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Human Rights Developments

    The year 1990 saw a sharp curtailment of the modest human rights reforms that had accompanied Vietnam's "renovation" policy (doi moi). Alarmed at the political changes in Eastern Europe and the impending cutback of Soviet-bloc trade and aid, the Communist Party of Vietnam followed China's lead in attempting to hedge economic reforms with tight ideological control at home.

The policy of renovation, adopted in December 1986 by the Sixth Party Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam, came to embrace gradual reform of Vietnam's economy toward a greater market orientation, amnesties for thousands of political prisoners held since 1975 in "reeducation" camps, promulgation of a criminal procedure code, exposure of corruption within Party and government ranks, and limited official sanction of political and social criticism in the arts and media. Although the Party officially continued to support economic reforms, it reasserted control over actual and supposed critics, the better to avert any Tiananmen-style protests.

    Directive 135, issued from the Council of Ministers in late 1989 and promulgated by the National Assembly in April 1990, established a paramilitary police unit and inaugurated a series of campaigns against criminals, corruption and opponents to Party policies.65 The result was arrests and "surrenders" of thousands of criminals and massive seizures of contraband tapes and videos, according to the official press. Asia Watch sources reported that citizens, particularly former "reeducation" prisoners, were forced to attend study sessions on Directive 135, and that the authorities stepped up detention, interrogation and harassment of small entrepreneurs under its mandate.

    Tough new restrictions on press and publishing went into effect during the summer. A Central Committee Secretariat directive gave procedures for banning publications and punishing "politically reactionary" authors, and called for "councils of arts" nationwide to censor literary and artistic publications and review all existing works published in the North prior to 1945 and in the South prior to April 1975.66 The Secretariat also required newspaper editors and publishers to be Party members.67 The government banned a Quang Nam-Danang Province legal journal, Tap Chi Phap Luat, and fired the deputy director of the provincial judicial service for allowing its publication.68 In this climate, it was not surprising that in November and December, Colonel Bui Tin, deputy editor of the party newspaper Nhan Dan, chose to express his views on Vietnam's troubles from France using the BBC to reach his readership in Vietnam.69 Asia Watch has received reports from refugees and others that a number of writers and poets previously released from "reeducation" camps were rearrested in late 1990. These include Le Nguyen Ngu, Le Van Tien, Pham Thai Thuy, Vuong Duc Le, Khuat Duy Trac and Mai Trung Tinh.

    Persecution of religious leaders remained in full force, although refugees interviewed by Asia Watch reported that official toleration of private worship increased somewhat during the "renovation" years. The authorities continued to severely restrict applications for admission to the clergy of all religions.

    On May 16, Father Chan Tin, a prominent Catholic priest accused of preaching sermons that would incite Catholics to demand political and civil rights, was removed from his church in Ho Chi Minh City and confined to another on the outskirts of the city. Nguyen Ngoc Lan, his associate and a prominent Catholic intellectual, was placed under house arrest. Both were reported to have been arrested for "carrying out activities aimed at opposing socialism, sowing dissension among religions, undermining the solidarity between religious and secular life, and compiling and supplying documents to other countries for use against the people's authorities." Eleven Catholics, including Nguyen Van De and Nguyen Thi Nhi, were sentenced in August for illegal religious and political activities following a two-day trial.70 Buddhist monks Thich Tue Sy and Thich Tri Sieu remain incarcerated under 20-year sentences for alleged subversion, and monks Thich Quang Do and Thich Huyen Quang, both critics of human rights violations, have been banished from Ho Chi Minh City to their villages in Central Vietnam since 1982.

    Anticipating political unrest on the 15-year anniversary of the end of the war (April 30) and the centenary of Ho Chi Minh's birth (May 13), the public security authorities intensified the crackdown on perceived troublemakers. On April 23, public security forces jailed US businessman Michael Morrow for two weeks, accusing him of espionage. Although Morrow, who was never given an opportunity to meet with counsel, was released after admitting to inadvertent violations of Vietnam's public security regulations, certain Vietnamese intellectuals who were detained in association with him remain in prison. They include Doan Thanh Liem, a lawyer and specialist in constitutional law; Do Ngoc Long, a Catholic businessman; Nguyen Van Tan, a former journalist; Do Trung Hieu, a well known Communist intellectual; and Dang Hai Son, an art dealer.

Vietnam detained and expelled a number of other foreigners during this time, including Miriam Hershberger, a Mennonite teacher who was accused of trying to destabilize the government by using foreign newspapers in her English classes.71 The official press reported these cases with a stern warning that "we must expose and severely punish those elements engaged in espionage work who travel to our country under certain covers to carry out activities aimed at opposing our socialist regime and sabotaging our people's livelihood."72

    The government extended its repression even to the ranks of the "loyal opposition." Nguyen Ho and Ta Ba Tang, chairman and vice-chairman of the Club of Former Resistance Fighters, a group of South Vietnamese Communist war veterans which called for accelerated political and economic reform, resigned their positions under pressure on March 4. Both were placed under police surveillance and house detention after giving interviews to a British journalist a few days earlier. Huyhn Tan Mam, a former student leader and opponent of the South Vietnamese government during the war, was also placed under house detention and surveillance; he had published an open letter to Party General Secretary Nguyen Van Linh calling for more democracy.

    Despite the release of thousands of political prisoners in 1987 and 1988 and regular amnesties on Vietnam's National Day, Asia Watch believes that large numbers of political prisoners remain in the notorious "reeducation" camps, subject to rigorous labor, life-threatening shortages of food and medical care, and abuses such as fettering, beating and solitary confinement. Among these prisoners are Tran Vong Quoc, imprisoned since December 1984 for trying to pass information to international human rights organizations; journalist Tran Duy Hinh, the last member of Vietnam's former PEN association, imprisoned for the last 15 years; Father Le Thanh Que, a Jesuit priest accused of counterrevolutionary propaganda and sedition; and the Hanoi poet Nguyen Chi Thien, who has been incarcerated periodically since 1958, most recently in 1979 when he attempted to send his poetry abroad for publication.

US Policy

    The Bush administration made significant strides in 1990 toward normalizing relations with Vietnam. A series of official US-Vietnamese contacts over the summer culminated on September 29 when Secretary of State James Baker received Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach in Washington for the highest-level talks since the end of the Vietnam War.

    Vietnam's cooperation in resolving the Cambodia crisis and accounting for MIA-POWs were the two issues emphasized by the State Department as key to progress on normalization. On December 5, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Richard Solomon said that the US was prepared to start formal talks on normalization once Vietnam agreed to sign the United Nations-sponsored peace plan for Cambodia, and made satisfactory steps toward resolving MIA cases.73 Although Vietnam approved the establishment of a permanent US presence in Vietnam to handle MIA issues,74 Solomon's prediction that full normalization could be complete within two years may have been premature, given Vietnam's rejection of the UN plan on December 14.75 However, the fluidity of negotiation positions in the course of Cambodian peace talks during 1990 left open the possibility that Vietnam's rejection was not definitive.

    Strikingly absent from the administration's stated agenda on normalization were human rights abuses directed at Vietnam's own citizens. Members of Congress, however, were more vocal on this issue. On April 23, Senator Pete Wilson introduced a resolution calling for human rights and democratic reforms in Vietnam as a precondition to normalization of relations. The resolution, which called for release of all political prisoners, abolition of "reeducation" camps, establishment of an independent bar and judiciary, introduction of free elections and repeal of the constitutional supremacy of the Communist Party, was sharply criticized by Radio Hanoi.76 Senator John McCain, who met with Foreign Minister Thach in October, called for the US to tie full economic relations to political reforms, particularly Vietnamese respect for the right of dissent, and urged that the release of Vietnamese war veterans from "reeducation" camps be made a condition of diplomatic relations. Although Asia Watch takes no position on the question of normalizing US-Vietnamese relations, it urges the administration to use available leverage to encourage Vietnamese authorities to curb human rights violations.

The Work of Asia Watch

    Asia Watch conducted an investigative mission to the refugee camps and detention centers of Hong Kong from October 16 to 28, interviewing two dozen recently arrived Vietnamese about human rights conditions in Vietnam. Although the refugees tended to agree that human rights conditions had improved somewhat throughout the renovation years, they also reported fresh arrests for religious and political activities, and confirmed the continued existence of conditions of privation and brutality in "reeducation" camps. The Asia Watch researchers gathered detailed accounts of the operation of Vietnam's system of household registry, through which citizens exercise (and are frequently denied) basic civil rights, and of continued discrimination against individuals based on the political history of their relatives. Among those interviewed were members of the Vietnam Human Rights League, an underground group dedicated to nonviolent human rights advocacy, who had escaped from Vietnam earlier in the year. Their accounts of protest activities and police repression will be published in 1991.

    On July 25, Asia Watch expressed its concern about the continued detention of Doan Thanh Liem to Madame Nho Ba Thanh, president of the Legislative Committee of Vietnam's National Assembly, and relayed a petition for his release from the faculty of the Georgetown University Law Center. At Asia Watch's request, the Congressional Committee to Support Writers and Journalists wrote the Permanent Representative of Vietnam to the United Nations to request the immediate release of Tran Duy Hinh. Asia Watch also participated in a briefing session on Capitol Hill on December 14, discussing human rights conditions in Vietnam in the context of the refugee situation in Southeast Asia.

    In November, Asia Watch formally requested permission to visit Vietnam to discuss human rights concerns with government officials. No official response had been received by the end of the year.

    65 Nhan Dan, April 16, 1990, in FBIS, April 16, 1990.

    66 Hanoi Domestic Service in Vietnamese, July 27, 1990, in FBIS, August 8, 1990.

    67 Hong Kong AFP in English, August 3, 1990, in FBIS, August 7, 1990.

    68 Hanoi Domestic Service in Vietnamese, June 25, 1990, FBIS, June 29, 1990.

    69 See, "Ex-Follower of Ho Chi Minh Scolds Vietnam in Broadcasts," New York Times, December 29, 1990.

    70 Hong Kong AFP in English, August 17, 1990, in FBIS, August 20, 1990.

    71 United Press International, June 8, 1990.

    72 Saigon Giai Phong, June 19, 1990, in FBIS, August 27, 1990.

    73 "U.S. is Now Ready for Vietnam Talks," New York Times, December 6, 1990.

    74 United Press International, October 30, 1990.

    75 United Press International, December 15, 1990.

    76 Hanoi Domestic Service, June 19, 1990, in FBIS, June 19, 1990; see also Indochina Digest, April 29-May 5, 1990.

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