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Vietnam's 'Miss Protest' puts justice before personal safety

The death of her father at the hands of police spurred Trinh Kim Tien to campaign against violence and corruption in Vietnam. Her very public work has brought intrusions into her private life.

Trinh Kim Tien, 23, is an Internet celebrity in Vietnam, at least among the country's dissidents. She caught people's attention after she was photographed wearing a traditional Vietnamese dress, sunglasses and a red sash at an anti-China protest. The image became an instant hit on popular political blogs.

The photo was taken shortly after her father, Trinh Xuan Tung, died after being beaten by traffic police. She is now one of Vietnam's foremost campaigners against police violence. In a knowing nod to popular beauty pageants, she has become known as "Miss Protest."

Vietnam's police force does not have a good reputation. According to Transparency International's global Corruption Index, the police force was deemed the most corrupt of 12 public institutions.

Rights groups have described police brutality in the country as systematic and widespread, but largely ignored by the media and the government. Many people who reportedly die in police custody were arrested for minor infractions, like petty thievery.

Prompted by injustice

Tien's father died after being beaten by police after he was stopped for not wearing a helmet while riding a motorbike. When Tien came to collect him from the police station, he had been beaten and complained of paralysis in his legs. He later died in hospital.

One policeman was found guilty of the crime and sentenced to four years in prison under charges of causing death while exercising official public duties. The sentence was later upheld on appeal. Tien says she thinks the policeman should have been charged with murder.

The residual feeling that justice had not been done changed her life, she said, and she began researching other cases of police violence.

"I learned that it wasn't just my family and there is a lot of injustice like land grabs and other things," she said. "I realized that the government is not doing a lot even when there is so much injustice around. I feel very angry about this."

Vietnam has been criticized for its restrictions on freedom of speech and the arrests of critics as discontent grows over land grabs, corruption and economic mismanagement. The country's human rights record has also been a sticking point for relations with the United States.

Tien believes most of the abuses are not even reported or acknowledged. For that reason she decided to set up a Facebook page and write articles for popular political blogs to get the message out.

"I usually help people who have the same circumstances as me because I can feel their pain. I share their experiences. It is all part of my fight to gain justice for my family," she said.

Public campaign, private intrusion

Tien's campaign first got noticed when she joined hundreds of people in the capital to protest Chinese patrol boats cutting the cable of a Vietnamese survey vessel in the South China Sea. The incident opened old wounds for the two nations - a decades-long territorial dispute over the Spratly and Paracel islands, which both countries claim.

"I wanted to show that I love my country," she said. "What China was doing was illegal according to international law and I wanted to show my patriotism."

Political protests are not usually tolerated in the communist country, but analysts believe that because the anti-China protests can be expedient to the Vietnamese government, they have at times been tolerated. However, fear that the protests could become anti-government has led to crackdowns with dozens of people being detained.

At one of the protests, Tien met Paulo Thanh Nguyen, a handsome young Catholic businessman from Da Nang. They fell in love and married a year later. Tien has since converted to Catholicism.

As well as a bedding store in Ho Chi Minh City, where the couple now work, Paulo runs a website called "No China Shop," where consumers can buy a variety of produce from toys to vegetables guaranteed to be made in Vietnam.

Portrait of Trinh Kim Tien and her husband Paulo Thanh Nguyen (Photo: Marianne Browne)

The young couple are determined to keep campaigning, despite concerns for their personal safety

The couple's prominent roles in campaigning against police violence and their anti-China activities have also brought them a lot of unwanted attention. Recently vandals threw a can of red paint over their shop sign. Tien believes the "vandals" were actually undercover police.

"They posted my number on lots of websites and strange people called me," she said. "People follow me. I'm a free citizen, I didn't violate any law, I didn't do anything wrong but there are still people who follow me. Sometimes I feel like my phone is being bugged."

A future without fear

Tien says she is worried that as long as she campaigns against police violence, she runs the risk of becoming a victim herself. But she says her cause is more important than worries for personal safety.

The couple is expecting their first child, which is due in October.

"When I found out I was pregnant I was really happy because a new life is forming but at the same time I was also very worried," she said.

"I'm very worried about the social environment that my child will grow up in. I am afraid my child won't be able to grow up in an environment where human rights are accepted and he won't be able to access a fair education."

Both she and Paulo agree that despite their fears, they will continue campaigning so they can create a better life for their baby.

"I want to create an environment for my child in which he will have freedom to fully realize his potential without being constrained by any forces," he said. "I discussed this with my wife and we agreed that if we were not doing anything in our generation to stop this, the next generation would because it's a natural tendency for people to seek justice."

Tien believes happiness only comes when people can live without fear and have full freedom, and she will do her best to achieve that for her child, and generations to come.

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