Speaking Up for Vietnam

By Sara Colm*

published in The New York Sun

June 25, 2008  

A Buddhist monk missing since authorities evicted him from his pagoda. A Montagnard Christian beaten to death in police custody. A lawyer involuntarily committed to a mental hospital after she championed the rights of farmers kicked off their land. Journalists jailed for exposing corruption. A young man sentenced to prison after chatting online about democracy and human rights. More than 400 people wasting away in harsh prison conditions for their political views or religious beliefs. 

This week, the prime minister of Vietnam, Nguyen Tan Dung, brings Vietnam's road show to Wall Street and meets President Bush and leaders likely including the U.S. presidential contenders, John McCain and Barack Obama.  
When America's political and financial leaders sit down with Prime Minister Dung, they should not forget these courageous individuals and should address directly the systemic pattern of rights violations in Vietnam that they represent: the Vietnamese government's lack of tolerance for dissent and denial of fundamental rights to freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religious belief.  
In Vietnam today, the government still controls all media, as evidenced by the arrest in March 2008 of two investigative reporters who exposed a major corruption scandal in 2005. The reporters, Nguyen Viet Chien of Thanh Nien (Young People) newspaper and Nguyen Van Hai of Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper face charges of "abusing their positions and powers while performing official duties."  
Police harass and arrest bloggers and cyber-dissidents for Internet postings critical of the government. In January 2008, a court sentenced cyber-dissident Truong Quoc Huy to six years of imprisonment for distributing leaflets criticizing the Communist Party and participating in pro-democracy forums on the Internet. He was charged with "abusing democratic freedoms of association, expression, assembly to infringe on the interests of the state."  
National security laws are used to imprison members of opposition political parties, independent trade unions, and unsanctioned press outlets or religious organizations. Laws such as Ordinance 44 authorize the detention without trial of dissidents at "social protection centers" and psychiatric facilities if they are deemed to have violated national security laws.  
In March 2008, police arrested Bui Kim Thanh, an activist who defended victims of land confiscation and involuntarily committed her to a mental hospital.  
Mr. Bush should know that Vietnam's leaders harass and arrest church leaders campaigning for rights or choosing not to affiliate with state-controlled religious oversight committees. For the last 30 years the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam's Supreme Patriarch, Thich Huyen Quang, has either been in prison or under house arrest for publicly protesting government policies.  
Authorities have beaten and arrested members of ethnic minorities in remote areas such as Montagnard for refusing to join state-sanctioned church organizations, protesting land confiscation, making contact with relatives or Montagnard groups abroad, or trying to seek political asylum in Cambodia.  
In April of this year, police arrested Y Ben Hdok in Dak Lak after other Montagnards in his district tried to flee to Cambodia. Police refused to allow his family or a lawyer to visit him during three days in detention. On May 1, police told Mr. Y Ben's wife to pick up his battered body. His rib and limbs were broken and his teeth had been knocked out. Police labeled the death a suicide.  
During Prime Minister Dung's visit to America, he should hear that the American people and government care about how Vietnam treats its people. This is an all too rare chance to back Vietnam's courageous activists, writers, and human rights defenders, who have risked their liberty to make their country more open, tolerant, and free.  
* Ms. Colm, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, is based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.



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