Vietnam's Unending Oppression


By Michael Benge*

August 2, 2015


The axiom “If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas” has been attributed to Benjamin Franklin (in his Poor Richard's Almanac). This may be translated to mean: "Be cautious of the company you keep. If you associate with those of low reputation, you will share the consequences of their unhygienic habits."  The U.S. government has been cozying up to all manner of oppressive terrorist regimes, the leaders and their associates, like parasitic fleas, live off the blood of their impoverished people while fattening their own bank accounts. Let’s hope we are not already infested.  Over 20 years of diplomatic relations and ever increasing economic aid to Vietnam has only fueled countless deceptive broken promises and continued oppression.

On the human rights front, Vietnam continues its long-standing pattern of major abuses directed against anyone criticizing the government, promoting democratic reforms or seeking religious freedom. This shows no signs of lessening, according to recent reports by the U.S. State Department, Human Rights Watch (HRW), Transparency International, Christian Aid, Global Witness, and other humanitarian organizations.  For the past 20 years, the U.S. government’s pipe dream that "constructive engagement" will bring about significant change in the communist regime’s human rights policies has not worked. According to HRW, “the human rights situation in Vietnam [has] deteriorated significantly, worsening a trend evident for several years.”  Long prison terms are given to peaceful activists whose ‘crimes’ include calling for political change and wanting freedom to worship God.  The TPP is the last chance for economic aid to effect change in Vietnam’s repressive acts.

Nevertheless, President Obama is about to give away the only economic leverage the U.S. still has; the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP), to pressure the repressive communist Vietnamese regime to desist in abuses that include religious persecution and the repression of free speech and access to information through the internet. Obama’s efforts to railroad the TPP past Congress included hosting Vietnamese Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong at the White House, Trong’s lobbying of key members of Congress and other leaders to pass the TPP, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce hosting a “Gala Dinner” in honor of Trong.  The dinner guests were drawn from the leadership of Washington’s foreign policy, business, and media communities and think-tanks. Vietnamese-Americans demonstrated en masse in front of the White House against the TPP during Trong’s visit -- an event largely ignored by the media.

During a recent visit to “Little Saigon” in California, newly-appointed Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius repeated the party line that “the TPP has the potential to dramatically boost Vietnam’s economy and weaken China’s control over the region.” What Obama, the State Department and The new ambassador have neglected to say is the balance of trade is much more beneficial to Hanoi than it is to U.S. companies; thus, Washington is exporting jobs to Hanoi. In 2014, U.S. imports from Hanoi were $30.588 billion, while US Exports to Hanoi were only $5.734 billion. 

Ambassador Osius went onto claim that “the proposed 12-nation trade deal in the Pacific has the potential for increased United States-Vietnam security cooperation against China and to compel the Hanoi government to improve its human rights record.”  This is patently absurd -- a containment policy based on Vietnam’s population of less than 100 million against China’s 1,370 billion and its enormous and ever-increasing economic power.

When addressing the Business Roundtable (12/3/14) regarding the TPP shipping jobs overseas, Obama flippantly remarked that it’s too late, "that horse is out of the barn."    What he conveniently forgot mention is that the TPP will ship even more jobs to Vietnam, a country that, according to Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) Executive Director Scott Nova,  Vietnam “remains one of the worst countries in the world in terms of factory working conditions, and independent unions are barred by law.”  

Obama went on to claim that in fact TPP will create thousands of jobs in the U.S.  According to Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post fact-checker and Pinocchio awarder, the actual number of American jobs created under TPP is more likely to be a Big Fat Zero; earning Obama four Pinocchios for lying about the number of jobs to be created by TPP. 

Agent Orange

In addition to lobbying for the TPP, Mr. Trong also pushed for additional funding for clean-up efforts in the areas most affected by U.S. Agent Orange spraying during the Vietnam War, and for the payment of compensation to those who have experienced health problems associated with this toxin.  U.S. economic aid already includes millions for the cleanup of residual toxins. 

Meanwhile, according to Morton Skylar, “What is ironic is that Vietnam, at the same time they are making these requests, have been spraying chemical herbicide on crops and farmland in territories that are part of ongoing border disputes with Cambodia, aimed at forcing the Cambodian farmers in the area to leave.”  It’s possible that these chemicals are Agent Orange residuals from the Vietnam War. Sklar, the founding executive director emeritus of the World Organization for Human Rights USA, has filed a complaint to the UN regarding Vietnam’s illegal use of toxic chemical agents on behalf of the Cambodian people.

London-based environmental group Global Witness in 2013 issued the report “Rubber Barons: How Vietnamese Companies and International Financiers Are Driving a Land Grabbing Crisis in Cambodia and Laos,” which explained in graphic detail how Vietnamese companies are unlawfully displacing thousands of landowners to establish their plantations without providing adequate compensation or relocation assistance.  Reportedly, Vietnam is now claiming over 40 kilometers of border areas in Cambodia and Laos. These areas were part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail complex occupied by communist Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, and were colonized by demobilized soldiers and their families afterwards.  In 1964, the late King Norodom Sihanouk delivered legal internationally recognized maps to the UN; however, the maps currently in use to demarcate the border with Vietnam are incorrect.

Arrests of Democracy Activists and “Cyber-Dissidents”

Vietnam’s ominous-sounding Decree 174 levies severe financial penalties in its ongoing bid
to stifle web freedoms, including a fine of US $5,000 for anyone using social media to spread propaganda against the state.  For most Vietnamese, especially students, this is tantamount to bankrupting them.  On top of the fines, an unknown number of dissidents and democracy activists have been arrested and imprisoned during the last several years on criminal charges -- including espionage and other vaguely worded crimes against “national security” -- for disseminating peaceful criticism of the government or calling for multi-party reforms in written statements or through the Internet. The government is authorized to detain without trial for up to two years anyone suspected of “threatening national security” without meaningful judicial review. Cyber-dissidents have been sentenced up to twelve years imprisonment for having “vilified and denigrated Party and state officials.”

Religious Persecution continues unabated

The Vietnamese regime's religion is communism, and the Party views all other organized religions as a direct threat to national security and its authoritarian control of the Vietnamese people.  Religious tolerance exists only in theory; Article 70 of Vietnam's Constitution of 1992 states that citizens "shall enjoy freedom of belief and of religion; they can follow any religion or follow none; all religions are equal before the law; and places of worship of all faiths and religions are protected by the law."  However, to gain government approval for churches and persons of the cloth, they must agree to put communism before God.

Communist Vietnam’s religious persecution and seizure and destruction of religious property are well documented by human rights and religious organizations regardless its citizens’ religious persuasion, be they Cao Dai, Catholic, Protestant Vietnamese, Hmong, Montagnards and other ethnic minorities; Buddhist Khmer Krom, Hoa Hao, and Vietnamese of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (once the largest religion in the country).  An unknown number of believers have been arrested, tortured, imprisoned (some suffered violent deaths while there), or disappeared.” 

On June 17, 2015, during a hearing entitled “Human Rights Abuses by Vietnamese Authorities” before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Global Human Rights chaired by Cris Smith (NJ-04); the Reverend Nguyen Manh Hung pastor of the Mennonite Church’s Cattle Shed Congregation and member of the Interfaith Council of Vietnam testified that he had discovered that the Venerable Thich Khong Tanh had been threatened by the security police that after the TPP is approved that Tanh’s Lien Tri Buddhist Pagoda in Thu Duc on the outskirts of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) would be torn down.  

The state’s new law on religion is but an attempt to by the communist government seeks to exercise control over virtually every aspect of religion. Thugs (members of the parastatal Vietnam Fatherland Front - Mặt Trận Tổ Quốc Việt Nam) coupled with plain-clothed police are used to terrorize religious personages of all faiths. Religious police (Công An Tôn Giáo), have taken up residency in pagodas posing as Monks and Achas (go-betweens) controlling access to legitimate Monks by outsiders.  Religious police are also stationed 24/7 in villages in both the Northern and Central Highlands that are suspected of holding Christian religious services in House Churches.  Police arrest and beat suspects to pressure them to cease all religious activities and force them to recant their faith in public self-criticism sessions and sign written pledges provided by the police.  Those who don’t recant are imprisoned, tortured during interrogations, starved and deprived of medical treatment that often results in their death. Others are simply “disappeared.”  The government fears that widespread church growth among ethnic minority Christians might become a separatist movement.

Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide

Human Rights Watch has called for the Vietnamese government to “end abusive policies and practices” -- intimidation, arbitrary arrests and mistreatment in custody -- that have forced hundreds of Montagnards to flee the country to Cambodia to seek refuge.  Starting before last Christmas, religious police and soldiers went to many villages in Gia Lai province where they attempted to force Christians practicing their faith in House Churches to join the government-controlled Potempkin Montagnard Evangelical Church (Hoi Thanh Tin Lanh) in Pleiku city.  Those who refused were subjected to beatings in an attempt to force them to sign pledges renouncing their faith. Perhaps as many as 400 Christian Montagnards from that area fled to Cambodia to seek sanctuary under the protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 

However, Cambodia has an agreement allowing Vietnam to have “advisors” at every level of the Phnom Penh government.  Most of the Montagnards fleeing persecution have been captured in Cambodia by joint Vietnamese and Cambodian police forces and taken back to Vietnam to face severe punishment and imprisonment.  A couple of dozen have been temporarily rescued by UNHCR and issued certificates of protection; nevertheless, it remains to be seen if they are honored by Cambodia’s communist regime, which is under the thumb of Vietnam.  So far Cambodian authorities have refused to do so even though Cambodia signed the U.N. multilateral treaty (also known as the 1951 Refugee Convention) that defines rights and responsibilities based on Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes the right of persons to seek asylum from persecution in other countries.

UNHCR has been trying to find a home for these persecuted Montagnard Christians in a third country; the most logical place is in the U.S. where many of them have relatives.  However; it is said that UNHCR was rebuffed by the U.S. Ambassador in Phnom Penh.  One can assume that the reason is that the Obama administration thinks acceptance would be an admission that there is violent religious persecution in Vietnam, which would look bad for its communist regime in the ongoing TPP negotiations.  An additional 150 Montagnard Christian refugees languish in Thailand, many in UNHCR camps, but they face the same political conundrum.  It is highly unlikely that the U.S. will go to bat for its former allies, since the Obama administration has shown little empathy toward endangered and persecuted Christians.

According to Refugee Resettlement Watch, in 2013 the yearly refugee quota was 70,000 and there is strong political pressure to increase this numbers to over 100,000.  The U.S. takes in more than twice as many refugees as all countries from the rest of the industrialized world combined.  In recent years up to 95% of the refugees coming to the U.S. were referred by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or were the relatives of U.N.-picked refugees.  The U.N. is effectively dictating much of U.S. immigration policy.  By law, Congress is supposed to consent to the annual quota but obviously refuses to take this role seriously.  In fact, Congress can name whatever group it wants to be a refugee or asylum seeker (e.g., the Montagnards).  The refugee program has gradually shifted towards the resettlement of refugees from Muslim countries; some are Christians or other minorities, but most are Muslims (about 40%).

The Montagnards of the Central Highlands of South Vietnam were among America’s most loyal allies during the Vietnam War. Over 50% of their adult male population was lost fighting alongside the American Special Forces. They died in place of Americans; without their sacrifice there would have been hundreds more names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall. Vietnam’s communist regime continues to punish even the children and grandchildren of those who fought and died for the U.S.  They were our most loyal allies during the Vietnam War.

It has been estimated that some 350 Montagnard Christians -- church activists, pastors of house-churches, Bible teachers and congregants -- from the Jarai alone have been arrested and sentenced to prison terms of up to seventeen years.

Like President Obama refusing to acknowledge that ISIS is comprised of extremist Muslim terrorists, similarly, the Department of State will not count the hundreds imprisoned in Vietnam for religious reasons as political prisoners; both are unconscionable acts.

Based on his past actions, one can surmise that Obama will once again draw a red line in the sand regarding TPP and Vietnam’s religious persecution and human rights abuses, and then do nothing when the communist regime crosses over. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” wrote George Santayana.

And the band plays on.


* Michael Benge spent 11 years in Vietnam as a Foreign Service officer and is a student of Southeast Asian politics. He is very active in advocating for human rights, religious freedom, and democracy for the peoples of the region n and has written extensively on these subjects.


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