The Vietnamese government continued to show little tolerance for political criticism of the government, despite the release of more than a dozen prominent political prisoners in amnesties in 1998 and early 1999. Political and religious dissidents faced repression and heavy surveillance, with several key dissidents remaining under house or pagoda arrest, and outspoken government critic Nguyen Thanh Giang was arrested in May for two months. Freedom of expression became even more strictly controlled with passage of a new press law. Legislation authorizing administrative detention remained in force and prison conditions continued to be substandard.
Human Rights Developments
In general, the government tried to isolate rather than imprison political and religious dissidents during the year, in order to avoid international condemnation. Key dissidents were placed under surveillance and regularly summoned for questioning by police or local officials. Their publishing rights were denied, friends and neighbors discouraged from meeting them, and communication with the outside world interrupted. Others were forced into retirement or lost their positions in the government.
Many of the political prisoners released in 1998, including Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, Thich Quang Do, Thich Tue Sy, and Thich Khong Tanh, were denied residence permits and were thus unable to travel freely. Dr. Que was unable to resume work as a medical doctor because the authorities withheld his license to practice. Thich Nhat Ban, released in October 1998, said that he had been released from a "small prison only to enter a larger one."
In January, the Vietnamese Communist Party expelled the country's highest-ranking dissident, retired Gen. Tran Do, who has criticized the Communist Party for corruption, lack of democracy, and disorganization. Afterwards, his phone was monitored and the connection often cut, his house was under surveillance by undercover security police, who followed him when he traveled, and the Ministry of Culture and Information rejected his request in July to publish a newspaper. In March, police arrested geologist Nguyen Thanh Giang, an outspoken intellectual who has openly advocated human rights, multiparty democracy, and peaceful reforms. He was charged under Article 205a of the Criminal Code for "abusing democratic rights." After widespread international protest Giang was released in May, but he was required regularly to report to police and prohibited from traveling outside of Hanoi without permission.
In August, three members of a U.S.-based anti-Communist organization, the Vietnamese People's Action Movement, were arrested in Can Tho province. In September, in a trial conducted quietly in An Giang province, twenty-four people, most of them members of another U.S.-based group, the People's Action Party (PAP), were sentenced to terms of up to twenty years for subversive activities. All of the PAP members had been detained without trial for more than two years.
Arbitrary detention under the 1997 Administrative Detention Decree 31/CP continued to be another way to isolate and silence critics. As of October, critics who remained under house arrest included biologist and writer Ha Si Phu, poet Bui Minh Quoc, writer Tieu Dao Bao Cu, and war veteran Nguyen Ho. All had been under house arrest for more than two years.
Equally worrisome was a new decree, 89/ND-CP, which authorized the establishment of provisional custody and pretrial detention centers around the country. Signed by Prime Minister Phan Van Khai in November 1998, this decree allows police units from the district level upward and military units from the division level upward to operate their own temporary detention camps and to arrest and detain people under provisional custody or pretrial detention. No information was available about what kinds of crimes could motivate arrests under decree 89/ND-CP, nor how detention periods would be determined.
The Vietnamese Communist Party made several attempts to stifle dissent within the party, in addition to expelling Tran Do. In February, the party central committee issued a resolution supporting ideological freedom while at the same time stating that it would punish members who expressed opinions or distributed documents against the party. In May, Politburo Permanent Secretary Pham The Duyet outlined more than a dozen activities outlawed for party members, including criticizing the party platform, and organizing or inciting people to lodge complaints or join demonstrations.
A report by Abdelfattah Amor, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, released in March, underscored the need for Vietnam to implement reforms to safeguard religious freedoms. However, the government continued to require that all religious activities be registered by the state and to apply restrictions on travel by religious leaders and on the contents of their sermons and speeches.
In April the government issued a new decree on religion, No. 26/1999/ND-CP. While guaranteeing freedom of religion, the decree states that all religious organizations used to oppose the government, as well as undefined "superstitious activities," will be punished according to the law. The decree also bans religious organizations that conduct activities contrary to "structures authorized by the prime minister."
Religious leaders from the banned Unified Church of Vietnam (UBCV) faced ongoing persecution during 1999. In September, one year after their release from prison in 1998, three UBCV monks-Thich Quang Do, Thich Khong Tanh, and Thich Tue Sy-were again threatened with arrest. In March 1999, Thich Quang Do was summoned for questioning and ordered to return to Ho Chi Minh City after he traveled to central Vietnam to visit the Supreme Patriarch of the UBC, Thich Huyen Quang (who himself has been under pagoda arrest for sixteen years). On August 6, officials in Ho Chi Minh City called in Thich Quang Do for several hours of questioning and tried to force him to sign a confession that he had acted illegally after he wrote a letter to European Union ambassadors in Hanoi calling for human rights and religious freedoms. On August 13, a police squad came to his pagoda after midnight and demanded to see him, threatening to break down the door before they eventually left. In September, Quang Do was again summoned for questioning by police, as were Thich Khong Tanh and Thich Tue Sy. The monks were told that their rearrests were imminent, as warrants had already been prepared to arrest them for "subversive activities" pending further investigation.
Members of the Hoa Hao sect of Buddhism were subject to police surveillance and at least one member was thought to be in detention. The sect was granted official status in May, although government appointees dominated an eleven-member Hoa Hao Buddhism Representative Committee established at that time. In July, in one of the first large public gatherings of the group since 1975, thousands of Hoa Hao members commemorated the founding of the church in An Giang province.
The government also made efforts to suppress Protestants, particularly as increasing numbers of ethnic minorities joined evangelical churches in the northern and central highlands. Reports were received of persecution and harassment of Hmong Protestants in Lai Chau, Lao Cai and Ha Giang provinces, Mnong in Binh Phuoc province, Bahnar in Gia Lai province, and Hre in Quang Ngai. In January the official law journal Phap Luat heavily criticized the conversion to Protestantism of Hmong in northern Ha Giang province. The provincial party chief was quoted as saying that a district task force had been established to "deal with illegal religious evangelism" by persuading people to sign commitments not to follow "bad people" or cults but to rebuild ancestor shrines. Two months earlier in Ha Giang, the provincial propaganda committee had issued a forty-two page pamphlet entitled "Propagandizing and Mobilizing Citizens not to Follow Religion Illegally." More than a dozen Hmong Christians were reportedly in detention in Lai Chau and Lai Cau provinces as of mid-1999.
On May 7, police raided an evangelical gathering of the Vietnam Assemblies of God Church in a Hanoi hotel, holding twenty people for several days. Police detained two of the group's leaders, Lo Van Hen (a member of the Black Thai minority group, who had been released from three years in prison in January 1999), and Rev. Tran Dinh (Paul) Ai, who had served two years in prison in the early 1990s for his religious activities and who met with U.N. Special Rapporteur Amor during his 1998 visit. Lo Van Hen was escorted back to his home in Dien Bien Phu, while Rev. Ai was detained under police guard for a month in the Hanoi hotel where the meeting had taken place before being released.
For Catholics, relations between Vietnam and the Vatican slightly warmed with the visit in March of a Vatican delegation and Vietnam's acceptance of the appointment of four new bishops by the Vatican. In addition, in September a group of bishops from the U.S. Catholic Conference made a historic visit to Vietnam, their first since 1975. As in 1998, tens of thousands of Catholics were able to attend an annual festival commemorating the sanctuary of the Notre Dame of La Vang in Quang Tri province. However, at least three members of the Catholic Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix, arrested in 1987, were believed to remain in prison.
During 1999 there were scattered reports of civil unrest in the countryside. In January villagers and riot police clashed over a land dispute in Ba Ria, Vung Tau province near Ho Chi Minh City, despite an unsuccessful mediation attempt by the local Catholic church. In May, more than one hundred farmers from provinces around Hanoi gathered in front of the National Assembly to protest against corruption by officials. That same month the official Thai Binh newspaper reported that unrest continued in Thai Binh province, the site of peasant clashes with the government over corruption and land grabs in 1997.
The party and the government made several attempts during the year to attack corruption, starting with an official anticorruption drive in February and the party's launching of a two-year "self-criticism" campaign in May. The state Vietnamese News Agency reported in May that during the first four months of 1999, more than 1,000 officials in Thai Binh province had been suspended from their jobs for corruption. Also in May, the state press announced that a new criminal code had been drafted that would focus more on corruption issues and economic crimes, rather than on national security violations. It would also decrease the number of crimes punishable by death from forty-four to thirty. The National Assembly failed to pass the new code before adjourning in June but was expected to take it up again in its November session. The country's largest corruption trial, the Minh Phung-Epco case, ended in August, with six people sentenced to death and six sentenced to life in prison. The continued use of the death penalty in Vietnam remained a concern.
Conditions within Vietnam's prison system continued to be very poor and did not meet the U.N.'s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. Solitary confinement, pressure to sign confessions, forced labor, and inadequate food and medical care were commonplace.
In May, the National Assembly passed a new press law requiring journalists to pay compensation or publish retractions to persons hurt by their reports, even if the information is correct. A June edition of Tap Chi Cong San , the theoretical journal of the party central committee, instructed journalists to publish the conclusions of competent state agencies. If the press did not agree with such conclusions, the journal stated,it must publish them all the same but could file a complaint with the National Assembly. An earlier 1997 directive requires Vietnamese journalists to obtain approval from the Ministry of Culture and Information before passing any information on to foreign journalists.
Defending Human Rights
On September 6, Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, Vietnam's leading human rights activist, called for the establishment of an independent human rights organization in Vietnam from his home in Ho Chi Minh City. International human rights organizations were not permitted to visit Vietnam during the year, nor were domestic human rights organizations allowed to operate. In March, following the release of a report by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry stated that individuals or organizations coming to conduct activities concerning human rights or religion would not be allowed in Vietnam. Communist Party Secretary Le Kha Phieu revealed much of the leadership's view on human rights at a party plenum in August, when he stated: "Any ideas to promote `absolute democracy,' to put human rights above sovereignty, or support multiparty or political pluralism...are lies and cheating."
The Role of the International Community
At the meeting of the Consultative Group of donors to Vietnam held in December 1998 in Paris, donors pledged U.S. $2.2 billion in aid to Vietnam. One of the largest donors to Vietnam was the European Union (E.U.), which pledged $1.7 billion. In June, prior to a midterm review of donor aid in Haiphong, Germany's ambassador to Vietnam, on behalf of the E.U. presidency, pushed for economic and social reforms and expressed concerns about political prisoners and restrictions on press and religious groups. During a September visit by Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai to Finland after it took over the E.U. presidency, the Finnish prime minister raised issues of human rights, judicial reform, and treatment of dissidents. Phan Van Khai visited Tokyo in March and received aid commitments of 600 billion yen (U.S. $5.6 billion) in loans plus 600 billion yen (U.S. $5.6 billion) for infrastructure projects. The Japanese Foreign Ministry expressed concerns about the detention of Nguyen Thanh Giang but Tokyo did not condition any of its aid on human rights improvements or legal reforms. In August the Australian Senate passed a resolution on human rights in Vietnam, in which it mentioned the arrest of Nguyen Thanh Giang.
The United States government took fairly strong positions on Vietnam's human rights record during the year, criticizing the arrest of Nguyen Thanh Giang in March, and handing over a list of political prisoners it wanted released in July during the seventh session of the U.S. -Vietnam bilateral human rights dialogue in Hanoi. These incidents, as well as the September release of a report by the Department of State on religious practices in Vietnam, provoked strong reactions from Hanoi, which criticized the United States for interfering in its internal affairs. Nonetheless, in July the U.S. and Vietnam signed an agreement in principle on a Bilateral Trade Agreement, potentially paving the way for eventual granting of Normal Trade Relations status for Vietnam. However, as of October the Vietnamese government had not yet signed the final agreement. Earlier in the year, the U.S. House of Representatives affirmed President Clinton's 1998 decision to grant the Jackson Vanik waiver of freedom of emigration requirements of the 1974 Trade Act. Trade, human rights, and accounting for U.S. personnel missing in action from the Vietnam War were the main agenda items during a visit to Vietnam in September by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.