WAVERING between Marxist control and more openness, Vietnam moves unevenly to end human rights abuses of the past.
The seesawing, in which Hanoi has tolerated protests over high-level corruption but clamped down on religious leaders and outspoken critics, mirrors Hanoi's political confusion and economic woes after the fall of communism worldwide, Western diplomats and aid officials say.
"Human rights is a muddle," says an international aid worker in Hanoi. "It's a start-and-stop situation."
Since reforms were launched in 1987, more criticism and a more open press have been allowed, although Vietnam remains in the grip of staunch, one-party rule.
To satisfy Western countries poised to increase aid and investment this year, the ruling Communists announced June 4 the release of all South Vietnamese officials from reeducation camps. The United States has demanded the release as a condition for lifting its embargo of Vietnam. Two other conditions include Vietnam's full support of the Cambodian peace process and its cooperation in Washington's search for soldiers missing in action during the Vietnam War.
But the record on human rights is uneven. Last December, a court in Ho Chi Minh City imprisoned human rights advocate Nguyen Dan Que, the country's first representative to Amnesty International, for 20 years on charges of subversion.
Also under arrest are two Vietnamese Protestant pastors who had contacts with overseas Christian organizations and had launched a social-welfare program without government permission.
And after years of outright repression, Vietnam's Roman Catholics endure a political and religious limbo. The second largest religion in this predominantly Buddhist nation, Catholics today account for 10 percent of the country's 70 million people. They are free to reopen churches but cannot preach openly. They can restore seminaries, but train only a few priests. The government promises leniency and yet still intimidates and detains clergy.
"The churches are filled today," says a priest in this southern Vietnamese city, where church spires command the skyline. "But as Catholics, we know we must be cautious."
"There has been improvement between the government and Catholics, but there still are difficulties," admits Phan Khac Tu, an official with the state-controlled National Committee for the Union of Vietnamese Patriotic Catholics, or Catholic Union, in Ho Chi Minh City. "There is no reason that Catholic and communist people cannot live closer together."
But the Catholic Church looms as Hanoi's major institutional rival, and thus makes the regime uneasy, Western diplomats say. For years, the church was associated with French rule and anticommunist opposition. In 1954, after the communist Viet Minh guerrillas won the North, almost 1 million Catholics fled to the South. In 1975, after the Communists took the South, many clergy and Catholic leaders were detained in reeducation camps.
Vietnamese officials and Western observers say relations between the church and government continue to be strained and marred by suspicion. The Vatican and Hanoi remain at odds over choosing a successor for Cardinal Trin Van Can, the archbishop of Hanoi and the country's primate, who died in 1990. Similarly, little progress has been made in choosing successors for the 11 church officials who have died in the last five years.
The officially sanctioned Catholic Union also is a focus of controversy. More than two years ago, a dozen Catholic leaders wrote a letter urging the bishop of Saigon to disband the government-run union.
Father Chan Tin, a signatory who had opposed the South Vietnamese regime in the 1970s, was reprimanded and later placed under house arrest when he urged Communist leaders to follow the reforms of counterparts in Eastern Europe.
Catholic Union official Tu admits that priests remain under detention and that the church faces stiff resistence from Communist Party officials.