Vietnam Activist Jailed for Mocking Official’s Salt Bae Meal

This is a tale of two meals and two men named Lam. It begins 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 during a trip to London. It didn’t go over well at home — a one-party state that is still, despite its freewheeling capitalism and rising inequality, ruled by a Communist Party and officially called a socialist republic.

The official, Gen. To Lam, who runs the powerful Ministry of Public Security, faced criticism and ridicule online. A Vietnamese activist who also runs a noodle stand spoofed the gilded meal by making a video that showed him theatrically sprinkling green onions onto a bowl of noodles.

On Thursday, the activist, Bui Tuan Lam, was convicted of conducting propaganda against the state and sentenced to more than five years in prison. The authorities in Danang, the central Vietnamese city where he lives, said that he was guilty of “making, storing, distributing or disseminating” anti-state information and materials.

Mr. Lam has denied the charges. His wife, Le Thanh Lam, said in an interview on Friday that they were “completely untrue.”

“I do not see how my husband committed any crime or wrongdoing, or infringed upon anyone’s interests,” she said. “He is only exercising freedom of speech and other rights that are clearly stated in the Constitution and laws of Vietnam.”

Nusret Gokce, known as Salt Bae, feeding Vietnam’s minister of public security, To Lam, a gold-encrusted steak.Credit…via Radio Free Asia

Ngo Tuan, one of Mr. Lam’s lawyers, said that the judge in the case had forced him to leave the courtroom before he could finish defending his client. “It seems that some people think that whatever they do to political prisoners is acceptable,” Mr. Tuan said.

Reached by phone on Friday, the judge in the case, Ngo Ha Nam, declined to comment on the sentence.

General Lam’s gilded steak, and Mr. Lam’s parody of his over-the-top meal, were unusual. But the conviction is consistent with the usual approach to stifling dissent in one of the world’s few remaining communist dictatorships: Mr. Lam, 39, was convicted under a catchall offense that has ensnared many other 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 for similar charges that Mr. Lam faced.

Mr. Lam’s parody video, filmed at the noodle stall that he owns in Danang, was not his first foray into activism. Over the years, he has joined a number of protests over both Vietnamese government policies and China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. Mr. Lam, who also goes by the name Peter Lam Bui, has also posted videos that criticized Vietnamese officials.

But poking fun at General Lam was especially risky.

General Lam would certainly not have expected footage of his gilded steak to circulate on social media — particularly not when many Vietnamese were tiring of lockdowns and strict rules on masking, quarantines and contact tracing.

Public displays of wealth by Vietnamese officials are also sensitive, in part because the Communist Party’s general secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, has been waging a yearslong anti-corruption crackdown that has ensnared some top brass.

The 2021 parody video mocked an earlier one that had been posted, and later removed, from the TikTok account of Nusret Gokce, a Turkish restaurateur and social media star who goes by the nom de cuisine Salt Bae.

In the TikTok video, Salt Bae carries what appear to be two gold tomahawk steaks to General Lam’s table at his London restaurant. Then he feeds the Communist official a morsel from the tip of a carving knife, earning a thumbs-up.

General Lam had traveled to Britain for a global summit on climate change. Aside from the trip to Salt Bae’s restaurant, he also visited the grave of Karl Marx, the 19th-century philosopher who railed 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 had made the video purely for fun, and to help drum up business.

Before he was sentenced this week, Mr. Lam wrote a poem for his wife and three children that she later posted on social media. In it, he said that he was undaunted by the prospect of a long spell in prison:

Though my body may bear the weight of responsibility

My spirit remains steadfast as a mountain

Walking upright on this chosen path

For the sake of Vietnam, I am committed.

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