April 2012 Vol I, No 1
Vietnam facing "time bomb" of dissent
"The US government and rights groups are expressing concern over Vietnam's crackdown on freedom of expression, as the regime faces growing dissent and labor militancy," the Democracy Digest of April 18, 2012, reports.
Among the more notorious human rights violations in recent days figure the following:
A Catholic priest, Nguyen Van Binh of Yen Kien Parish, Hanoi, was beaten unconscious by a gang of thugs on April 14 when he tried to stop the demolition by police of a house he had used as an orphanage. (The Archdiocese of Hanoi protested this in a letter of April 15, 2012.)
This followed an incident on February 23, 2012, when Father Nguyen Quang Hoa of Kon Hring Parish, Kon Tum Province, was pursued on a motorbike by three aggressors after he performed funeral rites for a parishioner in Turia Yop village (Dak Hring township, Dak Ha prefecture). After catching up with him they pursued him for over 200 yards beating him with iron rods as he fled into a rubber plantation.
One month later, the police cited "insecurity" as the reason for not allowing the celebration of Easter in Turia Yop village--a decision protested by Bishop Hoang Duc Oanh of Kon Tum in a letter of April 4.
On April 17, the police arrested Ms. Nguyen Thi May of Phu Tuc township, Phu Xuyen District, Hanoi, for transplanting rice in a disputed field. About 200 of her fellow villagers went to the police demanding her release because the arrest was considered arbitrary.
On the labor front, the regime is struggling to contain an upsurge in worker militancy, and the authorities were recently forced to raise wages and amend the law governing strikes. "More dramatically," Forbes Magazine reports, "ever rising costs have fomented a growing number of wildcat strikes over pay."
The problem here is that the official Vietnam General Confederation of Labor, the only one allowed to operate in the country, tends to side with the bosses and not with the workers. Attempts to form independent workers unions are severely repressed as can be seen in the prison sentences meted out last year to Nguyen Hoang Quoc Hung (9 years), Do Thi Minh Hanh and Doan Huy Chuong (7 years each) for organizing a wildcat strike at a shoe factory in Tra Vinh the year before.
One focus of extreme popular dissatisfaction with the regime is land use. Theoretically the state owns all the land, which it parcels out to individual and collective users for a certain period of time. However, local authorities can arbitrarily "recover" the land by claiming higher use priorities paying dirt-cheap compensation but then turning around making millions of dollars selling the land to private developers or foreign investors.
Things have got to a point where hundreds of thousand of complaints are filed but are rarely resolved. "This is a ticking time bomb," says political commentator Carl Thayer who is now teaching in Australia.
The most repressive country in Southeast Asia
In a recent article in Foreign Policy, Dustin Roasa, a long-time observer based in Cambodia, describes Vietnam as "the most repressive country in Southeast Asia" now that Burma has released hundreds of political prisoners and restored a modicum of freedoms (press, opinion, political campaigning, and honest voting) thus opening the way for a return to multiparty democracy.
Among the indicia of Vietnam's terrible showing in terms of human rights, Roasa cites:
Reporters Without Borders ranks Vietnam last among Southeast Asian countries in its 2011-2012 Press Freedom Index. "By way of comparison, Vietnam is only two spots ahead of China, ranking 172nd out of 179 countries overall."
Bloc 8406, a homegrown pro-democracy movement styled on Czechoslovakia's Charter 77, which was founded six years ago and attracted thousands of public supporters and tens of thousand of sympathizers both at home and abroad, has been dealt with mercilessly with "dozens of organizers in jail."
"In addition, the authorities have targeted religious leaders, including Buddhist monks and Catholic priests, for advocating greater religious tolerance, and they have also in recent years harassed and imprisoned Vietnamese nationalists calling the country to stand up to China."
Still, in spite of the risks, Roasa tells us, "Vietnamese activists continue to speak out about political pluralism, corruption, and free speech--and end up in prison or as political refugees."
They thus deserve the world's support. However, "the West's feelings of guilt from the war and lingering ideological sympathy for Hanoi among parts of the left" have dampened criticism of Hanoi, which probably explains why with all the gross violations of religious freedom Hanoi still benefits from the State Department's leniency in refusing to put it back on the CPC (Countries of Particular Concern) List as repeatedly recommended by the independent U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom.
Hanoi contemplates further restrictions on Internet freedom
In a new decree expected to replace the existing one, known as Ministerial Decree No. 97/2008/ND-CP, by June this year, the Ministry of Information and Communications proposes to: (1) forbid the use of a nickname in securing Internet services (for instance, one must use one's real name on Facebook and on one's blog); (2) protect the personal security of Internet users--which is almost in direct contradiction with (1); (3) force Internet service providers such as Google and Facebook to have their servers in Vietnam so that they can be monitored by the Internet police.
Should the new decree go into effect, the freedom of Internet users will be further restricted in a country which for the last several years has been labeled one of the ten worst "enemies of the Internet" by Reporters without Borders.
To counter that Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez has introduced H.R. 29 "calling for Internet freedom in Vietnam."
NYT and WSJ editorials on VN Human Rights
Finally, the egregious human rights situation in Vietnam is getting mainstream press attention.
On April 19, the New York Times had an editorial entitled "The Courage of Dieu Cay and Natalya Radzina." Dieu Cay is the nickname of Nguyen Van Hai, a "blogger who has been imprisoned since 2008 on the trumped-up charge of property tax evasion." His real offense was to write on sensitive human rights and corruption issues in Vietnam and especially to protest China's aggression against Vietnam in the South China Sea.
In an op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal of April 23, the famous human rights activist Vo Van Ai, who is based in Paris, denounced the upcoming trial of three bloggers, the above Dieu Cay, Phan Van Hai (aka Anhbasg) and Ta Phong Tan (a former Communist Party member and Public Security officer who has since become critical of the regime in her blog "Truth and Justice"). The case of Dieu Cay is the most outrageous: after he finished his 30-month prison term, supposedly for tax evasion, he was not released; instead he was held incommunicado for 17 months and is now being put on trial. The trial of the three bloggers, set for April 17, had to be postponed because the two ministries concerned and the People's Inspectorate could not agree beforehand about the sentences to be meted out to them. A judge informally suggested a bargain: if they are willing to plead guilty they could get their sentences reduced from 16 to 20 years down to as little as 3 years (for crimes that they did nott commit).
Hanoi shows no political will to fight human trafficking
The government of Vietnam has made clear that it does not have the political will to combat human trafficking. Rather, the Vietnamese government's solution to trafficking problems is to:
(1) attack the messengers who bring the bad news,
(2) intimidate the trafficking victims and potential victims so that no further information will get out, and
(3) hinder contact between rescued victims and destination country law enforcement or non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
On Feb 15, 2011 the Bureau of Overseas Work Management issued a circular instructing labor export companies to exert tighter control of Vietnamese migrant workers, to prevent any contact between workers and anti-trafficking in persons (TIP) organizations, and to settle "disputes" between the aggrieved employees and the factory owners expeditiously. Similar admonitions appeared in an April 3, 2012 article in the People's Army Journal, the official organ of the Vietnamese People's Army. Both the circular and the article make it clear that the Vietnamese government's response to numerous credible reports of human trafficking in its labor export program is to escalate the war against anti-TIP organizations and TIP victims. The idea of fixing the underlying problems is not even raised in the article.
Recent changes in the standard contracts that migrant workers must sign appear to heighten emphasis on hiding the problems: Workers are now warned not "to fabricate stories to defame or distort the truth about the policy of the Vietnamese government; pass around information about [the labor export company] without evidence, without respect for the Vietnamese community; [join] illegal organizations that the [destination country's] law or the Vietnamese law does not approve; hold a strike or mobilize, threaten, entice others to hold a strike contrary to the law..."
Vietnamese embassies continue to display the same pattern of obstructing justice. In the recent case of 42 Vietnamese women and 3 Vietnamese men rescued in Malaysia, the Vietnamese embassy explicitly requested the Malaysian government not to allow NGOs access to the rescued victims, threatening that any such access could sour the relationship between the two countries. The Vietnamese women were then repatriated quickly, even before the Malaysia government could determine whether they were victims of human trafficking.
One key victim/witness, Ms. Phuong-Anh Vu, has received multiple threats. Her loved ones who are still in Vietnam have been targeted by the government.
Not a single case of labor trafficking under the labor export program has been investigated, let alone prosecuted. Labor export companies implicated in TIP cases, including those featured in the TIP reports, continue do business as usual.
Vietnam clearly belongs on Tier III of the U.S. State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons Report, the category reserved for countries whose governments make no serious efforts to eliminate human trafficking.
* May 10, 2012 will be celebrated as Vietnam Human Rights Day this year on the Hill in the Senate Hart Building.
*On April 20, Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner wrote an answer to the "We the People Petition" on the White House Website which gathered over 150,000 signatures in one month (Feb 8-Mar 8, 2012). Assistant Secretary Posner's response emphasized the deep concern that the U.S. government holds regarding the human rights situation in Vietnam. In response to suggestions that the United States should link trade concessions to improvements in human rights practices, Posner said "our engagement with Vietnam on trade . . . has provided opportunities to raise these issues."
* On April 24 some 2,000 people of Van Giang District (Hung Yen Province) turned out to resist a land confiscation attempt by the police who had descended on the place as early as 5:30 in the morning. We will have more on this in the next bulletin.