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Vietnam: When Will They Ever Learn? By: Michael Benge
Washington Times | Tuesday, June 14, 2005


Vietnam recently was named as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), ranking it among the "Top 10" of the world's worst violators of religious freedom and human rights.

This designation carries the option of sanctions against repressive countries, such as barring its officials from traveling to the United States. Instead, State Department officials have arranged for Prime Minister Phan Van Khai to come to the White House to meet with President Bush on June 21. Vietnam is one of the last bastions of communism along with China, Cuba, North Korea and Cambodia.

Once again the State Department's position seems to be all carrot but no stick, seemingly forgetting the Vietnamese communists broke every agreement with the U.S. As Pete Seeger's '60s antiwar song goes, "When will they ever learn?"

During the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese communist's strategy was "talk and fight." During negotiations, U.S. diplomats were lulled into diplomatic la-la land, while the communists repositioned and resupplied their troops for the next round of fighting: Advantage, the communists. The communists' policy has not changed to this day.

In return for the U.S. suspending proposed sanctions, the Vietnamese communists have conned U.S. diplomats into believing they will reform on religious freedom and human rights. As a token gesture the Vietnamese communists released a few high-profile political and religious prisoners from their swinging-door prison system, only to place them under 24-hour surveillance and house arrest and bar them from media access, including using the Internet.

Released after 16 years in prison, Monk Thich Thien Minh of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) wrote, "There is no amelioration in human rights and religious freedom. I have exchanged my small prison for a bigger one." Still, many Buddhist monks, Catholic priests ,and Christian pastors and laypersons remain in prison. The State Department has asked Congress for several more weeks before considering sanctions, "and indicated the talks were bearing fruit." Evidently, the diplomats have a preference for spoiled fruit.

While negotiating with the State Department, the Vietnamese communists were filling their prisons with other not-so-high-profile political/religious prisoners sentenced up to 15 years for "undermining national security and unity." In reality, these people fled religious persecution in Vietnam for refuge in Cambodia, but were captured by Vietnamese and Cambodian forces and sent back for prosecution.

Now Prime Minister Phan Van Khai made the oblique promise to ease registration requirements for churches. Nevertheless, churches are still requested to register; the names of each of churches' congregation must be filed with the state, and no one else is allowed to attend services; sermons must be submitted for approval, and monks, priests and pastors cannot deviate from the approved script; all sermons must be given in Vietnamese and all pastors must be Vietnamese, which excludes ethnic minority languages and pastors; monks, priests and pastors cannot proselytize. According to Human Rights Watch, the Vietnamese government continues branding all unauthorized religious activities as potentially subversive.

Targeted in particular are ethnic minority Protestants, Mennonites, and members of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. In a final insult to religious freedom, secret police agents infiltrate churches to ensure compliance.

Prime Minister Phan Van Kahi 2½ months ago reportedly instructed officials to "ensure that each citizen's freedom of religious and belief practice is observed [and] outlaw attempts to force people to follow a religion or to deny their religion." Is this something new? No. This is written into the Vietnamese communist constitution. Has the repression stopped? No. In northern and central Vietnam persecution continues and local officials harass and beat Christians and confiscate their rice fields when they refuse to renounce their religion. Recently in Buon Ale A in Darlak province a pastor was forced to sign an affidavit stating the Montagnards enjoyed religious freedom after he was almost killed by hanging as part of the torture designed to crush his resistance.

Because no independent organizations are allowed in the areas where most persecution occurs, there is no way for the State Department to verify the Vietnamese communists live up to their promises.

Moreover, families of Montagnard Christians who fled Vietnam after religious protests in 2001 and resettled in the U.S. are not being allowed to immigrate for family reunification in direct violation of the Jackson/Vanik Amendment that prohibits trade with countries that do not allow free emigration.

Vietnam's communists have been good students of Chinese policies that permit repression and retain power by playing off America's "Coke bottle diplomacy."

What's behind the Vietnamese communist's charade of easing religious persecution and the State Department's swallowing the "spoiled fruit" of its diplomacy? Trade. The U.S. is now Vietnam's biggest export market -- totaling $5 billion. The Vietnamese communists hope to again pull the wool over U.S. diplomats' eyes long enough to gain U.S. backing for Vietnam membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). "When will they ever learn?"

In his second inaugural speech, President Bush pledged: "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors."

In his June 21 meeting with Prime Minister Khai, the president must set concrete benchmarks and timelines to prove the Vietnamese communists are improving their citizens' religious freedom and human rights. Mr. Khai must be told that if the Vietnamese government does not meet these standards, the U.S. will curtail trade and it will no longer enjoy our diplomatic support for WTO membership. Unless this is done, the president will have broken his pledge to the oppressed and exposed the U.S. as the paper tiger it has always been when negotiating with the Vietnamese communists.


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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