The Little Known #MeToo Movement of Vietnam

By: Luna Nguyen

Ms. Nguyen is a Vietnamese writer and translator living in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Pham Anh Khoa

Pham Anh Khoa is at the center of one of Vietnam’s first high profile sexual harassment scandals.

Over the past year, we’ve seen dozens of powerful and high-profile men fall from grace as their long histories of sexual assault have been revealed by women who are stepping forward thanks to the #MeToo movement. This movement began when Alyssa Milano encouraged women to tweet about their experiences with sexual assault to “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

Since October, 2017 the hashtag and the movement have gone viral around the world, with major #MeToo revalations in countries ranging from Kenya to Sweden to South Korea. Here in Vietnam there have been some ground-shaking revelations as well, though for the most part they’ve not yet been picked up by Western media. I worked with Vietnamese writer and translator Luna Nguyen to fill the English-speaking world in on some of the major scandals which have been making waves in Vietnamese society.

Pham Anh Khoa is a famous rock singer in Vietnam. He first climbed to fame when he won the first prize in a singing competition. He is married and has two children and maintained his fame in part because of his scandal-free life.

Earlier this year, he was a coach in the Vietnamese version of the reality show “It Takes Two.” After a few weeks, many of the singers on his team claimed he was irresponsible and unprofessional as a coach, but none of the women dared to give details in public.

Finally, on April 27th, a dancer named Pham Lich who was working with Pham Anh Khoa stepped forward and told her story.

Pham Lich was the first accuser to come forth about Pham Anh Khoa’s history of sexual harassment.

“In the time I was working with Pham Anh Khoa, he sexually harassed me through actions and words. When we were working together alone, he said things to me that were sexually aggressive,” said Pham Lich.

“He called me by an impolite nickname – “Lịch Chồn” (“Lịch the weasel”) – in front of many other people. He asked me to give him one year, and claimed he would ‘deal’ with his family and come to me after that.”

The dancer claimed Pham Anh Khoa was an abusive and unfaithful man and that he became increasingly abusive as time went on and she continued to reject his advances. She said that she wanted to come forward to try to create a “cleaner” working environment for female artists and to protect other women.

Since Pham Lich came forward, many other singers, actors, and actresses, both male and female, came forward to support her decision to step forward.

Of course there have been many many other people who have defended Pham Anh Khoa, in particular his male fans. They argue that it is normal for men to treat women in this manner and accused the dancer of lying to become famous. There have even been calls to boycott her and ruin her career.

She said she had nothing to lose now, and that she would tell more, explaining: “I am tired, but not afraid.”

Pham Lich says she is not afraid and will offer more evidence if necessary. Meanwhile, Pham Anh Khoa maintained silence about the issue, which the public began to take as a de facto admission of guilt.

Finally, after several days of silence, Pham Anh Khoa made an official statement. He denied all of Pham Lich’s accusations and announced that he planned to sue her for defamation, and said that he would face her in the court of law.

Pham Lich became very angry and said she had been threatened by many anonymous messages, phone calls, and emails from angry fans of Pham Anh Khoa. She said she had nothing to lose now, and that she would tell more, explaining: “I am tired, but not afraid.”

Pham Lich released more details about what had transpired between her and Pham Anh Khoa.

Pham Lich and Pham Anh Khoa

Pham LIch and Pham Anh Khoa pictured together.

They had worked together for only two weeks, during which time they had met seven or eight times. Pham Anh Khoa asked Pham Lich to go to his house to work, where he had a fully equipped recording studio. The first two or three times, she came during the day time, but Pham Anh Khoa slept the whole time and she had to wait for him for many hours. After a few of these episodes, Pham Anh Khoa insisted that she come at night because he was unable to focus in the morning. Because he was her coach, she felt she had no choice, and agreed to work between 9pm and 10pm. Many times when she came, there was nobody home except for Pham Anh Khoa. She said she was afraid, but decided not to ask why nobody else was around.

While working, Pham Anh Khoa usually asked her many personal questions. He asked if she had broken up with her boyfriend, if she was in a relationship, and what kind of man she preferred. He suggested that they “taste” each other. He tried to touch her back and her thighs many times. She tried to say “no,” but she was afraid to reject him too strongly out of personal fear.

Finally, she confronted Pham Anh Khoa, asking him, “Why did you treat me like that?”

She felt she had no choice but to continue coming to practice. Pham Anh Khoa once answered the door wearing a towel. She was very frightened and upset by this, and considered taking photos with her phone, but she was too afraid. She said she looked away and told him to go put on his normal clothes. She even decided to speak to Pham Anh Khoa’s wife about this occurrence, but nothing changed.

Finally, she confronted Pham Anh Khoa, asking him, “Why did you treat me like that?”

“Because you didn’t give me what I want,” said Pham Anh Khoa.

“So, what do you want?” asked Pham Lich.

“Even now, you still don’t understand?” asked Pham Anh Khoa.

Pham Lich says that Pham Anh Khoa’s wife was present when he asked these questions and overheard everything, but said nothing.

After those two weeks, Pham Lich asked to drop out of the show, and told the television studio that it was because he was sexually harassing her.

Pham LIch

Pham Lich risked her personal career and reputation to become the first woman to come forward in Vietnam’s #MeToo movement.

Pham Anh Khoa tried to play the victim in the aftermath of these private allegations, claiming that Pham Lich was destroying his pride and reputation. He tried to arrange a meeting with Pham Lich on two occasions. The first time, he asked to meet with her alone, but she demanded that his wife and the show’s producer and her friend be present. He did not consent, and so that meeting didn’t happen.

A bit later, he asked her for a meeting a second time. This time, she believed he would offer an apology, so she agreed to meet him alone, but ultimately he did not show up for the meeting.

Since Pham Lich made all of these allegations public, other women who worked with Pham Anh Khoa have come forward with stories of similar abuse.

One dancer accused Pham Anh Khoa of coming onto her in January of this year. She took screenshots of messages from Pham Anh Khoa texting her at midnight to come to his house, instructing her: “Don’t bring your boyfriend.” She said she and Pham Anh Khoa were not close enough to consider this a joke, and felt offended by the messages.

Many of Pham Anh Khoa’s male fans again dismissed those messages, saying it was normal behavior for a man.

After 15 minutes of terror, the stylist was saved when one of her friends came upstairs to change her clothes.

A few days later, a stylist who had worked with Pham Anh Khoa revealed that she had been sexually assaulted by him four years earlier on a business trip. When she was packing up to return to Ho Chi Minh City, Pham Anh Khoa said many vulgar words to her and became sexually aggressive. She tried to run upstairs but he followed her, grabbing her arms, and said, “You can never run away from me! I always have everything I want. The harder you fight, the more I like it!”

After 15 minutes of terror, the stylist was saved when one of her friends came upstairs to change her clothes. Somehow, Pham Anh Khoa’s wife found out about the incident and called the stylist in tears. Pham Anh Khoa blamed the stylist for the episode and demanded that she explain to her wife that it was all just a misunderstanding. The stylist was too scared to tell her story publicly and fell into a depression which required medication for over a year. Pham Lich gave her the courage to finally come forward with her story.

In a talk show with the Center for Studies and Applied Sciences in Gender, Family, Women, and Adolescents, Pham Anh Khoa apologized to his three accusers but continued to deny that he had done anything wrong. He claimed he didn’t know what was acceptable behavior towards women, and where those sorts of lines were drawn, because nobody had taught him. He said that in Vietnamese show business, clapping a woman on the butt was just a normal way of greeting.

The three women who accused Pham Anh Khoa were angered by his words, and said that nobody would agree that such a “greeting” was acceptable.

Fallout from the scandal has shaken Vietnam’s media landscape, spurring discussion of issues of sexual harassment and workplace abuse in this country. Rock’nShare 2018, a huge Vietnamese rock campaign, has broken ties with Pham Anh Khoa. The United Nations Population Fund has removed Pham Anh Khoa as its ambassador activist on the prevention of violence against women and girls in the country. All images of Pham Anh Khoa have been removed from the website and Facebook of the United Nations Population Fund.

Today Pham Lich is building Vietnam’s first #MeToo web presence.

Pham Lich has created an official fanpage to develop a #MeToo campaign in Vietnam. On the 14th of May, the Vietnamese version of “It Takes Two” fired Pham Anh Khoa and cut all of his images out of their broadcasts.

Most recently, Pham Anh Khoa held a news conference to apologize. He finally confessed to all of his wrongdoing and asked for forgiveness from the three accusers, from his wife, from his family, and from his fans. He also asked his fans to stop attacking the three women who came forward to shed light on his behavior and to let them continue their careers in peace.

Pham Lich accepted his apology and is still working to build the #MeToo campaign in Vietnam.

Nguyen Khach Thuy

Nguyen Khach Thuy is the retired former director of the National Bank of Vietnam.

The second story coming from Vietnam takes an even darker turn and centers around the former director of the Vietnam National Bank, 78 year old Nguyen Khac Thuy. In 2012 a three year old girl who lived near Nguyen told her grandmother that the retired banker had molested her. Nguyen was a very powerful figure both in terms of wealth and stature in the communist party, so her grandmother chose not to file a report because she feared it might negatively affect the victim’s future.

A couple of years later in April of 2014, another small girl was in her yard playing with her friends. Nguyen approached her and tried to molest her. The little girl’s father was informed by one of her friends what had happened. The father tried to confront Nguyen but he ran away. A month later, yet another little girl was in her room, leaning out of the window and talking to her friend. Nguyen suddenly ran up to the 5 year old girl and tried to violently hug her. When the little girl ran away, he changed his target to the girl she was talking to, and molested the child.

Nguyen attempted to appear frail and sickly in his initial court appearance.

One month after that, on June 19th, 2014, an Indian national identified as Mr. Vajay and his son witnessed Nguyen molesting a little girl at a park located within their apartment complex. Vajay photographed the activity to submit to authorities.

Finally, in July of 2017, Nguyen’s actions caught up with him. The parents of one of the victims decided to press charges. In court, the victim’s mother said that she did not witness the abuse with her own eyes, and the sole evidence was the testimony of the young victim and rumors of other girls who had been molested.

The victim’s family was threatened with an anonymous note placed on their door that read: “Be careful with the safety of your family.” The police checked the note and confirmed that it was Nguyen’s handwriting.

At his trial, Nguyen claimed his health had been too poor for him to commit these crimes. He presented himself as too weak to stand and walk, and fainted in court, needing medical assistance. It was quickly revealed that these claims of frailty were mere theatrics when photographs were presented to the court of Nguyen enjoying many physical activities in his daily life.

the judge decided to move forward with the trial and he was found guilty and given a three year sentence. Nguyen continued the theatrics, shouting angrily to the court that he would burn his communist party membership card and then burn himself. You can see video of that incident here:

 

Nguyen’s family appealed the court’s decision and his three year prison sentence was changed by a higher court to 18 months of probation. Part of the reason his sentence was lightened was that he had “made many contributions to the Vietnam National Bank,” which hints at the political power he still held.

What followed was, in the context of Vietnamese standards, pretty remarkable. A strong wave of anger swept through Vietnam. Reporters and private citizens expressed outrage that the court had essentially let a serial child molester off the hook in what was widely seen as a political favor. A month later, the Judges Committee of the High Court in Ho Chi Minh City reconcidered the case and reversed the decision, and re-sentenced Nguyen to three years in prison. Even more remarkably, the judge who had given Nguyen the lighter sentence was suspended from his position.

It should be noted that these actions are more or less unprecedented in Vietnam. This is the first time in our nation’s history that such a criminal trial has been reversed after an appeal, and judges are very rarely rebuked for decisions tied to political corruption. This shows that Vietnamese society is beginning to demand more accountability even from the politically powerful when it comes to matters of sexual abuse.

Nguyen Khac Thuy and his Victim

Nguyen Khac Thuy and one of his victims. Thanks to public demands for justice, Nguyen Khac Thuy received a final conviction for child molestation.

Before these stories came to light, many Vietnamese men believed that they held a higher position than women  If they were rich and powerful, they had no fear of consequences. Because these brave women and girls stepped forward, along with courageous journalists and reporters and government officials, Vietnamese women and children are finding new strength.

I would like to end by noting that I, personally, was sexually assaulted when I was just nine years old. Nobody taught me to protect myself or share my experiences. My parents tried to keep my innocence. There has also been a traditional belief that if a girl is sexually assaulted, it would bring shame to the family, and that no men would be interested in the female victims as wives in the future. For these reasons, my abuser never faced any repercussions. But these attitudes are changing rapidly thanks to the brave women and girls who came forward and told their stories to the public. Because of their bravery, today we Vietnamese women are learning that if we face abuse and harassment, we can speak loudly and our voices can be heard. This gives us hope for a brighter future for Vietnamese women and children.

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