September 1998, after intense international pressure, Doan Viet Hoat was released, then exiled. He now lives in the United States, and continues his movement for human rights and democracy for Vietnam. In 1995, he was named a Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award Laureate and in September 2006, Hoat participated in a Speak Truth to Power event in Newport, Rhode Island.
At present, Hoat is the chairman and president of the international Institute for Vietnam, which he founded in 2000. He continues to travel worldwide promoting Human Rights awareness and rallying support for democracy in Vietnam.
I spent twenty years in Vietnamese prisons, and was in isolation for four years. I was forbidden all pens, papers, and books. To keep my spirits up I practiced yoga and Zen meditation. I did a lot of walking. I had access to a small yard from 6 a.m. till 4 p.m., so I gardened-small cabbages mostly. I sang, I talked to myself. The guards thought I was mad, but I told them if I did not talk to myself I would go mad. I tried to take it easy, to think of my cell as home, as though I had entered a religious way of life, like a monk. My family was Buddhist and I had many good friends who were monks. I learned yoga as a student. In isolation as I had no books, I just had to use my mind. Zen meditation helped-with it you turn inside. You have to be calm, to make your mind calm, to think this was just a normal way of life. During the first one or two years this was very difficult, but I got used to it. Every day passed, like every other day. I wrote and recited a lot of poems I had learned by heart. This was a way to keep my mind alert, and helped to clarify my thoughts. As soon as I was released, one of the first things I did in America was to write down the poems from my mind that I recited in prison-now they have published a second volume of them.
The knowledge that it could have been worse in solitary confinement helped. I knew that others survived more severe treatment, and their resilience was an important source of courage. If they could persevere, so could I. Here's one ironic example. When I first came there, the first day, they asked me if I wanted to buy any necessary things, and they gave me a piece of paper to write a list. And I wrote down many things, including a fan. I had in mind a small, handmade fan. But they thought I had asked for an electric fan, unheard of in prison. So they were very angry. I didn't understand why they were angry, when I asked for just a fan. Eventually, word arrived from the minister, or the ministry officials, who had agreed to let me buy an electric fan. And one official came in and he said, "Your electric fan-made in China or Japan?" Well, I was very surprised, but knew by this incident how they were going to treat me-not so badly. But about one week later everything became clearer. One day it was terribly hot. I turned on the fan, and it did not work. I asked the official and he told me that to save energy, from now on, power would be cut off during the daytime. I observed that there was still power in the entire camp, except in my area. And every year, once or twice, they came into my cell to videotape me, sitting there, reading some newspaper, one month outdated, and with the electric fan always vividly behind me.
The common criminals clandestinely listened to illegal radio broadcasts from abroad on the BBC, or RFI (Radio France International) about me and about my cause fighting for human rights. Prison conditions were unbearable, They were beaten almost every day. So they asked for my help. I secretly wrote a report about the conditions at the camp, and the other prisoners smuggled it out to my family in Saigon. The officials found out about that because my friend sent a letter back to me in a piece of pork, and the officials (who check everything very carefully) found the letter. They knew therefore that I had written about the camp, so they quickly sent the letter to the minister of interior affairs, who in turn sent inspectors to the camp-and finally life improved. They stopped beating the prisoners, they removed the officials who liked beating prisoners, they improved meals, and now they even have musical groups who sing every day to make the camp very lively! I realized that our voice had been heard by the international community. I felt more inspired.
I had been writing other essays criticizing the regime, and fellow prisoners in all the camps I had gone through got them out for me. After I wrote the reports the officials increased their efforts to isolate me. They removed prisoners from the cells all around me. They blocked up the window of my cell so that no one could get in touch with me. It became unbearably hot because no air could circulate. I developed high blood pressure. They put in a new door so I couldn't see out and for the two last years it was very bad for me.
Still, I felt that if I kept silent in jail, then the dictators had won. And I wanted to send a message to the people who wanted to fight for freedom that the dictators could not win by putting us in jail. I wanted to prove that you cannot, by force, silence someone who doesn't agree with you. That's why the prisoners, both political and criminal, tried to circulate my writings. Without their help I could not have sent my messages out. We united to continue our fight for freedom and democracy, even from within the prison walls.
My dream for the future is a dream of Vietnam. Our country has a long history of people who fought against aggression and injustice. Our highest calling is love of country, as has been demonstrated by many Vietnamese patriots in the past. I, too, have been moved by the love of my country and also by the greatness of my country's future and the world's future. I believe in a very bright future for Vietnam and for the whole region of Southeast Asia. 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.