Human rights in Vietnam cannot be a sidebar issue when America looks for allies in the region against Chinese aggression, or when it engages in a historic free trade deal with the Pacific nations. This was the conclusion of witnesses and members of Congress alike at a well-timed hearing held yesterday by Rep. Chris Smith, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Global Human Rights on the “Human Rights Abuses by Vietnamese Authorities”.
Four Vietnamese witnesses—the wife of a torture victim who fled the country to save her family’s life; a pastor of a Mennonite Church who, along with his parishioners, suffered from constant persecution by the government; an eloquent leader of the Vietnamese-Americans who echoed the concerns of thousands of its members; and a dissident journalist who went on several hunger strikes while imprisoned for speaking his mind—all spoke with one voice to warn American lawmakers. They believe that signing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with the ruling Communist Party without credible assurances to improve the human rights situation in Vietnam will hurt the Vietnamese people as well as American interests.
The packed hearing was held in the context of the Obama administration’s decision to lift the ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam, of heated political debate on fast-tracking the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) of which Vietnam is a negotiating member, and the upcoming visit of Mr. Nguyen Phu Trong, the Secretary General of the Communist Party of Vietnam.
The hearing was also a precursor of the Vietnam Advocacy Day, when hundreds of activists and concerned members of the Vietnamese-American community flooded Congressional offices to raise awareness of the Vietnamese Communist government’s ongoing violations of human rights, persecution of Christians, confiscation of private property and involvement in sex and labor trafficking.
Rep. Chris Smith, a relentless advocate of human rights in Asia and chairman of the Subcommittee, noted that the “the U.S.-Vietnam relationship has expanded in security and economic cooperation, but is continually challenged by the [Vietnamese] government’s suppression of freedoms”.
Vietnam, one of the most populous countries in Asia with over 90 million inhabitants, is still ruled by a communist government. As the witnesses have testified, the government continues to be a state sponsor of human trafficking, to destroy churches, to restrict freedom of speech, and to keep hundreds of dissenters in prison for criticizing the government.
Smith pointed out that today over half of the population of Vietnam is under 35 and yearn for the freedoms they hear about from their family members who have fled the country and reside in the US.
The witnesses of the hearing all seemed inclined to believe that the American government is willing to trade principle for politics when it comes to the TPP trade deal, which under current circumstances, helps neither America nor the people of Vietnam. “Our polices cannot only be directed at the Vietnamese elite in the Communist Party, but must focus on the people of Vietnam… if the U.S. sides with the Vietnamese Government, [the Vietnamese] will only receive crumbs from the Communist Party’s table.”
Smith, who has intimate knowledge and understanding of the situation, joined several of the witnesses to call upon the State Department to re-designate Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern— a title the US government reserves for oppressive regimes like China, Sudan, and North Korea for “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”
The human rights record of the Communist Party of Vietnam, which holds 458 seats out of the National Assembly’s 500 seats, is one of the worst in the region. These facts are mostly overlooked by Western leaders.
“My case is a testament to the suppression of human rights in Vietnam when I was sentenced to over ten years in prison simply for peacefully expressing my political views,” said Vietnamese journalist Dieu Cay. He continued to speak about the systemic persecution of prisoners of conscience in Vietnam. “I spent 6 years and 6 months in 11 communist prisons, so I know that the prisons in Vietnam are administered by circulars and regulations, not by laws.”
Mr. Dieu Cay called attention to the fact that all media in Vietnam is in the hands of the communist government. Until this changes, and prisoners of conscience stop being treated like animals, the US should not be giving the country concessions. “Only when people are free to express their opinions without fear of repression, can society change for the better,” said the journalist.
Recent history has proved that goodwill gestures by the US government do not pay any human rights dividends. This was the case in 2007 when the US lifted its objection to the country’s WTO accession, and Hanoi responded with a series of arrests and a wave of new laws that lead to more arrests and imprisonment of dissenters. Lawmakers on the committee feared that treating Hanoi as a credible negotiating partner in TPP will again pave the way for more restrictive policies.
Congressman Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) who voted against granting the Obama administration the fast-track authority on TPP, pondered on why the US continues to reward Vietnam’s bad behavior —a concern that many of the witnesses shared.
Dr. Thang, Executive Director of Boat People SOS, said that United States action to embrace a quickening rapprochement with Vietnam, the US “may inadvertently send the wrong message to the government of Vietnam; that its relentless persecution of dissidents, its brutal repression of independent religious communities, and its suppression of indigenous rights will be met with impunity.”
He argued that significant improvement in Vietnam’s human rights situation should be a precondition not an afterthought of TPP. Dr. Thang pointed out that Catholicism continues to be outlawed in three provinces in Northern Vietnam. As the government continues to harass parishioners, just recently 22 temporary chapels were ordered to be dismantled in one of the provinces, providing the latest example of the Communist Party’s attempt to control the people through intimidation.
Mrs. Doan Thi Hong-Anh, widow of Mr. Nguyen Thanh Nam, a parishioner who was tortured to death several years ago, testified that the government has found many ways to prevent her from telling the truth about the real cause of her husband’s death: “I had to close all doors and hide in my house for months, before finding a way to escape to Thailand to protect my children and my own life.”
She said the communist government “used every means, from intimidation, harassment, beatings, torture, imprisonment to land expropriation by force, to take over the land and wipe out a historical and all-catholic parish.”
But Catholics are not the only ones hunted down by the local police. The Reverend Nguyen Manh Hung, a leader of the Mennonite Church and member of the Vietnam Interfaith Council said that Buddhists, Mennonites, and people of various Protestant denominations are similarly harassed by the authorities. “We have 100 members and provide 5 classes for poor children. Because the Vietnamese Communist authorities do not want us to do charity work, they seized our land, forcing us to resort to setting up our place of worship in an abandoned cattle shed.”
He recounted a recent atrocity, highlighting the brutality of the regime’s crackdown: “On one occasion, the Cattle Shed Congregation was organizing a ceremony and I was told that the security police had come to investigate. When I came downstairs to see what was going on, plainclothes police came up, grabbed my neck, and choked me down to the floor as the security police stepped over my body to enter the ceremony room and disband the event.” The government essentially uses thugs or plain clothed police to brutalize parishioners.
The new church law proposed by Hanoi will likely make the situation only worse. “Under the draft law, all religious activities that involve a group, even those conducted in private homes, would still be required to be registered with and pre-approved by the government.” According to Dr. Thang, the new church law is a deceitful act that is hailed by some outsiders as a concession, but in fact will only give room for more abuse.
It is not only freedom of thought and religious persecution that should raise red flags for the administration, but also abuse of loose labor laws for sex and human trafficking purposes—all too common practice by Hanoi.
As Dr. Thang said, “the Vietnamese government is squarely behind human trafficking – subjecting hundreds of thousands of its citizens to forced labor in ‘rehabilitation’ centers, detention centers, and prisons; sending tens of thousands of its citizens into modern-day slavery in different countries and punishing those victims who speak out.”
As Congress debates a trade deal of historic proportions and the administration is looking to wind up its potential allies against an increasingly belligerent China in the Pacific, decision-makers should consider the human costs of wishful thinking and protect basic human rights in its Asia-Pacific strategy.