Photo: Mai Khoi holding up a sign during Donald Trump’s visit to Vietnam last November. Bennett Murray. The Guardian.
Mai Khoi Do Nguyen, often called Vietnam’s Pussy Riot or Lady Gaga, was detained at Noi Bai airport in Hanoi Tuesday morning. She had just returned from Europe, where she was promoting her newest album “Bat Dong,” or “Dissent” in English. Human Rights Watch attests that many Vietnamese activists have been prohibited from traveling abroad, but Mai Khoi has not yet been subject to this travel ban and able to travel to promote her music.
Many political activists fled the country during a government crackdown last year, but Mai Khoi stayed, and was seen last November during Trump’s visit to the country with a sign reading “Piss On You Trump.” She is one of dozens of activists on a watch list for her strong criticisms of the government, and she and her husband have been evicted from their homes three times. The most recent eviction was following her anti-Trump demonstration when “agents from Vietnam’s secret police claiming to be employees of the building’s owner” first barricaded her inside her apartment, then demanded she and her husband leave. With this arrest, her husband worries in a Facebook post about the conditions of her detention and whether they will be evicted again. At least 120 others are currently being held in Vietnam for dissent against the government.
Mai Khoi has used her music to criticize the authoritarian rule in Vietnam and to call for free speech and the promotion of human rights. In 2016 Mai Khoi joined the ranks of approximately 25 activists trying to claim seats in the Communist party dominated National Assembly. Running as independents, the activists failed to claim any seats after the authorities refused to approve their candidacies, despite the local support they had. Also that year, former US President Barack Obama visited Vietnam, giving Mai Khoi the opportunity to meet and plead with him to pressure Vietnam to uphold its human rights obligations.
Mai Khoi’s music itself is rooted in advocacy: its roots, she says, stem from traditional and ethnic music. It doesn’t follow the contemporary western style of music, a conscious choice on her part against cultural dilution. For her, music “open[s] new ways of thinking and acting, making the unthinkable thinkable and the unspeakable speakable.” She wants to bring the focus of Vietnamese citizens from its bloody history to instead its current issues. “Bat Dong” was launched last week at an event attended by US diplomats, western expats, a documentary crew, and the elite of Vietnam’s artistic scene. “I only know of one other album so politically explicit that has been released in Vietnam since the end of the war. Just the fact that we managed to release it is a political victory in itself,” she said.
Although Mai Khoi was released later in the day, her husband had been unable to contact her for hours, and multiple embassies had reached out to various authorities, all of which claimed to have no knowledge of the detention. It remains unclear who exactly was holding her and why. Thus far, Mai Khoi’s fame and high profile have protected her as she has continued to publish critical albums and give diplomats her opinions, but in an interview last year, she said that she had been facing a “deepening pattern of intimidation.” This detention shows, however, that protection is not ensured for activists under a regime intent upon consolidating its power.