Pham Doan Trang

Celebrated for her prolific writing and fearless activism for democracy and human rights in Vietnam, 2024 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write honoree Pham Doan Trang is known as an emblem of resilience and unwavering determination amidst adversity.

Trang has had a significant impact through her roles as an author, online commentator, and journalist, advocating for reforms within Vietnam. From her early beginnings at Hanoi Foreign Trade University, where she started a blog, “Trang the Ridiculous,” during a time when the internet was just emerging in the country, Trang recognized the need for alternative platforms for discourse. 

“Back then, the internet was only barely establishing itself in Vietnam, and students were quite shy and cautious when surfing online…. We didn’t have books, but we could already see the events in reality were not really accurately described in those books anyway.”

Her books, including Non-Violent Resistance, Politics for the Common People, A Handbook for Freedom Fighters, and Politics of a Police State, dissect the Vietnamese legal system’s shortcomings and advocate for reforms to ensure fair treatment and protect citizens’ rights –– specifically, increased transparency, enhanced judicial independence, and stronger legal mechanisms to safeguard fundamental freedoms. In her blog she wrote, “I understand the fear of not knowing anything about the law, of not knowing even where to begin to escape that immense jungle. I understand how overwhelming these things can be, and I know (in part) what it’s like to be involved in matters related to “courts” with a voice too weak to have any say, not knowing what to do or who to believe, never mind using the law to defend oneself.”

As a co-founder of the non-profit organization Legal Initiatives for Vietnam (LIV), she spearheaded a mission to foster a democratic society in Vietnam through independent journalism, research, and education. Through initiatives like the Vietnamese online magazine Luật Khoa and The Vietnamese, she created platforms for independent journalism and civic engagement, countering the dominance of state-controlled media. Additionally, Trang was active as a publisher, but she resigned from the Liberal Publishing House in July 2020, citing security threats. 

Trang’s impact extends far beyond her written words. She actively participates in protests, organizes campaigns, and amplifies the voices of marginalized communities as part of her advocacy on LGBTQ+ rights, environmental protection, and labor rights. In 2015, security forces assaulted Trang while she participated in an environmental protest, beating her so severely that she now suffers from a permanent limp. 

Despite her efforts to effect change peacefully, Trang has faced persecution from the Vietnamese authorities. In the middle of the night in October 2020, just hours following the US-Vietnam human rights dialogue, Trang was arrested and charged with “conducting anti-state propaganda.” Pham Doan Trang’s imprisonment has been marked by a lack of due process and the authorities’ refusal to respect fundamental rights. Trang was formally indicted on charges of “anti-state propaganda” in September 2021. In December 2021, the People’s Court of Hanoi sentenced Trang to nine years in prison and her conviction was upheld on appeal in August 2022. Despite suffering from breathing problems after contracting COVID-19 in May 2022, she remains resolute in her defiance, refusing to compromise with prison officials for privileges and sending a message of resilience to the public. 

Throughout her trial and imprisonment, international bodies such as the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and human rights experts have called for her immediate release. Despite these calls, Trang’s initial trial had been postponed, and her family and attorneys had been kept in the dark about the details of her case, reflecting the lack of transparency in Vietnam’s legal system. 

However, Trang continues to advocate for human rights even behind bars, reminding us all of the enduring power of courage and conviction in the pursuit of a more just and equitable world.

Anticipating her arrest, Trang wrote a letter and recorded a video message calling on the public to continue to fight for democratic reform and the release of prisoners of conscience. She wrote, “I don’t want freedom for just myself; that’s too easy. / I want something greater: freedom for Vietnam. / It might seem like some grand goal, but it’s totally possible—with your support.”