Message to Hanoi: Human rights matter

By Robert J. Caldwell

The San Diego Union Tribune
June 12, 2005


President Bush, meet Li Thi Hong Lien. You may not recall her name but pressure from your administration helped get her released from prison in Vietnam on April 28. Ms. Lien's "crime" was being a Mennonite, a devout Christian denomination harshly suppressed by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

During almost a year of imprisonment, this 21-year old Sunday school teacher was so badly beaten by her jailers that her jaw was broken and she suffered a mental breakdown. As World magazine reporter Priya Abraham wrote recently, Ms. Lien has thus become a poster child for persecuted Christians in Vietnam.

The plight of Li Thi Hong Lien and of hundreds of thousands of other persecuted believers, Christian and non-Christian alike, in Vietnam is emminently newsworty on its own. It's especially notable now on the eve of a milestone in U.S.-Vietnam relations.

On June 21, President Bush is to welcome Vietnam's prime minister, Phan Van Khai, to the White House. It will mark the highest level visit of a Vietnamese official since the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Khai's visit will also denote the 10th anniversary of the official normalization of diplomatic relations between Washington and Hanoi.

With U.S.-Vietnam trade topping $6 billion a year, the U.S. Navy paying ceremonial port visits and Hanoi welcoming senior Pentagon officials for talks on improving military relations, one might assume the Khai visit's simple message would be the budding rapprochement between two old enemies. Li Thi Hong Lien symbolizes why it isn't so simple, and shouldn't be.

For Americans, Vietnam is not just another country. It's where we fought for a decade to defend an independent South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos against a communist tide running across Indochina. Whatever the wisdom of that war, it left the United States with a moral obligation to our defeated, and abandoned, allies. Honor alone compels Washington to keep human rights on the agenda even as U.S.-Vietnam relations improve.

Lamentably, there is no shortage of material for the human rights portion of that agenda.

The U.S. State Department's official 2004 report on Vietnam's violations of human rights runs 22 single-spaced pages. Washington's detailed reporting on Hanoi's repression is broadly confirmed by independent groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Human Rights Watch's 2005 World Report section on Vietnam begins with this blunt summary:

"Human rights conditions in Vietnam, already dismal, worsened in 2004. The government tolerates little public criticism of the Communist Party or statements calling for pluralism, democracy, or a free press. Dissidents are harassed, isolated, placed under house arrest, and in many cases, charged with crimes and imprisoned. Among those singled out are prominent intellectuals, writers, and former Communist Party stalwarts."

Vietnam's suppression of religious freedom, a fundamental right enshrined in the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is particularly repugnant. Despite a constitution that ostensibly provides for freedom of worship, the Vietnamese government vigorously suppresses churches and religious movements it doesn't recognize and control. Among these, as cited by the State Department, are: "independent Buddhists, Baptists, Mennonites, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Baha'i, independent Cao Dai and Hoa Hao groups, independent Sunni Muslims, and ethnic Cham Hindus."

Hundreds of local Protestant churches, Ms. Lien's Mennonite congregation included, have been driven underground where the faithful gather in secret to worship.

Hanoi's repression of Christianity among the ethnic Montagnards, who inhabit the Central Highlands of former South Vietnam and the northwest provinces in northern Vietnam, has been especially cruel and brutal.

Montagnard refugees fleeing into Cambodia last year reported that entire Montagnard villages were forced at gunpoint to renounce Christianity. When the Montagnards – independent-minded mountain people who sided with the Americans during the Vietnam War – staged mass protests in April 2004, Vietnamese police and soldiers opened fire, killing scores and wounding hundreds more.

If President Bush and Secretary of State Rice are looking for symbolic cases to raise with Prime Minister Khai, they should include these cited by Amnesty International as prisoners of conscience:

-          Nguyen Hong Quang, a Mennonite pastor and human rights activist, arrested last November and sentenced to three years imprisonment.

-          Father Nguyen Van Ly, a Catholic priest, sentenced in 2001 as an alleged threat to Vietnam's security to 15 years in prison; a sentence since reduced to five years after international protests.

-          Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, 62 and in failing health, a human rights activist sentenced in 2003 to 30 months in prison after a three-hour trial at which he had no legal representation.

Could pressure from the United States ease political and religious repression in Vietnam? Absolutely.

Hanoi is eagerly seeking foreign investment for its version of a China-style "socialist-market" economy. It also appears to want improved relations with the United States as a counterweight to China's growing military power. Vietnam's prospects for getting both would be enhanced by treating its own people better, thereby becoming less of a human rights pariah.

No one imagines that Hanoi can be induced to give up its one-party dictatorship anytime soon. That will require a longer-term evolutionary process inside Vietnam. In the meantime, however, selective American pressure can make an important difference.

Others are helping. Japan, Vietnam's largest aid donor, announced last year that henceforth its development assistance would be linked, in part, to Hanoi's respect for human rights and steps toward democracy. Sweden, long a source of economic assistance to Hanoi, recently granted political asylum to a dissident Buddhist monk imprisoned by Vietnam.

The postscript to Li Thi Hong Lien's ordeal is a single measure of how desperately this international pressure is needed. Two days after her release from prison on April 28, Lien was rearrested and roughly interrogated for hours. Her offense? Attending a Bible study at the home of her imprisoned pastor, Nguyen Hong Quang.

Add that to Bush's talking points for his meeting with Mr. Khai on June 21.

Caldwell is editor of the Insight section and can be reached via e-mail at


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