Vietnam is a nation rich in natural beauty, heritage, culture and with industrious people. It has a dynamic economy. And for too long Vietnam has been an authoritarian state that denies freedom and systematically tramples basic human rights.
Abundant opportunities for trade and investment should not divert America from calling for necessary reforms in Vietnam to bring pluralism, the rule of law, a vibrant civil society, religious freedom, and democracy. These are the fundamental human rights to which all are entitled. They are the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They are the values upon which America was founded and which should animate U.S. foreign policy.
As Congressman Chris Smith has said, Vietnam has a "shameful human rights record. When is enough, enough? Vietnam needs to come out of the dark ages of repression, brutality and abuse and embrace freedom, the rule of law, and respect for fundamental human rights."
Politically, Vietnam's Communist Party continues to restrict speech, press and assembly. According to Human Rights Watch, under Vietnam's one-party state "(h)undreds of political and religious prisoners remain behind bars in harsh conditions. During 2006 the government (arrests) included democratic activists, cyber-dissidents, and ethnic minority Christians.
"Authorities continue to persecute members of independent churches, impose controls over the internet and the press, restrict public gatherings, and imprison people for their religious and political views. Media, political parties, religious organizations, and labor unions are not allowed to exist without official oversight, or to take actions considered contrary to Party policies."
Just last August Truong Quoc Huy was arrested at an Internet café for listening to an on-line discussion of democracy. Civil engineer Bach Nguc Duong was dismissed from his job after signing the Democracy Manifesto. And Vu Hoang Hai was beaten during a police interrogation for supporting the Democracy Manifesto. The list of victims of Vietnam's political repression goes on and on.
In Vietnam, all religious groups are required to register with the government. And Vietnam's 2004 Ordinance on Beliefs and Religions bans any religious activities deemed to cause public disorder, harm national security, or "sow divisions." Buddhist monks from the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam are confined to their monasteries. Reportedly "hundreds of Christian house church organizations that tried to register in 2006 were either rejected outright, ignored, or had their applications returned unopened." Last May, police raided a Mennonite church and defaced it.
Vietnamese workers are forbidden from organizing independent unions. In Vietnam there is no right to assembly. In 2005, Decree 34 was signed banning public gatherings in "front of places where government, Party, and international conferences are held." In 2006, before President Bush's visit to Hanoi, reportedly police gathered street children and homeless people and sent them to "rehabilitation" centers where some were beaten.
In Vietnam, protections under the rule of law are denied. Police arrest and detain suspects without written warrants. Under Administrative Detention Decree 31/CP, people can be put under house arrest for two years without going before a judge. Trials of dissidents are closed to the public. Hundreds of religions and political prisoners are behind bars including 350 Montagnaids. Prison conditions are harsh. There are reports of torture and other mistreatment including beatings, kickings and electric shock.
Speech in Vietnam is restricted. There are 2,000 culture and information activities that are prohibited. Domestic media are censored and foreign radio stations are blocked. Vietnam's Law on Publications bans publications that oppose the government, circulate "harmful" information, or spread "reactionary ideas." Decree No. 56 imposes penalties for defaming the nation or revealing party secrets. Journalist Nguyen Vu Binh is serving a five-year sentence behind bars and journalist Pham Hong Sun a seven-year sentence.
The Vietnam government censors the internet. It blocks politically sensitive websites, monitors e-mail and requires internet café owners to monitor their customers. People are harassed and even imprisoned for sending peaceful political views on-line. Last spring journalists Duong Phu Ouong and Nguyen Huy Cuong were prevented from attending a conference in Manila on free expression in cyberspace.
Vietnam remains a country of particular concern for human trafficking. Experts report that for the purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation Vietnam is a source and destination country for men, women, and children," For sexual exploitation, women and girls are trafficked to Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Czech Republic and elsewhere. The average age of the girls is between 15 and 17 years of age. One NGO has reported that within the Vietnamese Government "corruption (is) a serious problem at all levels, and some officials were involved in the flow of overseas workers into exploitive conditions."
Notwithstanding all these impediments, there are freedom fighters in Vietnam seeking to advance democracy, the rule of law and human rights. Last April more than a hundred Vietnamese signed an "Appeal or Freedom of Political Association" and a "Manifesto for Freedom and Democracy." By August more than 2,000 had signed. In October some brave Vietnamese launched an independent labor union and independent publications such as "Freedom of Expression" and "Freedom and Democracy." Predictably, the authoritarian Vietnamese government has detained and interrogated leading activists and confiscated documents and computers. Yet the freedom movement survives.
Natan Sharansky lived under the Soviet Union's communist authoritarianism. He advocated freedom for which we was imprisoned. In his important book The Case for Democracy he writes, "I am convinced that all peoples desire to be free. I am convinced that freedom anywhere will make the world safer everywhere. And I am convinced that democratic nationns have a critical role to play in expanding freedom around the globe." To be a voice for freedom is America's opportunity and responsibility.
At his second inaugural address, President Bush said, "Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen, and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities. And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way."
Today, in Vietnam, against considerable odds, there are brave patriots finding their own voice, struggling to attain their own freedom in their own way. They face persecution and incarceration. But they will not be deterred.
It is incumbent upon America and those everywhere committed to human rights to join the voice of those freedom fighters in Vietnam, to support their struggle to attain freedom in their own way. For, as Ronald Reagan said, "Freedom is not just for the lucky few but the rights of all mankind."
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