Friday, October 14, 2011 was a cold night. I remember meeting up with a girl that evening before we departed and went on our separate ways. She was off to a student group party, and I went to welcome travellers from Washington D.C. That evening would become the start of an unexpected journey…

They weren’t just any regular American visitors. They came to Toronto with the goal of educating and mobilizing youth to take part in a greater movement. “Hi, I’m here with the PBC group. There is supposed to be a table booked for us under the name CL, could you show me to it?” I asked the waiter. “I’m sorry but there is no table booked under a ‘CL’. Actually, we have no more tables available, the evening has been very busy sir”. WTF?! Son of a *****, I thought to myself, but was able to prevent the words from rolling off my tongue…

“Ugh, okay”, was the only response I could give the waiter. I stood there looking dumbfounded and was thinking of ways I could troll MT. I’ll troll CL too. And NA while I’m at it. Son of a….wait, there are Vietnamese-looking people at the bar…hmm. I approach the Vietnamese-looking people. They look democratic…

“Hi, are you all here for some sort of PBC event?”, I asked.

“Yes! Hi! We’re from Washington D.C., we just arrived, and you’re the first Torontonian from the group that we’ve met!”

“Ugh…really? Because I’m actually not a member, I’m just here to learn more about this group and I registered for the digiactivism seminar this weekend. Nice to meet you all, and welcome to Toronto.” I took a seat at the bar and surveyed the pub. I’ve been here a few times before, and each time I left with slurred speech, an uncalibrated centre of gravity, and would just be brimming with so much hope for the world…I didn’t expect any different this evening. But this evening was different. For starters, this was the first time I was going to be here with Vietnamese people. This was also the first time I was here – or at any pub – to discuss matters of democracy and freedom in general, and for Vietnam in particular. Actually, this felt exhilarating, for I always knew I was capable of creating a dent in history (I was blessed with many talents and gifts), and maybe it’ll just be a small mark, but I wanted to leave behind something for all of posterity…the pleasant ambient lighting settled me in for some beer…ahh, maybe I’ll let MT off the hook this time…

A little later that night other registrees of the weekend seminar arrived, and the party started. But more important work was to come in the following two days…

Saturday October 15, 2011

location: York University, student centre

Everyone arrived eager to learn about the tools of digi-activism. The speakers were members of Viet Tan from Washington D.C. The first speaker gave a presentation about the pillars of a dictatorship regime, and how non-violence can be a powerful tool to undermine the regime.

The second presenter spoke about the tools activists use to promote democracy and address human rights issues, such as blogs (!), twitter, Facebook and mobile devices to organize and gather individual activists.

The third speaker gave an introduction about the Viet Tan reform party, its history, goals and future directions.

In between the presentations we had group activities encouraging us to brain storm ways in which to promote democracy, justice and human rights. It was a very interactive experience and this allowed the participants to get to know each other better. Finally, after all the presentations and group activities, we all left and gathered at a restaurant for dinner. Our minds were crammed with information and facts, and it was time to cram our stomachs with food. Tomorrow was going to be another big day.

Sunday October 16, 2011

location: York University, student centre

Today was going to be a half-day seminar, yesterday’s seminar lasting from morning to late afternoon. After reviewing the previous day’s talks, we went on to generate ideas for a digi-activism project, which would be spearheaded by the Toronto digi-activism group. Many great ideas surfaced, but we settled on a video project inspired by will.i.am’s “Yes We Can” video. The goals were the following:

1) raise awareness about the 15 Vietnamese Catholic youth activists detained in Vietnam

2) the script for the video would come from the writings of one of the detained activist, Paulus Le Son

3) gather as many participants for the video from as many places in the world as we can

The video project got launched that Digi-activism seminar weekend, and this is the result:


– Anh Nhật

Photos courtesy of members of PBC and VT (Kev, CL, Lan).

The “Flame of Change” from Tunisia to… Vietnam?

Imagine living in a country where Freedom did not exist. Most of us can’t. Most of us live every moment of our lives in a Freedom that others have never known, but we take it for granted because, just like breathing, our right to live free belongs to us so naturally. We never think about it, and thus most of us never truly think about our brothers and sisters who are thirsting for the kind of Freedom that is so readily ours.

Now imagine living in a country where Justice did not exist, either. Imagine that not just your Freedom, but also your career and your home and your very livelihood have been stripped of you. And what’s more, there is nothing you can do about it but watch your life dwindle away because, in your country, the word of the government is LAW no matter how unjust or corrupt it clearly is.

And you look around you and see that all your countrymen quietly suffer just the same fate for no good reason, though beyond the borders of your country others are living where Freedom and Justice are never such an issue. Your voice is weak and easily drowned out by the oppressive government, yet nonetheless you wish with all the hurt in your heart that something could be done. And then you remember that actions speak louder than words

In that case, could dying for something be better than living for nothing? Do you believe you could have a louder voice in death than in life?

In Tunisia, Mohammed Bouazizi, a humble street vendor, committed suicide one morning in front of a government building by setting himself on fire after government officials publicly humiliated him, beat him, and confiscated his livelihood. Mohammed Bouazizi’s protest by self-immolation was tragic but subsequently inspirational, and certainly instrumental in setting off the revolution in many autocratic Middle-Eastern countries that followed. Since then there have been a handful of copycat suicides, all striving to spark the same “fire of change” in the hearts of their people and for the greater good of their nations.

Most recently in Vietnam, Phạm Thành Sơn, an engineer, ended his life in the same way after (according to online sources) the government demanded his family give up their home so that they could use that land for their personal gains. Some video footage captured Vietnamese police casually standing by and watching as the 31-year-old man apparently set himself ablaze in front of a government office in the city of Đà Nẵng, while the crowds of shocked people built up around the scene. Afterwards, authorities reported his death as an accident. His vehicle’s gas tank had exploded, they said. He had a mental illness, they said. But the communist government’s expertise in blurring the truth is already too well known…

What will this mean for Vietnam? Not to be cliché, but I guess only time will tell. Actions speak louder than words, and I believe that Phạm Thành Sơn’s actions have lit a candle in even the most reluctant hearts, if not yet a flame. I hope the Vietnamese people will be empowered to rise up for the Freedom, Justice, Democracy and Human rights they deserve.

Now is the time to act.

I for one am still utterly in awe that what keeps being described as “18 short days” was all it took to write a whole new page in the history of Egypt and forever liberate its people. I’m sure their victory will be a story for Egyptians to pass on for generations to come. Sort of like how South Vietnamese parents and grandparents tell my generation about their harrowing journeys to escape the clutches of communist persecution after the Fall of Saigon in 1975. No doubt their words are an inspiration to us, but I don’t want those to be the only stories we have… I want to be able to tell my children or grandchildren about how Vietnam was able to rise up against corruption and injustice, and with their own strength take back their Freedom and their rights, just like the people of Egypt have.

And yes, I believe that Mohammed Bouazizi, Phạm Thành Sơn, and all those who have died in the name of Freedom will rise out of the flames–to live in the hearts and triumphant cries of the people.

Edit: Visit Global Voices for a more detailed and accurate report of Phạm Thành Sơn’s story (in English, by VT representative).

Thank you to the online writers and journalists who shared the news story.