April 30, 2015
Economic liberalisation doesn’t mean political reform, which is why Vietnamese refugees are still seeking freedom and democracy despite the war ending four decades ago, write Phong Nguyen and Don Le.
Today is a significant date for many Australians, representing 40 years since the Fall of Saigon and subsequently the end of the Vietnam War. April 30, 1975 also marked the start of the journey for over 100,000 Vietnamese refugees who fled the war-torn country and were ultimately resettled in Australia.
Although the Vietnam War ended 40 years ago,Vietnamese people continue to embark on this dangerous journey across the seas in search of political asylum.
The profile of these recent refugees is in stark contrast to those who left Vietnam immediately after the war. Whereas people from all walks of life and ages left Vietnam in 1975, the new refugees are mostly in their late 20s or early 30s. In this regard, they know the Vietnam War only through stories rather than first-hand experience. Furthermore, they grew up in a time when economic reform introduced a more cosmopolitan lifestyle.
Nonetheless, this new generation found that economic liberalisation did not equate to political reform, and thus people in Vietnam still suffer from human rights abuses as well as political and religious persecution. In this regard, like those who left before them, these refugees are also seeking freedom and democracy.
Many of today’s Vietnamese refugees originate from a North Central province called Nghe An, where religious persecution and human rights abuse is widespread. This region has a large Catholic population and its inhabitants have been subjected to harsh treatment, including arrests and violent crackdowns by the police.
A two-day trial in the city of Vinh saw 14 young, peaceful democracy activists sentenced to up to 13 years in January 2013. In September of that same year, hundreds of Catholic parishioners in My Yen Parish were attacked by police who shot live ammunition into the air. The parishioners were demanding the release of two individuals from their congregation, who were being detained without charge.
Vietnamese people are sharing their grievances in increasingly creative ways. The internet has provided a new medium for activists to quickly disseminate information. At the beginning of this year, citizens in Vietnam posted pictures of themselves on social media holding signs with the phrase “I don’t like the Vietnamese Communist Party”. People from all backgrounds participated in this brave initiative, despite the threat of arrest.
It is clear that Vietnamese citizens have overcome fear of state repression and are willing to speak up against injustice. They are also using the internet to bypass state-run publications and gain insight into issues such as government corruption and police abuse. Indeed, they are often the ones writing and shaping public opinion. Vietnamese-Australian youth are also contributing to the growing human rights movement in Vietnam. In July last year, the Federal Vietnamese Students Association in Australia organised the First National Vietnamese Youth Conference at Victoria University with the theme “One Dream: Vietnamese Youth in Unity”. Attendees focused on networking with fellow students in Vietnam, discussing opportunities to work together, and supporting the grassroots movement in Vietnam.
The second generation of the diaspora may not have experienced the struggles of the Vietnam War, but they do understand their parents’ sacrifices. They also recognise their good fortune growing up in a democratic nation, and thus want to work in solidarity with Vietnamese youth who are often disadvantaged and without fundamental rights.
Those in the Vietnamese-Australian community also recognise that as Australians we can assist human rights defenders in Vietnam at an international level. As Vietnamese officials look to improve their economy, they will seek stronger trade relations. As Australia engages with Vietnam in economic treaties like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, government officials can continue to firmly hold Vietnamese officials responsible for their human rights commitment.
The Abbott Government has the opportunity to support the Vietnamese-Australian community by putting human rights before trade in its diplomatic engagements with Hanoi. Even though Vietnamese citizens at times must still seek freedom and democracy in a new homeland, the prospect of a brighter tomorrow is just around the corner if we collectively work towards it.
Dr Phong Nguyen is a Sydney-based cardiologist and the Australian representative of Viet Tan, an unsanctioned pro-democracy political party in Vietnam. Don Le is the President of the Federal Vietnamese Students Association in Australia and also a member of Viet Tan.