Editor’s note: On June 29, 2017, Vietnamese dissident blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, best known by her blogging name of “Mother Mushroom,” was sentenced to 10 years in prison after she was detained eight months earlier for posting about people dying in police custody, or “conducting propaganda,” as the court found.
Released from prison a month ago, Quynh, 39, has settled with her children in Houston, Texas. She told VOA’s Vietnamese Service that it was difficult to accept the offer of release because it was made on the condition that she leave Vietnam. She said she accepted thinking about her responsibilities to her children and their future although she wanted to stay in Vietnam to continue her fight for human rights.
“Now that I’m here in America, I can see it’s far different from [how] it’s portrayed by the Vietnamese government,” said Quynh, who was in prison when she received an International Women of Courage Award from first lady Melania Trump in March 2017.
“I was warmly welcomed and recognized for my activism. That inspires me to pursue my unfinished dreams,” she added.
The Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ) will present its International Press Freedom Award to Quynh and four other journalists — all women — on November 20.
After a Facebook Live appearance with VOA’s Vietnamese Service, Quynh sat down with VOA Khmer reporter Soksreinith Ten at VOA headquarters in Washington, D.C. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: What inspired you to start blogging in the early 2000s?
Quynh: I started blogging because of my daughter.
VOA: What is it about your daughter that inspired you to blog?
Quynh: In 2006, I wanted to create a journal for my daughter during my pregnancy with her. When I went to a hospital for a check-up, I started to notice that a lot of people around me who were poor did not get the same quality of service from medical professionals. And I asked myself, “How could I not have seen the unfairness that was happening around me like that?” After that, I started to blog about social injustice, unfairness, and that is because people who are living around me suffer from it.
[Then] I started to join protests against environmental projects, and especially about the territorial sovereignty [dispute] between Vietnam and China over the Spratly Islands. I was arrested and imprisoned for 10 days. Since then, I could not stop being concerned about the welfare of my country.
VOA: When you were first arrested in 2009, was it because of your online activism?
Quynh: I believe the government reacted in such a harsh way against people like me who are speaking out about the truth because they were concerned about the political and economic relationship between China and Vietnam. They were afraid that the bilateral government relation could be affected, when people like me speak out against [joint] projects.
The second reason is that the government relies on their own propaganda to lie to the people, to paint a better picture about the environment. That’s why they are scared of people like me, who are not afraid to expose them.
VOA: Faced with government crackdowns, what do you think activists around the world can do to be able to talk about key issues affecting their communities?
Quynh: The first thing that I want to share to all activists is that you should always remind yourself that you are not alone. The whole world is watching. The international community is paying attention. Whatever it is that we are trying to do, they are there with us.
The second thing is that what we are fighting for can impact the lives of many people around us on a daily basis. [When you talk with people] about the impact, at first, they might not be aware of it, but then they start to observe and pay attention to the reason why we are raising the issue. Then from observers, they will become someone who is concerned. From being concerned, they will be inspired by what you are doing. From there, they would take it to the next level. They start speaking out or standing up or taking action.
From that level, they will start to find ways and resources to join voices, and together we will be stronger and from there, you will find an inner strength, because if it is what you want, you are not doing this for other people anymore. You do it because of what you want to see happen. For now, today, you may not see the results, but the outcome is out there, and they will come.
VOA: As an online activist, did you think you were a member of the press and believe that your work helps promote freedom of the press?
Quynh: At first, I have to be honest that I did not consider myself as a member of the press community. I was just exercising my rights to speak for myself, but then they arrested me, and they tried to stop me from blogging, and that was when I realized that I am now an activist for freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Before that, I was just a social justice defender, more or less.
VOA: Why are you so brave? Does it have something to do with fighting for your daughter’s future? Or is it more to do with the environment?
Quynh: I believe the inner source of strength for me was, just like you said, my daughter. I wanted to see my daughter able to grow up freely and happy, just as millions of other children around the world.
First, I had my daughter and then I had my son. I was just like [any] other mother who wants their children to get the best kind of education, the best kind of medical care and the freedom to choose for themselves. That strong desire for my children’s future, it empowers me.
VOA: You have just been released from prison and you, with your family, settled in Houston, Texas. Tell us more about your plans.
Quynh: The first thing that I plan to do during my first few weeks of resettlement in the U.S. is to spend time with my children and help them cope with the aftermath of what has taken place and also to help my mother with her mental health.
I also consider myself as a paving stone on the road to freedom for other activists in Vietnam and one particular case that I really want to advocate for is the freedom of another mother, just like myself, who has two children and who is in prison right now. Her name is Tran Thi Nga.
I want to continue my blogging and I want to take back my [blocked] Facebook account so that I can continue sharing my thoughts and what I aspire to do with other people.
VOA: Since you mentioned advocating for Tran Thi Nga, I am curious about your thoughts on women’s activism in general.
Quynh: I believe that as women, we are born with compassion. Because of that, we care more. We pay attention to the little things and then to the larger things. I believe that women have a deeper perspective, and not only do we care about our own children and their well-being, we also tend to care more about the environment where they are growing up.
Starting from a very small step to a broader perspective, we can make a little change for our family unit, and that will carry on and reach a bigger change, bigger impact in the society, which will affect the whole country.
VOA: Do you have anything else to share with other blogger-activists?
Quynh: We are not alone, because freedom is something that all of us, each and everyone of us, aspires to. Because of that common factor, because we all dream of the same dream, we are not alone and so if you can just overcome the personal fear of yours, you will find many, many other supporters out there. The minute that you speak out, thousands of other voices will join you. That is what we will draw our strength and force from.
Tra Mi of VOA’s Vietnamese Service contributed to this report.