HO CHI MINH CITY (SAIGON) – Vietnam’s most famous dissident blogger – Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, known by her pen name Mother Mushroom, spent her first new year in exile barred from ever returning to her home in Nha Trang.
Vietnamese authorities released her from prison last October, after serving two years of a 10-year sentence. She was forced to leave Vietnam with her mother and two children on an airplane bound for the U.S.
Quynh, 39, and her family are all Vietnamese citizens. None had ever been to the U.S. But the mother of two was given the option to remain in prison – away from her kids – or leave the country.
She chose the latter and is now living in Houston, Texas with her family. In 2016, Quynh was convicted of writing “anti-state propaganda” on her personal blog and Facebook account – a charge that leads to lengthy prison sentences in Vietnam.
The government monitors the online activities of known dissidents. Its 2019 cyber law attempts to extend this activity to popular social media sites where criticism of Vietnam’s Communist Party policies is rife. Over 60 million Vietnamese use Facebook.
Vietnamese journalists now living in Europe complain Facebook is censoring posts critical of Vietnam’s government.
While in prison, Quynh was awarded the 2017 International Women of Courage award. This hardened her resolve to continue her human rights work.
The 88 Project for Freedom of Expression in Vietnam states there are currently 210 political prisoners with 19 in pre-trial detention waiting for a court hearing. Nine high profile Vietnamese activists have received sentences ranging from 12 to 20 years – some of the harshest punishment handed down in recent years.
Quynh said the conditions inside prison were inhuman. She began writing about injustice like this in her blog hoping never to have to face it herself. Her very first post was a letter to her young daughter, nicknamed Mushroom (hence the pen name Mother Mushroom).
Quynh’s work literally ‘mushroomed’ into activism as she joined calls for a transparent investigation into a toxic spill and marine life disaster in Central Vietnam caused by Formosa Ha Tinh Steel, a Taiwanese company.
Vietnam’s government viewed Quynh’s role in the anti-Formosa protests as a threat to its authoritarian rule. So, it tried to silence her by forcing her into prison then into exile.
But international human rights groups say this has backfired and Vietnam’s reputation was damaged and credibility eroded.
Now Quynh continues her writing and activism online with freedom from fear in the U.S. Many Vietnamese are inspired by Quynh’s story and how she refused to be silenced in the face of repression.
Vietnam’s state-run, and private, media couldn’t report fairly on the case against Mother Mushroom or her legal proceedings.
“The [Vietnamese] media didn’t mention her being expelled to the U.S. They only covered her arrest and trial,” said Long Trinh, a journalist and co-director of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam.
“Media organizations are run by the communist party, the army and the police. They report propaganda pieces of news that portrayed her as a traitor, and as a very bad woman.”
Vietnamese human rights lawyer Le Cong Dinh knows about the smear campaigns used against dissidents. He faced the same during his trial and imprisonment.
The government requested Le Cong Dinh to leave the country, but he refused and lost his license to practice law.
“Mother Mushroom inspired many people. Most Vietnamese women stay at home to take care of their children,” Le Cong Dinh said. “But she raised her voice and helped the victims of Formosa.”
Quynh said she wants to continue to write from exile and raise awareness about human rights in Vietnam. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, awarded Mother Mushroom with its 2018 International Press Freedom Award.
But Quynh’s most lasting impact is on the future leaders of Vietnam. Kim Tien, 27, is a close friend she trained on how to document and write about human rights violations.
“I want to continue Mother Mushroom’s work and activism. When she was in prison I visited her family regularly. I wrote about her situation. I raised funds to help her family,” said Kim, a mother of one.
Diep Ngoc, 25, is a human rights activist. She said the online mushroom cartoons drawn by artists to raise awareness about Mother Mushroom’s imprisonment were “cute” and got her involved.
“To be honest her story is very inspiring because she is a single mom with two kids writing about inequality and injustice,” said Diep. “She’s a strong woman who really cares about her children and the future generation.”
*A documentary film about Mother Mushroom called “When Mother’s Away” can be viewed here.