As US and Vietnam get closer, human rights concerns grow
Ties between the US and Vietnam are good, but Vietnam's human rights record has activists asking if Washington is pushing Hanoi enough on political, economic, and free speech reforms.
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An estimated 70 percent of Vietnam's 90 million residents were born after 1975 and Internet use is growing, with just over 30 million Vietnamese now online according to government statistics. However France-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders lists Vietnam as an “Enemy of the Internet,” and proposed new Internet laws in Vietnam appear to underscore this.Skip to next paragraph
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While the law has not been finalized, foreign companies such as Facebook may have to open local offices and provide user information to the government, and bloggers will in future have to use their real names when posting. Currently Facebook is blocked in Vietnam, but there is an easy work-around and the social-media network has more than 3.6 million subscribers in the country.
In response, 12 US lawmakers, both the Republicans and Democrats, wrote to Facebook, Google, and Yahoo last week, saying, “We strongly urge you to advocate for the freedoms of speech and expression for the citizens of Vietnam by continuing to provide your technologies to the people of Vietnam in a manner that respects their rights and privacy.”
If Vietnam tightens Internet restrictions, the fallout might be economic as well as political. Recent research by McKinsey & Company consultancy estimates that the Internet “contributes an average 1.9 percent of GDP in aspiring countries,” based on a survey of nine countries, including Vietnam.
"We believe that access to information is the foundation of a free and prosperous society,” a Google spokesperson told the Monitor regarding Vietnam’s proposed laws, “and an essential contributor to economic growth for countries and companies alike.”
Where the US fits in
With trade between the US and Vietnam growing 10-fold to $15 billion a year since 2001, human rights groups say that the US should use its growing economic and military leverage with Hanoi to push for political as well as economic reforms.
Kurt Campbell, US assistant secretary of state for East-Asia and Pacific affairs, said the US was working on it.
“We did make clear that for the United States and Vietnam to go to the next level it will require some significant steps on the part of Vietnam to address both individual cases of concerns, human rights concerns, but also more systemic challenges associated with freedom of expression, freedom of organization,” he said in Hanoi on Feb. 2.
Whether the US has the will or means to influence Hanoi is unclear, however, and there may be lingering distrust of the US among party cadres in Hanoi – regardless of US-China rivalry or of the Communist Party’s wariness of its big brother in Beijing.
Some Vietnamese officials believe that “the United States’ long-term goal is to erode the Vietnamese Communist Party’s monopoly on power,” according to a July 2011 Congressional Research Service report.
Given the history between the two countries that is a vast exaggeration of US influence in the region, say analysts.
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