Vietnamese poet spent years in prison camps for failing to respect Communist Party line

Posted on October 9, 2012

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NGUYEN Chi Thien, a Vietnamese dissident poet, has died in a Santa Ana hospital in America after an acute illness. He was 73.

He was one of Vietnam’s longest-serving prisoners of conscience, having spent 27 years in various prison camps in North Vietnam.

Born in Hanoi in 1939, Thien initially welcomed the victory of the Ho Chi Minh-led resistance to the French in 1954 that spelt the end of colonialism in Vietnam. The country was subsequently divided into two: the communist north backed by China and the Soviet Union, and the liberal south backed by the US.

Vietnamese dissident poet Nguyen Chi Thien (1939 – 2 October 2012). Photo: Simon O Dwyer

Thien stayed in the north. His initial enthusiasm for the country’s new-found independence soon turned to terror. The communists turned North Vietnam into a prison. Poets and writers were terrorised into silence. More than 170,000 peasants were killed in the Maoist-styled ”land reform” campaign.

Thien, who had graduated from the Hanoi Faculty of Letters, was asked by a teacher friend in 1960 to substitute for him in a history class. He was horrified to find that the textbook claimed it was the Soviet Union that had defeated the Japanese army and ended World War II. He told the class it was the United States that defeated Japan in 1945 after dropping two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

This landed him in prison for 3½ years. Stripped of pen and paper, he composed his poems in his head and committed them to memory, sometimes by reciting them to his jail mates.

In 1966, he was jailed again, this time for more than 11 years after his ”reactionary” poems were circulated in Hanoi and Hai Phong. He lamented the communist victory over South Vietnam in 1975:

We are now united in one block of suffering/ We are now united in one block of hatred/

O South Vietnam the day of your loss/ I suffer from one thousand, ten thousand agonies.

Thien was released in 1977 but was under constant police surveillance.

In 1979, fearing that he might not live if imprisoned for a third time, he determined to try to have his poems taken out of Vietnam.

He ran into the British Embassy in Hanoi, shouting ”I’m not crazy! I’m not crazy!” at the startled staff. The lanky and dishevelled man pulled out from under his shirt a thick roll of paper – his hand-written collection of 400 poems – and asked British diplomats to ferry it out to the free world. For this, he spent 12 years in prison, mostly at the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where senator John McCain was once held.

His poetry first appeared in the US in the early 1980s under the title A Cry from the Abyss, then published as Flowers of Hell when it was translated into English French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Chinese, Czech and Korean.

Thanks to the international following this generated, Thien won the Rotterdam International Poetry Award in 1985. In 1988, he also won the Freedom to Write award.

Amnesty International adopted him as a prisoner of conscience in 1990. Thien was finally released in 1991 and resettled in the US in 1995, the same year he was honoured by Human Rights Watch. In exile, he published two short-story collections, Hoa Lo (Hanoi Hilton) and Hai Truyen Tu (Two Prison Stories), and continued to speak out against communist oppression in his homeland.

His jailers had told him they would rather keep him alive and see him suffer. He described his survival and his eventual release to freedom as a miracle.

Thien dreamed: A day will come when we can throw away/ The guns, the shackles, the Communist Party and their bloody flag/ A day will come when we can reverse our tragic fate/ And wake up from our nightmare.

Among Thien’s jail mates was a prominent human rights advocate, Father Nguyen Van Ly, a Catholic priest. Father Ly’s bravery and grace in the face of adversity touched Thien deeply. Before he died, Thien asked to be baptised as a Catholic.

The Age

Persecuted poet gave voice to dissenters

Nguyen Chi Thien was a Vietnamese dissident poet and was one of his country’s longest prisoners of conscience.

He was born in Hanoi in 1939 and initially welcomed the victory of Ho Chi Minh-led anti-French resistance in 1954 that spelled the end of French colonialism in Vietnam. The country was subsequently divided into two: the communist North backed by China and the Soviet Union, and the liberal South backed by the US.

Thien stayed in the North but his initial enthusiasm for the country’s newly found independence soon turned to terror. The Communists had turned North Vietnam into a prison. Poets and writers were terrorised into silence. More than 170,000 peasants were killed following the Maoist-styled ”land reform” campaign.

In 1960, after Thien had graduated from the Hanoi Faculty of Letters, a teacher friend asked him to be a substitute to teach a history class. He was horrified that the textbook said that the Soviet Union had defeated the Japanese army and ended World War II. He told the class that that was not true. It was the US who defeated Japan in 1945 after dropping two atomic bombs on Japan. This action landed Thien in prison for 3½ years. In prison, stripped of pen and paper, he composed his poems in his head and committed them to memory.

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In 1966, he was jailed again, this time for more than 11 years after his ”reactionary” poems were circulated.

He lamented the communist victory over South Vietnam in 1975: ”We are now united in one block of suffering/We are now united in one block of hatred/O South Vietnam the day of your loss/I suffer from one thousand, ten thousand agonies.”

Released in 1977, he lived under constant police surveillance. In 1979, fearing that he may not live if he was imprisoned for the third time, Thien determined to smuggle his poetry out of Vietnam.

He ran into the British embassy in Hanoi, shouting: ”I’m not crazy! I’m not crazy!” at the startled staff. The lanky and dishevelled man pulled out from under his shirt a thick roll of paper, his hand-written collection of 400 poems, and asked British diplomats to take it out to the free world.

For this, he was immediately rearrested and spent 12 more years in prison.

His poetry first appeared in the US in the early 1980s under the title A Cry from the Abyss, then as Flowers of Hell. It was translated into English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Chinese, Czech and Korean. Thien won the Rotterdam International Poetry Prize in 1985 and the 1988 ”Freedom to Write” award.

Amnesty International adopted Thien as a prisoner of conscience in 1990.

He was finally released in 1991 and resettled in the US in 1995, the same year he was honoured by Human Rights Watch.

He published two short-story collections Hoa Lo (Hanoi Hilton) and Hai Chuyen Tu (Two Prison Stories) and continued to speak out strongly against the communist oppression in his homeland.

Thien’s prison mates included the prominent human rights advocate Catholic priest Father Nguyen Van Ly.

Father Ly’s bravery and grace touched Thien deeply. Before he died, Thien was baptised as a Catholic and took the Christian name of Thomas More.

Quynh Dao