High price of 'normalization'


By Geoffrey Johnston

Thursday, June 9, 2016


By lifting ban on sale of weapons to Vietnam, the U.S. has lost leverage on the issue of religious freedom in the oppressive country

Last month, U.S. President Barack Obama paid a visit to Vietnam, taking another step in the decades-long process of normalizing bilateral relations in the wake of the Vietnam War.

In a controversial move, Obama announced in Hanoi that the United States is lifting a long-standing ban on the sale of weapons to the Communist regime. In the past, the U.S. insisted that the ban would only be relaxed if Vietnam were to significantly improve its poor human rights record.

However, China's increasingly expansionist foreign policy in Asia threatens both American and Vietnamese strategic interests in the region. And some observers have suggested that Washington is attempting to counter Chinese power by helping to strengthen Vietnam.

President Obama rejected such suggestions at a joint appearance in Hanoi with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang. "The decision to lift the ban was not based on China or any other considerations," Obama told reporters. "It was based on our desire to complete what has been a lengthy process of moving toward normalization with Vietnam."

Forging better relations between the former enemies is desirable. However, the rapprochement comes at too high a price from a human rights perspective. By lifting the ban on the sale of weapons to Vietnam, the United States has lost leverage on the issue of religious freedom in the oppressive country.

Religious persecution

Vietnam has a rich and diverse society in which people of different faiths live in peace, states the 2016 annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which was established in 1998 by an act of Congress

According to USCIRF, which advises the U.S. government on religious liberty issues, the majority of the country's 94 million people are Buddhists. There are more than six million Vietnamese Catholics, and "more than one million apiece practise the Cao Dai or Hoa Hao faiths, and approximately one to two million are Protestant." In addition, there are smaller groups of Khmer Krom Buddhists, Muslims, Baha'i, Mormon, and Falun Gong. There are also a number of "local religions or other forms of traditional worship."

However, Vietnam is far from being a bastion of religious freedom. In fact, the state of religious freedom is so troubling that USCIRF recommends that the U.S. State Department continue to designate the Socialist Republic as "a country of particular concern" or CPC.

The Vietnamese government harasses religious groups that insist on being independent of the state. "Religious organizations that choose not to seek government recognition face greater risk of abuse by government authorities, particularly provincial or local officials, or government-employed proxies," notes the USCIR report.

Some members of independent or unregistered religious organizations also promote democracy and/or defend human rights, thereby making them a threat to the totalitarian regime. Others are deemed to have historic ties to the West and the United States, and are therefore regarded with great suspicion by security forces. Dissidents "face harassment, detention, and physical violence," the USCIRF report states.

The commission learned that "even though Buddhism is the most widely practised faith in Vietnam, those operating independent from the state-sanctioned Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha often are government targets."

The regime also targeted Mennonites in Gia Lai Province in 2015. According to the commission, "parishioners at an unregistered Mennonite Church were detained and beaten, and some were pressured to renounce their faith." Mennonite clergy were also targeted. According to USCIRF, "Mennonite pastor Nguyen Hong Quang and others were attacked and beaten in January and March 2015 just north of Ho Chi Minh City."

Catholics, Protestants and Evangelical Christians have also been battered by the regime. For example, Catholics in Gia Lai Province were frequently attacked by police in 2015. Even Catholic nuns were targeted. And Protestant and Evangelical clergy were arrested simply because of their religious activities.

Prisoners of conscience

The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights guarantees freedom of religion, belief or conscience. A person arrested for exercising any these rights is a prisoner of conscience.

The regime continues to hold as many as 150 prisoners of conscience. The USCIRF report, which was published in April 2016, expressed concern that a number of high-profile prisoners of conscience, including Father Thaddeus Nguyen Van Ly, remained in prison.

Some good did come of Obama's visit. Just days before the president's arrival, Hanoi made a big show of releasing the ailing Father Ly. Six years ago, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared that Father Ly was the victim of arbitrary detention and denied legal representation.

"Father Nguyen Van Ly was granted an early release from prison on 20 May," stated a news release issued by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a human rights organization based in the United Kingdom. According to CSW, the priest has spent "more than 15 years in prison."

Christian Solidarity Worldwide describes Father Ly as "a 65-year-old Catholic priest and prominent human rights activist" who "has been campaigning for religious freedom, democracy and free media reporting since the 1970s and is a prominent supporter of the Vietnamese democracy movement."

However, Father Ly's release does not herald the dawning of an era of democratic reform. CSW reported that after the release of the clergyman, "a number of human rights activists were detained" to allegedly "prevent them from meeting the U.S. delegation." Most of the activists have reportedly since been released.

Released but not free

While Christian Solidarity Worldwide celebrated the news of Father Ly's release, the human rights organization cautioned that the struggle for human rights in Vietnam is ongoing.

"While CSW welcomes the release of Father Ly from prison, we remain concerned about Vietnam's human rights record and mistreatment of human rights defenders such as Tran Thi Hong and lawyer Nguyen Van Dai," CSW's chief executive, Mervyn Thomas, stated in a news release.

Even though Father Ly has been released from prison, he likely remains in great danger. According to the USCIRF report, "released prisoners are particularly vulnerable to harassment."

For example, the commission cites the case of Tran Minh Nhat, a Christian human rights activist who was released from prison in August 2015. Since his release, Nhat was "twice detained and beaten by police."

Father Ly is not a well man. CSW reports that he suffers from partial paralysis "as a result of suffering several strokes and having a brain tumour." Hopefully, Ly will not suffer the fate of other prisoners of conscience who have been released from prison only to be continually harassed by agents of the state.

To advance religious liberty and human rights in Vietnam, USCIRF recommends that the U.S. publicly and consistently pursue religious freedom issues "at every level of the U.S.-Vietnam relationship, including in discussions related to military, trade, or economic and security assistance, and in programs on Internet freedom and civil society development, among others, and follow up on these priorities after agreements or deals are reached, such as in the Trans-Pacific Partnership."

Unfortunately, President Obama has sent the Vietnamese regime the wrong message on religious freedom by visiting the country and agreeing to sell it weapons -- without first demanding the release of all prisoners of conscience and the scrapping of all laws that persecute Christians and other faith communities.

Follow Geoffrey P. Johnston on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston.


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