Campaigning for Religious Freedom in Vietnam
By Jackie Bong-Wright
VPAC: Young and Dynamic
On a cold and rainy Sunday evening in February, 25 college students and professional Vietnamese in their twenties and thirties, met to plan strategies for an assault on Capitol Hill. They were members of the Vietnamese-American Public Affairs Committee (VPAC), and they had come from around the country to mount a campaign for religious freedom for Vietnam.
Founded in 1996, VPAC focuses on voter education, grassroots organizing, issue advocacy, and candidate endorsement. VPAC has endorsed candidates who share their views on social justice at home and human rights abroad. It has branches in northern California, southern California, Atlanta, Hawaii, Dallas, Chicago, Houston, and the Washington area.
Well organized and disciplined, the VPAC members packaged their campaign in a booklet they gave to the 60 congressmen and senators on February 12 and 13, 2001. Binh Vo, VPAC President, from California, divided the group into six teams, with each team leader responsible for presenting the issues and persuading legislators to take action. Diem Do, a long time human rights activist, worked with four other members to make as many appointments as possible. Tram Tran, a junior at UC Irvine in California, said that she had been getting up at six every morning for the past two weeks, and had called over 20 legislators’ office and had made 16 appointments for VPAC members. Dan Duy Hoang, V.P. for Public Relations, who lives in Washington, gathered the dates, facts, and photos for the campaign booklet. VPAC directors made sure that lobbying guidelines and protocol procedures were followed. In a spirit of coalition-building, they also invited leaders from other organizations to join them in a common effort. Hong Ha Le, V.P. of the Vietnamese Community in Chicago, said that she had brought hundreds of petitions from Chicago to the Illinois legislators protesting religious harassment and discrimination in Vietnam.
The VPAC booklet showed that the Communist government of Vietnam has monopolized worship, using state-control bodies and persecuting those who want to practice religion independently. It described how the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) was banned in 1980 and its properties confiscated. VPAC showed that Buddhist monks and nuns had been put in jail, and their highest leader, the Most Venerable Thich Huyen Quang, was now under “pagoda” arrest. It was noted that a Hoa Hao Buddhist Board of Representatives, consisting of eleven communist party cadres, had been created by the government in 1999 to oversee all Hoa Hao activities.
VPAC asserted that only the Catholic Church of Vietnam was nominally independent, adding, however, that the government restricts the Catholic Church’s right to train and appoint its clergy. There are only two Catholic periodicals, they said, both directed and financed by the Communist Party.
VPAC members asked that members of Congress prevent further crackdowns against religions in Vietnam by taking several concrete actions. First, sign a Congressional letter, then being circulated, protesting Vietnam’s policy on religion and supporting the right of religious leaders to express their views peacefully. Second, support a Congressional resolution advocating human rights in Vietnam. Third, write to one of the persecuted religious leaders to express support. Fourth, request the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam to investigate first-hand the status of religious leaders. And, finally, urge Secretary of State Colin Powell, who will be traveling to Hanoi in July, to raise human rights concerns with Communist officials.
Hearings on Religious Violations in Vietnam
One VPAC team attended hearings on Religious Freedom in Vietnam at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, a packed session organized by the Committee for Religious Freedom in Vietnam. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom sponsored the program under the chairmanship of the Honorable Elliott Abrams, President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and a former State Department Assistant Secretary for Human Rights. A panel of five presenters analyzed the religious situation in Vietnam: Dr. Zachary Abuza, Professor at Simmons College; Vo Van Ai, Director, International Buddhist Information Bureau in Paris; Nguyen Huynh Mai, Hoa Hao Buddhist Church; Rev. Paul Ai, Evangelical Church; and Fr. Tran Cong Nghi of the Viet Catholic Network.
The panelists testified how national legislation and other mechanisms were used in Vietnam to control free expression and belief. They said however, that the more the Communist government repressed religion, the more Vietnamese joined the churches. They hoped that a Congressional resolution on religious freedom in Vietnam would be co-sponsored by both Democratic and Republican legislators, and passed in the near future. They also recommended that the U.S. and the international community, in particular organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, monitor religious and human rights conditions in Vietnam with a view to helping the country develop into a civil society governed by the rule of law
VPAC members have lost few opportunities to press their agenda. In the year 2000, they testified before Congress on U.S.-Vietnam trade relations. They also joined other Vietnamese groups in registering over 10,000 Vietnamese in California to vote. This year, they continue to lobby members of Congress, to write White House and other Administration officials, and to hold forums on religious freedom and human rights for Vietnam. They communicate with one another nearly instantaneously through the internet, sharing news and activities, and work closely with thousands of active Vietnamese youth from all over the world.
VPAC has embraced human rights in Vietnam, and its members are working tirelessly to advance the cause.