donderdag, augustus 5, 2021

‘It is a lonely battle at times’ - A dialogue with human rights activist and psychosocial therapist Uyên Lu

What keeps a human rights activist motivated? To whom do you turn for guidance and assistance? Which sources provide hope and inspiration? And which dangers lie ahead? These are questions that Uyên Lu has had to grapple with. As a seasoned human rights activist, Uyên advocates relentlessly for human rights, focusing specifically on the situation in Vietnam. She currently serves as the chairwoman of the Vietnam Human Rights Foundation and as a member of the board of the Association of Dutch Military War and Service Victims. She also works as a psychosocial therapist in her own practice. On June 23rd, 2021, Initiatives of Change (IofC) organized a dialogue with Uyên as part of IofC’s project ‘Faith in Human Rights’ (FiHR), initiated by IofC program coordinator Willem Jansen. During the dialogue, Uyên spoke candidly about her life as a human rights activist.

Activism is part of Uyên’s DNA. Her militant spirit she owes partly to her grandfather, who had fought against French colonialism in Vietnam. And to her father, who had rebelled against the Vietnamese communist regime. Uyên fled this same regime when she was sixteen, escaping by boat and finally finding refuge in the Netherlands. She had attempted escape twice before, and the third time she succeeded. Subsequently, Uyên began a new life in the Netherlands, together with her Dutch foster parents. When asked whether she has always felt welcome in the Netherlands, Uyên replies that she has mixed feelings about this question. ‘Some people feel compassion for you, but not everyone understands why you are here.’

The dialogue kicks off with a short film about Uyên’s life and work. The audience is confronted with shocking images, showing Vietnamese human rights activists being brutally abused. A heavily bleeding face, a broken arm, a bruised eye. These images are followed by photographs and videos that give us an impression of Uyên’s work. We see her speaking with radio hosts, influential politicians, and other human rights activists about the human rights violations in Vietnam. We also see her speaking at international conferences. These are acts of bravery, as the Vietnamese authorities frequently combat activism with intimidation and violence.

Uyên also faced threatening situations when her work was noted by the Vietnamese authorities. Her Facebook, which reported her activist work, was hacked and blocked. Following such incidents, Uyên felt compelled to continue her work on a smaller scale. She thus decided to establish her own foundation: The Human Rights Foundation Vietnam. ‘I was previously affiliated with other human rights organizations, but the atmosphere felt tensed’, she says. ‘Human rights activists are often at odds with each other. Not everyone is always on the same side. Furthermore, these organisations are sometimes susceptible to infiltration and espionage. That is why I decided to establish my own foundation and work with people I trust. We are a small foundation, but we are able to help human rights activists in Vietnam effectively. We are able to save people every now and then.’

The fact that human rights activists often deal with intimidation raises inevitable questions. How do they distinguish friend from foe? Who can they trust, and to whom do they turn for assistance? ‘My youngest foster brother was frequently involved in Amnesty’s writing campaigns’, Uyên says. ‘That is how I got to know this organisation. After some time, I also approached Amnesty, asking them to give due attention to the human rights violations occurring in Vietnam. I was then told that they would not prioritise the Vietnam issue. I have been told ‘no’ before, and of course there were times when I thought that I should discontinue my work for a lack of cooperation.’

Despite these setbacks, Uyên never gave up on her efforts. Resilience is the common thread that runs through her story. ‘I nevertheless continued my work. Even though I was not acknowledged by Amnesty The Netherlands at first, I did connect with Amnesty Czech Republic and other human rights advocates from Eastern Bloc countries. They understood the dangers of communism. Even though I have faced setbacks, threats, and betrayals, I continue to draw inspiration and motivation from the fact that all people should have human rights. No one is allowed to strip them of these rights. I also draw strength from The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provides a solid foundation for these rights.’

Uyên also draws strength from her family and her activities outside her activism, including her work for IofC The Netherlands where she holds the position of communications director. ‘You have to pay attention to the positive things in your life. You will burn out otherwise,’ she says. ‘You should not solely focus on the results of your labour, but also on the sense of satisfaction that you derive from doing it. You must take good care of yourself and take time to relax. At some point, you have to feel content with your achievements.’ Uyên also emphasizes that it is important to keep a feasible goal in mind. ‘I do not convince opponents. Instead, I try to get supporters along.’

Despite the support of friends and family, Uyên does feel lonely at times. ‘There are few people who dare to speak out on this issue, including Vietnamese refugees. They fear that the Vietnamese government will retaliate against them if they speak up. Some have urged me to discontinue my work. I have lost friends this way. Many are afraid. It is a lonely battle at times.’

In response to this, one participant asks a pressing question. How does Uyên make sure that she does not turn to hate? ‘I used experience feelings of hate’, she admits. ‘My education in psychosocial therapy has helped me to let go of these feelings. I now see that perpetrators are often victims too. I do not hate them—I pity them.’

Uyên wrote about her flight to freedom and her fight for human rights in her autobiography ‘Hidden Resilience.’

By Shereen Siwpersad.