Human Rights Developments
Vietnam was formally admitted to the ASEAN standing committee as an observer on January 26 and joined ASEAN as its seventh member on July 28. On July 11, the United States announced normal diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Then, on July 17, the European Union signed an economic cooperation accord with Vietnam that had been in negotiation for two years, much of the disagreement centering on a standard human rights clause.
At the same time as these developments unfolded, the Vietnamese government moved to imprison and prosecute internal critics. On January 4, Thich Quang Do, the second-highest leader of the Unified Buddhist Church, was arrested because of his role in organizing flood relief in the name of the church and his protest of the arrest of five other Buddhists who had participated in the charitable effort. The sixty-eight-year-old Venerable Quang Do had the previous year written a long essay alleging that the Vietnam Communist Party had persecuted, and in some cases caused the deaths of, senior figures in the church. He sent this essay to party leader Do Muoi asking why the country was officially mourning the death of Korean dictator Kim Il Sung, but not commemorating the death of Buddhist martyrs. On April 14, Venerable Quang Do and the five other Buddhists were convicted of national security offenses for their flood relief activities; the senior monk was sentenced to five years of imprisonment, and the others to terms of four to two and one half years. One laywoman who asked for clemency at trial was released. Dozens of adherents of the Unified Buddhist Church remained imprisoned, although one monk, Thich Hai Chanh, was the only political prisoner to be freed in an amnesty of prisoners to celebrate the April 30 anniversary of the reunification of the north and south parts of the country.
On December 29, 1994, in an effort to cut him off completely from all followers, security police moved the head of the church, Thich Huyen Quang, from the Hoi Phuc pagoda in Quang Ngai province where he was confined under house arrest to a one-room structure they built and guarded at the tiny Quang Phuc shrine in Nghia Hanh district. On August 16, a Voice of Vietnam broadcast called for Thich Huyen Quang and another monk under house arrest, Thich Long Tri, to be put on trial as well, but as of this writing no trial had gone forward. Thich Huyen Quang is seventy-seven years old and in poor health; since his confinement the authorities have denied him visitors, doctors and medicine for his high blood pressure.
Protestants also faced arrest in 1995, particularly in highland regions, for preaching or holding house church services. Human Rights Watch/Asia received information on arrests and confiscation of property from Protestants in Song Be, Long An, Quang Ngai and Lam Dong provinces who had distributed religious materials or held illegal prayer meetings. Relations with the Catholic church continued to show tension, with the government in April rejecting all candidates the Vatican nominated for clerical positions, including the candidate who was to assume the administrative duties for the elderly and ailing archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City; the archbishop died later in the year, leaving the administrator-designate's status uncertain.
On April 11-12, a Vietnamese court convicted Nguyen Dinh Huy and eight other members of the self-proclaimed "Movement to Unite the People and Build Democracy." This group, whose stated goals were to promote peaceful political change leading to free elections, had attempted to organize a conference on development and democracy in November 1994 that the government abruptly canceled, arresting them. Nguyen Dinh Huy was sentenced to fifteen years of imprisonment for "attempting to overthrow the government"; others received sentences of four to fourteen years, including two American citizens, Nguyen Tan Tri and Trung Quang Liem. A U.S. consular officer was allowed to observe the trial, and on November 5, the two Americans were deported from Vietnam.
On June 14, the government took into custody two prominent communist dissidents, Do Trung Hieu in Ho Chi Minh City and Tran Ngoc Nhiem, known by his alias, Hoang Minh Chinh, in Hanoi. Do Trung Hieu was formerly the Communist Party cadre in charge of religious affairs in Ho Chi Minh City; he had written and circulated an autobiographical essay describing the party's efforts to dismantle the Unified Buddhist Church after the war. Hoang Minh Chinh, a well-known and now elderly communist intellectual, had been imprisoned twice before for advocating "revisionist" lines, in 1967 and 1981 respectively. He had sent petitions to the highest levels of the Party demanding that his name be cleared from his previous jailings. The two cases are related, possibly because Do Trung Hieu had asked Hoang Minh Chinh to circulate a letter the former had written to Vietnam's leadership. Both men were put on trial in Hanoi on November 8 and sentenced to fifteen months and twelve months respectively.
A third well-known communist figure, Nguyen Ho, was visited by police on June 23, who attempted to take him into custody. Nguyen Ho had been detained twice previously, once for his role in leading an unofficial association of war veterans and another time for circulating an autobiographical essay that exposed and criticized abuses committed by the party. In one of his essays, he noted the "unprecedented speed" with which the party had moved to reconcile with its former enemies, such as the United States, France, Japan, South Korea, Japan, ASEAN and China. He asked, "Why can't the Vietnam Communist Party reconcile with its own Vietnamese brothers whom it has oppressed and victimized? Are dollars the condition for reconciliation?" Nguyen Ho handed copies of this essay to the police and informed them he would prefer to take his life than to be imprisoned again. Although he was not arrested, he has been kept under close surveillance, which has tightened progressively since September.
The government's insistence that political and religious dissidents were being punished not for their opinions or religion but because they had broken the law rang hollow, given that Vietnam's legal system criminalized acts that are unambiguously protected by international guarantees of civil and political rights. National security offenses, for example, included peaceful expression deemed "counterrevolutionary propaganda" and activities that can be construed as "causing divisions" between the party and various social sectors; likewise, charges of "attempting to overthrow the government" were often based on no more than acts of peaceful expression or association. The justice system in these sensitive cases remained politicized, and it was not possible for dissidents to receive trials that met minimum standards of procedural fairness.
The death penalty continued to be applied in Vietnam. On March 5, the government executed Nguyen Tung Duong, a policeman convicted in October 1994 of robbing and shooting a young man he had pulled over for a traffic violation. The case became a cause celebre in Hanoi when the defendant was initially given an extremely light sentence; popular outrage caused the authorities to rehear the case and go to the other extreme by sentencing him to death. Also executed in June was a Hong Kong-born British citizen who had been convicted of trying to smuggle heroin into the country.
Press censorship also continued, with the government confiscating what it considered subversive newspapers and tapes mailed into the country, and even travel guidebooks. The Ministry of Culture shut down the weekly Ngoi Ha Noi (People of Hanoi) for publishing an article criticizing the government's decision to ban fireworks at New Year, and recalled an issue of the monthly magazine of the Casting and Metallurgy Association for containing too many sensational stories that were unrelated to metal works. Both dissident intellectuals and foreign correspondents reported heightened surveillance following the U.S. decision to normalize relations, reflecting an overall tightening of security.
In April, the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids, and Social Action banned the employment of children under the age of sixteen in conditions "injurious to health and spirit." A foreign expert at a conference held by UNICEF and the Ho Chi Minh City Communist Youth Union at the beginning of 1995 estimated that child prostitution had risen steadily during the past five years and accounted for between a quarter and a third of all urban prostitutes.
There were further labor strikes in 1995, particularly at foreign-invested enterprises. The government pushed to organize unions in all such enterprises; Vietnam's law requires all unions to belong to the state-controlled Vietnam Confederation of Labor. A new labor code passed in 1994 also recognizes the right to strike, but not for enterprises that provide "public services" or those "essential to the national economy or national defense." Nor is a strike legal if it "exceeds the scope of the enterprise," compromising the ability of workers to engage in sympathy strikes. Vietnam has not ratified the International Labor Organization convention that guarantees freedom of association and the right to organize freely.
The Right to Monitor
In 1994, the government allowed the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to visit three labor camps under controlled conditions. The Working Group reported in February 1995 that the government refused to release statistical information on the number of prisoners or the dimensions of the penal system, that it banned the delegation from visiting pre-trial detention centers, and that lower-level officials were not always cooperative. The delegation regretted these shortcomings while acknowledging the historic nature of the visit and the need to build trust and further cooperation; it also recommended that the twentieth anniversary of the reunification of the country would be an appropriate time "to grant amnesty to persons still detained in camps for offences relating to the preceding period," a recommendation that was apparently ignored. The Foreign Ministry condemned media coverage of the report, stating that the delegation did not investigate human rights but merely studied the legal system.
The Role of the International Community
Congress was divided over the decision to normalize relations, but united in concern for human rights abuses, with numerous members writing letters and making personal communications on behalf of political and religious prisoners. In late June-early July, senators Tom Harkin and Frank Lautenberg traveled to Vietnam, revisiting the infamous "tiger cages" and also raising contemporary human rights concerns. In the immediate wake of their visits, the Vietnamese government issued passports to two dissidents whom it had obstructed in their efforts to apply for emigration through the Orderly Departure Program.
Japan became Vietnam's most generous donor, but generally remained silent on human rights concerns. In April, Communist Party leader Do Muoi visited Japan, winning pledges of a $700 million loan and a $36 million grant, in addition to a $480 million package of infrastructure loans approved earlier in January. Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama only raised human rights privately and in very general terms (see Japan section).
In July, the European Union signed a cooperation agreement that included as Article 1 a clause stating "Respect for human rights and democratic principles is the basis for the cooperation between the Contracting Parties and the provisions of this Agreement, and it constitutes an essential element of the Agreement." The European Parliament had yet to endorse the agreement as of November. Earlier in the year, the parliament had expressed concern over Vietnam's imprisonment of religious figures. Since signing the cooperation agreement, the European Commission stated an intention to increase significantly its economic and development cooperation activities in Vietnam, both bilaterally and within the context of European Union-ASEAN cooperation.
The Work of Human Rights Watch/Asia