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Phil Robertson is deputy director of the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.

When Prime Minister Nguyen Van Dung visited Myanmar in April 2010, he told top government leaders that Vietnam supported the country’s “road map” to democratization. Later, he said from the chair at the conclusion of the 16th annual ASEAN Summit in Hanoi that forthcoming “elections should be free and democratic with the participation of all parties” in Myanmar. It was a truly stunning statement, coming from the leader of a one-party government in which the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam enjoys a Constitutional role as “the force assuming leadership of the State and society” and the government strictly controls elections.

But his remarks passed without much comment since stranger, more hypocritical things have been said in the halls and meeting rooms of ASEAN over the years. Most observers assumed Vietnam was again simply functioning as the leader of ASEAN’s so-called CLMV bloc (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam) of strictly authoritarian states, continuing its efforts to mitigate criticisms and push back on economic sanctions directed at Myanmar by ASEAN dialogue partners like Australia, Canada, the US and the EU. Little more than six months later, on Nov. 7, 2010, Myanmar held an election to choose members of a parliament where 25 percent of the seats are reserved for the armed forces. The polls were neither free nor fair and were characterized by vote tampering that ensured an overwhelming victory by the military backed Union Solidarity and Development Party.

At the time Prime Minister Dung spoke, Myanmar’s dismal record – military rule since 1962, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, hundreds of political prisoners, violent crackdowns on street protests, draconian laws and continuous suppression of civil and political rights – made it a standout even among its ASEAN neighbors.

Few would have guessed that two years hence, in 2012, policymakers and journalists would be publicly comparing Vietnam and Myanmar to determine which deserves the unenviable moniker of worst human rights abuser in ASEAN. Of course to a certain extent these are diplomatic games – because, for a victim, suffering a human rights abuse is bad wherever it occurs. But as Myanmar looks to chair ASEAN in 2014, those concerned about human rights in the region are naturally wondering whether it’s possible for some sort of competition to arise between Myanmar and Vietnam to avoid being at the bottom of the list, and that this could contribute to improvements in the human rights records of both countries.


Myanmar’s improvements

While it still has a long way to go, Myanmar under President Thein Sein’s government has made some important strides in changing its previously appalling performance on human rights. Most prominently, the government lifted restrictions and allowed Aung San Suu Kyi and her compatriots in the National League for Democracy (NLD) to run in the April 1, 2012 by-elections. A total of 43 NLD members won office, accounting for less than 7 percent of the seats in the parliament. Nevertheless, the victory is an important prelude to 2015, when 75 percent of the seats in Parliament will be up for grabs.

But much of the reform in Myanmar has been characterized by giving with one hand while pulling back with the other. For example, over 600 political prisoners – among them high-profile dissidents like Min Ko Naing and other activists who were leaders of the 1988 democracy uprising, famous comedian Zargana and key ethnic figures like Shan leader Khun Htun Oo – were released to international acclaim. But the world has not seen many of them outside Myanmar – Zargana is an exception – because the government has refused to provide them with passports. The government has also remained quiet about hundreds of less famous political prisoners still behind bars in the country’s opaque detention system. The Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), established and run by former Myanmar prisoners now living in exile, says there are at least another 394 political prisoners still in prison, with another 424 persons whose cases the AAPP was still verifying as of Sept. 1, 2012. A group in Yangon, the Former Prisoners Network, has been interviewing recently released prisoners and now estimates that as many as 445 political prisoners remain in prison. Knowledgeable observers note that many ethnic minority political prisoners are likely not on anyone’s list, especially Rohingya from the Arakan and Kachin states in the far north, and must also be freed. To get to the bottom of this issue, and ensure that all political prisoners are released, the Myanmar government should agree to set up a review board with international involvement to comprehensively and independently ascertain the number of political prisoners still being held.

Myanmar has signed ceasefires with many ethnic non-state armed groups, including the Karen National Union (KNU), which has waged one of the longest-running insurgencies in the world. Aung Min from the President’s Office has met with ethnic leaders, exiled democracy activists, NGOs and others to push for reconciliation in a series of meetings that would have been unimaginable just two years ago. Senior exile figures, like trade unionist Maung Maung, former student leaders Naing Aung and Moe Thee Zun and international political activist Thaung Htun, have been allowed to return to Myanmar.

The ceasefire agreements with the ethnic groups remain fragile, and have not meant a reduction of Army troops in ethnic areas or resulted in substantive negotiations on long-term reconciliation. Significant political issues such as decentralization of power, state-federal relations and accountability for past human rights abuses have not been put on the negotiating table. The Army continues to exact forced labor and engage in extortion and abuses, especially against ethnic minority civilians. And in Kachin State, where ferocious fighting between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and government forces continues unabated, there has been little apparent change in the Myanmar Army’s tactics of targeting civilians and committing grievous human rights abuses.

In a more hopeful vein, Myanmar has signed binding agreements, supplemented by detailed action plans, with the International Labor Organization (ILO) to end the use of forced labor and with the UN country team to eliminate the use of child soldiers. On Sept. 3, the Army released the first 42 child soldiers to the care of their parents and relatives. A number of laws have also been revised to provide greater freedoms, such as allowing for peaceful public assembly and the formation of trade unions. On Aug. 20, the government announced an end to pre-publication censorship, an important step forward towards cementing gains in press freedom– though on the same day, the Ministry of Information issued detailed guidelines for the media to follow that prohibits criticizing the government or its policies.

Obviously there is still much to be done since a host of repressive laws that have been previously used against political activists remain in force – like the Unlawful Associations Act, the State Protection Law, and the Emergency Provisions Act, to name a few. But despite the potential for a reversal of reforms, especially given the Myanmar Army’s historical role and the power the 2008 Constitution vests in the military to remain beyond the control of an ostensibly civilian government, Thein Sein’s government appears to have largely satisfied the international community about its democratic intentions. The United States, the European Union and its member states, Australia and Canada have all raced forward to suspend or lift long-standing economic sanctions, despite objections from human rights advocates in Myanmar and abroad that a step-by-step process would have better preserved leverage to ensure reforms are sustained.

In fact, while the changes have created momentum for lasting reforms, they have also fueled a “gold rush” mentality of hyperoptimism in parts of the international community about the “new Myanmar.” It remains unclear whether the Army will remain on board, especially if and when reforms start touching business arrangements between the officer corps and well-connected business cronies. Military hard-liners and conservatives still have the power to delay, or even reverse reforms. However, with President Thein Sein in power until 2015, foreign investors are betting the reforms will continue.


Vietnam’s slide

So while Myanmar is still a work in progress, albeit trending upwards in terms of respect for human rights, Vietnam finds itself in a rapidly developing economic and human rights morass. The experience of watching Myanmar moving toward reform has no doubt been troublesome for some of the leaders in Hanoi. After all, for more than a decade, Myanmar has been the hands-down winner as ASEAN’s most rights-abusing member. This is no small feat in a grouping that critics have aptly called a “club of dictators” since it was founded in 1967 by five authoritarian leaders from the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, and still includes the likes of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, and authoritarians from Vietnam, Laos, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia. But now, with Myanmar’s reforms, diplomats and aid donors in Hanoi are asking if Vietnam will be dubbed ASEAN’s human rights basket case. Not surprisingly, key officials in Hanoi are none too pleased at the prospect of being seen in that negative limelight.

Despite both governments compiling atrocious human rights records, Vietnam and Myanmar have been treated quite differently post-1988, with most of the advantage accruing to Vietnam. 1988 was an eventful year for both countries. Myanmar brutally cracked down on democracy protesters in Rangoon and other cities in September 1988, killing an estimated 3,000 or more and prompting thousands more to flee the jungles and beyond. The day before the crackdown began, Myanmar’s generals formed a new military government, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). But international pressure mounted as Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest in 1989 and her party was denied the right to take power despite overwhelmingly winning a parliamentary election in 1990. Foreign investment was increasingly contained, blunted and restricted as international human rights activists and Myanmar’s internal democracy movement pressed a policy of pressure and sanctions that eventually drew in a number of Western governments.

Meanwhile, in the same year, Vietnam announced the beginning of its withdrawal of troops from Cambodia, which was completed in 1989, starting a process that would ultimately lead to the Paris Peace Accords, the end of the Cambodian civil war and normalization of US-Vietnam relations in 1995. Equally important, Hanoi pressed forward with doi moi, its policy of opening the economy, prompting major US corporations eager to invest in Vietnam to press for changes in US policy. Without a unifying opposition figure like Aung San Suu Kyi, Vietnam’s human rights activists faced insurmountable odds amidst investors keen to believe Vietnam was the new Asian tiger economy. Foreign corporations rushed in, seeking to benefit from low wages and an industrious work force. Left aside in the rush were major human rights concerns related to the Communist Party of Vietnam and its refusal to brook any opposition. Since unifying the country in 1975, it has not hesitated to violate rights when it felt its power or prerogatives were being challenged.

With the ascension of current Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in 2006, Vietnam has seen several intensifying trends. First, cronyism and corruption in state enterprises, and an epidemic of seizures of land by well-connected foreign and national investors, has fueled popular anger with CPV officials using their positions to enrich themselves. Second, Dung has worked closely with police allies in the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) to keep a lid on dissent, and his connections with the ministry have made him one of the most powerful prime ministers in recent memory. And third, as challenges to authoritarian politics and crony capitalism have arisen, the state has intensified repression of activists and dissidents, resulting in decreasing respect for human rights. As inflation has risen in Vietnam, led by food and other basic commodities, and investment slows because of the weakening demand for Vietnam’s exports by troubled EU and North American economies, frustration with the government is growing, only to be met by a state determined to maintain order.

As a result, independent writers, bloggers, religious leaders and activists who question government policies, expose official corruption, resist land seizures and expropriations, demand freedom to practice their beliefs or call for democratic alternatives to one-party rule are routinely subject to police harassment and intrusive surveillance, detained incommunicado for a year or more without access to legal counsel and sentenced to increasingly long prison terms in one-day trials for violating vague national security laws.


Creative repression

The national security laws have titles right out of a George Orwell novel. Article 79, which prohibits “subversion of the people’s administration,” can bring a death sentence. Article 87, “undermining the unity policy,” or article 88, “conducting propaganda against the state,” can land a violator in prison for 15 to 20 years “Disrupting security,” article 89, can result in up to 15 years in prison. Even leaving the country does not absolve an offender since the government has the ability to hand down a life sentence for violating article 91, “fleeing abroad or staying abroad to oppose the people’s government.” And if nothing else fits, there is the catch-all article 258, which criminalizes “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State” and sets out prison terms of up to seven years.

A review of Vietnam’s human rights record shows constant use of these laws to criminalize freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, resulting in long prison sentences for activists; regular use of torture in pre-trial detention; systematic campaigns of intimidation and harassment against activists; widespread press censorship and increasing efforts to try and monitor and restrict critical comment on the internet; regular attacks on freedom of religion and conscience; and systematic use of forced labor in drug detention centers and so-called re-education camps.

The operations of Vietnamese prisons and other detention facilities, especially in remote areas, remain highly opaque, making it difficult to assess the total number of persons held for political reasons, but Human Rights Watch estimates the figure is well into the hundreds.

In 2011, Human Rights Watch found that the Vietnam government sentenced at least 33 dissidents and activists to long prison terms, and that those sentences were complemented by court-ordered house arrest or severe restrictions on freedom of movement after they are released. They were prosecuted simply for exercising rights enshrined in Article 69 of Vietnam’s Constitution and articles 18 (freedom of conscience and religion), 19 (freedom of expression), 21 (right to peaceful assembly) and 22 (freedom of association) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Vietnam ratified on Sept. 24, 1982, and has routinely ignored ever since. More are in the queue – Human Rights Watch is monitoring the cases of another 49 people being held pending trial for their political and religious beliefs, a list that includes two musicians, four bloggers, thirty-five religious activists, two labor activists and four land rights activists.

The crackdown manifests itself in cases like the imprisonment of four previously unknown Catholic youth from the north central city of Vinh, in Nghe An province, who were arrested for handing out “prodemocracy” pamphlets. They were held in pre-trial detention for five to ten months and sentenced on May 24 to up to three and a half years in prison. There are also the pending cases of three of the most famous citizen bloggers in Vietnam Nguyen Van Hai (blogger Dieu Cay), Phan Thanh Hai (blogger Anhbasg) and Ta Phong Tan, who together formed the Club for Free Journalists in 2007, which was promptly crushed by the authorities. Tragically, in July, Ta Phong Tan’s mother, Dang Thi Kim Lieng, set herself on fire in reaction to the harassment faced by her daughter and the family by security forces, causing a further postponement of the trial. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brought up the case during her visit to Hanoi in July 2012, saying during a press conference that “we are concerned about restrictions on free expression online and the upcoming trial of the founders of the so-called Free Journalists Club.”

But other political prisoners, like poet and anti-corruption campaigner Nguyen Huu Cau, 65, have been effectively forgotten by much of the outside world. He has served a total of 35 years in prison since 1975 – the first time from 1975-1980 in a re-education camp; the second time from 1982 until the present for exposing corruption by local authorities. Despite losing most of his vision and hearing, the authorities show no indication of releasing him. Others, like Catholic priest Fr. Nguyen Van Ly, are famous enough that Hanoi-based diplomats occasionally are permitted to visit them. Fr. Ly suffered multiple strokes in prison in 2009, leaving his right arm and leg paralyzed, but the authorities have refused to release him from his eight-year prison term on medical grounds.


Organizational control

Vietnam focuses very clearly on ensuring that organizations operating in the country do so under the control of the government. For this reason, exiled political parties, workers seeking to form trade unions outside the government-run Vietnam General Confederation of Labor, and bloggers like the Club for Free Journalists must run a gauntlet of harassment, arrests and imprisonment. For example, on April 17 police arrested Nguyen Quoc Quan, a US citizen who is a central committee member of the exile opposition Viet Tan party, as he tried to enter the country and charged him under article 84 of the penal code for engaging in terrorist activities. However, after publicizing the initial charge in the media, the government dropped the terrorist charges against him, and instead charged him with violating article 79, “attempting to overthrow the people’s government.”

The government has reserved particular attention and harassment for independent religious groups that remain outside government-registered and controlled religious institutions. In the last year, unrecognized branches of the Cao Dai church, the Hoa Hao Buddhist sect, independent Protestant house churches in the central highlands and elsewhere, Khmer Krom Buddhist temples and the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), have all faced government persecution. Mass mobilizations by Catholic parishes in 2011 in the lead-up to the trial of legal activist and CPV dissident Cu Huy Ha Vu brought out thousands to candle-light vigils in a way that jolted Vietnam’s leaders. Religious leaders under house arrest include the UBCV Supreme Patriarch, Thich Quang Do and Hoa Hao Buddhist leaders Le Quang Liem and Vo Van Thanh Liem. In July 2011, Redemptorist Roman Catholic leaders including Fr. Pham Trung Thanh and Fr. Dinh Huu Thoai were prohibited from leaving the country. In addition, Dozens of Montagnards from the central highlands involved in the Dega Protestant church movement remain behind bars.

Prison sentences for religious activists have been heavy. For example, on Dec. 13, 2011, Hoa Hao Buddhist advocates Nguyen Van Lia and Tran Hoai An were sentenced to a total of eight years imprisonment, to be followed by five more years on probation. On March 26, 2012, a court sentenced Protestant pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh to 11 years in prison for “undermining the unity policy,” article 87 of the penal code. At least 35 other religious activists are currently in detention awaiting trial.

The key to mobilizing action on issues of land seizures, religious freedom, human rights, or political pluralism is the ability to share information. Government censorship of radio, TV, and newspapers made that difficult in Vietnam until an electronic end-run became possible through the Internet. An estimated 34 percent of Vietnamese were using the Internet as of February 2012, bringing the battle for freedom of expression online.

At the same time that Myanmar is increasingly opening up its Internet, Vietnam is moving to crack down through a draft decree that has sparked alarm among global Internet companies like Google and Yahoo and free expression advocates alike. The draft decree, which may be considered during the next session of the National Assembly, seeks to impose Vietnam’s usual national security controls on the Internet by using broad and poorly defined language to prohibit content.

The wide net for bloggers and other Internet activists sets out prohibitions on opposing the government, or posting information that will “undermine national security and social order and safety” or “sabotage national unity,” or “cause feuds and conflicts among nations, ethnic peoples and religion.” If that wasn’t enough, content that “distorts, slanders and offends the reputation of any organization, the honor and dignity of any individual” will also be criminalized.

Given the rapidly growing use of the Internet including popular social media like Facebook, which Vietnamese can access through the government’s still-leaky firewall, and the vibrancy of comment and dialogue on issues that the government doesn’t like, a major showdown may come in the near future.


Who wins?

Vietnam and Myanmar started the decade being long-time allies schooled in the ASEAN mantra of “non-interference in internal affairs” of member states and often facing critical comment from abroad on their human rights records. But now, the two governments increasingly look like ships passing each other at sea, going in opposite directions on human rights. Come 2015, when national elections in Myanmar will hold open the possibility of a real power shift coming from the ballot box, Prime Minister Dung might regret his 2010 oration aimed at encouraging Myanmar on the path toward democracy – especially when his own people may well wonder when Hanoi will follow suit.  

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