Even in Prison, This Professor Never Stopped Teaching Liberty and Love

Dr. Doan works tirelessly to change the world with his defense of liberty.

"Nothing is so contagious as example; and we never do any great good or evil which does not produce its like."

– Francois de la Rochefoucauld (1613-1680)

Heroes for liberty are not peculiar to any region of the world or to a particular time period or to one sex. They hail from all nationalities, races, faiths, and creeds. They inspire others to a noble and universal cause – that all people should be free to live their lives in peace so long as they do no harm to the equal rights of others. They are passionate not solely for their own liberty, but for that of others as well.

In my last book, Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction, I wrote about 40 individuals whose views, decisions and actions served this cause in various ways. That book planted the seed for this new weekly series to be published each Thursday at FEE.org. But this time, others from around the world will do the writing, and I’ll be content to do the editing while keeping that to a minimum to preserve the author’s voice. It is my hope that when all is said and done some months from now, the literature of liberty will be greatly complemented by this collection of short biographies. The authors will be writing about heroes for liberty who are (or were) citizens of each author’s own country. Each week’s installment will be added to the collection here.

The subject of this seventh essay in the series is the Vietnamese human rights activist Dr. Doan Viet Hoat, who turned 75 on Christmas Eve last month. The author, Phan Anh Hong, was one of the many “boat people” who escaped Vietnam when the war ended in 1975. He lives in Dallas, Texas and is a state revenue tax specialist and blogger at nganlau.com. Here’s a 10-minute interview with me about Dr. Doan Viet Hoat on the Bob Harden radio show in Naples, Florida.

--- Lawrence W. Reed, President, Foundation for Economic Education

The man I am fortunate to tell you about as part of this “Heroes” series is alive and well at 75, and someone I know personally. Let me first offer some words about who he is and what he’s done. Then I’ll tell you why I admire and respect him immensely.

Working for a Freer Vietnam

Dr. Doan Viet Hoat was born on Christmas Eve in 1942 near Hanoi in what was then French Indochina, now Vietnam. After earning his Ph.D. in America (at Florida State University in 1971), he returned to South Vietnam and became a professor and later vice president of the first private Buddhist university in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).

Just four years later, the communists from the North conquered the country, seized the university, and arrested Dr. Doan in a mass roundup of intellectuals with ties to the U.S. For no other reason than those ties, he was remanded without trial to a “re-education camp” for twelve years. He shared a prison room there with 40 other people.

When finally released, he might have fled the country to join friends and relatives in the U.S., but he chose instead to stay and work for change. He started an illegal, underground newsletter called “Freedom Forum” and declared in its first issue,

A new struggle has started ... It is the war against poverty, backwardness and arbitrariness. It is the aspiration toward a rich, strong, progressive, free and democratic Vietnam. And in this new struggle, there can be only one winner, the nation and people of Vietnam; and only one loser, the forces of dogmatism, arbitrariness and backwardness.

A year later, police raided his home and arrested him. He was then convicted of conspiring to overthrow the communist regime and sentenced to another 15 years in prison. While incarcerated, he wrote pro-freedom essays and arranged for some of them to be smuggled out, for which he received increasingly harsh punishment, endured assignment to hard labor, and suffered degenerating health because of poor conditions and lack of medical treatment.

Thanks largely to pressure from foreign governments and international human rights organizations, Dr. Doan was released and expelled from Vietnam in 1998. He was granted citizenship by the U.S. where, in the last 20 years, he has continued to champion human rights and received numerous awards for his courage, including being named by the International Press Institute as one of its “50 World Press Freedom Heroes of the 20th century. After two years as a scholar-in-residence at Catholic University of America, he retired and now resides in the Washington, D.C. area.

The Nature of Heroes

When FEE’s Lawrence Reed, the editor of this series, asked me to write about Dr. Doan Viet Hoat, my first thought was that I think of him more as a role model than a hero. I can certainly attest to having learned a great deal from Dr. Doan in all the times we’ve sat down for conversations about life, people, politics, and society in the U.S. as well as in Vietnam. But perhaps because of the culture and history of my native Vietnam, I confess to being a little allergic to the word “hero.”

Roles models' actions make society better, more human, more loving, more caring, and more compassionate. The Vietnamese people have heard a lot of hero stories. Some were true, and many were simply made up by the government or some sympathetic group. Furthermore, I think that to be a hero requires extra effort and responsibility to save a country from an external force that wants to erase that country’s culture, economy, history, or race. This very high standard for hero status explains why many people in our society have helped in various ways to save lives but do not view those actions as necessarily rising to “heroic.” But certainly, this is a point over which good people can reasonably disagree.

This I know for sure: Dr. Doan is a well-known and much-appreciated advocate of freedom and democracy for Vietnam. It is my honor to know him as my role model.

Role models in our society come from many sectors such as business, entertainment, sports, religion, and politics. In my view, the best of them share this about their daily lives: Their actions make society better, more human, more loving, more caring, and more compassionate — by choice, actions, and habit; not by force.

Dr. Doan is a role model who came from an environment no one wants to be in. He was in prison twice for a quarter of his life, not because he violated the laws or hurt someone, but because he spoke for the truth. He expressed his opinion. He supported liberty and human rights. No one, even a dictator, can legitimately take away a person’s freedom of thought or his freedom of expression.

An Exemplar of Compassion

In Dr. Doan’s case, the prison cell did not prevent him from fighting for what he believes. In fact, prison only made him stronger. It made him resolve to commit his entire life to human rights and liberty — and not just for himself but for others, for the Vietnamese people, and for the oppressed anywhere.

Imprisonment simply focused his attention on the importance of liberty.

Even in prison during those two decades, Dr. Doan taught fellow inmates to understand liberty, love, compassion, and responsibility. In spite of what he’s been through, he did not and does not express hate of any kind. His vision for society is about people respecting each other. To even the prison guards, who were duty-bound to harass him, he “turned the other cheek.”

This gentleness and desire to help others come naturally to him. It was on display for many to see as early as 1965 when he participated in student relief activities to help flood victims in Vietnam. Imprisonment simply focused his attention on the importance of liberty as the best way people can be helped. In the Buddhist view, this is his Karma.

The communist government of Vietnam thought that expelling Dr. Doan would stop his influence. Many Vietnamese who live overseas also thought when Dr. Doan was expelled that he would no longer be an effective fighter for liberty; some thought he might simply retire quietly. They all were wrong. With the support of his wife and his children, he continues to fight for what he believes. He works hard to help others continue to fight for liberty and human rights in Vietnam.

Dr. Doan’s treatment by the Vietnamese government did not prevent him from acknowledging its improvements in more recent years, nor have those improvements prompted him to give up on the hope to achieve so much more. In a 2005 speech at Johns Hopkins University, he made his views clear:

It is true that Vietnam has made some progress…What needs to be emphasized is another simple fact: Vietnam is better today because it is freer. Freedom is functional [i.e., essential] to progress and development. Vietnam will advance faster in a more balanced and sustainable manner if the people have freedom in all areas of social life, not just in the economy, and [if] the government is more accountable to the people.

Many Vietnamese have little hope for their future, but Dr. Doan works tirelessly to change that with his defense of liberty. For more than half a century, he has worked to make his native country a better, freer place. This is why for me, he is a role model and a very special one at that.

This article has been translated into Vietnamese.

Further Reading