04 February 2006, VOA, On The Line program



Vietnam And Human Rights


Host: Vietnam is now campaigning for membership in the World Trade Organization. But while Vietnam may be trying to open up economically, the ruling Communist Party continues to stifle political and civic life.

In its latest report, Freedom House, an independent human rights organization, found that Vietnam had made slight progress in respecting civil liberties and is still denying basic rights. According to Freedom House, Vietnam is "not free." The U-S State Department designates Vietnam as a "country of particular concern" because of its severe restrictions on freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly.

What is the state of human rights in Vietnam, and what are the prospects for democratic change? Joining us to talk about it is Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, speaking by phone from his home in Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam's leading advocate of change, Dr. Que published the Manifesto of the Non-Violent Movement for Human Rights in Vietnam in 1990. More recently, he offered a "road map" for the democratization of the country.

Host: Dr. Que, are you still under house arrest? How much freedom of movement and action do you currently have?

Que: I am faced with a lot of trouble in daily life. My political, social, and even charitable activities are hindered. As for myself, although Iím officially no longer under house arrest, in reality my phone is cut, I canít have a fax machine or internet service installed, and my mail is censored. The cell phone is my only means of communication, but if its use is detected by the police, its service will be cut immediately. Plain-clothes police officers regularly take turns keeping a watch on my house. If I venture out of doors, Iíll be followed. The police will summon for questioning and threaten anyone who comes to see me, and will make it difficult for them to do their jobs. After being released by the authorities this time, I donít feel freer at all than in the previous times, when I was released in 1988 and 1998. On the contrary, I am subject to much stricter controls.

Host: Do you think by and large that thereís more respect for human rights in Vietnam or less these days?

Que: The situation of human rights in Vietnam in the past year was no better, if not to say that it was even worse. We have entered the 21st century, but the Vietnamese people are still being denied basic human rights such as the freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of standing for election, freedom to vote, and so forth. People are struggling energetically to wrest back the human rights taken away by the Communists. Together, the universal values of human rights and democracy that people want, and the gradual economic and cultural liberalization that the Politburo has been compelled to implement is radically transforming Vietnamís social infrastructure. A new infrastructure will determine a new superstructure. Fearful of losing its leading role, the Politburo of the Communist Party of Vietnam has, on the one hand, complied with some international human rights requirements. Theyíve had to do that in order to attract investment. But on the other hand the Politburo has tried to cope with the surging force of the people demanding human rights and democracy. I think the concessions by the Communists regarding human rights are merely formalistic, sporadic, and trifling efforts. I believe that the people are growing stronger, and with increased international support will force the Communists to back down totally, instead of just making concessions in a piecemeal fashion as if they were distributing handouts. The Vietnamese peopleís struggle will succeed only when our people enjoy freedom of speech, freedom of association, the freedom of standing for election, and freedom to vote, and when the people have the right to change their government periodically by their votes.

Host: How about the Internet? The Vietnamese government has jailed a number of dissidents who have used the internet to express their views and Vietnam continues to block any number of websites where thereís information that the government doesnít want people accessing. Has Vietnam succeeded in their efforts to clamp down on internet freedom?

Que: No, the Hanoi government has not succeeded and never will, because the population, especially the youth and intellectuals, hunger for the kind of information you can get on the Internet. They arenít deterred by government threats and they are overcoming the firewall by every means. As for the dissidents and those who struggle for human rights and democracy, this is the most effective means possible for them to speak up, and they are willing to use it even if they have to risk imprisonment. Meanwhile, the government does not have the sufficient technology to completely block all websites, nor does it have enough personnel to monitor many Internet addresses. It is necessary to further develop the Internet, particularly in the rural areas.

Host: Outside of the internet is there any room for free _expression through newspapers, or magazines? Is there any private press that is uncensored in Vietnam these days?

Que: No. There is no uncensored private press in Vietnam, not even one uncensored newspaper. The Vietnamese authorities often claim that there are 600 newspapers in the country, but the fact is that all those papers are controlled by the state. In 2003, I myself criticized Vietnam for its lack of freedom of press and was sentenced to 30 months in prison.

Host: Whatís the state of religious freedom in Vietnam?

Que: Although believers of various religions do have the freedom to worship and to go to church and temple, the churches must be approved by the state and supervised by the Fatherland Front, a Communist Party group. There are currently two kinds of churches: the state-run church and the underground church which operates outside the law. Last year the authorities stepped up their efforts to clamp down on the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam, the Hoa Hao Buddhist Church, and the Protestants in the past years. It is for this reason that the U.S. Department of State still keeps Vietnam on the list of Countries of Particular Concern with regards to religion. In late 2005, on the occasion of the visit by Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples of the Vatican, the Vietnamese government showed some promising signs, but I donít believe there will be true religious freedom in the near future, even for the Christian Church.

Host: Weíve heard recently about there being strikes recently at a number of factories in Vietnam. Whatís happening with that?

Que: From December 29th to January 4th, 2006, a series of strikes broke out in Thu Duc, a suburban area of Saigon. Starting at a Taiwanese company with foreign development investment, it quickly spread to other companies. More than forty-thousand workers took part to demand higher pay, which was too low in comparison with other countries in the region, and better working conditions. Those conditions are often unsafe, offer no insurance for labor accidents, pay no overtime, and allow for violence and abuses by the management, including sexual abuses of women. The government hurriedly raised the minimum wage from forty to forty-four or forty-five dollars a month, beginning February 1st, 2006. The FDI companies immediately agreed, but the workers thought that things were still unsatisfactory. Although they later returned to work, there still was a lot of discontent. Two weeks later, on January 20th, another strike broke out in Binh Duong, a province adjacent to Saigon, for the same reasonóto demand higher pay and better working conditions. With regards to the labor union issue, in Vietnam there are no free, independent labor unions. All labor unions are set up and run by the state, which on the one hand make deals with capitalists, and on the other hand keep labor unions in check. That way, the state gets investment; capitalists get cheap labor, while workers donít make enough to live.

Host: What should the policy of the United States and other developed countries be toward Vietnam? How much room is there for pressure and how much room is there for cooperation in trying to improve human rights?

Que: On the one hand, they should increase diplomatic pressure to urge the Vietnamese government to respect human rights and implement democracy. On the other hand, in my opinion, the policy of the United States and other democratic countries toward Vietnam should be based on four points. First, increase investment in and trade with Vietnam as much as possible and allow it to join the WTO in order to compel it to abide by international rules of the game. Second, increase even more sharply bilateral educational and cultural exchanges with Vietnam so that the Vietnamese people, especially youth, can be part of the outside world. Third, Vietnam would reduce Communist Party interference in government affairs if other countries worked only with the government and refrained from dealing with the party. And fourth, encourage Vietnamese National Assembly deputies to speak up in defense of the voters they represent, and encourage Communist Party members to demand party democratization and refuse to allow themselves to be dominated by the Political Bureau as they are now.

Host: What should the people in Vietnam, themselves do to push for greater human rights and democracy?

Que: On the one hand, they should continue to raise their voice in demand for human rights and democracy. On the other hand, the Vietnamese people should bring into full play the following four methods. First, on the political plane, isolate the Political Bureau and call for a radically different system to promote development and get Vietnam out of its backwardness. Second, demand that the government create a genuine market economy in accordance with the law of supply and demand. That means privatizing all state-operated companies operating at a loss. The private sector must become the leading force in national economy. Third, demand that the current teaching of outdated Marxism-Leninism in school be scrapped. The Vietnamese people want a humanist, pluralist, and progressive culture. Fourth, we need to coordinate the efforts of Vietnamese in the country with those abroad. Vietnamese throughout the world who espouse the ideas of freedom and democracy and who have capital, technology, and managerial experience should act in coordination with the private sector in the Vietnam to empower the Vietnamese people. Over time, dictatorship will decline and the people will get stronger. When these two trends converge, it will mark the end of dictatorship, and we will have the conditions necessary for a democratic Vietnam.

Host: Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, thank you for joining us today by phone from Vietnam. Joining us now in the studio is Vietnamese human rights activist Dr. Doan Viet Hoat; and Al Santoli, president of the Asia-American Initiative. Welcome and thanks for joining us today.

Host: Dr. Hoat, Vietnam is pushing for membership in the WTO and we heard Dr. Nguyen Dan Que say that he felt that was a good idea, that that was something he thought would force Vietnam to have greater freedom for the people. Whatís your sense of WTO membership? Good idea or not for Vietnam?

Hoat: I think itís a good idea for Vietnam to join WTO and to join all other international organizations. But of course, Vietnam has to admit the standards. Until know they havenít. Especially in the legal system. So, I think that is a good idea.

Host: Al Santoli, whatís your sense of WTO membership? Is that something where it should be granted in the hopes that Vietnam would come around on human rights or should there be more pressure to see progress on human rights before membership in the WTO or other organizations be granted?

Santoli: I think it has to be a continual give and take. So there are certain standards and criteria that should be met as part of being accepted. Assent with the acceptance, being open as long as they start to meet the principal primary standards theyíve agreed to through other international agreements and protocols. And then as they move forward with membership and not just for Vietnam, but any country. You donít let a country slide, because they have a history of violating their citizens freedoms, but the WTO and the other organization must uphold their own principals.

Host: Now this last summer, the Prime Minister of Vietnam came to Washington, met with President Bush. Whatís the status of U-S Vietnamese relations at this point, and how is it affecting things in Vietnam?

Santoli: Thereís been more dialogue between the U-S and Vietnam. And within the population of Vietnam, thereís an increasing aspiration for openness, and for prosperity. The problem is still, youíve got this legacy of a communist system, as Dr. Que said, where even Marxism and Leninism -- even though itís outmoded -- is still taught in the schools. And while, on one hand Vietnamís leaders are talking to U-S, theyíre even talking to China for political reasons, to try to uphold their system and trying to find a way by which they can keep a grip on power, by opening up the economy up a little bit. And I donít think it works, and I think in the future with China, the contradictions will start to clash and itís something that Vietnam should learn from. That the benefits of the few who are in power shouldnít supercede the greater good of the society.

Host: Dr. Hoat, whatís your sense of where relations between the U-S and Vietnam are and what should U-S Policy be toward Vietnam? Is there anything that the U-S isnít doing that they really shouldnít be doing to help promote human rights in Vietnam?

Hoat: In general, the relation between U-S and Vietnam is good. But also, the United States has not done enough to create better conditions transforming Vietnam from a dictatorship to a democracy, and also transforming the society from a closed society to a more open society. I think the United States can do more to help in both directions. Pressure on the government to open up, and also to help develop a civil society in Vietnam. I think the United States can do more on many programs, education, culture, economics, and many, many civil society programs.

Host: Al Santoli, whatís your sense of civil society hopes for building some kind of civic institutions in Vietnam, not controlled by the government? How much room is there for promoting that?

Santoli: I think the example of Dr. Que and the example of Professor Hoat being here, in the United States and not being allowed to be home, is an example of the long way there is yet to go. But I think that from everybody that visits Vietnam, and the interaction with the Vietnamese people, there is a great aspiration to open up the society. And if you look at the way by which even with the economics, the government resisted the private sector, entrepreneurial transformation, but it was the local people, both in the North and the South, who spearheaded, and were unrelenting in opening up the economics of the country. So I think, at some point itís a natural evolution. But I think the key thing right now, in which the U-S government could help, is to put more very fair protocol demands -- if the Vietnamese government wants to join the international institutions, that there are standard criteria that have to be met, respecting the rights of its own people.

Host: Dr. Hoat, on this question of the economy and opening up the economy, whatís your expectation for how much progress will come on the political and civic side, from the opening of the economic side? Thereís been a lot of talk all along that for countries that open up economically, the political rights will follow. We donít necessarily see that happening in places like China. Whatís your expectation for Vietnam?

Hoat: First, opening up economically is not enough to help open the political and cultural areas and activities of the people. In order to have the transformation from dictatorship to democracy we need not only to open up the economy, but also open up in cultural activities, to free the people from domination of the government in education, cultural activities, information. We need to have free press. We need to have a freedom of exchange of information. We need to open up all those areas before we can have transformation to democracy.

Host: Al Santoli, one of the issues that comes up time and again, the state department mentions it, human rights groups are always mentioning, is the lack of freedom of religion in Vietnam. Churches are allowed, but the state attempts to keep control over organized religion. Why that need for control? Why not just let churches be churches, and do their faith as they see it, rather than trying to keep a lid on the practice of religion in the country?

Santoli: It seems that this is a bad habit of communist regimes. Even those that are trying to form some sort of a hybrid system, of opening the economy, but yet maintaining social and political control, is that they fear any type of thought that would be outside of essentially the party line. This again is the contradiction of having a government sanction, whether it be Buddhist, or whether it be Hoa Hao, or whether it be Catholic religious institution, as opposed to the people who want to convey a sense of their own spirituality. Itís a contradiction. Vietnam has violated the basic premises of the laws that they have on religious freedom, yet, thereís been no penalties imposed. And it might be such that at some point, some penalties should be imposed, just to show them that we take these things seriouslym [that] itís not just hollow rhetoric and itís not just politics.

Host: Dr. Hoat, whatís your sense of why Vietnam doesnít just go all the way and allow religious freedom instead of this kind of halfway measure of allowing Churches, but trying to control them?

Hoat: The communist regime in general is against religion basically. Second, they are against any organization thatís not controlled by the party and the government. Thatís why they selected people to go to the Church. But they want to control the Church itself and the leaders of the Church, because of in a country, a communist country like Vietnam, a Church or Pagoda in general are the strongest organization, that the government and party, are very difficult for them to control. Thatís why they want to try to interfere into the organization of the Church.

Host: Al Santoli, we have about a half a minute left, letís say a year from now, five years from now, do you expect Vietnam to be freer or less free, or about the same.

Santoli: I think it will progressively be getting freer. A big impact on the whole region is going to be China. Itís all integrated, and freedom in Vietnam will affect freedom in China, and vice versa. Itís an interrelated issue that when weíre dealing with each country in Asia under oppressive regimes, the success of one, of opening up their system will affect the others.

Host: Iím afraid thatís going to be the last word for today. We are out of time. But, I'd like to thank my guests, Vietnamese human rights activist Dr. Doan Viet Hoat; and Al Santoli of the Asia-American Initiative. And joining us at the top of the program by phone from Vietnam, was dissident and human rights advocate, Dr. Nguyen Dan Que. We have created a new, interactive On The Line website which we hope you'll visit. The address is www.voanews.com/ontheline. On the site, you can watch the latest program, read or listen to previous programs, learn about upcoming shows, and submit questions for future On the Line guests. For On The Line, I'm Eric Felten.

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