Vietnam Sucker-Punches the US on Human Rights and Religious Freedom
By Michael Benge*
April 27, 2013
For years, the American Embassy, the State Department, and the Senate have enabled communist Vietnam, ignoring the regime's abuses of religious freedom and human rights to allow it privileged access to U.S. and international investments, markets, and donor aid. Now, Vietnam has sucker punched the U.S. by increasing its repression.
On April 11, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, chaired by Congressman Chris Smith, highlighted a litany of abuses by the communist Vietnamese. Congressman Smith explained that the House of Representatives had twice passed the Human Rights Act on Vietnam, only to have it rejected by the Senate. He noted the repeated recommendations by both the House and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom to have the Department of State designate Vietnam as a "Country of Particular Concern" (CPC) for its ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, as is required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.
John Sifton, from Human Rights Watch -- Asia, reported that "Police brutality, including torture in detention and fatal beatings, continued to be reported in all regions of the country." His testimony covered a plethora of human rights abuses, starting with fact that "a growing number of dissidents -- including religious leaders, bloggers, and politically active people -- are being convicted and sent to jail for violations of Vietnam's authoritarian penal code, which prohibits public criticism of the government and the communist party. Others are jailed for exposing corruption."
Former Congressman Anh "Joseph" Cao said, "Since 2007, Vietnam has been backsliding on human rights, and is now the proud possessor of the title 'The Worse Violator of Human Rights in Southeast Asia'. Political opposition is outlawed; repression of dissidents intensified; severe restrictions on freedom of expression imposed; bloggers and peaceful activists are arrested, imprisoned, and tortured. In most cases, national security has been cited as a pretext for the illegal arrests and criminal investigations. One of the main groups of people who have suffered greatly under Vietnam's opposition has been the religious faithful and leaders."
Vietnam is an equal opportunity religious rights abuser: its targets include Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists, Hoa Hao, and CaoDai as well. The regime fears all religions as an organized threat to its own political religion -- communism.
On March 17, Vam Ngaij Vaj, a Hmong elder and leader of a protestant church in Cu Jut District, Dak Nong Province, was savagely tortured and then beaten to death by police officials. This is not an isolated incident, but commonplace. Vaj's battered body showed extensive marks from electric shocks with cattle prods, which are often used to torture prisoners. His torture and murder is an example of how police officials intimidate and terrorize Christian ethnic minorities in the Central and Northern Highlands of Vietnam.
Anna Buonya, representing the Montagnard Human Rights Organization, testified about the persecution of a broad spectrum of ethnic minorities, adding that entire Hmong villages have been destroyed by Vietnamese authorities because they practiced Christianity. In the past few years, over 4000 Montagnard house churches have been destroyed. There are currently over 400 Montagnard Christians, many of them preachers, who have been imprisoned for their religious and political beliefs; some for as long as 16 years. She stated that it is common practice by the Vietnamese authorities to deny prisoners clean water, sufficient food, and family visits.
Robbing the faithful
Ms. Buonya also spoke of another form of persecution. Most ethnic minorities in the central highlands live on a small plot of marginal land covered with scrub brush, on which they are barely able to grow subsistence crops to feed their families. Often, after they have carved out fields, built homes, improved the land, and planted, their land is taken by the government when the crops are ready to harvest -- confiscated with no compensation or recourse. The family is arrested on the spurious charge of "destroying forest" and the newly-developed land is sold to ethnic Vietnamese settlers or to large agricultural companies to plant cash crops such as rubber. The money from the stolen land goes to line the pockets of local officials.
Also testifying before the committee was Tien Thanh Tran, a member of the Con Dau Catholic Parish in the Diocese of Da Nang, which has 135 years of history. On May 4, 2010, during a funeral for a 90-year-old parishioner, several hundred police and members of the Fatherland Front -- a parastatal group used for government-sanctioned thuggery -- attacked the procession and brutally beat over 100 parishioners, including men, women, and children, and arrested more than 60 persons. The prisoners were repeatedly tortured with cattle prods and beatings to the head, back, and legs; some weeks on end. At least one prisoner died from this abuse. Mr. Tran suffered multiple injuries, including having both eardrums broken and a hole pierced in his eye.
The purpose of these brutal acts is to force the parishioners to leave so local officials can expropriate the land from the church and its members and sell it at a huge profit for self enrichment; while simultaneously wiping out this historical Catholic parish. On December 19, 2012, police and thugs broke into the house of a remaining parishioner at lunch time to beat up the wife and rape a woman in front of her husband and two daughters. Similar abuses have happened in other Catholic parishes across Vietnam.
Behind Hanoi's mask
Vo Van Ai, International Spokesman of the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), testified that the UBCV is "Vietnam's largest religious organization and has a history of peaceful social activism and moral reform," yet UBCV's 85-year-old Patriarch Thich Quang Do remains under house arrest, and the UBCV is outlawed by the communist government. He said, "Whilst appreciating the State Department's reports of abuses against the UBCV, we are concerned that they portray but a pale picture of the systematic police pressures, harassment and intimidation faced by UBCV Buddhists in every aspect of their daily lives." The UBCV "has faced decades of harassment and repression for seeking independent status and for appealing to the government to respect religious freedom and related human rights." Vo Van Ai called upon the State Department to "look behind Hanoi's mask, beyond the veneer of State-sponsored freedom of worship, and recognize the full extent of religious repression."
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reports that the UBCV has suffered marked increases in beatings, arrests, detention (up to 15 years), and harassment of groups and individuals viewed as hostile to the communist party. The UBCV is prevented from carrying out educational and charitable activities and from celebrating religious occasions, such as Buddha's birthday, and dignitaries are prevented from traveling and meeting together. Believers are under threat of losing their jobs and having their children expelled from school.
Hanoi has also set up a series of phony churches, temples and monasteries, as well as purported religious institutions; and when visiting delegations from the U.S. or other countries are there to investigate religious freedoms they are actually taken to these false fronts. Alternatively, they may be shown actual places of worship but met there by communist officials (công an tôn giáo) -- wolves in sheep's clothing -- disguised in the robes of Catholic priests, Buddhists monks, and Protestant preachers. These double agents spoon-feed disinformation to naïve or regime-enabling Western embassy and Foreign Service officials, and to human rights and religious freedom investigators.
Nowhere to run
Ms. Buonya and others testified that there is no safe haven for asylum-seekers fleeing human rights abuses. She told of two Montagnards who have suffered severe persecution and physical beatings by the Vietnamese police and have been in hiding for several years. Miraculously, they were finally able to obtain an interview with the U.S. consulate while yet in hiding, only to be told by the International Organization for Migration that unless they obtained a passport from the Vietnamese government, their application would be denied.
Even if they are able to escape to Thailand, the Montagnards face rejection by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), upon which they could be arrested and put in immigration detention. Worse yet, they could be sent back to Vietnam. For years, Vietnamese agents of influence implanted within UNHCR have held sway over the agency regarding refugees. Because of this, many refugees are returned; such was the case when refugee camps were closed in Cambodia. Many more refugees have been detained in Thailand for several years. Even though some have immediate family in the United States; the American Embassy is unwilling to intervene on their behalf.
And the band plays on
Communist Vietnam has violated every agreement it has made with the United States. Even so, the U.S. government continues to bend over backward to appease this regime. In the process, the U.S. has given away nearly all its leverage to influence Vietnam's human rights abuses. The only significant lever remaining is the ongoing "Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)" negotiations. The free-trade TPP negotiating partners include Australia, Brunei, Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, and Singapore, and the U.S., is holding separate talks with Vietnam for its inclusion.
Before Vietnam is given the advantages of inclusion in this new trade pact, there must be vast improvements in the areas of human rights, religious freedom, and free trade unions.
*Michael Benge spent 11 years in Vietnam as a foreign service officer and is a student of South East 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.
Vietnam Human Rights Network