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.

Mass Communication Specialist Chief Rodney Furry/U.S. Navy/AP
Vietnamese border policemen communicate with port authorities in preparation for the arrival of the US 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge to Danang, Vietnam, Monday, April 23. Vietnam kicked off a weeklong naval exchange Monday with the US Navy, with the former battlefield enemies cooperating amid percolating tensions in the South China Sea with Beijing.

Five days of joint US-Vietnam naval exercises that started Monday in Vietnam are the latest signals of growing cooperation between the one-time enemies.

The training is prompted by common concerns about the resource-rich South China Sea, where six countries have claims and where China has recently clashed with Vietnam and the Philippines

But as the US and Vietnam get close, Vietnam's human rights record is raising questions among activists regarding whether the US is sufficiently vocal about political, economic, and free speech violations in Vietnam, a one-party state ruled by the Communist Party where all other political parties are banned.

Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch Phil Robertson says, “There is a real need for sustained US pressure on Vietnam to free political prisoners, respect freedom of expression and the vibrant blogosphere that is making Vietnam one of the fast growing users of the Internet in South East Asia, and repeal repressive laws that Hanoi uses to quash individuals and groups that the government doesn’t like."

Vietnam has a spotty record of human rights violations, according to Human Rights Watch, which accused the government of systematically suppressing freedom of expression, association, and of peaceful assembly.

“Independent writers, bloggers, and rights activists who question government policies, expose official corruption, or call for democratic alternatives to one-party rule are routinely subject to police harassment and intrusive surveillance, detained incommunicado for long periods of time without access to legal counsel, and sentenced to increasingly long terms in prison for violating vague national security laws,” according to a 2012 HRW report.

Blogging in Vietnam

When writers Nguyen Van Hai, Phan Thanh Hai, and Ta Phong Tan were charged last week with “propaganda against the state” it put renewed spotlight on Vietnam's treatment of those who speak out against the government – and on how far the US is willing to push Vietnam on reform. [ Editors note: The original version of this story stated incorrectly that the bloggers were arrested].

State-run Thanh Nien newspaper said that the bloggers posted 421 articles on the Independent Journalists’ Club website between September 2007 and October 2010 and were “distorting the truth, denigrating the party and state.”

Hanoi-based lawyer Le Quoc Quan works closely with some of Vietnam's hard-pressed pro-democracy activists. He estimates that Vietnam holds between 300 and 600 political prisoners, a category not recognized by the government. He told the Monitor that the three detained writers “did nothing but express their freedom of press.”

News media in Vietnam is state-run, but the Web has offered alternative voices a chance to write – often anonymously – about usually off-limits issues such as relations with China and political reform.

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.

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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