WASHINGTON—Human rights organizations and some in the U.S. Congress are now demanding that Vietnam be placed back on the list of "Country of Particular Concern" (CPC), which would allow the U.S. to impose economic sanctions to pressure the regime to improve its human rights record. Three areas of concern that are being discussed are Vietnam’s record on religious freedom, women and child trafficking, and labor organizing.
Presently, the U.S. State Department does not designate Vietnam as a “Country of Particular Concern” or CPC, although it did from 2004-2006. The new Obama administration provides an opportunity to make a new case for Vietnam’s CPC designation.
To look into recent developments in Vietnam, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a hearing, July 23, on the status of human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam. The Commission, consisted of a panel of congress members known for their human rights advocacy, including Chris Smith (R-NJ), Ed Royce (R-CA), James McGovern (D-MA), Anh “Joseph” Cao (R-LA), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Loretta Sanchez (D-CA), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Frank Wolf (R-VA), and Joe Pitts (R-PA).
The anger was palpable in the hearing room on Capitol Hill as the congress members vented harsh words for Vietnam’s religious and labor policies, and most expressed frustration at the State Department’s apparent unwillingness to get tough on Vietnam. And they were incredulous toward U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Michael Michalak’s recent statement that there was a “lack of evidence” that Vietnam should be placed back on the CPC list.
“When Vietnam was placed on the CPC list, we saw some positive changes. Unfortunately, when they were prematurely released in 2006, Vietnam ramped up its persecution,” said Representative Ed Royce.
“It is unfortunate a representative of the State Department could not be here with us today. I would appreciate the opportunity to inquire why the administration is not far more engaged on the issue of religious freedom in Vietnam and elsewhere. I hope the State Department will take into account the testimony presented and the discussion that will take place today,” said Representative Chris Smith.
Rep. Smith has three times introduced legislation in the House, most recently, the Vietnam Human Rights Act of 2009 (HR 1969) that would prohibit U.S. non-humanitarian assistance to the government of Vietnam in excess of FY2009 levels unless the president certifies to Congress that the government of Vietnam has made substantial progress respecting: the release of political and religious prisoners, and the right of religious freedom, including the return of church properties.
Religious Freedom Deteriorates Past Two Years
The panel heard from Michael Cromartie, vice-chair, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an expert on the subject of religious freedom of expression in Vietnam. The USCIRF delegation returned from Vietnam in May, making it their fourth visit to Vietnam since 2003. Cromartie, who had traveled to Vietnam in both 2007 and 2009, said at the hearing that it was his opinion, “Human rights and religious freedom conditions have deteriorated over the past two years [in Vietnam].”
“Targeted in particular are the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), independent Hoa Hoa and Cao Dai groups, ethnic minority and unregistered Protestants, Catholics …, and human rights lawyers who defend vulnerable groups,” said Cromartie.
“We saw this week that the government of Vietnam perceives even peaceful prayer vigils as challenges to its authority, requiring violence and arrests. As you know 18 Catholics were detained two days ago in Quang Binh Province,” said Cromartie.
Cromartie said police blocked the delegation’s access to certain dissidents and religious communities, and even staged two truck accidents to prevent the delegation from meeting with Hmong Protestant groups.
“Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh has been interrogated more than 300 times and been beaten 20 times,” said Rep. Royce. Pastor Nguyen is a leader of the Mennonite churches and related evangelical churches in Vietnam.
Royce continued, “Only days ago, he was forced to flee from his home to escape police abuse.” At that moment, someone held up a large photo of the beaten Pastor Nguyen as Royce said that he had become the “symbol of religious persecution for many in Vietnam.”
The Vietnam regime allowed the USCIRF to meet briefly with well-known religious freedom advocates: Fr. Nguyen Van Ly, a Catholic priest; Nguyen Van Dai; and the Most Venerable Thich Quang Do. While praising the access the delegation was given, Cromartie noted that Fr. Ly is still being held in solitary confinement, and Nguyen Van Dai is still being told to sign a confession of guilt as a condition of his release. Father Ly has been in solitary confinement for at least 18 months, said Cromartie.
Cromartie noted that the superintendent of the prison where Father Ly was held repeatedly referred to the Catholic clergyman as a “political” prisoner. There was conjecture at the hearing that the communist regime labels Father Ly as a “political” prisoner rather than a “religious” prisoner, so that the State Department would not regard his imprisonment quite as serious a violation of human rights as the denial of religious freedom.
Rep. Royce spoke indignantly of the 350 “political” prisoners, who are actually Montagnard Protestants, so that the State Department doesn’t have to put them back on the CPC list. Cromartie confirmed from his recent visit that there were still hundreds of Montagnard Protestants in prison who were arrested after 2001 and 2004 land rights and religious freedom demonstrations.
Supreme Patriarch Thich Quang Do, 80, leader of the outlawed UBCV, has been in prison or under house arrest for 33 years, said Royce. He has refused to incorporate the UBCV with the state-controlled Buddhist church. “We will never submit, we will never become slaves of the Communist Party,” he told a U.S. Consulate official, according to the Vietnam Human Rights Journal.
Police Intimidation of New Converts
Vietnam has made some progress by officially ending the practice of forced renunciations of faith, although it still continues in some rural areas despite the law. But religious freedom abuses in rural areas cannot be entirely blamed on noncompliant provincial officials, explained Cromartie. Vietnam has switched to a new strategy in suppressing freedom of religious practice.
“Forced renunciation [of one’s faith] has been replaced by controlled mechanisms, namely, by torture, beatings, imprisonment and killings,” said Congressman Royce.
“Instead of forcing Christians to renounce their faith, Vietnam authorities force the Montagnards to join approved churches, where they can be watched and controlled, and, if need be, arrested and imprisoned … and the State Department should be here today to explain their actions,” said Rep. Royce.
Seeing that they can’t stop the widespread interest in religious activities, the communist regime has adopted a policy of discrimination targeting religious communities and new converts. Cromartie said that USCIRF has copies of the government’s training manuals for local officials that teach how to “manage and control religious activity” and pressure new converts to Protestantism to give up their newly adopted faith.
“In many parts of Vietnam, police intimidate and warn new religious converts against continued religious activity, threatening them with the loss of government benefits or jobs.” Cromartie said these are not isolated acts but national religious policy and experienced by both Protestants and some Buddhists.
Vietnam Regime Complicit in Labor Trafficking
One of the reasons for the timing of this hearing on Vietnam was the recently released 2009 State Department “Trafficking in Persons Report” that stated: “Vietnam is a source and destination country for men, women and children trafficked for forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation.”
The congressmen and women heard testimony from Dr. Nguyen Dinh Thang, Boat People SOS. Dr. Nguyen said Vietnam is one of the few countries that exports labor and where the regime protects the traffickers. Vietnam does not allow media coverage of labor trafficking cases and “denies NGO access to repatriated victims for assistance.” Vietnam should really be ranked as a Tier 3 country by the State Department—not Tier 2 as it is now—because of the “government’s complicity in labor trafficking,” said Dr. Nguyen.
“In a number of cases, the Vietnamese government has colluded with the traffickers to block victims from seeking justice through the legal system in the destination country,” said Nguyen.
Dr. Nguyen described as an example the Vietnamese workers sent to Jordan in 2008 to work at a Taiwanese-owned garment plant. They were forced to work 16 hours a day and paid a fraction of what they were promised. When they went on strike, the Vietnamese agent assigned to Jordan had the Jordanian police beat them and dragged back to work, and they were confined to the company’s dormitories and denied medical help for injuries sustained.
The Vietnam government’s Ministry of Labor attempted to identify and isolate the strike leaders so they could be sent home, and force the remaining workers back to work, but the Vietnamese representatives in Jordan failed to isolate the strike leaders, said Dr. Nguyen.
The International Organization for Migration and the Jordanian Ministry of Labor came to the Vietnamese workers’ rescue and, finally, the majority of the workers were allowed to return to Vietnam. Many of these workers petitioned the government to investigate the labor export companies, but they were repeatedly thwarted and threatened by the government, said Dr. Nguyen.
Human Rights Watch (HRW)’s 2009 report, “Not Yet a Workers’ Paradise: Vietnam’s Suppression of the Independent Workers’ Movement” was referred to at the hearing, and Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director of HRW, gave testimony as well. The 31-page report describes the escalating labor unrest in Vietnam, with 20 percent more strikes in 2008 than 2007, according to official statistics. Most of the 650 strikes (at least) were wildcat strikes, and were not considered legal by the regime. All strikes have to be authorized by the official Confederation of Labor, which is controlled by the Communist Party.
The independent trade union movement that was emerging in 2006-7 was repulsed by the arresting and sentencing of at least eight independent labor activists.
“Other labor activists have been harassed, intimidated, and forced to cease their activities or flee the country … independent labor activists … are seen as a particular threat to the Communist Party because of their ability to attract and organize large numbers of people,” says the HRW 2009 report.