this week, two instances of injustice in two very different parts of the world highlighted the role of artists in repressed societies. While two musicians faced years of jail time for criticizing the oppressive government of Vietnam, a radio personality in Somalia was assassinated for daring to speak out against a violent insurgency.
Though the situations were vastly different, the implications are the same: artistic dissent may be unsafe in many parts of the world, but that won’t stop dedicated citizens from shining a light on their societies’ most endemic problems.
In Vietnam, a Ho Chi Minh court sentenced two musicians to prison terms on Monday for releasing songs that criticized the government. Vo Minh Tri, 34, is facing four years in prison. Tran Vu Anh Binh, 38, is slated to serve six years.
In addition to releasing songs that disparage the state, both artists were also accused of displaying the flag of the Republic of Vietnam, which lost the Vietnam War of 1955-1975 to the Communist forces based in Hanoi.
Though Vietnam is now a one-party Communist state, it has liberalized significantly over the past three decades. Today it has a stock market, a strong trade relationship with the United States, and membership in the World Trade Organization. The economy has thereby maintained a pattern of growth since the 1980s.
But in recent years, both inflation and deficits have been on the rise. A slowdown in economic growth and an increasingly apparent wealth gap have disillusioned much of the population -- especially the young.
In response, the government has cracked down on dissenters of all stripes, be they bloggers, artists or members of the press.
Meanwhile, in Somalia, a well-known comic and dramatist in the beleaguered city of Mogadishu was shot dead outside of his house on Monday night.
Warsame Shire Awale, 61, had been in Somalia for decades -- even as the country was torn apart by civil war, and even as Islamist extremists made life unbearable for citizens in Mogadishu and other areas across the country.
Today, Somalia is struggling to establish a permanent government after 21 years of effective lawlessness. This year, leaders from around the country selected a parliament that composed a constitution and selected a new president. This young administration, which replaced an ineffectual transitional government, hopes to impose order across the country and -- eventually -- hold general elections so that all Somalis can participate in referendums.
But extremists are still a major presence in the country; a group called al-Shabaab continues to terrorize various communities, including Mogadishu.
Al-Shabaab seeks to impose a strict version of Shariah, or Islamic law, wherever it wields power. Warsame often criticized the group on his popular radio show, mixing comedy and drama into caustic skits that made him popular with many Somali youths. Though many suspect that al-Shabaab or affiliates were behind Warsame’s murder, the group has not claimed responsibility and the tragedy is still under investigation.
Warsame is the 18th media professional to have been murdered in the country this year, making Somalia second only to Syria in the number of press workers killed in 2012.
Unlike the musicians sentenced to prison in Vietnam on Monday, Warsama urged his listeners to support the national government. But in both countries, the basic situation is the same: artists, especially popular ones at the forefront of societal dissent, often pay the ultimate price for playing their essential role in society.
But on the flip side in both cases, the unbalanced response to nonviolent dissidence can be taken as a sign of desperation.
In Vietnam, “you’re looking at a government that is increasingly insecure,” said Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson to Bloomberg.
“The government is very concerned about the various different strands of opposition or unhappiness with the government somehow combining into a larger dynamic.”
And in Somalia, Bashir Yusuf, member of a civil society group called Ifiso Independent Vetting Coalition, told The Guardian that Warsame enjoyed a reputation as a well-respected figure in Mogadishu.
"I don't think the killing of Warsame Shire Awale will discourage and stop others from following his footpath,” he added.
“It is tragic that insecurity has been in Mogadishu for more than two decades and that the outlook that it will disappear seems distant. Traumatic experiences will unfortunately linger for the near future."
It is true that both Somalia and Vietnam are far from solving their endemic problems. But there is hope that artists like Binh, Tri and Warsame, even in their absence, will continue to inspire like-minded activists to rebel against unjust circumstances.
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