Rights and Wrongs...
NGUYEN DAN QUE*
June 20, 2007
Vietnam -- When President George W. Bush sits down with Vietnamese President
Nguyen Minh Triet at the White House on Friday, it will be the first time that a
Communist President of Vietnam has called on the President of the former enemy,
the United States. The meeting may also mark a turning point in the history of
the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Vietnam's industrious people and cultural heritage make it a country rich in
natural and human resources. For too long, Vietnam's authoritarian state
trampled on the country's tremendous potential by crushing freedoms and basic
human rights. After South Vietnam ceased to exist, a million people were sent to
re-education camps, and an estimated one million more fled to foreign shores.
Inside Vietnam, the demagogic North -- wielding terror and deception --
collectivized agriculture, confiscated property, prohibited private businesses,
monopolized educational and cultural activities and applied various other forms
of government- and party repression. The national economy stagnated.
Fortunately, many people in the South, with some resilience left from the
previous market economy and millions of dollars sent back home by overseas
Vietnamese, stood up to their communist oppressors. Ordinary citizens firmly and
nonviolently called for economic openness and greater societal freedoms.
Contagious protests, spreading even upward to the North, took place as communism
in Europe was collapsing.
As a result, the government decided to try capitalism in 1986 and Hanoi looked
to its former foe, the U.S., for help. Hanoi and Washington established
diplomatic relations in 1995, and signed a bilateral trade agreement in 2001
that proved a real rainmaker for Vietnam's parched economy. In early 2007, the
U.S. helped Vietnam join the World Trade Organization by granting it Permanent
Normal Trade Relations status. Washington even removed Vietnam from a list of
countries of "particular concern" for religious freedom violations, based on
Hanoi's commitment to improve its human-rights record and to adopt greater
Contrary to the expectations of many people as well as some governments,
however, Hanoi launched a brutal campaign of repression against anyone who
called for human rights and democracy. Among the victims: Nguyen Van Ly, a
Catholic priest tried with his mouth muzzled and sentenced to eight years in
prison; Le Nguyen Sang, a doctor sentenced to five years; writer Huynh Nguyen
Dao, sentenced to three years; lawyers Nguyen Van Dai and Tran Quoc Hien, each
sentenced to five years; and labor activist Le Thi Cong Nhan and
businessman-cum-cyberdissident Nguyen Bac Truyen, each sentenced to four years.
All of these prisoners almost certainly face many additional years of house
arrest, even after their release. Meanwhile, the results of the May 20 National
Assembly elections, which gave the Communist Party a 91% majority, have
practically put an end to all tenuous hopes of multiparty participation in the
political future of the country.
Now, as a member of the community of nations, Vietnam has new rights but also
new responsibilities -- above all to its own citizens. It's time to emerge from
the dark ages and embrace freedom, the rule of law and universal human rights.
The Politburo must realize that 65% of the population belongs to the post-war
generation that does not accept the loss of their liberties and that the new
generation, if unfettered, will join in rebuilding the economy and the nation.
If the Politburo continues to reject the demands of its own people, it will find
that foreigners might not be so eager to invest in its growth -- and neither
would the Vietnamese diaspora. Vietnam's high but unstable economic growth would
be imperiled, and could trigger social unrest. That outcome benefits no one.
The movement for change is already underway. In spite of all the repression by
the Vietnamese Communist Party, in 2006 the pro-democracy movement made great
strides forward. Block 8406, a democracy group, was formed, as were a host of
other new parties such as the Democratic Party and the Progressive Party. Rights
groups like the Committee for Human Rights, the Independent Labor Union and the
Peasants and Workers Solidarity Association sprouted. New media were founded,
like the online newspapers Liberty of Expression and Liberal Democracy. Above
all, large numbers of people are now rallying under the name of the Human Rights
and Democracy Alliance for Vietnam, an umbrella organization of human-rights
The results are limited because all these groups are compelled to restrict their
communications with each other to using only the Internet as they try to
mobilize the people. Their demands are simply for fundamental rights and
political reforms according to the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights
and the U.N. Convention of Civil and Political Rights.
The U.S. should encourage this social revolution, hearkening back to the aims of
U.S. involvement in the 1960s and early 1970s, when three million Americans
served, 58,000 died, and 300,000 were wounded in the struggle for an
independent, democratic Vietnam. President Bush has already seen what political
pressure can accomplish. He recently met in the Oval Office with four
Vietnamese-American democracy activists, an act that sent a clear message to
Hanoi. He followed that up by speaking to the Global Democracy Conference in
Prague, where he expressed public support for democratic activists in Vietnam,
among other countries, and called for the immediate, unconditional release of
all political prisoners. A few days later, Hanoi responded by freeing journalist
Nguyen Vu Binh and, a few days after that, lawyer Le Quoc Quan.
Releasing a few dissidents, however, doesn't represent a serious commitment to
reform. Like other activists, I hope I shall see some more encouraging results
from Mr. Bush's welcome to Vietnam's top leader. Vietnam would benefit greatly
from wider freedoms, particularly freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.
It's time for Hanoi to adopt, without delay, a timetable for the democratization
The U.S. has the economic and political leverage to help achieve these goals,
because ultimately, Hanoi needs Washington more than Washington needs Hanoi. The
best legacy of the war era for both our peoples would be to have a vibrant
democratic society emerge; one that reflects the aspirations of all Vietnamese
people, and one that plays a positive role in Asia as a strategic and economic
ally of the U.S. When that happens, the world will see a new Vietnam emerge as a
dynamic member of the Association of South East Asian Nations and a creditable
partner on the international scene.
* Dr.Nguyen Dan Que, former political prisoner , is currently under house
arrest in Cho Lon for peacefully advocating human rights and democracy