(New York) – United States President Barack Obama should press Vietnam to end its crackdown on peaceful activists and move towards free and fair elections, Human Rights Watch said today. Obama’s visit from May 23-25, will be the first in his two-term administration. The trip follows parliamentary elections on May 22 that will be controlled by the Vietnam Communist Party, which chooses who can and cannot stand for election, and how many non-Party members can have seats in the National Assembly.

The ruling Communist Party has run a repressive one-party state since 1954 in the north of the country and since 1975 in the south.

“President Obama is making this trip to deepen relations with Vietnam, but this must be based on a foundation of respect for basic rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “He should start by calling for the right of all people to stand for election, voice critical views of government, associate with others, and freely choose candidates – something Vietnam's current rulers have yet to allow. Obama should make it clear that the United States does not accept the idea that the Vietnamese people are not ready, willing, and able to choose their own leaders.”

In a letter sent to President Obama in April, Human Rights Watch highlighted key human rights issues including the problems of political prisoners, beatings and harassment of activists, legal reform, labor rights, and democratic governance.

Obama should stand next to Vietnam’s leaders in public and call on them to respect the right to freely choose government representatives, stand for office, and peacefully advocate for democracy. If this trip is partially about legacy-building, as some suggest, there can be no more meaningful legacy than helping the people of Vietnam achieve fundamental reforms.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

 
The letter states, “Basic freedoms of expression, association, and assembly are extremely limited. The media and Internet are controlled and censored. The Vietnamese Communist Party controls all public institutions and uses them to maintain its hold on power. Genuine elections do not take place; those being held in May for the National Assembly are a form of political theater. The courts are party organs and lack independence. Similarly, independent trade unions are not permitted.”
 
Recent weeks have seen worrying ongoing examples of human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said. Following an environmental disaster, police have beaten, choked, and detained protesters worried about the health effects of contaminated fish. State media has persecuted protesters and their supporters further by denouncing them by name and accusing them of taking money and orders from foreign “reactionary” forces. The government has also used pre-emptive house arrest to prevent potential protesters from attending demonstrations. This tactic has long been deployed against government critics when important foreign dignitaries visit the country. Human Rights Watch expressed concern that rights activists and bloggers risk similar mistreatment during Obama’s visit.
 
Obama’s visit will likely coincide with a hunger strike carried out by the political prisoner Tran Huynh Duy Thuc after authorities pressured him to accept overseas exile in the United States or remain in prison. Tran Huynh Duy Thuc was recently transferred from Xuyen Moc prison in Ba Ria–Vung Tau province to prison No. 6 in Nghe An province. During the most recent visit on May 14, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc told his family that he plans to launch a hunger strike on May 24.

“Obama should insist that Tran Huynh Duy Thuc and all other peaceful activists are released from prison and allowed to live free from government harassment in their own country,” said Adams. “He should say that the practice of forcing political prisoners into exile must end.”

As he has done in countries such as China and Cuba, Obama is expected to meet with dissidents and activists and give a public speech in which he will take questions from the audience. Human Rights Watch welcomed these steps, but said that he should also challenge the country’s leaders to commit to fundamental reforms when he meets them.

“Obama should stand next to Vietnam’s leaders in public and call on them to respect the right to freely choose government representatives, stand for office, and peacefully advocate for democracy,” said Adams. “If this trip is partially about legacy-building, as some suggest, there can be no more meaningful legacy than helping the people of Vietnam achieve fundamental reforms.”