December 1997 Vol. 9, No. 11 (C)






Thai Binh Province 7

Dong Nai Province 8


Administrative Detention 9

Press Control 10

No Right to Association 10




The statistics are impressive. Since the launching of doi moi, the economic renovation process in 1986, Vietnam's poverty has been reduced by 35 percent. GDP growth has averaged 8 percent annually since 1989.1 Living standards have dramatically increased for much of the urban population. After a decade of growth, however, the economy is beginning to display a downward trend, and social and political pressure points are emerging. One of the most serious of these is the stark disparity between urban and rural incomes, given that 80 percent of Vietnam's seventy-five million population is agrarian. Serious rural unrest in 1997, provoked by peasants' economic grievances, have highlighted human rights violations, including the government's resort to detention without trial, lack of freedom of the press, and lack of freedom for private associations to form independently of state control.

Decollectivization of agricultural production in the late eighties boosted Vietnam from a net importer of rice to the world's second largest exporter after Thailand in 1997. With farmers able to control their own production, average rural incomes have risen since the mid-1980s but still lag dramatically behind those of the urban population. The rural-urban living standards gap has widened since 1991, and by 1995 the average rural income was one-fifth of urban income.2 Fifty-seven percent of the rural population lives below the poverty line, according to the World Bank's 1996 report. The Ministry of Agriculture recently reported that farmers in the Mekong Delta earned only U.S.$50 to $60 in 1996 after covering their production costs.3 Meanwhile the 1996 per capita annual income was around U.S.$1000 in Ho Chi Minh City and $800 in Hanoi. Average GNP per capita in 1997 stands at U.S.$300, according to the latest World Bank report.4

Peasant unrest in Thai Binh province eighty kilometers southeast of Hanoi and in Dong Nai province forty kilometers north of Ho Chi Minh City has sent a clear signal to the government that the farmers' stoic forbearance is reaching breaking point. In May 1997 several thousand peasants in Thai Binh began openly protesting against corrupt local officials, punitive tax demands, land disputes, unfair rice prices, and compulsory labor contributions.5 Widespread unrest continued for at least five months, and Human Rights Watch/Asia understands that sporadic protests broke out again in November. From May to September there was a total media blackout, and foreign journalists were still banned from visiting Thai Binh as of December 1997. Several international staff from nongovernmental organizations had access to their project sites severely restricted. On November 7, 1997, violent protests erupted in the southern province of Dong Nai, just five days before the opening of Vietnam's first ever international summit, La Francophonie, in Hanoi. These protests appear to have been sparked primarily by the expropriation of church land by corrupt local authorities in the predominantly Catholic district of Thong Nhat.6 The situation had calmed down within a few days, but further disturbances apparently broke out in late November, with peasants continuing to protest against very similar economic grievances to those in Thai Binh. Dong Nai, too, has remained off-limits to foreign journalists, and no reports of the protests have appeared in the domestic press.

Due to press restrictions, no accurate information is available about numbers of arrests, charges, and how many caseshave been or will be brought to trial. Human Rights Watch/Asia is concerned that protestors can be arrested under the Administrative Detention Decree (31C/P) under which individuals are detained without trial for between six months and two years on the vague charge of "threatening the national security."

The scale of the rural unrest sent shock waves through the upper echelons of the government and ruling Communist Party. Months of official silence were broken with carefully orchestrated responses from the top leadership in the party press. These responses suggest top-level political commitment to addressing the structural problems fueling the unrest. In his speech to the National Assembly on November 21, 1997, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai stressed the need for a rural reform program. This followed his comments the previous month that political and social stability was attainable only if farmers' incomes were increased and the widening "social polarization" between the rural and urban population narrowed.7 Former Communist Party Chief Nguyen Van Linh publicly raised concerns about the rising number of landless and unemployed farmers in the Mekong Delta in August 1997.8 In August 1997 the Ministry of Agriculture announced its "ten big policies" of rural reform, including improving infrastructure, reducing taxation on farmers and establishing a land-use licensing system. No specific time-frame for implementation was indicated. Party Secretary Do Muoi announced in October that the country now needed to implement a system to help people exercise their "democratic rights," and that the party should clamp down on local corruption and listen to the voice of the people:

The people are those who push the boat, and at the same time, they are those who

topple the boat. Any authority who abuses power will be toppled by the people.9

There has been no perceptible progress, however, towards legal reform to safeguard these undefined "democratic rights." Instead, new regulations have been enacted to enhance the state's capacity for social control through administrative detention and restrictions on the press. These retrograde laws are being used to contain the rural protests in the short term and do not conform to the foreign-donor-funded legal reform programs which are aiming to strengthen the rule of law, to regulate the legal environment, and enhance accountability, transparency and good governance.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is the leading player in the legal reform process in Vietnam, providing U.S.$4.4 million for four legal reform projects with the Ministry of Justice. These projects comprise Promotion of the Rule of Law which aims to establish a legal framework suitable for a market-based economy and civil governance (U.S.$1.4 million); Strengthening Legal Capacity, executed through the National Assembly, to help in drafting legislation, in understanding comparative law and foreign legislation, and in English language training (U.S.$1 million with an additional U.S.$2 million from Denmark); Strengthening Judicial Capacity, through building knowledge and capacity of the courts, judges and court personnel, and support to judicial training school and facilitating law drafting (U.S.$1 million with an additional U.S.$2 million from Denmark); and Strengthening Supreme People's Procuracy, training personnel in prosecutorial work, strengthening the understanding of comparative foreign perspectives on the Criminal Procedure Code, and development of information services to speed up information transfer from the Supreme People's Procuracy and provincial procuracies (U.S.$1 million with an additional U.S.$2 million from Denmark). The World Bank is cooperating with UNDP in this process by providing technical assistance in two areas, within the overall commercial law framework, and also on sectoral projects, such as the banking sector and power sector. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is providing U.S.$1.7 million for technical assistance on retraining of government lawyers at the Ministry of Justice, and developing a registrationsystem for mortgages. With its clear economic focus, the legal reform process is not addressing the strengthening of the rights of citizens in conformity with international human rights standards.

Peasants in Vietnam may be sanctioned under Vietnam's laws and practice if they publicly air their grievances or try to form independent associations to represent their interests. The social conflict in 1997 highlights the instability within the current system of top-down government where freedom of expression and association are not permitted. Any long-term objectives for sustainable rural development must be underpinned by a strengthening of citizens' participation in that process. Effective popular participation requires legal guarantees of freedom of association and the freedom of expression through the press. These rights are enshrined in the 1992 Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Vietnam is a party. This report examines the causes of rural unrest, the response by the government and the Communist Party, and the lack of respect for human rights displayed by the Vietnamese government.


To the Government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam:

1. The government should uphold its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its own 1992 Constitution to respect freedom of speech, of press, of assembly, and of association.

2. Domestic laws and regulations which impose restrictions on these rights should be revised to comply with international law. Ambiguities in the Criminal Code's section on crimes against national security should be eliminated, to ensure no application of these laws against those who have only exercised their basic right to freedom of expression.

3. The government should repeal the Administrative Detention Directive (31/CP), which is unconstitutional in authorizing detention without trial.

4. The government should ensure that all detainees have the right to a fair trial and that pre-trial detention should not exceed a reasonable period.

5. The government should allow greater transparency in its administration of detention facilities. Regular visits to places of detention by international human rights or humanitarian organizations would assist in this process.

6. The government should introduce legislation to safeguard the right of the domestic and foreign press to report objectively, recognizing the freedom of the press as an essential element in liberalizing the economy and strengthening political, economic and legal transparency and accountability.

7. The government should present as soon as possible to the National Assembly for ratification a law which allows the establishment of independent associations. These associations should be permitted to represent their views to and engage in two-way debate with state authorities.

To the International Community:

1. The international community, and in particular foreign aid donors, should support Vietnam's process of legal reform but make technical and financial assistance conditional on the government's willingness to repeal Directive 31/CP on administrative detention and amending other laws to bring them in line with international standards.

2. The international community should urge the government to introduce legislation which protects the rights to free speech and press, association and assembly.

3. The international community should support Vietnam in achieving greater transparency and accountability in its legal and penal systems and should press for access for international observers to trials and persons held under administrative detention. They should continue to press for an independent and impartial judiciary.

4. The international community should urge the Vietnamese government to cease its harassment of local and foreign journalists and its censorship of the domestic media, recognizing that a free press is essential in promoting civil and political rights and long-term sustainable economic development.

1 UNDP/UNICEF, "Catching Up: Capacity Development for Poverty Alleviation in Vietnam", Hanoi, October 1996. 2 Ibid. 3 "The Trouble with Rice," Vietnam Economic Times, October 1997. 4 World Bank Vietnam country report, October 30, 1997. 5 Reuters, July 24, 1997. 6 Reuters, Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, November 10, 1997. 7 "New PM says voice of farmer must be heard," Vietnam Investment Review, October 13-19, 1997. 8 "Ex-Party Chief calls for Mekong Delta rethink," Vietnam Investment Review, July 28 - August 3, 1997. 9 "New Prime Minister says voice of farmer must be heard," Vietnam Investment Review, October 13-19, 1997.