The New York Times - USA (2020-10-16)

(Antfer) #1

A12 FRIDAY, OCTOBER 16, 2020


BANGKOK — The outspoken Viet-
namese journalist and activist Pham
Doan Trang knew it was only a matter of
time before the police came for her.
She wrote a letter last year and gave it
to an American friend with instructions
to release it upon her arrest. In the letter,
she asked that her friends not just cam-
paign for her freedom but use her incar-
ceration to fight for free elections and an
end to single-party rule in Vietnam.
“I don’t want freedom for just myself;
that’s too easy,” wrote Ms. Pham, 42, who
has walked with difficulty since a police
beating in 2015. “I want something great-
er: freedom for Vietnam.”
Shortly before midnight on Oct. 6, the
police raided her apartment in Ho Chi
Minh City and arrested her on charges of
making and disseminating propaganda
against the Vietnamese state. She faces
up to 20 years in prison.
Ms. Pham is one of the most prominent
critics to have been arrested in recent
years by Vietnam’s Communist regime,
which has long made a practice of har-
assing, beating and imprisoning outspo-
ken activists.
The widespread use of smartphones
and the internet in Vietnam has meant
that daring activists and journalists like
Ms. Pham can independently publish
stories in which they uncover corruption
or expose malfeasance. But that also
puts a huge target on their backs.
“She is the kind of prolific writer and
thinker the Vietnamese government
does not want to be free,” said Phil Rob-
ertson, the deputy Asia director for Hu-
man Rights Watch. “They are going to
throw the book at her, and she is not go-
ing to compromise.”
The Communist Party has long feared
that free speech would undermine its
hold on power, and it has built a large ap-
paratus to stifle dissent. Activists say
Ms. Pham’s arrest was probably
prompted by the party’s upcoming con-
gress in January, which occurs every five
At a time when Vietnam has repos-
itioned itself as a strategic American ally

and an important global manufacturing
hub, the authorities are newly embold-
ened to crack down on dissent with little
fear of repercussions. They have also
been invigorated by a U.S. administra-
tion that has widely ignored human
rights abuses.
Human Rights Watch estimates that
Vietnam has jailed at least 130 political
prisoners, more than any other country
in Southeast Asia.
Just four years ago, President Barack
Obama made human rights in Vietnam a
priority. During a 2016 visit, he invited
Ms. Pham and other dissidents to meet
with him publicly. But the police kept her
from attending by detaining her.
The Trump administration has not pri-

oritized human rights in Vietnam in the
same way. The police arrested Ms. Pham
hours after the two governments held
their 24th annual “Human Rights Dia-
After Amnesty International, the Com-
mittee to Protect Journalists and other
groups called for her release, the State
Department on Saturday pressed Viet-
nam to set Ms. Pham free.
“The United States condemns the ar-
rest of writer, democracy, and human
rights activist Pham Doan Trang,”
Robert A. Destro, the assistant secretary
of state for human rights, said in a state-
ment. “We urge the Government of Viet-
nam to immediately release her and drop
all charges.”

Ms. Pham began her career as a jour-
nalist, but in a country where most me-
dia is state-controlled, she chafed at the
In her 2019 book, “Politics of a Police
State,” she wrote about the continual har-
assment she had suffered for a decade as
a writer and an activist.
The police once put glue in her apart-
ment door lock so she could not leave,
she wrote. They placed her under house
arrest, publicly posted intimate photos
taken from her computer and stole her
identity cards.
She left the country in 2013, but she
was not happy in exile.
“It’s really hard to watch from outside
what happens in Vietnam,” she said at
the time. “It makes me feel helpless.”
She returned to Vietnam in 2015, and
had lived in hiding since 2017.
In addition to the upcoming Congress,
something else may have contributed to
Ms. Pham’s arrest: her role as a co-writ-
er of a report last month challenging the
official account of a deadly police raid in
Dong Tam, a village near Hanoi.
In Vietnam, all land is owned by the
state, and officials have the power to
seize prime parcels and give them to
their cronies or foreign companies, a
practice that fuels corruption. The dis-
pute in the village began in 2015 when of-
ficials transferred 145 acres to the coun-
try’s largest telecommunications com-
pany, the government-owned Viettel
Corporation, but residents refused to
give up their land.
During a confrontation in 2017, vil-
lagers held 19 police and security offi-
cials captive for a week.
In January of this year, about 3,000 of-
ficers raided the village. The 84-year-old
village head, Le Dinh Kinh, a lifelong
Communist Party member who had led
the opposition to the land seizure, was
shot and killed by the police. Three police
officers also died. The authorities ar-
rested 29 villagers on murder or obstruc-
tion charges.
In their report, Ms. Pham and her co-
author challenged the official claim that
Mr. Le had been holding a hand grenade

when the police shot him. In fact, they
wrote, he had been holding a cane.
Since the report’s release, three other
contributors have been arrested, activ-
ists said. Another author, the American
activist Will Nguyen, was previously de-
ported from Vietnam, in 2018, after being
forced to make a video confession that
was shown on television.
It was Mr. Nguyen who released Ms.
Pham’s letter last week foretelling her
“Trang has been a thorn in the govern-
ment’s side for a long time, and the au-
thorities have been hunting her down
since 2017,” Mr. Nguyen said in an email.
“At heart, she has an acute sense of
justice and a profound love for Vietnam,”
he said. “She wishes for it to be better,
even if it means sacrificing her freedom
and herself.”
Ms. Pham also reported on a 2016 envi-
ronmental disaster caused when a Tai-
wanese-owned steel factory discharged
toxic waste into the sea along a stretch of
Vietnam’s central coast.
Other activists who wrote about the
disaster landed in prison, including
Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, a blogger bet-
ter known as Mother Mushroom, who
was later released and allowed to fly to
the United States.
In a 2016 interview with The New York
Times, Ms. Pham predicted that the au-
thorities’ effort to intimidate activists by
imprisoning Mother Mushroom would
“She has a lot of supporters,” Ms.
Pham said. “Many of them will replace
her or follow in her path.”
Perhaps she was already thinking
ahead to the likelihood of her own incar-
In her letter, titled “Just in Case I Am
Imprisoned,” she told friends not to be-
lieve the police if they claimed she had
She asked for a movement not to “free
Trang,” but to “free Trang and ensure
free and fair elections.”
“No one wants to sit in prison,” she
wrote. “But if prison is inevitable for free-
dom fighters, if prison can serve a prede-
termined purpose, then we should hap-
pily accept it.”

Activist Who Is Jailed in Vietnam Left Message Behind: Keep Fighting


‘I don’t want freedom for just myself; that’s too easy. I

want something greater: freedom for Vietnam.’

PHAM DOAN TRANG, a Vietnamese journalist and dissident, in a letter that
was released upon her arrest.

Pham Doan Trang in 2018. She was arrested last week. Police harassment of
her over the years included a beating in 2015 that impaired her ability to walk.


NAIROBI, Kenya — As fires swept up
the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s
tallest mountain, for the fifth day on
Thursday, hundreds of volunteers from
local villages joined firefighters racing to
stop a blaze threatening to ravage one of
the world’s richest and most diverse
The fires, which first started to burn at
a rest stop for climbers, have been raging
for five days with dry grass and strong
winds hampering efforts to bring the
flames under control.
“This devastating fire is cutting
through the most prestigious natural
space in the whole of Tanzania,” Padili
Mikomangwa, an environmentalist
based in the port city of Dar es Salaam,
said in a telephone interview. “The na-
tion at large is following this seriously
and shocked.”
Already, vast areas of forest and low
shrubs have been reduced to embers.
Videos and images from the scene
showed volunteers struggling to put out
the fires as thick white smoke hung
heavy in the sky behind them.
Helicopters were set to be deployed on
Thursday for the first time to help stop
the fires.
With a summit of 19,340 feet, Mount
Kilimanjaro is the highest point in Africa
and is considered the highest free-stand-
ing volcanic mass in the world. The
mountain’s snow-capped peaks and the
surrounding national park were de-
clared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in
1987, with endemic plants and dozens of
animal species, including endangered
ones, calling it home.
In recent years, the mountain and the
surrounding ecosystem have faced chal-
lenges that include water and air pollu-
tion, intrusion on the park’s perimeters,
illegal logging, and poaching. Climate
change has also pushed the mountain’s
glaciers and icecaps to thaw.
With thousands of climbers arriving
each year, concern has grown in recent
years that overtourism threatens the
natural splendor of Kilimanjaro.
“The extent of the fire which we see to-
day is at a new level,” Marcell Peters,
who has studied the ecosystems of Kili-
manjaro since 2010, said in an email.
Mr. Peters, a senior lecturer at the Uni-
versity of Würzburg in Germany, said
that the loss of plant life — particularly
Erica and Podocarpus trees — could
leave the area more vulnerable to fire in
the coming years.
Tanzanian parks officials said the fires
began on Sunday at the Whona rest area,
which is popular with mountaineers us-
ing the Mandara and Horombo routes to
scale the mountain.
The authorities said an investigation
into the origin of the blaze was underway,
but preliminary evidence suggested that
it was sparked accidentally by porters
warming food for visitors.
“It was all bad luck,” Pascal Shelutete,
an official with Tanzania National Parks,
told journalists this week. “But we will
continue to follow the issue in depth.”
In addition to the plants and forests
that have been destroyed, the fires have
also razed facilities used by tourists at
the Horombo Center.

No deaths or injuries have been re-
Officials estimate that the fire has so
far destroyed an alpine area stretching
over roughly two miles.
“We are still in the midst of putting out
the fire,” Hamisi Kigwangalla, Tanza-
nia’s minister of natural resources and
tourism, said on Twitter on Thursday, a
day after visiting the site of the fire. “The

task is harder and bigger than it is
thought to be.”
The mountain has long held a special
place in the imagination of the world,
written about extensively by visitors
awed by its majesty.
For those who live in its shadow, it has
been a source of both income and pride.
When Tanzania gained its independence
in December 1961, the new leader, Julius

K. Nyerere, dispatched a team of climb-
ers to ascend the continent’s highest
They planted a torch, meant to serve
as a metaphor for the aspirations of a na-
However, with presidential elections
set for Oct. 28, there is concern that the
nation is sliding into autocratic rule.
Since President John Magufuli was
elected in 2015, the government has
cracked down on the media and civil so-
ciety, passing laws aimed at silencing
critical voices.
“It’s no coincidence that the Tanzanian
government has increased its repression
of the opposition, activists groups and
the media so close to the elections,”
Oryem Nyeko, Africa researcher at Hu-
man Rights Watch, said in a statement.
“Instead of upholding the right to free ex-
pression at this critical time, authorities
have instead adopted measures that
raise concerns about the elections being
free and fair.”
Mr. Magufuli is facing off a slew of can-
didates, including Tundu Lissu, an oppo-
sition figure who survived an assassina-

tion attempt three years ago and is now
back in the country. No one has ever been
arrested in the case.
The nation of roughly 58 million people
depends heavily on tourism, and Mr.
Magufuli has been eager to draw people
back to the country after the coronavirus
pandemic ground everything to a halt
around the world.
Five months ago, he declared the na-
tion coronavirus-free, an announcement
that public health officials and neighbor-
ing nations alike greeted with skepti-
cism. Mr. Magufuli’s government has re-
stricted reporting about the virus in Tan-
zania, according to Human Rights
Tourism has been allowed to resume,
including at Mount Kilimanjaro.
Mr. Mikomangwa said that the au-
thorities could learn from the disaster by
better equipping parks and firefighters
to respond to fires. “They are now scram-
bling for a few helicopters,” he said. “But
this episode shows that we need to take
robust measures to better care for our re-
sources and ensure we end this fire once
and for all.”

Flames Turn Trees Into Embers on Kilimanjaro, Imperiling Diverse Ecosystem


Above, smoke from fires shrouded Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest moun-
tain, on Monday. Left, an image from a video showed rangers and volunteers
helping to put out flames. Hundreds of volunteers from villages have joined
firefighters in the battling the blaze, which started at a rest stop for climbers.


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