Fri, Oct 27, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Detention puts spotlight on US-Vietnamese democracy activist


For years, Cong Thanh Do waged his battle for democracy in Vietnam on a laptop computer in his quiet suburban California home, thousands of kilometers from the country he fled a quarter-century ago.

No one -- not even his wife or three kids -- knew the soft-spoken Silicon Valley engineer had founded an underground political party, advocated for jailed dissidents or penned dozens of pro-democracy essays -- all under the pseudonym "Tran Nam."

Do's secret life as a freedom fighter was revealed to his family and the world when he was arrested on Aug. 14 while vacationing in Vietnam and accused of plotting against the communist government. He spent more than five weeks in detention, staging a 38-day hunger strike while a slew of US politicians and activists demanded his release, before he was deported to the US last month.

Though Do, 47, says that he prefers working behind the scenes, since returning to California he has embraced his new celebrity to advance his cause: bringing democracy and political freedom to Vietnam. He said his imprisonment illustrates why the country's one-party system needs to change.

"The government lets you have freedom in the stomach, but they control your ideas," Do said during an interview in his modest house in San Jose. "As long as you accept the rules, it's OK. But if you want to stand up for your rights, you're going to be in trouble."

The Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, did not respond to calls seeking comment on Do's case.


Do's wife and children said they never suspected their husband and father had led a double life. Over the past five years, he spent several hours each night typing away at the dining room table. His family thought he was just working on engineering projects or surfing the Web.

"I didn't have any idea," his wife, Tien Jane Dobui, 43, said, sitting next to Do in their living room, where jade art pieces, porcelain vases and family photographs decorate the walls and shelves.

"I wasn't angry at all. I was just surprised he was so deeply involved in politics," she said.

Do, a naturalized US citizen, said he did not tell the people closest to him to protect them. He worried that if his identity were uncovered, it would endanger him, his family and the People's Democratic Party, the outlawed political group he cofounded last year to promote free elections and human rights in Vietnam.

"To live a better life, to have freedom and democracy for all, we the people have to stand up," Do wrote in the party manifesto.

Vietnam's fast-growing economy has raised incomes and lifted millions out of poverty in recent years, but critics say the country has not done enough to improve its human rights record. Activists hope US President George W. Bush will push Hanoi to hasten political liberalization when he visits next month.

Seeing no future in a communist Vietnam, Do and Dobui fled in a small boat in 1981 and eventually settled in California, where he studied to be an electrical engineer while working nights as a janitor.

Over the years, he created a comfortable middle-class life for himself and his family, but he never forgot his roots. In the early 1990s, he began working with other Vietnamese refugees to push for political change back home.

"Even though I have lived here so long, part of me is still Vietnamese," Do said. "I want to see the Vietnamese people enjoy what I enjoy here -- freedom and democracy."

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