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Religious Freedom Lost on Vietnam By: Michael Benge
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, August 05, 2008


In direct contravention of President Bush’s policy of promoting religious freedom abroad, the State Department has established a foreign policy toward Vietnam promoting that communist government’s control of churches.   This is the same government that murdered over a million of their own people after the communist takeover of South Vietnam in 1975.

In the 1980s, the phrase “Coke Bottle Diplomacy” was coined to describe US policy put forth by our best and brightest of that time, whereby trade and American investment would bring communist China into the civilized world and change that country’s long history of human rights abuses and repression of religion and democracy.  The policy never worked and has only resulted in a huge trade deficit, US dollars funding a huge military buildup, poisoned products, and untold number – tens of thousands – of Tibetans and Chinese killed and imprisoned in slave labor camps. 

The Bush administration has resuscitated this failed policy of Coke Bottle Diplomacy and is applying it to Vietnam, and in 2007, the US accumulated trade deficit was $10.6 billion. 

Recently, dozens of democracy activists, journalists, cyber-dissidents and Christian and other religious leaders have been arrested and imprisoned by the Vietnamese communists. Congressional leaders and human-rights groups have charged Hanoi with "unbridled human-rights abuses," the "worst wave of oppression in 20 years."  Some in Congress have accused the Administration of worshiping at the “Alter of Trade” while turning a blind eye toward religious persecution and human rights abuses in Vietnam.   

Despite Vietnam’s increased human rights abuses, on June 24th, President Bush, for the third time, met with communist Vietnamese officials in the Oval Office, this time with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.  The meeting focused on improving trade, developing even closer economic ties and increasing US investment in Vietnam in order to bail out Vietnam’s failing economy.  In passing, President Bush told the prime minister that he “thought the strides the government is making towards religious freedom is noteworthy.”

Noteworthy indeed.  President Bush’s Pollyanna view of religious freedom in Vietnam is based in part on erroneous reporting fed to him by the Department of State.  In 2006, Vietnam was removed from the State Department’s designation as a Country of Particular Concern for severe violations of religious freedom.  The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, joined by Human Rights Organizations, has urged the Department of State to put Vietnam back on its CPC religious freedom blacklist.

One of the justifications that the Department of State gave for removing Vietnam from its blacklist is that regime’s purported liberalization of restrictions on house churches.  However, evidence disputes this claim.  The fact is the Vietnamese communist regime has imposed even tighter restrictions. Although Christian families are now allowed to pray in their home, they are not allowed to pray in groups – including extended families, in public or in churches unless they are government sanctioned and controlled. 

In the Central Highlands and other contentious areas, US officials are taken to Potempkin villages and model government churches and fed disinformation by government agents posing as religious leaders.  US officials often take their word as the gospel.  One such agent and informant for the State Department’s Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom John Hanford is Siu Kim, a Montagnard with a church in Plieku, who works for Vietnam’s communist government.  According to that government’s statistics, the Montagnards are among Vietnam’s poorest inhabitants; yet, Siu Kim has been on four tours to the US, paid for by the communist government to propagandize the Montagnards here. 

Upon his appointment, US Ambassador to Vietnam Michael Michalak stated that he was going to continue the policy of Ambassador Hanford of promoting the accelerated registration of churches in Vietnam.  However, Ambassador Michalak neglected to explain the cost to religious freedom that this registration entails.  To register, churches must submit to the Central Bureau of Religious Affairs (CBA) a list of names and addresses of members, and only those approved by the CBA can attend services.  All church meetings and sermons must be approved by the CBA, and sermons must be given in Vietnamese – even in ethnic minority churches.  Pastors and priests can neither deviate from the approved sermon nor proselytize, and CBA police monitor all services.  Nor can churches and pastors provide aid and comfort to local villagers.  This is de facto communist control of churches in Vietnam.

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill reconfirmed this misguided policy in his March 12th testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and as further justification stated, “Since the CPC designation was removed, there has been further progress. The government held over 3,000 training courses and 10,000 workshops for officials throughout the country on how to implement the new law on religion.”  What Hill forgot to mention is Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s certification of “the Vietnamese communist party’s 2007-8 ‘Religion Campaign Plan’ to train 21,811 communist religious workers in the political management of religion, with a special focus on ethnic minorities.” (Vietnam News Agency, 6/13/07)  These religious “workers” are to ensure that churches and church members comply with CBA’s registration requirements and the communist control of religion.

The Vietnamese communist government repeatedly promises to ease up on religious repression while it simultaneously steps up its crack down those advocating religious freedom.  The communist government does not discriminate in its repression of religious faiths, nor who it persecutes – both men and women.  Most noted is Roman Catholic Priest Father Thaddeus Nguyen Van Ly who was depicted on television gagged and restrained during sentencing to several years in prison in a Vietnamese kangaroo court. 

The recently deceased Thich Huyen Quang, 87, patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), one of Vietnam's most beloved and esteemed spiritual leaders, who along with the UBCV deputy leader Thich Quang Do, was sent into internal exile in 1982 and detained in remote provinces for the past 26 years for refusing to submit Vietnamese Buddhism to Communist Party control.  Although over 80% of the Buddhists in Vietnam adhere to the UBCV, the government refuses to recognize the UBCV and continues to try to force the members to join the communist state-controlled Vietnam Buddhist Sangha church.  Monks, nuns and members of the UBCV, the Hoa Hao Buddhist Church, and the Khmer Krom Buddhist Church (Cambodian ethnic minorities) are continually harassed, beaten and imprisoned. 

On February 8, two hundred Khmer Krom Buddhist monks peacefully demonstrated in Soc Treang, Vietnam, asking for religious freedom.  The Vietnamese government responded by brutally beating, arresting, imprisoned nineteen Monks -- five were given prison sentences of 2 to 4 years.  Vietnam went so far as to arrange the kidnapping of the Venerable Tim Sakhorn, a Cambodian citizen who was the Abbot of the Phnom Den North Pagoda temple in Takeo province, Cambodia, who was aiding the Khmer Krom refugees who fled the religious repression in Vietnam and sought refuge in Cambodia.  The Venerable Tim Sakhorn was imprisoned in Vietnam and ironically charged with crossing the border without proper documentation.  Most recently, Vietnamese authorities claim that he has been released from prison, but to no one’s surprise, he has since “disappeared.”

While Vietnamese communist officials can travel freely throughout the United States, US officials cannot travel freely in Vietnam without advance notice to national and local officials and accompaniment by Vietnamese government minders and security personnel. UN and independent human rights organizations are not allowed an established presence in Vietnam; therefore, incidences such as the “disappearance” of the Cambodian Monk, nor the plethora of other human rights abuses, cannot be investigated

Routinely, house church Christians are rounded up and beaten, given electric shocks, and jailed when they refuse to join communist controlled churches.  Reports continue to emanate from Vietnam that Montagnard and Hmong men and women are still being subjected to forced renunciation of their Christian faith, often resulting in torture and sometimes death.  As communist Vietnam's "President" Nguyen Minh Triet's 2007 met with President Bush in the White House, Y-Het Vin, a young Hroi ethnic minority man from Phu Yen province was being tortured by Vietnam’s religious police (CBA).  He died from injuries after several days of sustained beatings in an attempt to force him to recant his Christian faith.  This is not an isolated case.  Over 350 Montagnard political prisoners, many of whom are Protestant pastors, languish in jail, and the number that died or was tortured while imprisoned is unknown. 

Because of continual religious persecution and other human rights abuses, large numbers of Montagnards continue to flee to Cambodia seeking asylum with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).  Unfortunately, UNHCR’s policy toward the Montagnards is heavily influenced by communist Vietnam, and the Montagnards are continually forced back to communist Vietnam in violation of UNHCR’s charter.  Equally as sad for the persecuted Montagnards is that the US’ refugee policy is also heavily influenced by the communist Vietnamese.  During a trip Cambodia in February 2007, Ellen Sauerbrey, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, told a press conference that Montagnards should stay in Vietnam and not seek asylum in Cambodia for Vietnamese officials assured her that Montagnards were not being abused.

Tell that to H’Suin Rmah, a Montagnard, who recently fled to Cambodia seeking refuge with UNHCR after being raped by Vietnamese officials.  She lives in fear, not knowing if UNHCR will send her back to Vietnam, even though by nature of the crime, she is qualified for resettlement in the US.  Several cases of Montagnard women being repeatedly raped by provincial police/authorities as the price to obtain their papers and passports have been reported. 

Evidence shows that Sauerbrey’s advice is very bad policy.  In April of this year, police arrested Y Ben Hdok in Dak Lak after he and other Montagnards in his district tried to flee the persecution and seek refuge in Cambodia.  Vietnamese 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."  This is not an isolated incident, and happens all too often.     

President Bush has called religious freedom "the first freedom of the human soul."  However, he wouldn’t attend services at St. Johns across the street from the White House if it were controlled by the communist party, so why then would his foreign policy makers think the people of Vietnam want to worship in churches controlled by a repressive regime whose only religion is atheist communism? 

The State Department’s mistaken policy on religion in Vietnam sends the message that if the US supports communist control of churches, we will also turn a blind eye to their continued crack down and imprisonment of advocates for human rights, democracy, free speech and internet access.  This is Coke Bottle Diplomacy at its worst, and is playing right into the hands of the same brutal communist regime that murdered more than 1 million of its own people.


Michael Benge spent 11 years in Vietnam as a Foreign Service Officer, including five years as a Prisoner of war-- 1968-73 and is a student of South East Asian Politics. He is very active in advocating for human rights and religious freedom and has written extensively on these subjects.


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