Along with his family and religious community, we greet the early release of Father Nguyễn Văn Lý with great relief. Father Lý is a Roman Catholic priest whose heroic activism in the cause of human rights and religious liberty in Vietnam was recognized by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in 2013 with our Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom. Having spent more than twenty years of his life in prison and fifteen under house arrest, Father Lý was nearing the end of his current eight-year sentence at the time of his release.
That this grim total has now been cut by several months is reason for celebration. But even so, we must recognize that Father Lý’s story, and the stories of other detained activists like him, exemplify the arbitrary and despotic nature of the communist regime in Vietnam. The government’s approach to its critics saw no material alteration even while President Obama was on Vietnamese soil during his recent trip. During his visit, six more peaceful activists were arrested, and dozens more prevented from leaving their homes. President Obama acknowledged these events directly in his remarks to Vietnam’s communist leaders, and rightly so. The communist government lacks democratic legitimacy and commits serious and enduring violations of its people’s human rights and dignity. These are facts that American leaders ought to keep before them as they continue to engage with the Vietnamese regime.
Overall, relations between the United States and Vietnam are better now than they have been for many years. Polls show that 78% of Vietnamese people have a favorable view of the US and that 89% support the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. While interesting, we would be even more interested in seeing a poll measuring the Vietnamese people’s support for democracy, for fair and freely contested elections, for civil liberties, and for human rights.
Unfortunately, this is the kind of poll that the dictatorial Communist Party of Vietnam is unlikely to authorize. The Party claims that Vietnam is democratic—National Assembly elections were held on Sunday—but the system is a sham. The Party enforces a suffocating control over the pre-selection process for candidates in order to retain the monopoly over political power in Vietnam that it has held since 1975. Human Rights Watch calls the human rights situation “dire in all areas,” noting the country’s one-party system, its violation of the freedoms of speech, opinion, press, association, and religion, and the violence, torture, and imprisonment it inflicts on its opponents. Freedom House sums up the situation with a blunt verdict of “not free.”
At the present moment, Vietnam has great interest in improved relations with the United States. Among the nations involved in the TPP negotiations, Vietnam has the most to gain. And China’s increasingly aggressive behavior in the South China Sea has Vietnam searching for international partners who can help check that country’s encroachment. Although this ought to have given the United States greater bargaining power vis-à-vis Vietnam, President Obama announced on Monday that he was lifting the United States’ arms embargo on Vietnam without conditions, alluding to the South China Sea situation with the remark that “Big nations should not bully small ones.” Unfortunately, for the time being, this laudable sentiment has not been extended to situations in which big governments bully their people. If we are to move forward in our relations with Vietnam, moral clarity demands the nature of its government and the manner in which it treats its citizens be integral, not incidental, to our foreign policy.
As a reminder, we’ve included below a series of recent pictures making the rounds on social media among the global Vietnamese community.
The photo above depicts a state security officer choking a protestor and was accompanied with the caption: “Here’s how the “people’s servants” are expressing love for the people.” The photos below, both taken in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) on May 8th, reveal more about the manner in which the security apparatus of the communist state deals with dissent. The one on the left shows state security manhandling another protestor, while the one on the right is of a mother and her daughter. The caption accompanying the latter reads: “Mrs. Hoang My Uyen and her daughter were beaten up as they participated in the protest in Ho Chi Minh City on May 8th, 2016.”
The text accompanying the photo of a security official literally holding another human being down with his boot reads: “I suggest the Vietnamese communities overseas put this picture on banners and billboards along the highway as we did with the photo of Father Ly being muzzled when he was arrested. A picture tells a thousand words. This is the most graphic picture of the brutality of the Vietnamese communism. I’m sure this photo will stir up a large wave of anger from Western countries against the communists of Vietnam. We cannot let these animals Vietnamese communist who are begging for aids from the western world, and with our tax money and then turn around to persecute our people like this. Vietnamese associations overseas, hurry up, please, please please.”