By Patrick Goodenough
CNSNews.com International Editor
March 14, 2008
(CNSNews.com) - Campaigners for democracy in Vietnam are hopeful that
long-delayed legislation to promote human rights improvements in
communist-ruled Vietnam may move forward on Capitol Hill, following a
Senate hearing this week.
The House of Representatives passed the Vietnam Human Rights Act by
an overwhelming vote last September, and the legislation is now
before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Previous versions,
passed by the House, made no headway in the Senate.
The legislation provides funding to promote human rights and
democratic change in Vietnam and links future increases in
non-humanitarian aid to verifiable improvements in its human rights record.
Critics of the one-party government in Hanoi say the political
situation in the country has deteriorated, even as its bilateral
relations with the U.S. have improved.
The State Department's annual report on human rights around the
world, released this week, cited a "crackdown on dissent" in Vietnam,
including the arrest of activists and disruption of nascent
Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and
Pacific affairs, told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee
subcommittee hearing Wednesday that although "social freedoms" had
increased in Vietnam, "serious deficiencies remain in political and
Hill, who visited Vietnam earlier this month, said he had urged
officials to release dissidents, and would continue to do so.
The best known of these, Catholic priest and democracy campaigner
Nguyen Van Ly, was sentenced a year ago to eight years' imprisonment
for distributing anti-government material and communicating with
pro-democracy activists abroad.
Another imprisoned campaigner, Nguyen Quoc Quan, is an American
citizen who was arrested in Vietnam last November. Hanoi said the
American, who is a member of an unauthorized group called Viet Tan --
which Vietnam considers a terrorist organization -- was trying to
overthrow the government.
The 26-year-old Viet Tan (or Vietnam Reform Party) says it promotes
change through "grassroots, peaceful means," including an underground
newspaper, the Internet and radio broadcasts to spread its message.
It says Nguyen Quoc Quan was merely preparing to distribute
pro-democracy flyers in Ho Chi Minh City when arrested.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chaired the hearing, said the
arrest of pro-democracy campaigners was "not the type of news that we
want to hear out of a country that is one of the largest recipients
of U.S. aid in East Asia."
The two arrests -- and others -- came during a year which began with
Vietnam being granted permanent normal trade relations with the U.S.
and entry into the World Trade Organization.
Later in the year, the State Department removed Vietnam from a
blacklist of religious freedom violators, despite protestations from
some experts that the step was premature in the light of ongoing
restrictions affecting Christians and Buddhists who want to organize
free from government control.
Viet Tan chairman Do Hoang Diem told the senators the country's
democracy movement was growing rapidly since 2006, comparing it to
similar groups in communist Poland and Czechoslovakia during the Cold War.
"After more than 50 years in power, for the first time, the
Vietnamese Communist Party is facing numerous and unprecedented
challenges to its rule," he said. "The desire for real changes in
Vietnam is stronger now than ever before. In response, the regime is
using terror tactics to silence opposition."
The choice for the U.S. is not whether to isolate or engage Vietnam,
but how to pursue the relationship in the most constructive way, Do
said. He urged the Senate to pass the Vietnam Human Rights Act, speak
out on abuses and support democracy.
On Thursday, Do said he thought the hearing had gone "very well," and
noted that Boxer had expressed support for the Vietnam Human Rights Act.
"That is very encouraging," he said. "We are confident that we will
continue to enjoy more and more support as we move forward."
In a letter to Boxer on Thursday, Vo Van Ai, the Paris-based
international spokesman for the banned Unified Buddhist Church of
Vietnam, whose leaders are under house arrest, urged the Senate to
pass the Vietnam Human Rights Act, saying that economic development
alone would not bring democracy to Vietnam.
"By supporting human rights as well as enhanced trade, you will
positively impact the lives of 84 million people in Vietnam," he said.
The House passed the Vietnam Human Rights Act last September by a
414-3 vote. It was introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), whose
earlier attempts to get similar bills through the legislative process
died in the Senate.
Opponents have included Arizona Sen. John McCain, now the Republican
presidential nominee, and Democratic Sen. John Kerry of
Massachusetts. The two senators, both Vietnam War veterans, were
instrumental in the normalization of bilateral relations in 1995.
Do said Thursday his organization has not yet had any clear
indication of the three presidential candidates' positions on the