Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page


Human Rights Developments

      Vietnam's human rights record in 1991 was marked by opposing trends. The Seventh Party Congress, held June 24-27, while producing few significant changes in policy, provoked unprecedented public debate on the political and economic direction of the country. The backdrop to this debate was communism's continuing collapse in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, which served to deepen the party's fears of "peaceful evolution," i.e., subversion from the West. The result was that while the trend toward increased openness in speech, religion and economic pursuits continued, the government reinforced its campaign of sharp repression against perceived critics and enemies. Similarly, while Hanoi released several long-term political detainees, it was preparing to bring other, more recent political prisoners to trial.

      As the draft party platforms circulated for comment in late 1990 and 1991, the strong criticism that emerged took the leadership aback. In December 1990, retired Colonel Bui Tin, a former editor of the official daily Nhan Dan, castigated the party in a series of British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) broadcasts from Paris, where he was on official leave. Equally pointed calls for democracy, political pluralism and respect for human rights issued from intellectuals at home, including Nguyen Khac Vien, one of Vietnam's most prominent official historians and editors; the philosopher Hoang Minh Chinh; and Phan Dinh Dieu, a leading mathematician who is vice president of the National Center for Scientific Research in Hanoi.115 Hardliners responded not only with rebuttal in the state media, but also with arrests and expulsions from the Communist Party.

      Colonel Bui Tin, still in Paris, was stripped of party membership. His house in Vietnam came under continual surveillance, his immediate family was forbidden to communicate with him, his wife was interrogated repeatedly, his daughter was demoted from her position as an eye surgeon to that of an eyeglass sales clerk, and his son-in-law was forbidden to take a scholarship offered by Harvard.

      Another prominent critic, the novelist Duong Thu Huong, was arrested in April for allegedly attempting to send confidential documents out of the country. In conjunction with her arrest,

      Dr. Bui Duy Tam, a Vietnamese with U.S. citizenship, was imprisoned for two months for supposedly transporting documents "detrimental to the national security." These documents included a personal letter that Dr. Bui had received from Bui Tin, a copy of the minutes of several official associations, and some literary and historical works published in Vietnam. Dr. Bui, who suffered a stroke in captivity, was released on May 31 and expelled from the country. Duong Thu Huong was held at a security "guesthouse" until his release in November.

      Interior Minister Mai Chi Tho, in a published interview, accused Duong Thu Huong and Bui Tin of aiding an overseas campaign to "destroy" Vietnam. He also described as "spies" two U.S. citizens expelled in 1990 _ businessman Michael Morrow and Mennonite teacher Miriam Hirschberger _ and defended the detention since 1975 of over one hundred persons associated with the former South Vietnamese government. The accusations against Morrow and Hirschberger are widely regarded as baseless _ a product of internal struggles over ideology. In a display of paranoia that embarrassed even some officials, Miriam Hirschberger's photograph was installed for a time in an exhibition on espionage at Hanoi's Museum of the Revolution.

      More ominous was the press campaign launched against the Vietnamese citizens arrested for their association with Michael Morrow, who have been held for over a year. A series of articles in official publications accused Doan Thanh Liem, Do Ngoc Long and others of collaborating with Morrow and other purported American "spies" in collecting information on Vietnam for use abroad. At least one article called for them to be put on trial, but no date has yet been set. Both Do Ngoc Long and Doan Thanh Liem have also had health problems during detention and are feared to have suffered abuse.

      A similar press campaign targeted Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, an endocrinologist who was arrested in May 1990 for signing a public appeal calling for political reform and human rights. On November 29, 1991, Dr. Que was given a four-hour trial, denied the opportunity to speak in his own defense, and sentenced to twenty year of hard labor and five additional years of house arrest for actions "subversive" to the state. Another man, Nguyen Van Thuan, received a ten-year prison sentence at the same trial, and two others, Le Duc Vuong and Nguyen Thien Hung, will also be tried for their association with Dr. Que. Dr. Que was an outspoken advocate of human rights and nonviolent political change, and a member of Amnesty International since his release from ten years' imprisonment for "reeducation" in 1988. The charges against him alleged that he had distributed thousands of political leaflets within Vietnam and recruited others to his point of view.

      When the date of the Seventh Party Congress finally arrived, Hanoi came under stringent security measures, with access closed to foreigners, including two U.S. representatives who were in the process of opening an office to account for U.S. military personnel missing in action during the Vietnam War. Asia Watch received reports that many Vietnamese were kept under house arrest or in custody during this period.

      Unlike past years, which had seen amnesties for thousands of political prisoners, just over a dozen prisoners where rumored to have been released in 1991 on the September 2 National Day. However, several very prominent prisoners of conscience were released in September and October. They included the poet Nguyen Chi Thien, who has spent most of his adult life in custody; the novelist and professor Doan Quoc Sy, held since 1984; and the Catholic priest Le Thanh Que, arrested along with other priests for religious writings in the early 1980s.

      Abuse in custody continued to be a serious problem in 1991, with detainees subject in some cases to beatings, nighttime interrogation, and deprivation of food, exercise and medical care. In one case, a person suspected of aiding the escape of a group of "counterrevolutionaries" was beaten to death by jailers. "Reeducation" camps continue to exist throughout the country, and inmates are subjected to hard labor, inadequate rations and medical care, and coercion to write confessions and reports on each other. Upon release, former detainees report police surveillance and difficulty in having their residency and identification documents restored.

      Vietnam agreed in 1991 to give the International Committee of the Red Cross access to political prisoners held in "reeducation" camps since the end of the war. The agreement, announced in December, is a significant step for Vietnam toward allowing outside scrutiny of its compliance with international human rights norms. Party officials have told reporters that those persons still detained since 1975, estimated to be slightly over one hundred in number, would all be released by early 1992.116

      Administrative detention remained the norm and judicial process the exception for persons arrested in Vietnam. Although Vietnam has made a concerted effort over the past three years to draft both civil and criminal statutes, the legal infrastructure remains underdeveloped, with fewer than five hundred licensed lawyers in the entire country. The government agency that supervises criminal investigations admits that it is not yet able to adhere to the statutory time limits on pretrial detention in all criminal cases.117 For political detainees, such as those mentioned above, time limits appear to be extended indefinitely. A paucity of lawyers defeats otherwise admirable statutory safeguards on detention, such as the advocate's right to be present during police interrogation. Moreover, the number of criminal cases rose by ten percent in the first half of 1991, as the anti-crime campaign inaugurated by Council of Ministers Directive 135 continued. Though primarily directed at common crime, the campaign also targets those who are seen as threats to "political security" and owners of contraband videos and publications.

      Vietnam embarked on several revisions to its laws in 1991. Draft amendments to the 1980 Constitution were to be publicized by the end of 1991. They include a de-emphasis on socialism in the description of economic relations, and increased separation of party and state functions. Less progressive were amendments to the penal code that extended the death penalty to crimes involving fraud and bribery, both of which have become serious social problems as economic controls relax.

      A new law also came into effect on religious associations, codifying government control over religious activities. The law, decreed in March, requires government approval for appointing clergy or elected laypersons; conducting religious activities other than those regularly scheduled; holding retreats, religious conventions or training sessions for clergy; operating monasteries, and establishing or maintaining contacts with foreign religious organizations such as extending invitations to visitors or receiving foreign aid. While guaranteeing the right to "practice, deny or change one's religion" and prohibiting discrimination based on religion and beliefs, the law also contains provisions suited to restricting religious freedom, such as those forbidding "superstition," "propaganda of superstition and activities interfering in work, training, and civil obligations" and activities "under the cloak of religion which undermine the independence of the country and the government...or cause damage to the integrity and unity of the people, or interfere with civil obligations."

      Official constraints on ordination of clergy have left many Vietnamese congregations without leaders. Interest in religion among laypeople has soared in recent years, and observance has become markedly more open. In conjunction with official suspicion of foreign influence, Protestants came under particular scrutiny, with a number of pastors arrested in 1991. Among them were Dinh Thien Tu, who had begun a social work program without government approval, and Tran Dinh Ai. Two overseas Vietnamese clerics were arrested on June 28 and held for two months before being expelled. Reverend Nhi Van Ho and Pastor Tuan Phuc Ma, both U.S. citizens, were detained for conducting religious services and distributing religious materials in Vung Tau and Ho Chi Minh City without permits. Vietnam continued to hold other long-term religious prisoners, such as Catholic Father Chan Tin, and Buddhist monks Thich Tue Sy, Thich Tri Sieu and Thich Duc Nhuan.

      Despite the restrictive press law adopted in 1990, state media retained some latitude to publish exposes of corruption and fraud. However, clear limits remained on what could be printed. Vu Kim Hanh, the editor of the youth newspaper Tuoi Tre, was fired in late May for publishing an article that suggested Ho Chi Minh may have been married, and two Soviet magazines were banned from distribution. Beginning in August, the Communist Party sought to reach out to intellectuals alienated by the ideological crackdown at the time of the Party Congress. General Secretary Do Muoi met with numerous groups to assure them that the party welcomes divergent ideas, and the ban on writings by Phan Dinh Dieu and Nguyen Khac Vien was said to have been lifted.118 However, the government continued to detain numerous writers for "counterrevolutionary propaganda" or attempting to send their writings out of the country.

      Freedom of movement within Vietnam continued to improve, and legal emigration swelled through the Orderly Departure Program (ODP). Over eighty thousand persons left in 1991 for Western countries under ODP, and the so-called HO program has settled over twelve thousand former reeducation camp prisoners in the United States in the same period.119 Vietnam continued to criminalize illegal departure, and mete out heavy punishments to "boat organizers," including those who return voluntarily from countries of first asylum in the region.

      Despite Vietnam's promise not to persecute or harass any returnees, whether they returned willingly or not, reports by voluntary returnees of harassment and statements by officials raised concern over the forced return of boat people from Hong Kong in November. Some voluntary returnees were subject to intensive interrogation about their associations and activities in Hong Kong, and others were required to report on their activities to their local police stations _ treatment typically accorded those on probation. A series of statements by Vietnamese officials characterized as "criminals" worthy of "punishment" those who leave Vietnam a second time after returning once voluntarily. Although these statements were retracted after publicity, the attitude behind them raise questions about how local officials will treat those returned by force.

      Increasing corruption has to some degree mitigated the effects of Vietnam's extensive surveillance apparatus on ordinary citizens, at least for those with the means to bribe susceptible local officials. However, those forced to return will be especially vulnerable, since they are ineligible for any cash allowance and often will have sold all their possessions to finance their trip. The government still gathers extensive information on citizens' political and family backgrounds, and those deemed undesirable still face discrimination in employment and educational opportunities. The recent normalization of relations between Vietnam and China has somewhat improved conditions for ethnic Chinese, and the teaching of Chinese is no longer prohibited, at least in major urban areas; indeed, Vietnam recently published a Sino-Vietnamese dictionary of military terms for use in armed forces academies.120 Other minorities, particularly Montagnards and Nung formerly allied with the South Vietnamese government, continued to suffer discrimination and displacement.

The Right to Monitor

      Vietnam severely punishes citizens who openly criticize human rights abuses, as demonstrated by the recent case of Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, described above. Any number of provisions of the criminal code are suited to this purpose, among them the prohibitions on "taking actions to overthrow the people's government" (Article 73), "supplying information and documents which are not state secrets so that they can be used by a foreign country against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam" (Article 74c); "anti-socialist propaganda" (Article 81); and "disrupting security" through assemblies (Article 83).

      A case in point is Tran Vong Quoc, who was tried and sentence to twelve years' imprisonment on December 31, 1988. The charges against him included collecting information about "reactionary activists" who had been tried and executed for their crimes, intending to pass the information to human rights organizations abroad, corresponding with "anti-government elements" overseas, and inducing others to join in anti-government activities. His brother, Tran Tu Thanh, was sentenced to five years' imprisonment for collaborating with his brother, collecting information on U.S. soldiers missing in action, planning to send this information to U.S. authorities, and writing a report on prison conditions with the intent of sending it to overseas human rights organizations. Tran Tu Thanh has since been released. Both are sons of the well-known human rights lawyer and South Vietnamese legislative opposition leader Tran Van Tuyen, who died from abuse in a labor camp in 1976.

      In other cases, the authorities have not bothered with the formalities of a trial. Nguyen Manh Hung, a reeducation camp prisoner from 1973 to 1980, visited the Indonesian Embassy on his second week of freedom to ask its assistance in bringing human rights abuses in prisons to the attention of the United Nations. He was abducted by security officials and sent back to a prison camp as soon as he exited the Embassy door. In 1988, he escaped and fled to Hong Kong.

      Harsh treatment has not deterred some Vietnamese from speaking out. According to official accounts, Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, recently sentenced to twenty years' imprisonment, distributed thousands of leaflets calling for political and human rights reforms. Between 1988 and 1990, members of a human rights organization from central Vietnam participated in demonstrations and engaged in leafletting and private advocacy. Following a crackdown on the group in late 1989, members fled to Hong Kong. Given that criticism of government policies can land even a former party loyalist like Duong Thu Huong in jail, human rights advocacy in Vietnam is for the most part surreptitious and unreported.

U.S. Policy

      The State Department in April announced a "roadmap" for the normalization of relations with Vietnam and by the end of 1991 had committed the United States to taking the first steps toward diplomatic recognition. At the same time, President Bush renewed the economic embargo against Vietnam in September, and in October the U.S. Administration moved to block a World Bank plan to clear Vietnam's debt and resume lending.

      The United States, as a condition of normalized relations, requires Vietnam to cooperate with the Cambodian peace process and account for U.S. soldiers still listed as missing in action. According to the roadmap, the United States will resume normal relations gradually as the Cambodian peace process moves through various phases, beginning with the signing of the accords, and culminating with U.N.-supervised elections and the seating of a new National Assembly. At the signing of the peace accords in Paris, Secretary of State James Baker announced U.S. readiness to lift the twenty-five-mile travel limit on Vietnamese diplomats at the United Nations, to permit U.S. organized travel to Vietnam, and to begin talks on the modalities of normalization of diplomatic relations.

      Human rights for Vietnam's own citizens remained separate from the Administration's public agenda for normalization, and Congress generally followed suit. At hearings on April 25 before the Senate Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Richard Solomon mentioned release of all "reeducation camp political prisoners" as a consistent U.S. policy goal, but avoided saying that it would influence the normalization process. Similarly, at hearings on June 25 before the House Subcommittees on International Economic Policy and Trade and on Asian and Pacific Affairs, nongovernmental witnesses rather than Administration representatives urged that progress in human rights should be a factor in lifting the trade embargo.

      However, both the Administration and members of Congress such as Senators John McCain, Tom Harkin, Bob Kerrey and John Kerry and Representative Stephen Solarz raised human rights issues privately with the Vietnamese government, with some results. Following international pressure and State Department queries, Dr. Bui Duy Tam was released after two months of detention and interrogation. In the weeks between the signing of the Paris accords and Secretary Solomon's first meeting to discuss normalization, the poet Nguyen Chi Thien, the writer Doan Quoc Sy, Father Le Thang Que, and the author Duong Thu Huong were freed.

The Work of Asia Watch

      Asia Watch issued three newsletters concerning Vietnam in 1991. The first, "Repression of Dissent," described human rights advocacy within Vietnam and the government's efforts to suppress it. In May, Asia Watch pressed the State Department to exert its influence in securing the release of Dr. Bui Duy Tam, a U.S. citizen arrested in Vietnam for possessing writings critical of the party. Dr. Bui was eventually released, thanks to State Department pressure and humanitarian concern for his medical condition. In November, Asia Watch coordinated efforts with congressional committees to protest the trial of Nguyen Dan Que, one of Vietnam's best known human rights advocates.

      "Citizens Detained for Peaceful Expression" set forth the cases of forty-seven individuals imprisoned for voicing political or religious views. Throughout 1991, Asia Watch lobbied the State Department, members of Congress, and the governments of Vietnam's major Western trade partners to raise cases of political and religious prisoners. In particular, Asia Watch briefed on human rights concerns the numerous members of Congress and congressional staff traveling to Vietnam. As a result, many of the cases discussed in the newsletter were raised through diplomatic channels and by visiting government representatives during the year.

      "Indefinite Detention and Mandatory Repatriation" examined Hong Kong's detention policy and the treatment of returnees in Vietnam, arguing that conditions were not appropriate for forced repatriation. Between May and September, an Asia Watch staff member interviewed asylum seekers and refugee workers in Hong Kong and Thailand about human rights conditions in Vietnam. Asia Watch also advocated refugee status on behalf of certain individuals to government and U.N. authorities. In November, Asia Watch made a submission to a hearing on mandatory repatriation before the House Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs, detailing objections to Hong Kong's screening policy and Vietnam's ability to ensure fair treatment of returnees. The Asia Watch objections to the first forced return of boat people from Hong Kong received international press coverage.

      Asia Watch renewed its request to send a mission to Vietnam to examine human rights conditions and the legal system, but no response was forthcoming. On several occasions during the year, Asia Watch reiterated its human rights concerns to members of Vietnam's Mission to the United Nations in New York.

See Murray Hiebert, "Higher Criticism," Far Eastern Economic Review, May 2, 1991; Nayan Chanda, "Editor's Letter Indicated a Growing Rift at Highest Levels of Vietnamese Party," Asian Wall Street Journal, March 11, 1991; Phan Dinh Dieu, "A Plea for Basic Freedoms and a System That Works," The Asian Wall Street Journal Weekly, June 24, 1991.

Kathleen Callo, "Vietnam to Give Red Cross First Access to Re-Education Camps," Reuters (December 3, 1991).

Tran Quyet, chief procurator of the Supreme People's Organ of Control, stated that "most" criminal cases are handled within the time limits and that "better progress has been made" in accelerating the processing of criminal cases. Hanoi Voice of Vietnam Network, August 7, 1991, as reported in Federal Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), August 15 1991.

Peter Eng, "Vietnam party wooing intellectuals," The Standard, September 28, 1991.

Statistics provided by the U.S. State Department. The total departures under ODP for fiscal year 1989 were 65,220, and 39,082 for fiscal year 1988. Applicants for the program are being interviewed at the rate of approximately ten thousand per month. Vietnam still controls the content of the applicant lists given to the United States, and in some cases government authorities have impeded persons from applying.

"Sino-Vietnamese Military Dictionary Published," Hanoi Voice of Vietnam, September 28, 1991, as reported in FBIS October 1, 1991.

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page