Editor’s Note: Ahead of Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc’s meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, Loa reporter Trần Minh Nhật provides this view from Lâm Đồng.
The past few weeks have seen a flurry of human-rights centered activities between Việt Nam and America. Just several days ago, on May 23, the 21st session of the U.S.-Việt Nam Human Rights Dialogue was held in Hà Nội.
Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc is visiting the United States this week to meet with Donald Trump. Hà Nội wants to show that its human rights records has progressed and it is eager to deepen its ties with America. But what are its real motives and ambitions for this visit? And what should America know about Việt Nam’s human rights situation before making any decisions?
The Reality on the Ground
Many people inside and outside Việt Nam are wondering why the government is pursuing a fierce crackdown on human rights defenders and independent civil society activists, as the dialogue was taking place. In just five months, at least eight activists have been arrested. In many ways, 2017 could be considered a “black year for human rights” with the escalation of police brutality and harassment of civil society activists. There has been an increase in violent suppression of peaceful protests against issues such as land seizures and environmental degradation, namely the Formosa pollution disaster in Central Việt Nam. Police violence has targeted citizen journalists reporting on Formosa demonstrations, while political harassment has taken shape in scores of arrests and imprisonments; unfair trials and ill-treatment of detainees.
Human rights violations occur even when human rights defenders meet with foreigners visiting Việt Nam, or are guests of the U.S. embassy. Their families are harassed without regard for age or relationship. Just several days before and after the US – Việt Nam Human Rights Dialogue, many rights defenders were harassed and assaulted. Authorities arrested environmental activist Hoàng Đức Bình, and issued search warrants for Bặch Hồng Quyền and Thái Văn Dung. In Nghệ An province, authorities have violently attacked priests Đặng Hữu Nam and Nguyễn Đình Thục both on the ground and in the media, for fighting for the rights of fishermen and victims of the Formosa-induced environmental disaster.
Việt Nam’s Ambitions
Việt Nam understands that America’s priorities are changing with a policy of “America First” since Donald Trump was elected president of United States. Trump immediately ordered the U.S. to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the most important partnership Việt Nam was pursuing. Việt Nam’s leaders had placed high hopes on the TPP to improve the country’s economic situation.
As Việt Nam pursues the TPP deal with the remaining ten countries and without out the U.S., the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Việt Nam still has a strong impact on Việt Nam’s economy. Despite America’s shift away from emphasizing human rights in talks with other countries, Việt Nam still fears that other government bodies within the U.S. can affect the decisions of the White House. Some meetings between U.S. officials and Vietnamese dissidents and organizations were held before the 21st session of the U.S.-Việt Nam Human Rights Dialogue, in order to gain multiple perspectives and a broad understanding of Việt Nam.
Beijing’s Little Brother
With the U.S.’ support, Việt Nam can restrict China’s power. Hà Nội has previously behaved like Beijing’s little brother, but when confronted with anti-China anger from its people, Việt Nam’s Communist Party will have to choose the less dangerous option and create some distance with its giant neighbor. Both countries are also wary of betrayal and do not trust one another.
For the Vietnamese, the risk of an invasion from the north is not to be underestimated: Chinese authorities have already prevented Vietnamese fishermen from operating in Việt Nam’s waters. Meanwhile, Washington must periodically show responsibility in protecting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, while minimizing Beijing’s control of the region as much as possible.
Avoiding criticism from the international community à propos its human rights record helps the politburo of the Communist Party of Việt Nam maintain it’s power. In my experience as a former prisoner of conscience (I spent four years in prison and three years on probation on a subversion charge), I know that this is the most important reason why Hà Nội wants to appear to have a good human rights record. The leaders want to control society and maintain their reign overall. The recent crackdowns show that Hà Nội is still very powerful and active in this game, promising progress to the outside and maintaining tight control on the inside.
I doubt that Washington is truly expecting Việt Nam’s leaders to deliver on their promises; it too just wants to gain benefits for its own nation. But real, long-term and sustainable benefits, for both countries, remain elusive without the cooperation of the majority of the people. We are tired of our leaders’ empty promises and need positive change. Both the Communist Party and dissidents know that Americans can play an essential role to effect change, but to me, I know that our own strength holds the utmost importance. The Vietnamese people cannot rely on America to give us human rights. We have to fight for it ourselves.
I think I can confidently say that Nguyễn Xuân Phúc’s visit to America is solely for his own benefits. During my four years in prison, I witnessed the evils of this regime. Leaving my cell, I have seen worse things, and feel even more terrible about my country’s current conditions. I was promised help by Lâm Đồng province leaders to rebuild my life. However, what I have seen compels me to urge others not to believe what the communist authorities say.