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    Southeast Asia
     Jul 6, 2006
In capitalist Vietnam, it's 'repression as usual'
By Shawn W Crispin

BANGKOK - Brandishing nightsticks and electric cattle prods, about 50 Vietnamese police and security officials on May 22 stormed and demolished a Mennonite church in Vietnam's central Binh Khanh area. Several members of the congregation were injured, and police arrested the pastor, Reverend Nguyen Hong Quang, and 10 others who resisted.

Quang is no stranger to state-sponsored religious persecution. He recently served 15 months of a three-year sentence for "interfering" with officials during a similar violent incident against his church in March 2004. While in detention, local police frequently raided his damaged house of worship and harassed his family, often late at night.

Vietnamese officials frequently justify their armed attacks on

religious sites, shrines and meeting places on the grounds that holy structures violate state building codes, which in Vietnam's provinces are famously arbitrary and ill-defined. In reality, the systematic assaults are part of a long-running and clearly ongoing government campaign to stifle religious freedoms.

Vietnam's impending accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) has focused global attention on the communist government's substantial economic and financial reforms, which have catapulted growth and galvanized unprecedented foreign investor interest. Over the past six years, Vietnam's economy has grown at an extraordinary inflation-adjusted average of 7.4%. At the same time, fast growth has wholly failed to nudge Vietnam's ruling Communist Party toward more liberal democracy. The recent leadership reshuffle in Hanoi handed power over to a new, younger generation of supposedly more outward-looking communist rulers. Vietnam-based foreign investors have expressed confidence that the new leadership has the technocratic ability to tackle the complex economic and legal challenges of WTO membership. Yet it's how Vietnam's new generation of communist leaders respond to the growing calls for more liberal democracy, both at home and abroad, that will ultimately determine their reform legacy.

Hammer and sickle rule
Vietnam's government is one of Asia's most repressive authoritarian regimes. Freedoms of speech, association, religion and the media are all sharply curtailed. Harsh laws passed in the paranoid aftermath of the 1975 communist takeover - then aimed at flushing out remnants of the fallen US-backed regime in the south - are still on the books 30 years later, with the vague aim of maintaining "national solidarity" and "national security". Vietnamese citizens have no legal recourse to challenge the state-sponsored rights abuses they habitually endure.

The Communist Party has been particularly tough on Vietnam's various minority religious groups, which they fear often have more political than spiritual motives.

Since 2001 the government had forcibly closed more than 1,250 mostly Christian and Buddhist religious sites across the country's central highlands, where in 2001 and 2004 massive demonstrations calling for more religious and political freedom were held. At least 100 Vietnamese are currently imprisoned on charges related to their religious beliefs, according to information compiled by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

For instance, Buddhist monk Vo Van Thanh Liem, who submitted written statements about government abuses committed against his Hoa Hao sect for a US congressional hearing, was given a nine-year prison term in September on the trumped up charges of "opposing public authorities". Baptist pastor Than Van Truong was only recently released from two years in a lock-down psychiatric ward after local authorities deemed him "delusional" for handing them Bibles.

At least one other prominent Buddhist leader is currently under so-called "pagoda arrest"; many others, including some monks and friars recently released from prison, live under strict administrative controls and travel restrictions. Buddhists and Christians in the country's northwestern regions are still frequently forced to renounce their faith in front of local officials; and those found to break that atheistic vow sometimes lose access to public utilities or face violent reprisals.

The country's tightly censored media has not fared much better. The Communist Party controls all local media, which are managed either by the government or its affiliated organizations. Notwithstanding those tight controls, Vietnam is still one of the world's leading jailers of journalists with at least six currently imprisoned, often for online writings that have made idle calls for more democracy.

In March, plainclothes officers detained two renowned writers at a public Internet cafe usually frequented by foreign tourists and took pictures of the websites they had viewed, which included the banned website of the Free Vietnam Alliance democracy group. One of the writers, Nguyen Khac Toan, had previously served three years of a 12-year sentence for sending reports about disgruntled farmers over the Internet to exiled Vietnamese democracy groups.

The Communist Party has implemented some of Asia's most sophisticated firewall and surveillance technology to limit access through the Internet. Vietnam's firewall denies access to thousands of websites that government censors consider objectionable, with a special emphasis on blocking democracy-related content.

Moreover, the government continues to run roughshod over international laws and covenants it has signed, a signal that should give pause to foreign investors banking on the communist authorities' will and resolve to uphold the rule of law as mandated in WTO rules and regulations that protect their investments.

A Human Rights Watch report issued in June maintained that Vietnamese authorities "detained, interrogated and even tortured" ethnic Montagnard refugees and asylum seekers who returned to Vietnam from Cambodia under a voluntary repatriation agreement the government had entered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). In recent months, more than 60 Montagnards have been imprisoned after returning from Cambodia, according to the US-based rights group.

A failed agreement
None of these recent abuses would raise eyebrows if Vietnam's communist leaders had not recently vowed to change their repressive ways.

In May 2005, the US and Vietnam reached an agreement that set binding benchmarks to pave the way for more religious and political freedoms, including legislation designed specifically to protect religious-based rights. As part of that deal, Hanoi vowed to instruct local authorities to comply with the new legislation and facilitate processes that allowed for the congregations they previously harassed to reopen shuttered churches, shrines and other sacred places. Vietnam's leaders also agreed to take on board US suggestions for prisoner amnesties.

In exchange, the US promised to de-list Vietnam from the State Department's catalogue of rights-abusing "countries of particular concern", known inside Washington's Beltway as "CPC", and pave the way for more comprehensive bilateral ties. Since then, Vietnam has released a handful of high-profile religious leaders, re-opened some churches and shrines, officially outlawed forced recantations of faith and in March issued a decree to facilitate the registration of religious venues.

Still, the government continues to ban religious activities that do not have prior official permission. Notably the March decree backtracked on Hanoi's original agreement with the US, by reasserting the government's legal powers to crack down on any worshippers who undermine peace, independence or national unity, disseminate information against state law or policies, or spread superstitious practices. Officials have drawn on these amendments to justify recent arrests and harassment.

Over the past year, it has become increasingly apparent to many outside observers that Vietnamese authorities have no intention of moving toward more democracy or religious freedom, but have instead adopted a policy of selective openness when dealing with Washington, similar to the cat-and-mouse tactics Myanmar's generals have employed in dealing with United Nations' many failed attempts to encourage political reform there. Michael Cromartie, chairman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, said in March 29 testimony to the US Congress: "Unfortunately, the hope of some that Vietnam's progress toward WTO membership would bring about legal reform, transparency and improvements in human rights has not been fulfilled. There has not been a direct correlation between economic and individual freedoms." His testimony noted that police in Ha Giang province broke up a January 1 Christian service when they caught more than 20 people illegally singing.

However, the clarion call for more democracy is steadily growing inside the country. In April, hundreds of Vietnamese signed two appeals, the "Appeal for Freedom of Political Association" and "The Manifesto on Freedom and Democracy for Vietnam", which broadly called on the Communist Party's 10th National Congress to loosen its grip on power and allow for more democratic participation. The public nature of the petition was unprecedented during the Communist Party's 30-year rule.

A group of Vietnamese exiles, meanwhile, has established an underground movement of bloggers and citizen journalists inside the country known as the Free Journalists Association of Vietnam (FJAV), which gathers and disseminates news over the Internet that is censored inside the country. The group is now trying to use legal means to establish an independent online news publication based inside Vietnam with help from the US's National Endowment for Democracy.

Predictably, the government has detained and interrogated many of the activists, who notably included former senior Communist Party officials, who signed the April petition and has barred at least one member of the FJAV from traveling abroad to attend an international conference focused on freedom of expression issues.

Feel good rush
The commercial rush to embrace Vietnam's transition from a communist to capitalist economy often overlooks messy political considerations. US and Vietnamese negotiators last month hammered out a new bilateral deal that, barring progress in implementing their May 2005 agreement, will pave the way for Vietnam's accession to the WTO later this year.

"Vietnam's [WTO] accession will show the world that it has made the reforms and commitments needed to be a full participant in the international economic community," US Ambassador to Vietnam Michael Marine said in a July 4 interview with Vietnam News. "Vietnam is well on its way on a program of liberalization that has yielded impressive economic progress."

Marine's views mirror those of senior US politicians with long involvement in Vietnam, including senators John McCain and John Kerry, who have consistently insisted that greater economic engagement rather than finger-wagging is the best way to encourage more Vietnamese democracy. Even the philanthropic-minded Bill Gates has recently hobnobbed and discussed possible business deals with the country's communist rulers.

To date, though, Hanoi has clearly taken more of its policy cues from Beijing than Washington. Vietnam's state-led development model, albeit at a slower, more deliberate pace, directly mirrors China's controlled mix of economic openness and political repression, which notably has given rise to an entrepreneurial, but politically voiceless, middle class.

But Vietnam's anti-democratic record arguably should not be readily dismissed as Asian business as usual. Because of its comparatively small size, Vietnam does not command the negotiating power of China's massive markets. Vietnamese exports to the US last year represented less than 0.5% of total US trade, despite a 400% increase in bilateral trade since 2001. Most US investors still view Vietnam more as a hedge than an alternative to increasing their capital exposure to China.

Vietnam's communists are increasingly dependent on Western capital and markets to fuel growth and hence maintain their grip on political power. Hanoi is simultaneously moving to forge stronger strategic ties with Washington, seen in the regular US naval ship visits to Vietnamese ports, to counterbalance China's growing military prowess.

While there are preliminary indications that Vietnam's new, more commercially minded leaders are less influenced by the bitter war memories that haunted and restricted their predecessors, there is still scant indication they intend to look past their economic reform agenda and embark upon a more democratic path.

The US is uniquely positioned to demand that Vietnam allow for more democracy in exchange for more economic privileges and strategic assurances. It is no longer academic truth that economic liberalization inevitably leads to more democracy, particularly not in Asia. And nowhere is that unfortunately more apparent than in Vietnam.

Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia editor.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)

Vietnam's south takes leadership wheel (Jun 28, '06)

The new optimism over Vietnam investments (Mar 29, '06)

Vietnam at WTO's doorstep (Jan 21, '06)

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