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Japan must stand with Vietnamese human rights activists

As Vietnam’s largest bilateral donor, Japan is in a unique position to raise human rights issues

Published in: Al Jazeera

For Vietnamese activist Nguyen Chi Tuyen, it was supposed to be just another day in Hanoi. In the morning, he dropped off his son at elementary school and was driving his motorbike home when a group of men surrounded his bike. Nguyen, known as Anh Chi, was beaten and left unconscious at the scene. The 2015 attack left his face swollen, and his dark grey shirt covered in even darker blood stains.

His experience is hardly unusual. Physical attacks and harassment against dissidents are increasingly common as the government confronts increasing public dissent. When a nationwide protestagainst a draft law for long-term leases in special economic zones erupted across Vietnam last year, the police detained dozens of protesters, beating and interrogating many. Some were sentenced to prison for as long as five years.

Even celebrities are at risk. Do Nguyen Mai Khoi, a singer who rose to national fame in 2010 when she won state-owned Vietnam Television's Album of the Year Award, has had her concerts cancelled since May 2016, been evicted twice and has been detained in retaliation to lyrics critical of the government and ruling Communist Party.

For people who see Vietnam as a peaceful Southeast Asian destination filled with affordable delicacies and lively markets, this may be surprising. But less visible to the average visitor is a far more inconvenient reality: an abyss where nearly 100 million Vietnamese people are regularly robbed of their basic freedoms of expression, association, assembly, and religion. This is primarily because for decades the Communist Party has run an unchecked one-party state.

The latest tool to control dissent is the new Law on Cyber Security. This draconian law requires internet service providers to store data locally, "verify" user information and disclose user data to authorities without a court order. It gives the government unfettered access to user data, making it much easier for the Ministry of Public Security to identify critics and harder for people to express themselves without risk and fear. Just days after the law took effect, Vietnamese state media said Facebook violated the law by allowing users to post "anti-government" comments. 

The law is yet another step in a seemingly endless escalation of the government's campaign against activists. At least 63 activists and bloggers were arrested in 2017 and 2018 for publishing articles critical of the government or campaigning for human rights and democracy. Communist Party-controlled courts convicted at least 15 bloggers and activists in 2017. This almost tripled in 2018, to 42 convictions, many with sentences of more than 10 years in prison. In a particularly egregious case, in August, Le Dinh Luong, an environmental activist, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. At least 130 political prisonersremained behind bars at the start of 2019. 

Despite this systematic repression, the Japanese government turns a blind eye. Vietnamese human rights activists have told us of their shock and disappointment that the Japanese government seems to only care about its relationship with the Vietnamese government, not with the Vietnamese people.

Earlier this month, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Toshiko Abe visited Vietnam and met with her high-ranking counterparts. Abe celebrated how "the bilateral relationship between Japan and Vietnam has deepened since marking the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations last year,” yet on a visit to a one-party state, she failed to mention human rights and didn't call for the release of political prisoners.

This is part of a depressing pattern. When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the now late Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang met in May 2018, Abe did not raise human rights. When Abe met Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc five months later, it was deja vu - more talk about economic partnership, but no mention of the egregious repression against the people of Vietnam 

The Japanese government fears criticism of Vietnam's human rights issues will push Vietnam closer to China. But while China and Vietnam are close neighbours and are run by communist parties, Vietnam's relationship with China is also marred by a long history of war and rivalry that has led to popular suspicion and resistance against growing Chinese influence. Tokyo should realise that Vietnam's leaders need to balance their relationship with China with equally strong relationships with its aid donors. Japan is Vietnam's largest bilateral donor and a large export market, leaving it in a unique position to pressure the Vietnamese government to undertake reforms and respect rights.

The failure to put rights on an equal footing with trade and aid is a cynical perpetuation of Japan's "values-free diplomacy," which has also contributed to sidelining rights in its approach to countries such as Cambodia and Myanmar.

As one of the leading liberal democracies in the world, Japan must raise human rights in its discussions with the Vietnamese government. Not only would this send an encouraging message to Vietnam's brave human rights activists, but Japan's voice also has the potential to create more space for the Vietnamese people to enjoy some of the same civil liberties many Japanese people appear to take for granted.

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