Vietnamese activists are stepping up their campaign to get the Obama Administration to pressure Hanoi to clean up its human rights act before Washington decides to make any major changes in its policies toward the Southeast Asian nation.
In a White House meeting on Tuesday stateside representatives of Vietnamese rights organizations including Vietnam for Progress, VOICE, Viet Tan Party, Boat People SOS and influential human rights blogger Dieu Cay met with Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes and State Department representatives in advance of President Barack Obama’s visit later this month.
“We pushed the development of civil society, stressing that Vietnam does not have a civil society in the true meaning like that of democratic countries,” Nguyen The Binh, a representative of the Vietnam for Progress, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
Vietnam’s dismal record on human rights is emerging as a flash point for President Barack Obama as he travels to the communist country later this month.
Not only has the one-party state restricted freedom of speech, press and religion, but the authorities there have also assaulted and imprisoned dozens of rights activists and bloggers.
U.S. envoys have visited Vietnam in recent weeks to assess the rights situation, according to media reports.
Last month, Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told a university audience in Hanoi that he noted “some progress” in the country’s human rights record, such as ratifying the United Nations Convention against Torture in 2013 and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2014, USA Today reported.
Arms vs rights
To the activists who visited the White House that is not enough to warrant major changes in U.S. policy such as lifting the arms embargo that Washington imposed in the 1980s.
“Everybody was concerned that Vietnam would be allowed to buy lethal weapons from the U.S.,” she said. “The embargo should only be lifted if Vietnam improves on human rights.”
Obama should also press Vietnam to release the dozens of political prisoners it currently holds. Vietnam says it doesn’t hold any political prisoners and that it has jailed only lawbreakers.
“We talked about Tran Huynh Duy Thuc and many other political prisoners, urging president Obama to raise this matter with the Vietnam’s leaders,” Nguyen The Binh said. “They have to be freed immediately and unconditionally.”
Tran Huynh Duy Thuc is a Vietnamese engineer, entrepreneur, and human rights activist who was arrested in 2009, initially for "theft of telephone wires," and was later imprisoned for "conducting propaganda" against the state, one of the vague, catch-all Vietnamese authorities use to incarcerate dissidents.
A new crackdown
Hanoi‘s case isn’t being helped much as it has cracked down on protesters demonstrating over an environmental disaster that caused tons of dead fish to wash up on Vietnam’s central coast. Demonstrators have taken to the streets as people have become dissatisfied with the government’s reaction to the disaster, which many believe was caused by pollution from a Taiwanese steel plant.
On the last three Sundays, thousands of people in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, Vung Tau, Da Nang, Hue, and Nghe An publicly demonstrated demanding a transparent government investigation into the mass fish kills off the coast of Ha Tinh province. While security forces did little to block the first demonstrations at first, they have cracked down on the later protests
“The Vietnamese government too conveniently forgets that the right to peaceful protest is a core right protected in Vietnam’s Constitution and international human rights law,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Rather than sorting out the environment disaster, the government has focused on breaking up demonstrations and punishing those calling for accountability.”
Blogger Huynh Ngoc Chenh managed to evade the police and military blockade set up in Vietnam’s major cities to prevent protest to stage a lone sit-in protest on Saigon’s Nguyen Hue Boulevard on May 15.
“Security forces were everywhere near the boulevard,” he told RFA.
“I thought someone would stop me, but maybe they must have thought I was someone with the government, judging from my determination so nobody stopped me,” he said. “I walked straight to the center of the boulevard and sat down right in the middle of the circle. I took the sign from my pants pocket and held it out.”
The sign read: “Hit my face! But return to the people clean fish/clean sea/clean environment.”
Security forces went easy on him, as he was released that day.
While he was willing to take to the streets to demonstrate against his government, he urged activists to avoid protesting while Obama is in Vietnam.
“There was an online call for a protest when Obama visits Vietnam,” he said. “But to me, if the Vietnamese don’t stand up to demand their legitimate rights then nobody can help them, so I myself do not agree with the call for protest on the day he visits.”
A hunger strike
Prisoner of conscience Tran Huynh Duy Thuc told relatives he would stage a hunger strike on May 24 for human rights and rule of law.
“He decided to go on hunger strike indefinitely,” his brother Tran Huynh Duy Tan told RFA. “He prepared for the possibility that he would die.”
The hunger strike appears to be timed for Obama’s visit as Air Force One is due to touch down in Hanoi on May 23.
“We would like our message and information to reach President Obama so he knows that in Vietnam there was one person who is fighting for human rights and rule of law,” Tran Huynh Duy Tan said. “We would like very much for President Obama to read this message.”
Obama’s visit comes at a critical time as the White House wants to shore up support in Asia for U.S. policies. Vietnam shares the concern of the U.S. and other nations about China’s assertive moves in the South China Sea.
Beijing’s claim to the rich fishing grounds, mineral wealth and sea lanes in the region have a big impact on Vietnam and Hanoi sees the U.S. as a counterweight to China’s might there. For Washington, keeping the sea lanes open is critical for trade and for the integrity of a law-based international order.
Vietnam is a member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-nation free trade agreement that is intended to offset China’s economic clout in the region. Congress has yet to ratify the pact, and it has become a campaign issue for both parties in the U.S. presidential election.
“Everybody agreed that first of all maybe it is not time to talk about it while TPP has not been approved,” Nguyen The Binh said,
While there some ambivalence over the meeting, Obama still has support.
“If I am free on that day to go out, I will bring flowers and stand on the sideline to welcome him because he is the president of a country that has helped millions of Vietnamese,” Huynh Ngoc Chenh said.
Reported bu Cat Linh and Mac Lam for RFA's Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.