Vietnamese activist jailed for mocking official’s Salt Bae meal
This is the story of two meals and two men named Lam. It starts with a joke and ends with a prison sentence.
Two years ago, one of Vietnam’s most powerful officials ate a steak encrusted with 24-karat gold while on a trip to London. It didn’t go over well with us – a one-party state that is still, despite its freewheeling capitalism and growing inequality, ruled by a communist party and officially called a socialist republic.
The official, General To Lam, who heads the powerful Ministry of Public Security, has been criticized and ridiculed online. A Vietnamese activist who also runs a noodle stand spoofed the golden meal by making a video that showed him theatrically sprinkling green onions on a bowl of noodles.
On Thursday, activist Bui Tuan Lam was found guilty of anti-state propaganda and sentenced to more than five years in prison. Authorities in Danang, the central Vietnamese city where he lives, said he was guilty of “manufacturing, storing, distributing or disseminating” anti-state information and materials.
Mr. Lam denied the charges. His wife, Le Thanh Lam, said in an interview on Friday that they were “completely wrong”.
“I don’t see how my husband committed a crime or wrongdoing, or harmed anyone’s interests,” she said. “He is only exercising freedom of speech and other rights that are clearly spelled out in the Constitution and laws of Vietnam.”
Ngo Tuan, one of Mr Lam’s lawyers, said the judge handling the case forced him out of the courtroom before he could finish defending his client. “It seems some people think anything they do to political prisoners is okay,” Tuan said.
Reached by telephone on Friday, the judge in charge of the case, Ngo Ha Nam, declined to comment on the sentence.
General Lam’s golden steak and Mr. Lam’s parody of his over-the-top meal were unusual. But the sentencing is in line with the usual approach to stifling dissent in one of the world’s few remaining communist dictatorships: Mr Lam, 39, was convicted of a catch-all offense that has ensnared many others Vietnamese activists over the years.
One is Pham Doan Trang, a journalist and activist who was sentenced in 2021 to nine years after a conviction on similar charges Mr Lam faced.
Mr Lam’s parody video, filmed at the noodle stand he owns in Danang, was not his first foray into activism. Over the years, he has joined a number of protests against Vietnamese government policies and China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. Mr Lam, who is also known as Peter Lam Bui, has also posted videos criticizing Vietnamese officials.
But mocking General Lam was particularly risky.
General Lam certainly wouldn’t have expected images of his golden steak to be circulating on social media – especially when many Vietnamese were fed up with lockdowns and strict rules on masking, quarantines and contact tracing .
Public displays of wealth by Vietnamese officials are also sensitive, in part because Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong has for years led an anti-corruption crackdown that has ensnared some top brass.
The 2021 parody video mocked a previous one that was posted, then deleted, from the TikTok account of Nusret Gokce, a Turkish restaurateur and social media star who goes by the name Salt Bae.
In the TikTok video, Salt Bae brings what appears to be two golden tomahawk steaks to General Lam’s table at his London restaurant. Then he feeds the communist official a piece of the tip of a carving knife, which earns him a thumbs up.
General Lam had traveled to Britain for a global summit on climate change. Apart from the trip to Salt Bae’s restaurant, he also visited the tomb of Karl Marx, the 19th century philosopher who spoke out against the concentration of wealth.
In the parody, Mr. Lam, the activist, appears to mimic Salt Bae’s flamboyant style as he slices meat and drops green onions into a bowl of bun noodles at his stall. He said at the time that he made the video purely for fun and to help boost business.
Before being sentenced this week, Mr Lam wrote a poem for his wife and three children which she later posted on social media. In it, he said he was not intimidated by the prospect of a long stay in prison:
Though my body may bear the brunt of the responsibility
My spirit remains unshakable like a mountain
Walk upright on this chosen path
For Vietnam, I commit myself.