U.S. is Ignoring Vietnam’s Continued Repression of Religious Freedom

By: Fernando Perez

WEA-RLC Research and Analysis Report - 2/2013

South-East Asia is strategically important to the United States, given China’s rapidly growing influence and strategic ambitions in the region. Washington’s efforts to improve relations with its former foe, Vietnam, are understandable. But the U.S. must not turn a blind eye to the continued restrictions on religious and other freedoms to protect its strategic interests in the communist nation.

The United States has realized in recent years that China’s strategic ambitions in Asia are not focused on the northeast, but on South-East Asia. Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hinted about a dramatic refocus of U.S. strategic attention in the region after a July 2010 ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Regional Forum meeting in Hanoi. President Obama followed it up by visiting the region.

The South China Sea dispute is a key consideration for the United States. The disputed “cow’s tongue” area – spanning almost entire South China Sea – is immensely rich in natural resources, and hosts trade routes and military bases. China claims sovereignty across the region, pitting itself against six major Southeast Asian nations – particularly Vietnam and the Philippines – that also lay claims to parts of it. But Beijing has not allowed any international involvement to resolve the dispute.

It is believed that China’s claims are a reaction to more U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific, as China thinks it is being encircled by the U.S. The military budgets of key regional players have shot up, and Washington has ramped up security cooperation with Vietnam, and extended diplomatic carrots to that nation.

To justify its overtures, the United States is not only overlooking continued repression of civil rights and religious freedom, but also telling the world that the quality of democracy has improved in Vietnam.

Michael Michalak, then U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, praised the one-party communist state’s commitment to religious freedom during his Human Rights Day speech in Hanoi in December 2010. “Over the last five years, the government has also improved the ability of religious people to practice their faith… individuals are now largely free to practice their deeply felt convictions. Pagodas, churches, temples and mosques throughout Vietnam are full. Improvements include increased religious participation, large-scale religious gatherings – some with more than 100,000 participants, growing numbers of registered and recognized religious organizations, increasing number of new churches and pagodas, and bigger involvement of religious groups in charitable activities,” he said.

Months later, in 2011, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) called for re-designation of Vietnam as a “Country of Particular Concern (CPC),” but the State Department chose not to do so. From 2004 to 2006, Vietnam was designated as a CPC, but removed from the list in 2006 before then President George W. Bush visited the country for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Washington thus helped Vietnam join the World Trade Organization.

The United States is now admitting Vietnam to the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement.

It’s not surprising that the Vietnam Human Rights Act of 2011 – which would limit non-humanitarian assistance to amounts provided in 2011 unless the federal government met two requirements – remains pending in the U.S. Senate. If approved by the Senate, the U.S. government would need to match or exceed any increase in non-humanitarian assistance with additional assistance to promote the rule of law, human rights, and certain exchange programs. It would also need to certify that the government of Vietnam has made progress towards promoting democracy and human rights.

Despite the many U.S. concessions, Vietnam continues to violate religious freedom of Protestants, Catholics and others.

The government no longer seeks to eradicate Christianity with its change of policy from confrontation to a management of religion approach through registration of churches and other religious groups, which was introduced by way of the Ordinance on Beliefs and Religion of 2004 and the Decree 22 of 2005. In 2005, an additional Prime Minister’s “Instruction on Some Tasks Regarding Protestantism” was introduced allegedly to allow swift registration of local religious congregations, to facilitate the appeals of recognized Protestant denominations to build churches as well as to train and appoint pastors, and to help Protestants register their religious activities.

However, the rider that Protestant denominations must follow regulations and not be associated with separatist movements have been used by authorities for arbitrary actions. Perhaps, that was the intention.

An official of the Government Committee on Religious Affairs said last year the Prime Minister’s instruction had provided a “breakthrough” in the government’s management of religion by “limiting the unusually rapid development of the Protestant religion,” according to the Vietnamese version of an official news release on a high-level meeting about the effectiveness of directive issued on Feb. 28, 2012.

Also during this meeting, General Pham Dung of the Ministry of Public Security was appointed the new head of the Committee on Religious Affairs – which raised concerns among Christians. Visible in the move was the authoritarian government’s view of religious rights as a threat to its hold on power.

Consistent with this view, a court in the central province of Nghe An convicted 14 young political activists – most of them Catholics – in December 2012 for “plotting to overthrow” the government, sentencing them to prison terms between three and 13 years. “There is nothing to indicate the defendants intended to overthrow the government,” Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch told the media. “This trial is in the middle of a deepening crackdown that’s been gradually picking up speed in the past year, year and a half. They’re mowing down the ranks of activists in Vietnam.”

In November, 2012, a court in the north-western province of Lai Chau convicted four Christians from the Hmong ethnic minority for “plotting to overthrow the government,” sentencing them to prison terms between three and seven years. They, along with other Hmong people, had attended a religious gathering the previous year, which authorities claimed was a separatist uprising.

Coming months and years could be worse for Christians. A new law, termed as “Decree 92,” effective Jan. 1, 2013, supersedes the decree of 2005.

“Under the norm, religious will be forced to undergo to an ‘educational program’ on the history of Vietnam and its legislation, sponsored and held by representatives of the ministries of Interior, Justice and Education,” Nguyen Hung of AsiaNews says. “Members of the clergy are required to prepare a specific request in the case of foreign travel for conferences and ask authorities’ ‘permission’ in the case of transfers to a different area of the country.”

Decree 92 goes on to state that a religious group must have operated for 20 years without any reported violation of the law before it can be given full legal recognition – when more than half of Vietnam’s Protestants, though existing for years, remain unregistered.

Vietnam is actively seeking to become more repressive. Vice Chairwoman of National Assembly of Vietnam, Ms Tòng Thị Phóng, recently said her government would increasingly seek to emulate China in matters of religious policies. She said this at a recent meeting between Chinese and Vietnamese government officials, according to AsiaNews.

But the United States can look at what the USCIRF said in its latest report on Vietnam.

“The government of Vietnam continues to control all religious communities, restrict and penalize independent religious practice severely, and repress individuals and groups viewed as challenging its authority,” the 2012 report states, noting “marked increases in arrests, detentions, and harassment of groups and individuals viewed as hostile to the Communist Party,” and an overall climate of religious repression in which “individuals continue to be imprisoned or detained for reasons related to their religious activity or religious freedom advocacy; independent religious activity remains illegal.”

The USCIRF also observed that “the U.S.-Vietnamese relationship has grown quickly in recent years, but it has not led to needed improvements in religious freedom and related human rights in Vietnam.”

Most recently, this was also pointed out by U.S. Senator John McCain, who spent time in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” prison, suffered injuries when his plane was shot down over North Vietnam during the war in 1967 and was tortured.

“When it comes to the values that Americans hold dear—freedom, human rights and the rule of law—our highest hopes for Vietnam still remain largely just hopes,” he wrote in an op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal on March 13. “The government in Hanoi still imprisons and mistreats peaceful dissidents, journalists, bloggers, and ethnic and religious minorities for political reasons,” added McCain, a Republican who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Vietnam has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and its policy on religion amounts to shameful flouting of its international obligations.

While the United States has said that Vietnam’s failure to improve its human rights record could affect its relations between the two governments, Washington is yet to act on those words.