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The Making of Cyber Dissident - SF Chronicle

December 16, 2014

Right away, he knew he was being followed.

On a steamy summer morning in late July, Cong Thanh Do left his hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. Plainclothes policemen began tailing him on foot and on motorcycle, weaving through the crowds on Dong Du Street.

What did they know?

For half an hour, the San Jose man tried to evade authorities before he lost them. But when he returned to his hotel a couple of hours later, police were watching there, too, including one with a zoom lens.

Perhaps they followed him because he was a Viet-Kieu -- a Vietnamese returned from living abroad? Or did they know that days earlier, he met with leaders from the People's Democratic Party of Vietnam, which he had founded in 2005? Though scores of exile groups exist, Do's group worked from the inside for democratic reform. Such work was dangerous and illegal in a country whose constitution allows only one political party: the Communists who took control in 1975.

To protect themselves, group members used pseudonyms with each other and revealed no personal information. Do also kept his pro-democracy work a secret from his wife and three children. To his family, he was a taciturn electrical engineer, a loving father and husband, a connoisseur of fine wine, antique Vietnamese pottery and Ernest Hemingway. To the dissidents, he was known as Tran Nam, an online activist who connected them to the outside.

On that July day, he was faced with a choice: Should he leave Vietnam at once, or join his wife and 9-year-old son, whom he sent ahead to relatives? Do chose to stay -- a fateful decision that led to his arrest and imprisonment for more than a month and brought international scrutiny to a regime he had long tried to expose.

"Living in the U.S., democracy affects us a lot. The freedoms that we enjoy, the right to vote, to choose our own leaders," said Do, a compact man with a goatee and an intense gaze. He was resting with family in his modest home a few days after his return. "Vietnam has to go that way."

Finding a Future

Do was born on Feb. 2, 1959, in Muong Man, a tiny farming village in central Vietnam, the third child out of three brothers and four sisters. His mother ran a small grocery store, with the help of his father, an arborist and veterinarian. As a child, Do loved to read his father's books about Vietnamese politics and history. His mother kept all of his awards and certificates from each grade, confident that someday he would become the scholar of the family.

During the Vietnam War, he often witnessed soldiers fighting and the bodies found by villagers. If they heard bombing or gunfire, the family fled underground. "It was normal to me. I got used to it."

He left the village to attend high school in Phan Thiet, a few miles away on the coast. He boarded at a Buddhist temple, where he worked for food and shelter, and rode a bicycle home on the weekends. It was in school where he met his future wife, Tien Bui.

By 1981, they couple saw they had no future in a country under Communist rule.

Do, then 22, planned their escape. Seven times, he tried and failed. He negotiated with boat owners, gathered supplies and checked on whoever else wanted to get out. They aborted plans if they suspected the Communists might discover them, or if the boat owners lost their courage.

Finally, one dark October night, Do, his brother, his sister, his girlfriend Tien, her sister and her nephew floated away in a woven fisherman's boat. They rowed lightless into the South China Sea then boarded a larger boat -- still smaller than his current living room -- where they joined a hundred others. Do carried no money, only the clothes he wore. And they told no one they were leaving, not even family, lest the authorities find out. After three days, the refugees were running out of fuel, food and water when an oil tanker bound for Hong Kong rescued them. Do, the only English speaker, served as a leader and a translator, said his younger sister Ivy Do.

"All of us escapees would not have the opportunity of a good life without his determination and bravery," said Ivy, who now lives in a suburb of Dallas-Fort Worth. Years later, she graduated with a master's in software engineering, ran several restaurants and now co-owns a small tech company. "He is always my role model and inspiration."

Their family mourned their deaths for several months, thinking they were lost at sea, she said, until they received their letters from Hong Kong. For six months, Cong Do and Tien, newly married, crammed together in barracks of the refugee camp, working at a toy factory and attending English class until their sponsorship came through from his wife's brother.

They were going to America.

Taking Root

Do, his wife, his sister-in-law and nephew crammed together in a small apartment in Virginia where his wife's brother had settled after fleeing Vietnam in 1975.

Do worked nights as a janitor, and learned English during the day. His wife Tien, who adopted the name Jane, was pregnant with their first child, a son, Vien, born in 1982 -- named after the town where they lived, Vienna. For their children, they combined their last names -- Do and Bui -- to create a new last name, Dobui, to commemorate the generation taking root in America.

Though life was a struggle, the young couple enjoyed their new freedoms. They moved to Texas for two months (too hot) and then to Southern California. Do enrolled at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he studied electrical engineering. His wife supported them by working in a sewing factory.

They had a daughter, Bien, and in 1988, Do and his wife became U.S. citizens. Two years later, he graduated and began working, which freed him for the first time to develop a passion for politics.

He watched as the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe fell and he began to hope something similar would happen in his homeland. In 1990, he joined the Vietnam Restoration Organization, a pro-democracy association here that was public -- not underground like the groups he would later found. They met to discuss the political situation in Vietnam and raise awareness about human rights.

That year, he also returned to Vietnam for the first time, to visit family and to study the political situation. Later, he visited Russia, Germany and the Czech Republic to get a picture of how exactly Communism fell.

His political awakening came as many other Vietnamese refugees were also grappling with the future of their homeland. Following the war, tens of thousands of refugees settled in Orange County, the largest concentration found outside of Vietnam. Vietnamese shopping centers, newspapers and cultural organizations flourished -- as did exile groups.

In the early 1990s, a group of Vietnamese Americans from Southern California teamed with dissidents in Vietnam to form a fledgling political party, the Movement to Unite the People and Build Democracy. But when they tried to organize a pro-democracy conference in Vietnam, authorities expelled the U.S. organizers and imprisoned the locals.

The Government of Free Vietnam, an anti-communist group in Orange County, was founded in 1995 with the goal of removing the Vietnamese government. Vietnamese officials allege the group has plotted to bomb Vietnamese embassies in the Philippines and Thailand in 2001, among other targets. Thuong Nguyen "Cuc" Foshee, 58, of Florida, was imprisoned for more than a year, apprehended when she was visiting Vietnam, because authorities believe her alleged involvement in the group was tantamount to being a terrorist. She was released last month. The Vietnam Reform Party, established in 1982, is based in San Jose, another U.S. center of Vietnamese life. They lobby for international pressure on the Vietnamese government for political reform and within Vietnam, organize people and broadcast a daily radio program and publish a monthly news journal.

Exiles around the world have frequently tried to intervene in homeland politics.

"There's a tradition of exiles trying to return informally to make contact. They have the skills and the family members who can help them, so countries watch carefully," said Thomas Carothers, an authority on democracy promotion at the Carnegie Endowment for National Peace, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "They can be sources of information to people on the outside, and on the inside."

He added, however: "In most cases, exiles do not play as extensive of a role in democratic change as they often hope, as we saw in Iraq. People who come back after living abroad rarely have the connections or credibility to play a major role in transitions. The center of change has to come from within."

Pro-democracy groups in America emerged just as U.S.-Vietnam relations began to thaw in the early 1990s. The United States began granting permission for U.S. companies to open offices, lifting restrictions on projects by American nonprofit groups, and allowing the establishment of telecommunications links with Vietnam.

Though their homeland had opened enough for overseas Vietnamese to visit, for many pro-democracy dissidents, the change did not come fast enough.

While Do was delving into Vietnamese politics, he and his wife purchased a video shop in South Central Los Angeles in 1992. He worked nights and weekends, after putting in full days at his engineering job. Two months later, much of the shop went up in flames, looted in the Los Angeles riots. The Dobui family rebuilt, but after they were twice held up at gunpoint, they sold their shop.

In 1997, they moved to the Bay Area, where Do found work in the semiconductor industry. When he was laid off, he opened a wholesale bakery -- after first training himself by experimenting with breads and croissants for his family every morning.

Her parents worked long hours while she was growing up, recalled daughter Bien Dobui, 21. They could never attend her mock trial or her many other extracurricular events at school like other parents, but she never expected them to.

"I understood. My parents were immigrants. They weren't born here. They had to get settled," said Bien. She is petite, with long bangs tucked behind her ear and thick hair that she cuts herself.

After he sold his bakery, Do began working in 2003 for Applied Materials, the world's largest supplier of products and services to the semiconductor industry. As a process engineer he travels to Asia more than 75 percent of the time on business. He also became a part-owner of a Garden Grove cafe and bakery.

Even as Do prospered in America, his thoughts were on the people in Vietnam.

In 2002, he founded the Democracy Club for Vietnam, with the aim of working from the inside. It was the only way to bring about real change, he believed. Do began e-mailing a monthly magazine to activists in Vietnam.

"A lot of people are interested in politics. They want to see change. I send articles. I connect through the Net," said Do, who set up dozens of e-mail accounts to throw off authorities. "There's a lot of people in Vietnam I feel responsible for."

For Do and other dissidents, the Web had become an important tool for communicating and organizing in Vietnam.

Internet use in Vietnam has skyrocketed to more than 7 million users in 2005, nearly double what it was the year before. With that increase, the government has clamped down, trying to monitor and block online content.

At home, Do worked on his black laptop until midnight, while his unsuspecting family sat nearby. They assumed he was doing engineering work or reading articles online. On trips to Vietnam, he would step out for a couple hours, claiming to meet friends but instead meeting dissidents. He slipped beneath government notice, he thinks, because otherwise authorities would have already arrested him or fellow members.

Sometimes his wife asked questions about what he was doing, but he told her nothing because he did not want her to get involved. "If that happens, they may harm her," he says now.

Fomenting Democracy

At the beginning of last year, he founded the People's Democratic Party with a doctor in Vietnam, who has since been arrested, and another activist, who is now in hiding.

The party's symbol is a triangle composed of three smaller triangles to symbolize the three branches of government. A red triangle to stand for blood and sacrifice, yellow for the people and blue for hope and youth.

About 90 percent of the party's members are in Vietnam, many of them students. About 10 percent are sprinkled across the United States, Canada and Europe, Do said, declining to disclose the number of members. The Vietnamese government, he knew, could find out at any time. "They own the whole country. If they want to look, they look. It's not like the U.S."

Since 2002, he had been contacting advocacy groups such as Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders under his pen name, alerting them when dissidents were harassed in Vietnam.

"In the beginning, no one listens. No one knows who you are, so why should they listen?" Do said. "It's based on true information. You have to develop the trust."

The Committee to Protect Journalists relies on reporters and their family, media activists and lawyers for updates on threats to press freedom, said Bob Dietz, the New York organization's Asia program coordinator.

"Exile groups and networks of overseas dissidents are helpful in providing information from the country -- especially the kind of information that the government does not want to get out," Dietz said, adding that Do often knew when journalists were imprisoned before foreign media reported it. "He was in regular contact with the dissident community in Vietnam, and we found him to be a reliable source of information."

The government has targeted "cyber-dissidents," jailing them for offenses such as posting online stories about farmers' protests, translating an essay from English titled "What is Democracy?" from a U.S. State Department Web site and other articles and commentary deemed a threat to its control.

Elections in Vietnam are neither "free nor fair," according to the U.S. State Department's Human Rights Report, and the government's human rights record remains "unsatisfactory" with police abuse of suspects, harsh prison conditions, restrictions on freedom of movement, and the prohibition of human rights organizations.

More than 26,000 people, including eight prisoners of conscience, were released under three prisoner amnesties that marked national anniversaries last year according to Amnesty International.

In April of this year, academics, writers, religious leaders and former military staff launched a pro-democracy movement known as "Bloc 8406," signing a petition calling for regime change. Vietnamese officials have called the movement illegal and unacceptable, saying such activists use the "mask of democracy" to violate state interests.

Against this backdrop, Do met with two People's Democratic Party leaders in July, to discuss how to go public in 2007 and challenge the Communist Party.

He met one activist in a cafe, the other at a restaurant, where they discussed strategy for about an hour each time. He was supposed to meet more, but after authorities followed him on Aug. 4, he halted e-mail contact.

At 6 a.m. on Aug. 14, Do was standing in front of his house where was staying with his wife in Phan Thiet. They had been relaxing with her relatives before planning to return home in a few days. Up pulled a police car with four men and plainclothes officers surrounded the two-bedroom house.

"That's it. My life is ending," he thought.

They entered the house, where everyone panicked. The officers accused him of being a terrorist and of planning to bomb the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City.

"Leave the country," he told his wife, unable to reveal his double life to her.

"Go back to sleep," he told his 9-year-old son, who started crying at the sight of the strange men.

The neighbors watched but dared not come close. At the local police station, authorities questioned Tien Jane about her husband and family. Meanwhile, police sped off with Do to Ho Chi Minh City, four hours away by car.

Do had survived the open seas, the L.A. riots and the struggles of assimilation in America. But his toughest trial had just begun.

Behind Bars

"Tell us about your party. Where do your members live? Give us their e-mail address." At first, officers accused him of being a traitor, a terrorist, a reactionary. By the third day, they questioned Do about his political party and his pen name, and he knew their goal was to ferret out his group.

Officers interrogated Do two or three times a day in a small room for four hours at a stretch before taking a break and starting over again. Or they kept him trapped in his tiny cell for days on end, until he wanted to be questioned.

They tried to confuse him by telling him the party leaders he met were captured two days after him. Do glanced down at their papers and realized they were lying. The men were arrested the same day as him, one taken from his medical office, the other arrested at home. Do blamed himself for the carelessness that led to the arrests.

He told officers only what he thought they already knew. He suspected authorities had followed him after his meeting with activists or followed them to Internet cafes, capturing their e-mails.

Officers threatened him with a hard sentence and told him, "dead or alive depends on our hands."

They also dropped veiled threats about his wife, saying, "She's still here," which worried Do.

Tien Jane had stayed after seeking assistance from the U.S. Consulate. But authorities cut into the phone and Internet service where she was staying, so she left in frustration on Aug. 25.

On the day he was arrested, Do began a hunger strike, drinking only milk, lemonade, water and powered rice flour. He shared his cell with two prisoners, whom he credits with saving his life. When he was weak and exhausted, they helped feed and bathe him.

Do slept on the concrete floor and wore a black and white striped prisoner uniform -- like in his favorite movie, "Papillon," about a man wrongly convicted of murder who plots escape again and again.

He lost track of time. To pass the long hours, he meditated. When he began his pro-democracy work, he had practiced meditation for this very eventuality. He also composed poems, such as "Prisoner Lonely":

Night is falling/I am here in jail, listening to the rain/Out there somewhere/Leaves are falling/Killing my soul slowly.

And he cried, thinking about his family. "What happens to them, how the family is doing -- that kills me. If I think about that a lot, I go crazy."

One night, the air was hot, stale and still. The single window showed only a sliver of sky. Do fell to the floor, gasping, unable to breathe, in the throes of an asthma attack. He thought he was going to the die. He thought about his family.

His cell mates began crying and begged the guards for help. "Get a doctor, please!"

"He should eat," the guard replied, and did nothing.

Do crawled over to the wall under the window, and waited until he could breathe.

Fighting From Home

For the first weeks, Do's family worked through diplomatic channels to free their father. But Vietnamese authorities did not grant U.S. consular officers a visit until Sept. 1. In that meeting, Do denied he was a terrorist and revealed that he was a leader of the People's Democratic Party -- which came as a complete shock to his family.

U.S. officials in Vietnam have said they saw no evidence that Do was planning an attack.

Son Vien and daughter Bien eventually began contacting human rights groups, politicians and reporters. Both dropped out of college to work on their father's case.

"Dear Sirs, My father is a US citizen and San Jose, CA resident. He is imprisoned in HCMC. Attached and below is my family's concise account of the detention," read one e-mail. Few responded at first. The siblings had no experience dealing with the press, with activism, in meeting with politicians -- but they called upon what organizing experience and contacts they had. One friend helped them create a Web site, freecongdo.org, others circulated petitions.

At Pioneer High in San Jose, Bien Dobui served as president of the honor society, founder of the gay-straight alliance and school district student representative, among other leadership roles.

For her father's campaign, she was the "press officer and political strategist," Vien was their "technology and communications adviser," and their mother was "editor in chief."

The titles were "just a way to keep us not too serious," said Vien Dobui, 24, who is artsy, bearded and slim and wears knit caps and shrunken hipster shirts.

The lofty job descriptions were a contrast to their amateur reality. They worked side by side on their laptops every day at their dining room table, searching through floppy disks and on the Internet, looking for clues about their father's hidden life -- at times hampered by the language barrier. Both speak Vietnamese, but can't read it very well.

The close family grew even closer. Bien and Vien took turns cooking, to relieve their mother, and dropped off and picked up their younger brother, Nien, from school. They kept nothing from the Beatles mop-topped Nien, including him in all family meetings. Tien Jane slept in the same bed with her youngest, to help him feel safe.

She and her husband never talked politics much; she was not as interested as he was, said Tien Jane, 43, who is slender and youthful, with long wavy black hair. She might have stopped him, if she knew what he was up to. But she was not angry with him for keeping his work a secret. She wanted only to be able to share everything with him, to better understand, said Tien Jane, a technician at satellite communications company. Nearly all of Do's family in Vietnam were unaware he'd been nabbed during most of his captivity. "We did not want to be a burden," said his sister Ivy Do, who lives in Texas.

By September, his family captured the attention of media and U.S. officials. Though the Dobui family initially had shied from saying anything that would take attention away from their father's detention, they soon realized their family's story was compelling and could help raise public support.

His family attended rallies in San Jose and Orange County and Tien Jane spoke before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. government has spent millions, overtly and covertly, to promote democracy, support dissidents and attempt to change regimes around the world, foreign policy experts say.

However, Vietnam does not currently pose a security challenge and is not hostile to the United States. Bilateral trade between Vietnam and the United States was $7.8 billion in 2005, up from $800 million in 2001, when the trade agreement took effect.

Vietnam's economic reforms and the rising standard of living have also reduced Communist control over daily life, as the government sought greater economic links to the outside world. Vietnam is set to join the World Trade Organization, and as such, is required to lower its trade barriers and subsidies on its products. To take advantage of the lower tariffs, the United States must establish normalized trade relations.

Last month, House Republican leaders withdrew a bill to normalize trade with Vietnam, delaying the vote until December after the measure failed to pass by the two-thirds margin required for expedited passage -- on the eve of President Bush's visit to Hanoi for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting.

Do said he did not have backing from the U.S. government, but once he was imprisoned, they lobbied for his release. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, championed his cause, as did San Jose's City Council, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and human rights groups. U.S. Treasurer Secretary Henry Paulson talked to Vietnam's finance minister about Do's case, when both were in Singapore for an Asian economic conference, according to Lofgren, who coordinated efforts to secure his release. Maury Harty, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Consular Affairs, met with officials with the Ministry of Justice while visiting Vietnam. Applied Materials, Do's employer, had its lobbyists make calls to congressmen, who in turn called the State Department and the Vietnamese Embassy.

"The Vietnamese got the message they were jeopardizing permanent normal trade relations," Lofgren said. "Their position was untenable."

On the 38th day of Do's incarceration, the guards called him in for morning questioning. They wanted him to admit he was a terrorist, a charge which he again denied. They sent him back to his cell around noon and an hour later, they took him for a medical checkup, his first since he arrived.

They filmed and photographed his examination, said Do, who guessed authorities would use the footage for propaganda, or to prove that he was still alive.

He went back to his cell for a couple hours, when guards told him to collect his belongings because he was being moved. But when they ordered him to change into his street clothes -- jeans and a yellow Eddie Bauer T-shirt -- he knew he would be freed.

Authorities whisked him to the airport, where he met a U.S. consular official who had already called his family and stayed with him to make sure he was OK until he boarded the late afternoon flight on Aug. 21.

Minutes before the plane took off, he called Tien Jane on his cell phone. He was crying. He wanted to see his family, he said.

Twenty-three hours later -- and in a miracle of the International Date line -- he got his wish the same day.

His wife and children ran toward Do as he stepped from the arrival gate at San Francisco International Airport. His wife sank to her knees and wrapped her arms around him.

Dozens of supporters were also waving U.S. and South Vietnam flags, carrying flowers and holding welcome signs, among them Diem Ngo, a community leader.

"I'm very proud he's my friend. Every Vietnamese is a victim of Communism," said Ngo, who knew Do when his children attended the local Vietnamese school. Ngo read the writings of "Tran Nam," but did not know they were the same person until Do was arrested. "He's young and energetic, a patriot. He was very courageous."

The crowd at the airport signaled to Do for the first time that he had become a public figure, a community hero -- his work no longer underground.

"Nobody knew me. That's my style," said Do, uncomfortable with the attention. "Now people recognize me, and I have to accept that. My life is upside down."

Do, who lost more than 20 pounds during the ordeal, spent his first weeks back resting at home. But he did interviews, aware that his 15 minutes of fame -- and the limelight trained on Vietnam -- would soon end.

He's working to free party leaders arrested in July, along with four other members also detained. He returned to work at Applied Materials at the end of October.

Soon after his return, Do began sending out writings under his own name, with the help of his children, who had built up contacts while trying to gain his freedom. Do knows he won't be able to return to Vietnam, not under the current regime. Once again, he is cut off from family in Vietnam.

"It's like losing a part of your life," said Do, who dreamed of retiring in Vietnam. "I have to work hard, if I want to go back."

http://www.sfgate.com/magazine/article/The-Making-of-a-Cyber-Dissident-Cong-Do-had-2465687.php

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