Survival of former U.S. allies depends on Vietnam Human Rights Act of 2004
By Thomas P. Cadmus
The American Legion
Thousands of Christians from the remote central highlands of Vietnam gathered in their provincial capitals for a prayer vigil last Easter weekend. As they knelt, according to well-documented reports, communist authorities and soldiers in civilian clothes bludgeoned them with clubs, shovels and nail-affixed boards. The exact number killed and injured is unknown, withheld by a government that keeps its human-rights abuses well-veiled to the rest of the world. After the massacre, access to the highlands by foreign observers was blocked for a two-week period and, following that, was tightly controlled to only certain villages. Hundreds were reportedly arrested, tortured and jailed.
This was no isolated incident.
Severe religious persecution is standard practice in Vietnam, and it is escalating. Hundreds of Christians, Buddhists and followers of other faiths are in jail today, or under house arrest without charges, for peacefully following beliefs not authorized by the government. Vietnam requires government registration of churches and maintains control over their activities – from charity work to ministerial advancement to the content and publication of religious literature.
Religious freedom abuses have intensified in Vietnam despite the 2001 passage of a bilateral trade agreement with the United States and multiple warnings from the U.S. State Department. On Sept. 15, Secretary of State Colin Powell presented a report designating Vietnam as a “country of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act, joining such reviled human-rights performers as North Korea, Iran, Burma, China, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. The report thoroughly chronicled dozens of government-sanctioned abuses, often violent, against many faiths, primarily those followed by ethnic minorities in the central and northwest highlands.
An estimated 400 churches have been destroyed by the government in Vietnam since 2000. One Catholic priest, Father Nguyen Van Ly, was arrested in May 2001 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for “damaging the government’s unity policy” by writing a letter critical of the Vietnamese government to a U.S. human-rights commission. He remains behind bars, as do at least a confirmed 44 other religious leaders.
The Vietnam government routinely attempts to force believers of unauthorized religions to recant their faiths. Some reportedly have been coerced to drink animal blood mixed with alcohol in staged ceremonies to promote the revival of ancient tribal rituals that won’t compete with atheistic communist doctrine. A new law, set to take effect Nov. 15, will allow Vietnamese authorities greater freedom to arrest anyone whose religious practices differ with government wishes, even in their own homes.
In the crosshairs of these abuses are some of the most loyal wartime allies America has ever known: the indigenous Montagnard people. Approximately half of the adult male Montagnard population was killed in action, fighting alongside U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War. After Saigon fell in 1975, most of the Montagnards were landlocked and unable to escape, left to face a vengeful new regime on their own. Only a handful made it out. Since then, while the rest of Vietnam has tripled in population, the number of Montagnards has been culled nearly in half through a process some watchdog groups call “cultural leveling.” Others call it genocide. Accusations of government-coerced sterilization, property seizure and harassment are widespread.
Meanwhile, the Vietnam Human Rights Act of 2004 languishes in the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The bill would simply freeze non-humanitarian U.S. aid to Vietnam at 2004 levels, meaning no new increases in funding until the communist regime proves substantial progress on human rights and religious freedom. The measure, H.R. 1587, was introduced by Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., and passed overwhelmingly in the House on July 19. The Senate version was introduced Sept. 9 by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and was referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But without further action, the measure will die with the end of 108th Congress.
A similar Vietnam human-rights bill introduced in 2001 passed by a 410-1 landslide in the House, only to die later in committee. At the time, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and opposed the bill. In a widely publicized 2002 letter, Kerry wrote that he and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., alike feared “it may hinder rather than advance the cause of human rights in Vietnam. We are concerned that denying aid to Vietnam would actually slow human-rights improvements.”
Smith’s bill does not deny aid. It merely caps non-humanitarian U.S. aid at 2004 levels until Vietnam proves its human-rights and religious freedom policies are improving.
Since the 2001 version was denied a vote in the Senate, the number of killings, beatings and arrests of innocent worshipers in Vietnam is anyone’s guess. Reports of abuses, meanwhile, keep piling up.
It is unconscionable to fail these prayerful people – so many of whom are allies we left behind in Vietnam – because some members of the Senate won’t so much as give this bill its day in court. By failing to act, the committee also sends a message to Hanoi, which covets U.S. aid and trade but, as yet, has been given no good reason to change its draconian human-rights policies.
All these former allies – to whom thousands of U.S. veterans owe their lives – want is the freedom to pray for something better. Their faith rests in us.
Every American who values freedom of religion, basic human rights and support for former allies in their time of need must contact their U.S. senators immediately and demand a vote on the Vietnam Human Rights Act of 2004. To neglect our former allies once again is, at best, to subject them to communist thought control. At worst, our lack of action delivers their death sentence. As the world’s leading voice of freedom, democracy and human dignity, America simply must do better. All it takes is a vote.
Thomas P. Cadmus of Michigan is the National Commander of The American Legion, the world’s largest veterans service organization.