To End Political Repression in Vietnam

Duy Hoang|04/11/2006|Articles & Speeches|

Speech at The 2006 Rafto Symposium – Bergen, Norway

Dear Dr. Gunnar Sorbo, Rafto Prize Laureates, Distinguished Guests,

It is an honor to speak with you today on the 20th anniversary of the Rafto Foundation. Like all of you, I am thrilled with the Foundation’s choice for the 2006 Rafto Human Rights Prize.

The Venerable Thich Quang Do is indeed a beacon of hope for the Vietnamese people. His life epitomizes the struggle and aspirations of a nation. One can look at the challenges facing Venerable Thich Quang Do and the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam to find clues on how to end the political repression.

In February 2006, Venerable Thich Quang Do planned to take a delegation to visit the ailing patriarch of the Church who was under pagoda arrest in Binh Dinh province. When the group came to the train station in Saigon for the trip to Binh Dinh, security police swept in and prevented the monks from going further. Venerable Thich Quang Do was physically carried by police into an interrogation room. This was just one of the many times that he has been arrested or detained. In October 2003, officials from the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee and Security Police orally informed Venerable Thich Quang Do that he was placed under administrative detention for an indefinite period.

How can such arbitrary actions have a legal basis? How can the security police act with such impunity? And why do relatively few people inside the country know of the humanistic work of Venerable Thich Quang Do? The answers to these questions lay at the heart of the political repression. Let us consider each in turn.

The Legal System

The first enabler for the political repression in Vietnam is the legal system which has three inherent inconsistencies.

• First are the inconsistencies between international law and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’s Constitution. For example, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Vietnam is a signatory guarantees political freedoms yet the Constitution grants the Communist Party a leading role over the nation.

• Second are the inconsistencies between the Constitution and the legal code. The Constitution guarantees a wide range of rights “subject to the laws.” This results in the legal code curtailing the rights that are generously promised in the Constitution.

• Third are the inconsistencies between the legal code and the actual implementation. According to Vietnamese law, security police must have a warrant to arrest a suspect and the arrest must occur openly in the presence of witnesses. In practice, this legal requirement is routinely ignored.

So what can we do?

To begin, let’s expose these fundamental inconsistencies and get the Hanoi regime to respect international norms as well as its own constitution and laws. This has been the motivation for Vietnamese and international human rights groups in pressuring the regime to repeal the policy on administrative detention. The infamous Decree 31/CP allows police to place citizens under house arrest—without ever pressing charges—for renewable two year terms. Under fierce international and domestic pressure it appears that the Hanoi government may soon repeal this decree.

Next, please stand by Vietnamese citizens victimized by the arbitrary legal system. The next time an Internet activist is charged with “espionage” for sending an email to a friend overseas, or “propaganda against the state” for peacefully expressing his views, a network of international lawyers could step in to provide legal defense.

Furthermore, why not empower Vietnamese citizens by helping them become aware of their own rights? Education and technical assistance from international NGOs would help raise local awareness. Of course, outsiders can only do so much. Hence a priority should be to support and invest in local Vietnamese NGOs that can champion the rule of law.

In summary, the use of the legal system for political ends by the regime is one enabler for repression in Vietnam.

The Public Security Forces

Another enabler for the repression are the security forces that carry out these policies. But who are the public security? They are individuals. Some are motivated by ideology. Most just carry out orders. All currently act under the cloak of anonymity.

Democracy activists tell of their working sessions with the public security bureau. The interrogations can be very harsh, but occasionally security officers will ask the activist afterwards not to be mad at them or to take the treatment personally. These officers, sometimes quite young, say that when the regime collapses please forgive their actions for they were only following orders.

These true stories suggest that it is necessary to separate out the individuals from under the cover of the system. When reporting human rights abuses in Vietnam, human rights organizations should mention not only the particular violations, but the officials responsible for the offending acts. By publicly naming the police colonel responsible for ordering the arbitrary detention of a dissident, the security agents involved in a staged traffic accident to intimidate an opposition figure, or the public security officers who beat a democracy activist under interrogation, we can ensure that human rights violators cannot hide in the shadows.

Clearly, the leaders of the Communist Party are ultimately and directly responsible for the political repression in Vietnam. But the ability of the communist leadership to achieve its wishes depends on the security forces following orders. By singling out individual actors the whole apparatus can gradually be neutralized. When public security officials become aware that the outside world and international tribunals are aware of their actions, and that these actions have consequences, they may think twice next time they carry out an order to persecute a democracy activist. These officials may even decide to call in sick rather than report to work.

The Free Flow of Information

The final enabler for the political repression in Vietnam is the regime’s control over the free flow of information. On many occasions, Venerable Thich Quang Do has requested authorities to allow the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam to publish a newspaper. These requests have all been denied. The regime would to like maintain its monopoly over the media. However, it increasingly faces two realities.

The first reality is Vietnam’s accession to the WTO and the responsibilities that come with it. With Vietnam’s integration into the global trading community now a fact, the challenge for concerned parties will be to lobby Norway, the EU, America and other democratic governments to promote equal access to the Vietnamese market. Since Vietnamese firms will be free to export anything they wish, the Hanoi regime must in turn allow all goods into the Vietnamese market including newspapers and magazines. Once foreign newspapers can be distributed inside the country, what is the regime’s argument for continuing to restrict local newspapers?

The second reality is technology as represented by the Internet. Simply put, Vietnam cannot join the modern world and achieve a knowledge-based economy when the government blocks websites and requires internet cafes to register users. Support for Internet freedom is essential for achieving the free flow of information and eroding political repression. We must defend the rights of Vietnamese citizens to exchange their ideas and writings over the Internet. And as multinational companies understood in the 1990s that operating sweat shops runs counter to corporate social responsibility, the code of corporate social responsibility today must extend to technology firms such as Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo so that they do not assist the Vietnamese regime to spy on citizens.

The Role of Civil Society

In conclusion, I have suggested that ending political repression in Vietnam requires focusing on three enablers: the regime’s abuse of the legal system, its control over the public security forces, and its ability to control the free flow of information.

There is much that the Rafto Foundation and other international NGOs can do in addressing these problems. But one thing is clear. It will be the Vietnamese people themselves who will ultimately put an end to the political repression.

As the announcement of the 2006 Rafto Prize recognized, there is a growing democracy movement in the country. Despite government persecution, a nascent civil society is developing through the efforts of many courageous Vietnamese. When possible, the international community should support these local agents of change.

The Rafto Foundation by honoring Venerable Thich Quang Do already has. Thank you again for defending human rights in my country, Vietnam.

Hoang Tu Duy
November 3, 2006