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Vietnam P.M.’s Upcoming Visit Sparks Controversy

By Jackie Bong-Wright

Lawmakers Criticize Rights Violations

Cong. Chris Smith (R-NJ) speaking to the press on June 19, was at it again. “Today, an eclectic group of lawmakers – conservative, moderate, liberal, Republican and Democrat – joined by a broad section of Vietnamese human rights leaders, call on President Bush to convey to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung when they meet next Tuesday at the White House, our deep concern, empathy, and profound anguish over the mistreatment of Vietnamese citizens by their government. The people of Vietnam deserve better.”
Two days earlier, White House Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto announced that President Bush would welcome P.M. Dung to the White House on June 24 to talk about bilateral cooperation, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the U.N. Security Council (of which Vietnam is a member), and issues like food security and regional economic integration.
Along with his Congressional Vietnam Caucus colleagues, Loretta Sanchez (D-CA), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), and Frank Wolf (R-VA), Smith called a “need-to-reform” press conference to highlight the “horrific human rights abuses in Vietnam.”
Five days earlier, 37 dissidents in Vietnam had sent the Vietnam Caucus an Open Letter describing the Communist government’s “terrorizing tactics aimed at dehumanizing us through public humiliation and intimidation, and also violent suppression and harsh sentences to silence us.”
They also called on Vietnam to stop using force against pro-democracy activists, stop preventing dissidents from seeking employment, and end arbitrary detentions. They want open and direct dialogue with opposition political groups and the release of non-violent political prisoners, including 18 detainees they name specifically. Finally, they called on the U.S. Congress and government “to continue to support us in promoting democracy and human rights for Vietnam.” The June 15 letter was signed by 37 pro-democracy dissidents who included writers, journalists, lawyers, priests, a poet, and various bloggers.

Religious Freedom

Ngo Thi Hien of the Committee for Religious Freedom in Vietnam concurred with Smith. She said that “Article IV, Provision 20 of the Decree of the Ordinance on belief and religion, specifies that affiliates of legally recognized churches only need to inform their local People’s Committees by October 15 each year of planned activities for the following year. If the latter do not issue a written objection within 30 days, the planned activities are automatically deemed to have been approved.” But Vietnam has not observed its own law.
From New Jersey, a young Khmer Krom activist, Lenny Thach who represents an ethnic Cambodian group in Vietnam, reiterated to Smith what Radio Free Asia had announced June 16 — that Vietnam had threatened to arrest two men who had fled to Cambodia. Thach was afraid that Vietnamese authorities would ask the Cambodian police to arrest the two men, who would suffer the same fate as Ven. Tim Sakhorn, who had also sought asylum in Cambodia last year. He was arrested by Cambodian authorities, deported back to Vietnam, and defrocked.
Voicing similar concerns, Leonard Leo, Commissioner of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, reported that after spending two weeks in Vietnam last October, the Commission concluded that religious freedom remains problematic. “There continue to be isolated but credible reports of forced renunciations of faith, including the beating death of an ethnic minority Protestant in 2007. Independent religious activity is illegal.”
Cong. Zoe Lofgren said that she had introduced in March a resolution, co-sponsored by Reps. Dan Lungren (R-CA) and Ileana Ro (R-FL), calling for the release of political prisoners and for the State Department to redesignate Vietnam as a “Country of Particular Concern.” “The thugs in Hanoi,” she said, “continue to imprison and torture at will. The regime must be held accountable for its actions.”

Freedom of the Press

The representative of one of the largest Vietnamese-American communities in the country, Loretta Sanchez of Orange County, CA, also weighed in. “Since Vietnam was removed from the State Department’s list of Countries of Particular Concern for religious violations, granted permanent normal trade relations, and accepted into the World Trade Organization (WTO), Vietnam’s human rights record has dramatically deteriorated. The government of Vietnam has harassed and put under house arrest peaceful democracy advocates – none of whom was afforded a fair trial. This is unacceptable.”
“The government of Vietnam,” she continued, “is suppressing the voice of the people by harassing anyone that speaks out, and shutting down media that attempt to exercise free speech.” Sanchez mentioned the case of Nguyen Hoang Hai, a popular blogger who reported on issues of national concern such as corruption, worker exploitation, and police brutality. “Many bloggers have been called in for questioning. They have lost their jobs, been evicted from their homes, and suffered other forms of harassment because they exercised free speech on their blogs.”
Nguyen Thanh Trang of the Vietnam Human Rights Network, headquartered in California, agreed with Sanchez. “According to a 2008 Report by Freedom House, Vietnam ranks 178 out of 195 in freedom of the press. Hanoi strictly controls the use of the internet by blocking and filtering politically sensitive websites deemed unfavorable to the government. All internet cafes are required to report to the police the identities of customers and they must monitor the nature of information involved.”

Human Rights Violations

Cong. Frank Wolf focused on trafficking in persons, which “remains a major problem in Vietnam. Poor women and girls in rural areas are at risk of being defrauded and sold for commercial and sexual exploitation and forced labor.” He concluded, “Human trafficking has skyrocketed in Vietnam. Vietnam is not progressing. It is regressing.”
Dr. Nguyen Dinh Thang of SOS Boat People demanded that Vietnamese export companies return fees and deposits of $1,600 to 156 women who were repatriated to Vietnam from Jordan. He cited the State Department’s 2008 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report’s finding that employers in Jordan forced these women “to work 14-18 hours per day, withheld their passports, and did not give them their promised wages.”
The same demand was made for reimbursement of $1,000 to 85 of the 1,300 laborers from Malaysia who, according to the TIP Report, were subjected to “debt bondage, contract switching, confiscation of travel documents, confinement, and threats of deportation.”
Fifteen Vietnamese-American political parties joined Cong. Smith in declaring that the Vietnamese government headed by Mr. Dung, who was appointed by the Communist Party of Vietnam, did not represent the true voice and interests of the vast majority of the Vietnamese people. They noted that Dung’s government was not voted into power through free and fair elections. They called on the people of Vietnam to reject the agreement on borders and territorial waters between Hanoi and the Chinese government. They also objected to all “plots and actions on the part of Beijing to turn Vietnamese territorial waters and islands into permanent Chinese possessions.”
The parties also deplored economic difficulties encountered in Vietnam as the consequence of a government structure not based on democratic principles, lacking in transparency, and dependent on special privileges and the interests of a small minority. They were in full support of the non-violent activities carried out by the people of Vietnam, from the peasants to the workers, students and youths, intellectuals, writers, artists, and journalists, who increasingly protest the dictatorial and corrupt practices of the current government.
They further condemned the government for its repression of dissidents, particularly religious and labor leaders, and demanded the release of all those who have committed no crime other than practicing their fundamental rights. Finally, they appealed to the U.S. and other democratic governments to help restore human and civil rights in Vietnam.
Members of the fifteen parties will join 500 Vietnamese activists from California, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, as well as Montagnards from North Carolina for a demonstration in front of the White House on June 24 as Vietnamese PM Dung meets with President Bush.