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Remember Hanoi: Another test for President Bush'’s commitment to democracy

Paul Marshall

On Sunday Vietnamese prime minister Phan Van Khai arrives in the U.S. at the head of a 200-member trade delegation. He will meet with Bill Gates, with Boeing to sign a $500 million aircraft deal, and, on Tuesday, with President Bush. He will also present the Bush administration with another test of its commitment to democracy and human rights.

The State Department has placed Vietnam on its list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs) under the International Religious Freedom Act, but has not recommended any sanctions against it. Instead it has tried positive inducements for Vietnam to change its repressive ways.

On May 5, John Hanford, ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, announced an agreement that addresses a number of important religious freedom concerns, which would be finalized during Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick’s visit to Hanoi the following day.

The substance of the agreement, an exchange of letters, was by mutual decision kept secret. However, statements to the press imply that it included the release of twelve prisoners of conscience; a commitment to fully implement Vietnam’s November 15 legislation on religious freedom and its February 4 Special Instruction Concerning Protestantism; and ensuring that local authorities strictly and completely adhere to the new legislation, especially with respect to the practice of forcing prisoners to recant their faith.

However, on these issues as well as other human-rights matters, it has been pretty much business as usual in Vietnam over the past six weeks.

The government did release twelve prisoners, but they are reportedly still suffering harassment and restrictions. The form this can take is illustrated by the treatment being given to Thich Thien Minh, a Buddhist monk who was released in a February 2 amnesty. He has received death threats demanding he end all contact with human-rights organizations and stop criticizing Vietnam’s religious-freedom violations in the foreign media. The Paris-based Action for Democracy in Vietnam reports that security agents have jammed Minh’s mobile phone and confiscated all his correspondence. In March, Hanoi told him to stop giving interviews on international radio and sending petitions overseas, especially to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. As Minh tells it, I have exchanged my small prison for a bigger one.

Sources in Hanoi report that officials are still forcing tribal Christians to renounce their faith. In April in Lu Khau Village, Ta Pinh Commune, Sa Pa District, officials seized the land of twelve families because they believe in the Christian God, and demanded they sign an agreement recanting their faith. Officials beat one of them, Giang A Tinh, twice, and when, at the end of April, he reported this to the commune secretary, he was bound with wire and left to roast in the sun. Photographs taken on May 13 still showed clear wire marks on his wrists. His mother, 70-year-old Vang Thi Ria, tried to work on the confiscated land but was thrown to the ground by government cadres, who also forced her to drink dirty paddy water.

These are local actions, but the central government is not honoring its pledge to stop them. On May 16, Phung Quang Huyen, president of the legally recognized Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North) wrote to the Vietnamese Bureau of Religious Affairs noting that none of the petitions about these grievances have been investigated or answered. They still haven’t been.

Hanoi’s May 5 human-rights agreement is being flouted. The State Department should now heed the May 2 recommendations of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, including the important symbolic step of denying visas to those responsible for religious repression.

President Bush has had high-profile meeting with dissidents, including from North Korea, Venezuela, and Russia. He can follow this up by inviting two Vietnamese activists to the White House. One should be Minh, the other Pastor Truong Tri Hien, who documented the abuse of Vietnam’s Mennonites. After an arrest warrant was issued for him, he fled the country in June 2004. Since then he has been desperately trying to get asylum in the U.S. An invite from the president could help this too, especially since Prime Minister Khai’s arrival will mark the one-year anniversary of Hien’s escape.

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