Human Rights Developments
Vietnam pursued further economic and legal reforms in 1992 at thesame time as it continued to punish its critics and opponents. Positive developments included constitutional reforms that gave incrementally greater prominence to individual rights, the release of almost all known officials of the Saigon regime who had been held continuously without trial since 1975 for "reeducation," and diminishing control over daily life by the Communist Party. On the negative side, the government continued to arrest, detain and sentence individuals for non-violent dissent, to hold prisoners in conditions that threatened their health and safety, to censor writers, and to repressively control religious institutions.
Perceived political dissent continued to be harshly suppressed. The official press reported in May that Doan Viet Hoat, a professor of English literature, and other intellectuals arrested in late 1990 were to be tried for circulating a newsletter named "Freedom Forum" which published articles on political and social reform. Doan Thanh Liem, a constitutional law scholar arrested for his association with the American businessman Mike Morrow in 1990, was sentenced in a secret trial on May 14 to 12 years' imprisonment for "anti-socialist propaganda." The evidence against him consisted of proposals for constitutional reform that he had circulated to high officials, an article on Catholicism in East Germany that an American friend had sent him, and his private notes that he had jotted on socialism and education. Nguyen Tri, identified as a "reactionary poet," was given an eight-year prison sentence for helping Liem type some documents. The intellectual Le Van Tien began a hunger strike on February 18 to protest his detention on groundless accusations of espionage. The authorities released him some two weeks later after his health had deteriorated sharply but did not permit him to emigrate to the United States as he had planned before his arrest in June 1990.
Numerous other persons were arrested and imprisoned for what appears from official reports to have been non-violent opposition to the government expressed through exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and association. Among them were Nguyen Ngoc Dat, sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment along with four others for drawing up documents on humanism and Buddhism and making contacts with overseas Vietnamese, with the purported intent "to overthrow the government." A number of former South Vietnamese military officers who had formed the "Lien Viet" group were arrested for leading a campaign to write critical leaflets and messages on banknotes, such as "Communism? No! Democracy? Yes!"
The treatment of prisoners remained cause for grave concern. Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, an endocrinologist arrested in 1990 for signing a petition that called for human rights and political reforms, was transferred in early June from Phang Dan Luu jail to a cell in Chi Hoa prison with violent common criminals. Two of his front teeth were then knocked out. Do Ngoc Long, also arrested with Mike Morrow in 1990 but still awaiting trial, collapsed at the end of May and was transferred from Phang Dang Luu to Chi Hoa prison hospital. Both of these prisoners have since been transferred to labor camps outside of Ho Chi MinhCity. Other political prisoners have suffered health disorders and malnutrition during incarceration, and one prisoner reported on his release that he had been punished whenever his name was publicized by foreign human rights organizations. The government continues to violate prisoners' rights by permitting family members only sporadically to visit and deliver food and medicine to prisoners.
Almost all of the former South Vietnamese officials and civilians held continuously since 1975 for "reeducation" were released in 1992. Nguyen Khac Chinh, who had been held without charge or trial since December 1975, was not, possibly because he was one of a group of Catholic intellectuals opposed to the communist authorities. Despite Vietnam's announcement in 1991 that it would permit the International Committee of the Red Cross to monitor reeducation camp detainees, no terms for such an arrangement have been worked out.
The 1992 constitution abolished the Council of State and replaced it with a more powerful President, who is empowered to nominate the Premier, Chief Justice and Chief Inspector, and to replace the Council of Ministers with a Premier-nominated cabinet. General Le Duc Anh, a hard-liner who directed the invasion of Cambodia, was elected President (and armed forces commander-in-chief), and Vo Van Kiet, a reformer, was re-elected Premier. Their selection suggested a continuing two-track policy of economic reform coupled with tight political control.
The elections for the National Assembly brought less change than originally anticipated. Although a new election law permitted independent candidates, only two of 42 independents were found to be qualified as candidates by the Party-controlled Fatherland Front, and several of the more outspoken deputies from Ho Chi Minh City were not invited to run again. Even so, a number of incumbents lost their seats, including Madame Nho Ba Thanh, the head of the legislative drafting committee of the National Assembly, who was one of Vietnam's leading non-communists. The Party had increasing difficulty attracting new members and called for further efforts against ideological pollution and corruption.
Major constitutional changes recognized new rights to engage in business, own the means of production, and transfer interests in land. Innovations in civil and political rights were less dramatic. In the provision guaranteeing the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association and demonstration, the new constitution dropped the qualifier "in accordance with the interests of socialism and of the people." The Communist Party is still designated the "leading force of the state and society," but all Party organizations are now to "operate within the framework of the Constitution and the law." "Oppressive investigations" were explicitly forbidden for the first time, but the term "oppressive" was never defined. A prohibition of punishment without a court-imposed guilty verdict, which had existed in the criminal procedure law, was also incorporated into the constitution. However, religious freedom continued to be limited by the warning that "no one can violate the freedom of faith or exploit it in a way at variance with the law and state policies."
An extraordinary protest movement in the Buddhist community for greater independence and freedom began in 1992, set off by the funeral of the Patriarch Thich Don Hau on May 3. Thich Don Hau, the most senior leader of the Unified Buddhist Church still at liberty, had stipulated that his funeral was to follow Buddhist tradition strictly, without any official intervention. Upon the Patriarch's death, however, the government swiftly bestowed upon him the Ho Chi Minh Medal and set about organizing the funeral, despite hunger strikes and threats of self-immolation on the part of many monks. Thich Huyen Quang, the senior leader of the Unified Buddhist Church who since February 1982 has been exiled from Ho Chi Minh City and placed under house arrest, was permitted to attend the funeral only after a day-long hunger strike. He delivered an oration condemning the government's attempt to dissolve the Unified Buddhist Church in 1981 and to establish a state-controlled Buddhist church with the same name.
Thich Huyen Quang also issued a nine-point petition calling on the government either to place him on trial or to annul the decree of house arrest; to account for the deaths of monks and nuns and the destruction of Buddhist property since 1975; to free religious and political prisoners, among them the Buddhists Thich Quang Do (who was rearrested on April 17, just three weeks after he was released from house arrest and internal exile imposed in 1982), Thich Duc Nhuan, Thich Tue Sy and Thich Tri Sieu; and to restore full rights to the original Unified Buddhist Church. Since then, the government has condemned the petition and swept pagodas and monasteries for copies of it. The government also interrogated and arrested monks, nuns and laypersons suspected of possessing or distributing copies and threatened Thich Huyen Quang with further penalties.
Relations between the Vatican and Hanoi have grown more cordial with the first visit of an official Vietnamese delegation to Rome in June. Yet, Msgr. Francois-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, appointed archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City in April 1975, was still unable to return from Rome to assume his duties. A major seminary reopened in Nha Trang this year, and the ordination of Msgr. Thomas Nguyen Van Tram, the new bishop of Xuan Loc diocese, drew a crowd of over 50,000 on May 7. The outspoken Catholic leaders, Father Chan Tin and Nguyen Ngoc Lan, remained under a tightly enforced administrative order of house arrest imposed in 1990, and one priest was sentenced to three years' house arrest for possessing a recording of one of their controversial sermons. In secular realms, too, censorship continued, even while dissent and debate increased. According to the official press, the authorities continued throughout 1992 to seize and destroy "decadent" literature and videotapes, including materials deems "superstitious" or "counterrevolutionary." The Culture Ministry confiscated 2,400 copies of a work that satirized the Party's favored authors while praising dissident writers such as Pham Thi Thoai and Nguyen Huy Thiep. In August, Phan Dinh Dieu, a prominent mathematician, circulated a petition urging the head of the party to accept more political openness and to drop its ideological rigidity.
The Right to Monitor
Vietnam does not permit open criticism of its human rights record by its own citizens, and has largely blocked international or foreign organizations from making independent investigations (exceptions being investigations into the status of returning boat people and American mia cases). Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, a member of Amnesty International, was sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment in 1991 for subversion, and pilloried in the official press for criticizing human rights abuses in Vietnam and other countries.
A telling indication of Hanoi's growing need to respond to human rights criticism was a September 28 broadcast of the official Voice of Vietnam in English. It acknowledged occasional reports of "an intellectual or a religious personality...brought to trial for acts in violation of social security," as well as unavoidable "shortcomings and mistakes" on the part of the Communist Party which were said to have been "corrected." However, the view of human rights as somehow inimical to national security prevailed, with the broadcast warning against "those who take advantage of the present open-door policy and democratic atmosphere in order to destabilize the political situation..."
The Bush administration moved toward normalizing relations with Vietnam after a breakthrough on the prisoner-of-war/ missing-in-action (POW/mia) issue in October when the Vietnamese government agreed to open its archives to U.S. investigators. Earlier, an American researcher working on the archives found and turned over to the Pentagon some 4,800 photographs of U.S. servicemen killed in action during the Vietnam War. President Bush said that after these developments, he was "convinced that we can begin writing the last chapter of the Vietnam War."
The administration did not make improvement in Vietnam's human rights situation a condition for establishing full diplomatic relations. Nonetheless, members of the administration and Congress continued to raise the cases of political prisoners with the Vietnamese government. Assistant Secretary of State for Asian and Pacific Affairs Richard Solomon raised human rights issues when he headed the highest-level U.S. delegation to Vietnam in March. In April, a delegation of the Senate Select Committee on mia Issues raised the case of Dr. Nguyen Dan Que. Senator Charles Robb brought medicine from Dr. Que's family, and although Senator Robb was not permitted to visit Dr. Que, authorities videotaped their delivery of the medicine to him in prison.
In March, a bipartisan group of 22 senators led by Senators Orrin Hatch and Joseph Lieberman, wrote to Premier Kiet to urge the release of Le Van Tien, Do Ngoc Long and Doan Thanh Liem. They also urged that Vietnam's laws be amended "to ensure the adequate protection of human rights."
Robert Lam and Giang To Pham, two Vietnamese-American businessmen who were arrested for unknown reasons and charged with attempting to "overthrow the government," were released on July 4, in an obvious goodwill gesture to the U.S.
The administration expanded humanitarian aid to Vietnam,even while extending the 17-year trade embargo and maintaining opposition to loans by the World Bank. On a visit to Hanoi in February, presidential envoy General John Vessey announced the first disaster assistance to Vietnam since 1975-$25,000 for victims of a cyclone. A package of approximately $3 million was announced during Secretary Solomon's March trip, which included expanded assistance in prosthetics and health care, free shipping for nongovernmental humanitarian assistance, and 15 Fulbright scholarships in 1992 and another 15 in 1993 for Vietnamese to study in the United States. Restrictions on commercial sales of items that meet basic human needs, such as food, medicine and farm machinery, were lifted in April, along with the ban on direct telecommunications with Vietnam. Finally, the administration promised in September to give nongovernmental organizations in Vietnam up to $2 million to help repatriate and resettle returning asylum-seekers, and to give the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees another $800,000 to assist returning unaccompanied Vietnamese children.
The Work of Asia Watch
At the end of 1992, Asia Watch received approval for the first time to send a delegation to Vietnam, to discuss criminal law reforms. Asia Watch hopes to send the delegation in early 1993.
Throughout 1992, Asia Watch produced updated lists of political prisoners in Vietnam, and urged members of Congress and the administration to raise these cases in encounters with Vietnamese officials. Asia Watch does not take a position on normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam, which the administration has conditioned on factors other than human rights. However, Asia Watch does support continued dialogue and contacts between the two countries to facilitate improvements in human rights conditions.
In August, Asia Watch published a report entitled "Refugees at Risk," which described the plight of certain groups of refugees subject to forcible return by the Hong Kong government. One such group is the ethnic Nung, a minority that was heavily recruited by the French, American and South Vietnamese militaries in the war against the communists. Since 1975, Nung veterans have been subject to forced labor, exile and deprivation of civil rights. Although Hong Kong has recognized some Nung as genuine political refugees, it has rejected other Nung who experienced severe persecution. Despite Asia Watch's appeals to the governments of Hong Kong and the United States and to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, four such veterans were forced back to Vietnam on August 4, 1992, and others followed in a forced return on November 20. Some of those returned experienced intense political interrogation, and difficulty obtaining identity documents necessary to secure basic services and rights.
Asia Watch also expressed concern for Vietnamese who by virtue of political acts committed while in Hong Kong may be subject to persecution or arrest for political crimes should they be forced back to Vietnam. Examples include artists, writers and political activists whose criticism of the current government hasbecome publicly known. Such persons should be considered refugees under international law, regardless of their reasons for fleeing Vietnam initially. The Vietnamese government's current repression of dissent undermines its vow to the British government not to persecute those who are forcibly returned.