As a Libyan protester said, “After we saw Tunisia and Egypt, we thought that we can do it too;” their “fear wall broke” and the people of Libya no longer feared their corrupt and brutal dictatorship. In contrast, the prospect that the Middle-East pot might boil over into their region has dramatically increased the fear factor of Vietnam’s and China’s communist rulers. Since the Middle-East uprisings began, in fear of popular uprisings, they have reacted with increasingly brutal crackdowns and arrests of possible dissidents, with Vietnam following China’s lead.
Vietnam’s pucker factor must have ratcheted up several notches when the UN approved a No-Fly Zone over Libya, a strong show of international support of the democracy advocates there. Libya’s brutal dictatorship and the communist regime in Vietnam have a lot in common. Could it be that the Vietnamese peoples’ “wall of fear” might also crumble?
In China democracy advocates called for people to start a peaceful “Jasmine Revolution.”
In Vietnam longtime human rights and democracy advocate Dr. Nguyen Dan Que wrote an online challenge to the People of Vietnam:
“Let’s stand up and declare: Living free or living in shame. Let’s take to the streets to bring an end this corrupt and exploitative dictatorship and to demand jobs, food, shelter, education and healthcare.” Despite the clampdown on the Internet and other media, he was joined by other democracy advocates also calling for peaceful change, perhaps a “Nước Mắm Revolution.”
As a sop for the masses and damage control, Vietnam’s communist regime occasionally attempts to curry domestic and diplomatic favor by employing a policy of catch and release; “an iron fist covered by a velvet glove.” Dr. Que was arrested, but in fear of “blowback” fueling popular protests, he was quickly released and put under strict house arrest — incommunicado — and his computer and other forms of communication were seized. Later when all the turmoil dies down, the communist authorities will again arrest Dr. Que and inflict their “iron fist” policy. Recently the communists have dealt with other prominent dissidents in a somewhat similar manner by delaying trials of those arrested and temporarily releasing others who were imprisoned; but all are kept under strict house arrest. The goal is to relieve political pressure for the time being while neutering the dissident movement.
The Vietnamese regime has also responded with a show of force, mobilizing their vast state-security forces and deploying uniformed and plainclothes agents as well as their government paid parastatal thugs (Mặt Trận Tổ Quốc – Fatherland Front). Hundreds of political activists and internet users have been jailed or are under house arrest, and further restrictions on both foreign and indigenous press are being enforced. Internet blackouts and blockages of access to sites that contain certain phrases and words, such as “Libya,” “democracy” and “protest,” are commonplace and further internet controls have also been imposed, especially on Twitter-like micro-blogging sites.
Vietnam is grappling with rampant corruption, double-digit inflation, food shortages, electricity blackouts, a recent rise in petrol prices (18%), currency devaluation, and an increased cost of imported fuel. All this, coupled with increased security crackdowns and police brutality, could create more public outbursts of unrest. One example took place in July 2010, when thousands protested in northern Bac Giang province after a young man was killed by police. Labor strikes have increased as well, including a recent one at a Japanese car plant by three thousand Vietnamese workers. However, in many places, unions are communist-controlled in order to prevent strikes. Unlike other countries, Vietnam provides very limited access to trouble spots and protests by foreign media, fearing that they may stir a boiling pot of unrest into a revolution.
Vietnam, a nation of 86 million, has 3.6 million Communist Party members, and maintains a police fore estimated at 1.2 million. In addition, there are military police and special security and secret police forces, including government paid parastatal forces, the religious police, and special killer units such as “Luc Luong 04” that are used against the ethnic minorities.
Vietnam’s communist regime has recently intensified its repression of activists and dissidents, cracking down harshly on the freedoms of expression, association, and assembly. In January alone, Vietnamese police arrested and detained 1,500 offenders in raids to tighten control over security for the 11th Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam in North Vietnam.
In Vietnam, bloggers, human rights and religious freedom lawyers, workers and land rights activists, democracy and anti-corruption campaigners, journalists, pastors, priests, Buddhist monks, Christian house-church members and other religious lay-persons, are labeled as dissidents by the regime. All face intimidation, arrest, beatings, torture, imprisonment, and some even death at the hands of the government.
A further blow to freedom of expression is a new law, Decree No. 2 that arbitrarily levies fines and imprisonment against journalists and publishers for vague infractions. These include publishing articles in print, as well as on the internet, that are “not in the interest of the people,” revealing “state secrets”, and exposing “non-authorized information” (e.g., articles on corruption and human rights abuses). The Decree authorizes any official or petty bureaucrat in the communist government and military to determine what constitutes an infraction, and requires journalists and publishers to disclose their sources of information.
Vietnam’s State media recently reported that Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has called upon the police to ensure that no alternative political parties are formed that might threaten the control of the communist government.
Of Vietnam’s 86 million people 29 percent are aged 15-29. One strategy the Communist Party uses to keep the lid on the pot is by sending young, restless, potential trouble makers overseas to earn money to send home to their families and help the economy. Last year, as many as 85,546 Vietnamese workers were sent to work abroad; the regime’s goal for this year is 87,000.
Not only does Vietnam’s repressive regime monitor and exercise strict control over the media, internet, blogs, social networks and other postings, but thanks to technology provided by US and UK companies, it is now able to closely monitor cell phones and “land lines” of suspected dissidents and advocates of democracy, human rights and religious freedom.
Phones that might be used by Montagnards are especially scrutinized. Despite the terrorist tactics of Vietnamese communist regime and the knowledge that their phone calls will be monitored, Christian Montagnards in Vietnam continue to call their relatives in the US, and vice versa, in an attempt to exchange information on the continued persecution and brutal treatment of Montagnard Christians, particularly those who defy authorities by failing to join communist-controlled churches.
Compass Direct reports that last year “communist authorities slammed the doors on Christmas celebrations in two of the Vietnam’s largest cities” and in over 10 provinces “in what probably was the highest profile move recently to step up persecution of Christians.” Authorities also banned Mgr. Michael Hoang Duc Oanh, Bishop of Kontum from celebrating Christmas Mass with faithful Christian Montagnards.
Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson recently stated that “Vietnam’s crackdown on religion is systematic, severe, and getting worse by the day.”
And the band plays on:
On December 1, 2010, three Montagnard Christians, Beo Nay, Phor Ksor and Rin Ksor, who belonged to a house-church in Gia Lai Province, were detained and charged with “undermining Vietnam’s national unity” by proselytizing for an unauthorized church. They were presented with papers to sign renouncing their belief in God. When they refused, police officers Thinh and Tuan beat the three severely and again ordered them to sign the papers; however, they had been beaten so badly that the police officers had to guide their hands to form their signatures.
In November 2010, Montagnard pastors Y-Du Ksor and Y-Co Kpa of the Vietnam Good News Mission (VGM) in Phu Yen Province were arrested and charged with conducting illegal Christian house-church services, proselytizing, and possession of cell phones — actions seen as “undermining Vietnam’s national unity.” They were sentenced to six years imprisonment and four years house arrest, and four years imprisonment and two years house arrest respectively
In July 2010, Bih Ksor, a Christian Montagnard and an Elder in a house-church, was arrested by police in Gia Lai province. Because he had a cell phone in his possession he, too, was accused of “undermining Vietnam’s national unity.” Bih was beaten, tortured and then dealt a fatal blow to the back of his head. Just before he was killed, his brother-in-law, Thai Puih, in Charlotte, NC, received a phone call from Vietnam at one A.M. and heard the sound of someone being beaten who was moaning in pain in the background. The caller had found Thai’s number in Bih’s cell phone. He identified himself as a Vietnamese police officer and told Thai to listen while they tortured Bih. Thai replied that he had no idea what they were talking about and hung up. The policeman called again at 2 am and told Thai that Bih had died, and for him to call his relatives in Vietnam and notify them to pick up his body. The next day the body was found alongside a road several kilometers from his village.
In January 2010, religious police from Hanoi arrested two brothers in Gia Lai Province who were practicing Christians, Cop Ksor and Sia Nay, and ordered them that they must renounce their belief in God. When they refused to do so, police Capt. Pham Nhat Toan took a police dog from its cage and commanded it to attack them. They were bitten several times on their legs. They were later released after being threatened that if they did renounce their belief in God, they would be arrested again and he would let the dog kill them.
Human Rights Watch says Vietnam has imprisoned more than 300 Christian Montagnards since 2001 for the “peaceful expression of their religious or political views. However, Montagnards in Vietnam report that the actual number is well over 500.
Every once in a while, the battered body of a Montagnard Christian is regurgitated from the Vietnamese prison system. If the appearance of the body isn’t too bad, the prison police will notify the family to pick it up for burial in their village. Similarly, families are sometimes allowed to take tortured Montagnards who are on the brink of death back to their villages to die. This is done to terrorize the families and villagers at home. However, if the prisoner was too badly beaten the remains are buried on the prison grounds and the family may be notified. If not, the family is just left with a memory of their loved one. This is how Christian Montagnards simply “disappear” in Vietnam’s brutal prison system; tortured and killed by 2nd and 3rd generation prison guards in the tradition of those who honed their skills of torture on American POWs during and after the Vietnam War.
On September 6, 2010, Tino Ksor, a Christian Montagnard, died from torture in Trai Ba Sao prison in Ha Nam province. He had been arrested on May 14, 2004 because he was preaching in a house-church in Gia Lai province and refused to join the government controlled Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV. Two weeks later, he was tried in a kangaroo court, charged with “undermining Vietnam’s national unity,” and sentenced to 7 years imprisonment. While in prison, Tino became the spiritual leader of the many Montagnard prisoners there, but on August 22, 2008, the security police put Tino in solitary confinement and began torturing him, trying to force him to renounce his belief in God. On September 7, 2009, the Vietnamese security police informed Tino’s family that he had died. Tino’s wife and mother went to the prison to claim his body; however, they were told that “Ksor Tino has not yet finished his prison term so we must hold his bones until his prison term is completed; then you can come and pick them up.”
This was not an isolated incident; e.g.; March 11, 2010, Montagnard Christian K’Pa Lot died from internal injuries, repeated beatings and torture while in prison in Phu Yen province, as did Montagnard Christian Y-Kap Ayun on August 17, 2010.
On November 18, 2010, Simon Roughneen reported in the Asia Times Online that “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Hanoi for signing the UN Convention Against Torture during a November 2010 press event with her counterpart Khiem.”
And the band plays on.
Vietnam’s communist regime should well remember the 2001 protests by Christian Montagnards that shook the Party to its roots. The peaceful protesters were petitioning the government to cease human rights abuses, to grant them freedom of religion without government control, and for the return of Montagnard farmlands confiscated by the regime. Instead of solving the problem peacefully, the regime ordered the police and the army to attack the protesters with tanks and aircraft. During this brutal crackdown hundreds of Christian Montagnards were arrested, killed or “disappeared” and many are still imprisoned today. Although the Montagnards number only 750,000 in a population of 85 million Vietnamese, and although only a small portion of their number participated in these protests, they shook the communist regime to the core and caused the removal of the General Secretary of the Communist Party. If the persecution continues, the Montagnards’ “wall of fear” might again crumble; and this time the persecuted Vietnamese may well join in.
As if thumbing their nose at the US, on January 5th this year, Christian Marchant, an American Envoy and political officer for human rights and democracy at the US Embassy in Hanoi, was manhandled and beaten by a crowd while police stood by doing nothing. He had obtained permission from Vietnamese government to visit a dissident Roman Catholic priest. Since it is illegal to congregate, it is highly probable that the crowd comprised government paid parastatal thugs, a tactic the communists use to claim plausible deniability. A US State Department spokesman said, “The harassment is ‘unacceptable’ and we have and will continue to express our deep concerns.” A typical “paper tiger” response to human rights abuses that the communist regime continues to ignore while it’s business as usual with the US “worshiping at the altar of trade”
And the band plays on.
Myth: The U.S. needs Vietnam as a buffer against China: Much of our misguided foreign policy toward Vietnam is based on using Vietnam to contain China’s amoeba-like intervention in SE Asia. Whoever professes this myth needs to take remedial math: i.e., Vietnam has an estimated population of 85 million while China has over a billion people. Not only does China have more people, they have more money than the US with no restrictions on bribing government officials in S.E. Asia. Vietnam’s Communist Party has shown their true colors by recently electing Nguyen Phu Trong, as the country’s most powerful political figure — the new general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) — and he is considered to be pro-Chinese
The International Religious Freedom Act was passed by Congress and approved by President Clinton in 1998 to promote religious freedom as a foreign policy of the United States It mandated the US government to engage foreign governments in promoting religious liberty and to take punitive action where appropriate. Punitive action, more often than not, was an attempt to embarrass countries by just listing them as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) in the State Department’s annual report for gross violations of religious freedom. However, in its policy of making nice with Vietnam, and in spite of the irrefutable evidence of Vietnam’s gross violations of religious freedom, for the last few years the State Department has refused to place Vietnam on its CPC list. Now, the Act has expired, and as Ken Blackwell, former U.S. ambassador to U.N. noted in his recent article, State Is AWOL on Religious Liberties, “The Obama Administration and State Department in particular pay lip-service to this policy but through inaction they aid and abet the persecution of religious minorities the world over. Although the State Department reported that religious liberties had “deteriorated” in 2010, it has refused to list Afghanistan, and several other violators of religious freedom, as a Country of Particular Concern.” Vietnam of course was one of them.
Even though the Act has expired, there are many other punitive actions that can be enacted if the President Obama and his administration have the moral fiber to do so. Now that President Obama has appointed David B. Shear as the new American Ambassador to Vietnam, replacing Michael Michalak, Obama and the State department have the opportunity change their policy toward Vietnam for its egregious violations of religious freedom and other human rights abuses.
Departed Ambassador Michael W. Michalak was an apologist for the communist regime’s dispicable human rights and religious freeedom violations and pandered to them by providing diplomatic cover for the communist regime. He did so under the guise that Vietnam was fast-tracking the registration of churches and pagodas to enable their congregations to “legally” practice their religion; however, such registration actually constituted putting them under communist control.
The communist regime has created facades of faux Catholic, Evangelic Christian, Buddhist and other religions institutions, churches and pagodas. Vietnamese and minorities who want to practice their religion must choose between communist-controlled churches and pagodas or harassment, land seizer and prison. Foreign dignitaries and media are taken to these Potemkin churches and pagodas to show them how the regime has progressed in improving religious freedom. In reality, the communist regime is paranoid over organized religion that it sees as a direct threat to their political religion, communism. Religious persecution against all faiths is prevalent in Vietnam; Christians, Catholics, Buddhists, and those of other faiths, especially evangelic Montagnard Christians and members of house-churches, have been, and are being, harassed, tortured, imprisoned, and murdered (the latter often attributed by the regime to “unknown street thugs”). Confiscation of church land is a common practice by the communist regime.By failing to take any punitive action, the US State Department has been enabling the communist regime in Vietnam (who sees this as a sign of tolerance or tacit approval) to continue its religious persecution and human rights abuses of their citizens.
Dr. Que recently wrote,
“Only last summer, Vietnam and the United States celebrated the 15th anniversary of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. The resumption of ties has proved very profitable for Vietnam. The United States is its largest foreign investor, and the countries have more than $15 billion in annual bilateral trade.” The US has also substantially increased engagement in South East Asia, and by doing so, provides diplomatic support for Vietnam in the region (e.g., dispute with China over offshore islands). As Australian Defence Force Academy’s Vietnam analyst Carl Thayer surmises, after 15 years “improved relations have apparently not made an impression on Vietnam’s Communist leaders. Their approach is clear: Take American trade and investment, but keep democracy and human rights at bay.”
Hanoi needs Washington much more than Washington needs Hanoi. At each juncture, Vietnam has promised to respect human rights and comply with international law. Each time, however, Vietnam has learned that it can reap all the benefits from the US, which they view as a paper tiger, without honoring any of its promises. Plus ça change, plus c’ est la même chose. – “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” As charming as the Vietnamese people are, the communist regime remains as deceptive, brutal and suspicious as ever, while US policy enables its repression and treachery.
Vietnam’s Communist Party will continue to woo the US with even more promises if it further deepens bilateral relations. A genuine partnership with the US means more profit for them from additional trade, military benefits and diplomatic support for them in the region. In turn, the Obama administration professes to also desire a more “genuine partnership” with Vietnam; however, if the price of the partnership includes authentic improvements in human rights and religious freedom, they will not be easily obtained from the repressive communist regime. The US should issue a cease-and-desist démarche to that regime that there will be no real partnership until Vietnam’s egregious human rights and religious freedom violations against its people are stopped.
Will the band play on?
Michael Benge spent 11 years in Vietnam as a Foreign Service Officer, five years as a POW, and is a student of South East Asian politics. He is very active in advocating for human rights and religious freedom and has written extensively on these subjects.