Modern Day Slavery in Vietnam and Malaysia


By Michael Benge*

August 16, 2015


In a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on August 6, Senators from both parties accused the Obama Administration of putting its Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) goals ahead of Malaysia’s modern-day slavery; however, this was just half of the equation.   A coalition of national and international organizations in Asia has charged both Vietnam and Malaysia with “Modern Day Slavery” -- Vietnam for its “blood cashews” and Malaysia for its oil palm industry; both are engaged in state-sponsored human-trafficking and indentured servitude. However, they are being rewarded by the US State Department that pretends these countries have “demonstrated sufficient progress on human rights” despite the fact that both have repeatedly “come under fire for paltry efforts” to reduce human rights abuses.

In the blood cashew industry, political prisoners are forced to work seven hours a day for $3 a month, for as long as seven years -- often resulting in serious injuries and even blindness -- to produce cashews to export to the US and other countries, an industry that brings Vietnam $1.5 Billion (US) per year. 

The State Department conducts foreign policy by supporting the Administration’s flavor of the month, and removes the names of favored countries from sanction lists based on their assurances, without hard evidence of “significant progress.” This brings to mind the idiom, “A leopard doesn’t change its spots.” The abusers simply change their actions from overt to covert while preventing outsiders from access to areas and people that might be inconvenient to those assurances.  Congress and human rights organizations, which supposedly monitor such abuses, issue reports and hold hearings, and then move on to the next ox to gore without effecting any changes. More than 20 years of diplomatic relations with Vietnam supplemented by ever-increasing economic aid have only purchased countless deceptions, broken promises, and endless oppression. Meanwhile, the regime’s leaders line their own pockets with money intended to improve the lives of the people.

On the human rights front, communist Vietnam continues its long-standing pattern of oppressing and abusing cyber-dissidents and any others who criticize the government, promote democratic reforms, or seek religious freedom by inflicting exorbitant fines, imprisonment of up to 17 years, and even death.  This shows no signs of lessening, according to recent reports by the State Department, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and others. Communist Vietnam has more than earned its inglorious title, “The Worst Human Rights Violator in Southeast Asia.”

A Tangled Web They Weave.

During his recent White House and Congressional visits, Vietnamese Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong not only lobbied for the TPP, but also had the audacity to demand more money for Agent Orange reparations. The US is already giving millions of dollars for clean-up efforts in the areas most affected by Agent Orange spraying during the Vietnam War. Ironically, at the same time, Vietnam is spraying it or similar toxins on crops and farmland in Cambodia, in areas once known as the “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” in order to force Cambodian farmers there to leave their lands, according to a complaint recently filed with the UN.

The only economic leverage the US still has to pressure the repressive Vietnamese regime to desist in its religious persecution, repression of free speech, and censorship of online information is the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP), Nevertheless, President Obama is about to give it away.

Obama and his Administration are turning a convenient blind eye to the gross human rights abuses of both countries. Vietnam is a key component of its China containment policy. Malaysia  is a valuable US ally due to its prime position on the Strait of Malacca, through which more than 40% of the world’s trade and a third of its oil is shipped.  Mr. Obama, what about our former allies -- the freedom loving people of Vietnam? 

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 and has written extensively on these subjects.


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