With the presidential race generating so much talk of John Kerry's Vietnam record, one could almost forget that "Vietnam" is not just the name of a war that ended 30 years ago. It is also the name of a country of 82 million human beings -- men, women, and children who live under one of the most repressive dictatorships on Earth. Whatever political value there may be in recalling the Vietnam of years gone by, it is the people of Vietnam today who desperately need our attention.
"Vietnam is one of the most tightly controlled societies in the world," reports Freedom House, the well-known human rights monitor. "The regime jails or harasses most dissidents, controls all media, sharply restricts religious freedom, and prevents Vietnamese from setting up independent political, labor, or religious groups."
Late last month, for example, the regime sentenced Nguyen Dan Que, a 62-year-old physician, to 30 months in prison for the crime of "abusing democratic freedoms." Translation: He wrote essays condemning government censorship and posted them on the internet.
This wasn't Que's first encounter with communist justice. He was arrested in 1990 after publicly calling for free elections and multiparty democracy. The government charged him with sedition and sentenced him to 20 years imprisonment. In 1998, after being released as part of a general amnesty, he was invited to leave the country. When he refused to go into exile, he was placed under house arrest, deprived of his telephone and computer, and barred from resuming his medical work. But Que would not be intimidated, and continued to speak out for freedom. Now he is behind bars again.
Prodemocracy activists are not the only victims of Vietnam's one-party dictatorship. For years the regime has persecuted the indigenous highland tribes known as Montagnards, singling them out for religious repression -- most are devout Christians -- and confiscating their ancestral lands. In April, when some Montagnards staged a peaceful protest to demand religious freedom, the government reacted with a violent crackdown. Hundreds of Montagnards were beaten by police and by ethnic Vietnamese armed with clubs and metal rods.
"They beat the demonstrators, including children," one eyewitness told Human Rights Watch. "People's arms and legs were broken, their skulls cracked. Children were separated from their parents. Near Ea Knir bridge, two people were killed. . . . Fire trucks came. . . . They pushed the tractors in the river, even with people still riding on them." Other witnesses told of protesters being blinded with tear gas, then handcuffed, taken away, and never seen again. Some Montagnards were tortured. Human Rights Watch mentions two who were tied up and hung over a fire until their limbs were scorched.
Few Americans have made an issue of Vietnam's harsh denial of political and religious liberty. One who has is Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, an outspoken defender of human rights worldwide and author of a bill linking growth in US aid to Vietnam to "substantial progress" in Vietnam's human rights record. Smith's bill, the Vietnam Human Rights Act, passed the House by an overwhelming 410-1 vote in 2001. But it never got a hearing or a vote in the Senate, where it was blocked by the then-chairman of the East Asian and Pacific Affairs subcommittee -- John Kerry.
Last month the House again passed Smith's bill, this time by a vote of 323 to 45. As in 2001, says Smith, the message of the bill is that "human rights are central -- they are at the core of our relationship with governments and the people they purport to represent."
Predictably, the vote sent Hanoi into high dudgeon, and it denounced Smith's legislation as "a gross interference into Vietnam's internal affairs." In truth, the bill would amount to little more than a slap on the wrist. It would have no effect on the roughly $40 million in foreign aid currently going to Vietnam every year. Only *increases* in that aid would be blocked, and only if they were earmarked for non-humanitarian purposes.
Opponents of the bill, like Kerry and Senator John McCain of Arizona, insist that the carrot of "engagement" will do more to nurture human rights in Vietnam than the stick of sanctions.
But that claim has been proven false by the experience of the last three years, Smith argues. Vietnam's treatment of dissidents and religious minorities has gotten worse, not better, since diplomatic and trade relations with the United States were normalized in 2001. The Vietnam Human Rights Act "would be law right now if it hadn't been for Kerry," Smith says, "and some of those dissidents would be out of prison." By blocking the sanctions bill three years ago, Kerry ensured only that Hanoi's repression would continue unabated.
Will he block it again this year? The Kerry campaign hadn't replied to an inquiry as of late Friday, and Smith claims no inside knowledge. "But I know this much," he said the other day. "The best and brightest and bravest people in Vietnam are in prison, persecuted by the government for their opinions or their faith. And you don't do people who are suffering immeasurable cruelty any kindness by aiding a dictatorship."