A Step Backward for Vietnam

Ms. Sanchez is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives

December 8, 2004
From Wall Street Journal Online edition

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Last week, the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam formally denied my request to travel there on official government business for the U.S. House of Representatives. I was authorized to travel on behalf of the House Homeland Security Committee to discuss regional security initiatives, defense issues, trade, and human rights.

The official reason given by the Vietnamese National Assembly was that my visit would not “serve U.S.-Vietnam relations.” The real reason? The Vietnamese government was afraid that my visit would shed light on a growing cancer within Vietnam that threatens to undermine the U.S.-Vietnam relationship: its systemic persecution of certain ethnic and religious groups, and its blatant refusal to afford universal human and religious rights to the people of Vietnam.

When the U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement was signed in 2001, U.S. Trade Ambassador Robert Zoellick called it “an important step forward in bringing economic freedom and opportunity to Vietnam.” Sadly, freedom and opportunity for Vietnamese citizens have actually faded in the years since.

In September, the U.S. State Department released its sixth annual Report on International Religious Freedom, adding Vietnam to a growing list of countries known as Countries of Particular Concern (CPC), or governments that engage in or tolerate gross infringements of religious freedom. This is not a designation that the State Department makes lightly. The only other countries that share this label are Burma, Sudan, North Korea, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, and Eritrea — a club of the world’s most egregious human rights violators.

As the Congressional representative for the 47th district of California, home to one of the world’s largest Vietnamese communities outside Vietnam, I co-founded the Congressional Caucus on Vietnam with the intention of raising awareness about the very issues that led to Vietnam’s designation as a CPC.

Unlike most of the countries on the CPC list, Vietnam’s economy is growing, and it is aggressively working toward becoming a fully integrated member of the global economy. It has taken steps toward market liberalization; its trade surplus with the U.S. is growing ($3.2 billion in 2003, up from $1.8 billion in 2002) and, just last month, Vietnam signed a bilateral World Trade Organization agreement with the European Union.

Yet, as the Vietnamese government has loosened its stranglehold on the economy, it has tightened its grip on political power, denying basic political freedoms and human rights to the Vietnamese people.

Democracy and human rights advocates have suffered the most. In late December 2003, writer Nguyen Vu Binh was sentenced to seven years in prison, followed by three years of house arrest, because he had “written and exchanged, with various opportunist elements in the country, information and materials that distorted the party and state policies.” He was also accused of communicating with “reactionary organizations” abroad after he submitted testimony in July of 2002 to a joint Congressional Human Rights Caucus/Congressional Dialogue on Vietnam, a hearing that examined freedom of expression in Vietnam. Since when did the U.S. Congress become a reactionary organization?

On April 10 of this year, in what became know as the “Easter Crackdown,” the Vietnamese government harshly responded to ethnic minority protests in the Central Highlands. Over the holiday, thousands of Montagnards gathered to protest ongoing religious repression and confiscation of tribal lands. Vietnamese government officials responded with force. Conservative reports indicate that a considerable number of people were imprisoned and hundreds were injured. And this was not the first time. Vietnam orchestrated a similar crackdown in December 2001, which ultimately led to the resettlement of 900 Montagnard refugees in the United States.

On November 12, 2004, the Vietnamese Government sentenced Rev. Nguyen Hong Quang, a human rights lawyer and democracy activist, to three years in prison for “resisting officers of the law while doing their duty.” In truth, he had simply defended impoverished farmers in land-confiscation cases.

Unfortunately, the list goes on. The Vietnamese government continues to detain Catholic priest Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly, sentenced to 15 years in prison for his peaceful advocacy of religious freedom, this in the face of a U.S. Congressional resolution — which I co-sponsored with Rep. Christopher Smith — that called for Father Ly’s immediate release. The resolution passed by a vote of 424-1. Furthermore, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has found that Father Ly is being held in violation of international law. Still, he remains in prison.

And so does prominent democracy advocate Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, who was sentenced to 30 months in prison for “abusing democratic rights” after sending information critical of the Vietnamese government to his brother in the U.S. from an Internet café.

The Vietnamese government stated that my visit would not serve U.S.-Vietnam relations, but I disagree. My goal is to establish a mature bilateral relationship that goes beyond trade to encompass a free and open dialogue on a range of issues. The United States should stand for transparency, the rule of law, and basic human rights in Vietnam. If the Vietnamese government disagrees with the points that I have raised, it should have jumped at the opportunity to welcome me to Vietnam to prove that things are, in fact, different. Unfortunately, its denial of my visa request reveals a portrait of a closed and repressive society, sketched by the examples I have given above — a society that belongs in the CPC club, and not in international organizations like the WTO.

By denying a visa to a member of the United States Congress, Vietnam has demonstrated that it is not ready for a mature bilateral relationship, and is not ready to assume the position in the international community to which it aspires. I regret we have not progressed to this point. But relations between our two countries will never be close and completely normalized until the Vietnamese government joins the growing ranks of democratic nations that fully respect the fundamental human rights and religious liberties of its own people.

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