Death of a hero

We’re accustomed to thinking of heroism as something involving armed struggle, or risking one’s own life to save others, or something like that.  However, sometimes heroism consists in retaining one’s inner dignity and refusing to be silenced by the forces of oppression.  This can (and has, and still does) lead to persecution, even torture and death, but there are always at least some with the fortitude and strength of will to endure.

Such a man was Nguyen Chi Thien.

Nguyen Chi Thien, who has died aged 73, spent nearly 30 years in prisons and “re-education” camps in Vietnam because he had the temerity to insist on historical truth and to write poems which attacked communist repression.

Thien first ran foul of the North Vietnamese authorities in 1958 when he asked permission to start a literary magazine. The police searched his home and found some romantic poems that, they claimed, were anti-communist. He was sentenced to two years’ hard labour.

While working as an assistant teacher, in 1960 he was imprisoned again after telling Vietnamese school pupils that the end of the Second World War in the East had not come about because of the heroism of Soviet forces in Manchuria, as claimed in their textbooks, but because of American nuclear attacks on Japan. In 1966 he was arrested again and imprisoned until 1977 because of poems he wrote that decried communist oppression. He used his time in jail, much of it spent in solitary confinement, to compose poetry and commit it to memory by reciting it to himself.

After being released in 1977, Thien lived with a friend and wrote down almost 400 poems from memory. He chose Bastille Day 1979 to smuggle his work to the French Embassy in Hanoi, but was deterred by Vietnamese security guards outside. Two days later, pursued by another security detail, he plunged into the British Embassy, shouting in English: “I am not a madman, I am a poet and I have something important to give to you.” As three British diplomats managed to hold back the guards, he handed over a manuscript with a covering letter which read: “Most of [the poems] were written during my years of detention. I think it is incumbent upon us, the victims, more so than upon anyone else, to show to the world the incredible suffering of our mercilessly oppressed and tortured people. Of my broken life there remains but one dream, that is to see the greatest possible number of people realise that communism is a great calamity for mankind.”

On leaving the embassy Thien was re-arrested. Detained under a law which enabled the authorities to hold “obstinate counter-revolutionary elements who have committed acts detrimental to general security” without trial, he spent a further 12 years in prison and composed a second collection of poems.

The smuggled-out verses mocked Karl Marx and Ho Chi Minh and were consciously intended to expose the rottenness at the heart of communism. In translation one poem reads: “I kept silent when I was tortured by my enemy:/With iron and with steel, soul faint in agony/— The heroic stories are for children to believe./I kept silent because I kept telling myself:/Has anyone, who has entered the jungle and who was run over by the wild beast/Been stupid enough to open his mouth and ask for mercy?”

. . .

His plight prompted increasingly vociferous demands for his release from organisations like Amnesty and Pen (the international writers’ group) and from a few political leaders, including Britain’s Prime Minister John Major. In 1991 he was released from prison, but kept under house arrest until 1995 when, weak in body (he had developed tuberculosis in prison), but indomitable in spirit, he was allowed to emigrate to the United States.

“Poetry was what kept me alive and thinking. It kept me sane,” Thien explained. “What also kept me going was that I believed that right would always win out in the end in a fight against evil.”

. . .

After moving to America, Thien continued to campaign for the thousands of political dissidents still languishing in Vietnam’s jails and was scathing of those who sought to build economic links with Vietnam. “If politicians in the Free World think that they can de-link business and human rights,” he said in 1996, “they deserve, and can expect the contempt that people living under a totalitarian regime will reserve for them.”

There’s more at the link.

As long as such people live, totalitarianism can never fully succeed.  There will always be at least a few lights resisting the darkness.  In time, they will kindle more, until the darkness itself is turned into light . . . even if it takes generations.

May Nguyen Chi Thien rest in peace, and may the light he shed be remembered – and rekindled whenever necessary – by all who love freedom.



  1. "Has anyone, who has entered the jungle and who was run over by the wild beast/Been stupid enough to open his mouth and ask for mercy?”

    Something we should probably be teaching in our high schools. In civics classes. Oh, yeah. They don't have those anymore. Which the above story explains why.

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