Vietnam News

Noodle seller and democracy activist who went viral with Salt Bae parody jailed for five years in Vietnam

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A Vietnamese court has jailed a noodle seller who went viral for impersonating Salt Bae, after the Turkish celebrity chef served a gold-leaf-covered steak to a powerful official, his lawyer said.

In 2021, Bui Tuan Lam (also known as Peter Lam Bui) posted a parody video impersonating Salt Bae — Turkish chef Nusret Gökçe, who has reached meme stardom with his extravagant 24-carat gold-leaf-covered steaks and flamboyant salt sprinkling.

In his video, Lam, 39, mimicked the viral sensation by sprinkling herbs on noodle soup at his street cart and calling himself “Green Onion Bae”. 

But Lam’s video came after a clip of a high-ranking Vietnamese official in London tucking into a steak at Gökçe’s London venue went viral in Vietnam.

The clip showed Vietnam’s Minister of Public Security To Lam being hand-fed a gold-covered steak, which stoked anger among Vietnamese people online at a time when many were struggling economically during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lavish gold-wrapped steaks at Gökçe’s luxury Nusr-Et Steakhouse reportedly cost more than $1,500. The South China Morning Post reported To Lam’s monthly earnings were up to $1,200.

Noodle-seller Lam, a former activist, was in trouble within days of uploading his parody video, and filmed a police visit to his home in the central city of Da Nang.

On Thursday, Lam was convicted of spreading anti-state propaganda by a court in Da Nang, his lawyer, Le Dinh Viet, told AFP.

The BBC reported Mr Viet said his client had been sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison and was also sentenced to four years probation.

“They charged the defendant based on posts and video clips Lam had on his accounts on social media platforms,” Mr Viet said.

There was nothing about the Salt Bae clip, he added.

Lam denied the charges and said he had only “expressed his personal viewpoint and exercised his right to freedom of speech”.

Lam has publicly advocated democracy for Vietnam over the past decade, Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson told the ABC.

“Even though the charges were about past Facebook posts, no one should be fooled,” Mr Robertson said. 

“The Ministry of Public Security sought vengeance against Bui Tuan Lam for daring to mock their gold-encrusted, luxury-steak-eating minister To Lam.”

Mr Robertson said it was no surprise that the green onion parody went viral, “showing again the creativity of the democracy movement that the authorities are using brute force and bogus convictions to try and extinguish”.

He added that Bui Tuan Lam’s wife was prevented from attending the trial and that authorities took unprecedented efforts in April to claim that he did not want a defence lawyer.

“Sending Bui Tuan Lam to prison for simply sharing his opinions on Facebook shows the rights-abusing intolerance of the Vietnam government that is obviously determined to obliviate any signs of dissidence in the country,” Mr Robertson said. 

Human Rights Watch said the indictment identified 19 posts on Facebook and 25 YouTube videos that “affect the confidence of the people about the state’s leadership”. 

“Among these are Facebook posts of a letter by the prominent human rights blogger Pham Doan Trang published on the day she was arrested, in which she urged people to advocate for genuinely free elections in Vietnam and promoted her books criticising the government,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement prior to Lam’s sentencing. 

Among the videos listed in the indictment were songs with lyrics about human rights or expressing anti-war sentiments.

“The list of posts and videos listed as ‘evidence’ of Bui Tuan Lam’s ‘crimes’ shows the extreme lengths to which the Vietnamese go to block any sort of online criticism of the government,” Mr Robertson said.

“For the Vietnamese leadership, even songs are a threat to their monopoly of power.”

Vietnam’s crackdown on dissent

During To Lam’s trip to London, which was to attend a climate summit, he not only dined at the lavish restaurant but also visited the grave of Karl Marx, the ideological father of communism.

Vietnam has strict curbs on freedom of expression and the government moves swiftly to stamp out dissent and arrest critics, especially those who find an audience online. Independent media is banned.

Australian man Chau Van Kham has been detained in Vietnam since 2019 and was handed a 12-year prison sentence for terrorism in a trial his family and human rights groups have described as a sham.

To Lam, a member of the country’s 16-strong politburo, has been public security minister since 2016 and has taken a hard line on human rights movements in the communist nation.

To Lam’s public security agency monitors dissent and surveils activists.

In April, Vietnam imprisoned Nguyen Lan Thang, a prominent journalist who documented protests and human rights violations, for six years.

A year earlier, high-profile dissident journalist Pham Doan Trang was given nine years behind bars.

They were all jailed on the same anti-state charge.

“The Vietnamese authorities deem just about anything as ‘propaganda against the state’ to crack down on activists and dissidents,” Mr Robertson said. 

“The Vietnamese government should abolish rights-abusing article 117 of the penal code and stop prosecuting Bui Tuan Lam and others for criticising the Vietnamese Communist Party.”

Australian Broacasting Corporation News – May 25, 2023

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