Human Rights in Vietnam

By Stephen Denney

Nineteen years after the fall of Saigon, Vietnam seems in some ways to be turning full circle. The egalitarian philosophy of Marxism has been virtually abandoned as Vietnam's economy becomes increasingly open to the private market. The Soviet bloc nations that once supported the Socialist Republic of Vietnam no longer exist; instead SRV leaders have been forced to turn toward the international institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Asian Development Bank; as well as multinational corporations for aid and trade. Vietnam's economy has improved as a result, and the average person has more freedom to go about his or her daily life than a few years ago—more freedom to worship, or move from one city to another, for example.

However, serious problems of human rights violations remain in Vietnam. Corruption among high ranking government officials is widespread; as is environmental destruction and exploitation of Vietnam's cheap labor force by foreign corporations. Of particular concern are the severe repressive measures that have been instituted against advocates of democracy, and continued restrictions aimed at the clergy of the various religions in Vietnam.

Vietnam's 1985 Criminal Code provides for severe punishment of broadly worded "crimes" of non-violent dissent under the heading "Crimes Against National Security" (chapter 1). For example, "sabotaging the material-technical bases of socialism" is punishable by 12 to 20 years in jail; "causing divisions" between the people and the government, or between religious believers and state organizations, is punishable by 5 to 15 years imprisonment; "anti-socialist propaganda" is punishable by 3 to 12 years in prison, or up to 20 years in "especially serious cases"; fleeing the country "with the intent to oppose the people's government" is punishable by 3 to 12 years imprisonment, or up to 15 years for escape organizers; "spreading decadent culture" is punishable by 6 months to five years in prison or up to 12 years in serious cases. Even crimes that would be outlawed in almost any nation, such as treason (punishable by 12 to 20 years in prison or death), are worded in such a way that they could include nonviolent dissent, since "intent to oppose... the socialist system and the state of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam" is considered treason.

The process of "Doi Moi" or renovation began in Vietnam with the Sixth Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party in December, 1986. It is this campaign that has led to a more open society in Vietnam. Yet at the same time, since 1988 several political trials have been held for dissidents in which the above-mentioned criminal code has been applied. Amnesty International, Asia Watch, and other human rights organizations have protested the unfair nature of these trials and the severe penalties meted out. These trials appear to have accelerated since the fall of Eastern European communist nations in 1989 and the Vietnamese Communist Party's enactment of Resolution 135 against anyone who advocates multi-party democracy in Vietnam.

Some examples of nonviolent dissidents, advocates of democracy in Vietnam:

  • Dr. Nguyen Dan Que. A 52-year-old endocrinologist and the only member of Amnesty International in Vietnam. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison in Nov. 1991 for leading a non-violent pro-democracy movement

  • Prof. Doan Viet Hoat. Former rector of the Buddhist Van Hanh University in Saigon. He was sentenced last year to 15 years imprisonment for editing four issues of a newsletter, Freedom Forum, and leading a group of prodemocracy intellectuals. He was recently moved to a camp in the north after a number of statements of his were smuggled out of prison and circulated abroad.

  • Thich Tue Sy and Thich Tri Sieu. These two prominent Buddhist monks were sentenced in 1988 to 20 years in prison for their opposition to the government. They are among Vietnam's most prominent Buddhist scholars.

  • Doan Thanh Liem. Liem is a lawyer and a lay Catholic who worked with Saigon orphans during the war. He was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment in 1992 for "anti-socialist propaganda." An open letter urging his release, signed by 125 former anti-war activists was published in the New York Times, July 10,1992.

  • Ly Truong Tran. A 70-year-old former "third force" dissident leader in South Vietnam's senate. He has been imprisoned since 1987 for belonging to a human rights organization.

All of the above prisoners are reported to be in poor health as a result of their incarceration.

The second concern I raise here concerns the government's policy toward religious leaders. This policy varies.

1. The Hoa Hao Buddhist Church, representing about 1 million followers in the Mekong Delta Region, was abolished by the government in June 1975. Its believers can still practice, but it is not allowed to exist as an organization.

2. The Unified Buddhist Church (UBC), the major Buddhist organization in South Vietnam during the war, was dissolved by the government in Nov. 1981 and forcibly incorporated into a government-sponsored Buddhist organization, the Vietnam Buddhist Church, which is now the only officially recognized, Buddhist organization in the country. Several Buddhist monks have been placed under house arrest or in prison for protesting this policy, including the UBC executive director, Thich Huyen Quang (house arrest). The UBC was a major force for peace and human rights during the war.

3. The Protestant Church, while only a minority in Vietnam has suffered severe restrictions, particularly against Montagnard believers in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, where most churches have been closed. Several laypeople and clergy have been arrested for trying to organize house church meetings.

4. The Catholic Church, representing about 10% of Vietnam's population, has suffered the most severe restrictions in requesting government approval for the appointment of priests and bishops in the country. Thus, some dioceses have remained vacant of a bishop for several years and have suffered a severe shortage of priests, especially in the North. The shortage of clergy and of schools to train clergy is a problem for other religions as well. The government Resolution 69 requires its prior approval for virtually all forms of religious activities in Vietnam. Most property of religious institutions remain under government control, including churches, seminaries, libraries and orphanages.

Vietnam is a very poor country that needs our support. We can help through our involvement in humanitarian aid programs, such as "Working Together for Rejuvenation in Vietnam" of the Community of Mindful Living. We should also pay attention to the problems that may arise in Vietnam through the re-introduction of capitalism and appeal to the Vietnamese government leaders to end human rights abuses, as reflected in the legal system, the punishment of dissidents and continued restrictions on religions.

Stephen Denney is the editor of Vietnam Journal and a longtime activist for human rights in Vietnam.

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