At odds with the communist government, Tony Tran abandoned his home in Vietnam in 1979. Life as a writer had been hard in Ho Chi Minh City, where free expression has been limited for more than 25 years.
“If you wrote something [the government] didn’t think was good, they had a problem with you,” he said Tuesday.
As a political exile in Paris, Tran found work stringing for the newspapers Le Figaro and Le Canard Enchaine. In his free time, he documented the realities of life after the war with the US, and the struggle of the Vietnamese diaspora.
“I wrote all I had seen,” Tran said. “I wrote the whole story.”
Now in Cambodia, Tran is speaking out again on the plight of the Vietnamese. He helps publicize alleged injustices committed against his people in both Cambodia and Vietnam, as an adviser for Cambodia’s only Vietnamese-language newspaper, Tuong Lai (Future).
It is a job he would almost certainly not be able to perform in Vietnam, which was named in May by the Committee to Protect Journalists as the world’s third-worst country to work as a journalist in.
“This is the voice of the Vietnamese people, not the Vietnamese government,” Peter Pham, Tuong Lai’s marketing manager said.
The paper’s headquarters are located down an anonymous, twisting alley. A handful of the newspaper’s six staff members, some of whom are Vietnamese political exiles, others Cambodian nationals, sit packed into a cramped, low-roofed office. Just above their heads is the bedroom of Editor-in-Chief Chea Seng and his wife.
Three computers, two shrines and a fan line the wall. There is a definite air of the samizdat.
The paper benefits from operating outside Vietnam’s restrictive media laws, despite its limited facilities, Pham said.
“We are not as professional as [Vietnam’s news media]. We are very young… but we have more liberty,” Pham said.
They are also appearing to be doing their best to side-step the press restrictions of the Cambodian government.
A Ministry of Information official said last week that Tuong Lai had promised only to print translations from other newspapers, but publisher Chhun Chhuon contradicted this.
“[Tuong Lai journalists] report true information from the field.” he said.
The newspaper’s first edition, printed earlier this month, was brazenly outspoken, featuring a front page article on alleged human rights abuses by the Vietnamese government.
But the second edition is decidedly toned down, with a leading front page story on a Chinese diplomat’s official visit to Phnom Penh. And Pham is keen to stress that the newspaper has no desire to topple Vietnam’s Communist regime.
“We don’t want to aggravate Vietnam,” he said.
The Vietnamese Embassy has not approached the newspaper’s staff about its content, and Tran said he is confident they will be able to continue publishing. The newspaper was granted a license by the Ministry of Information two years ago, but after running into financial trouble he had to put off publishing the newspaper.
In their first edition, the management translated and published an article by the British Broadcasting Corp on the trial of dissident Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Tri Luc.
Thich Tri Luc was abducted in Phnom Penh in August 2002 even though he had the protection of the local UN High Commissioner for Refugees office. He was taken back to Vietnam, where he is scheduled to stand trial in Ho Chi Minh City.
The newspaper takes a firm stance against such abuses, although Pham is keen to stress that they did not write the article.
“Security for the refugees here is not yet stable. We would like to improve that—it’s human rights,” Pham said.
Part of their campaign involves printing weekly extracts from the UN Human Rights Act, which they translate into Vietnamese.
Sok Minh, a junk shop owner, has little interest in the paper. “I can’t read Vietnamese, I can only speak it,” he said as squatted in the afternoon sun and hacked through a sheet of plastic.
Ngieng Yang Tam, a car mechanic, also seemed indifferent. “I work everyday,” he said. “I have no time to read newspapers.”
Others voiced enthusiasm toward the country’s only Vietnamese newspaper, but said they had trouble finding stalls that stocked it.
“We want to know information about ordinary people,” said Chang Hi Hong, a member of the Vietnamese Association. “We want to know about human rights… but [Tuong Lai] is difficult to find.”
Few were prepared to comment on the paper’s political content.
“I don’t know how people will react,” Chang Hi Hong said, declining to comment further.
The staff hope in the future to take their newspaper to Vietnam, where the human rights record is notoriously poor and all domestic publications are controlled by the state.
“We want to send it to Vietnam for people to see,” Tran said, though he doesn’t hold high hopes. “We haven’t asked the [Vietnamese] government and they haven’t approached us.” he said. “We’re not optimistic.”
Nguyen Thanh Duc, press attache for the Vietnamese Embassy, was discouraging about the newspaper’s chances.
“I’m not sure about whether or not they could send it because we have so many newspapers in Vietnam already,” he said.
For the moment at least, the newspaper aims simply to reach all sections of Phnom Penh’s Vietnamese community, and to help them protect themselves from discrimination.
“We don’t want to oppose the governments in Cambodia and Vietnam,” Pham said. “We want to write about reality.”