Sacrificing religious freedom in Vietnam for trade
By Mike Benge*
As President Bush was preparing for a trip to Hanoi for a major economic summit, the House of Representatives handed the president an embarrassing defeat of a bill that would have granted Vietnam permanent normal trade relations with the United States.
Principled Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals joined together in opposition, including concerns over the communists’ continued human rights and religious freedom abuses, the lack of reforms necessary to protect investments, and a number of trade issues. Acting as if Vietnam were doing the United States a favor, in early September, Vietnam’s trade minister, Truong Dinh Tuyen, expressed contempt for Congress, stating in a newspaper interview, “…there was a limit to how far Vietnam would go to appease U.S. congressmen.” The United States ran a $5.4 billion trade deficit with Vietnam last year.
As insurance against protests while he was in Hanoi, Vietnamese democracy activists were under lockdown on the eve of President Bush’s trip, and a large infusion of Vietnamese troops into Montagnard villages in the Central Highlands was reported in an attempt to prevent a repeat of the widespread 2001 protests over religious repression and human rights abuses.
Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., had vowed to block the Vietnam Permanent Normal Trade Relations Act due to Vietnam’s detention of a Florida constituent, a Vietnamese-American U.S. citizen, Cuc Foshee, on unspecified charges for over a year. As sop to Martinez and the administration, the communists hurriedly tried and convicted Foshee and two other Vietnamese-Americans of terrorism, but only sentenced Foshee to 15 months with time served, releasing him immediately. Foshee and the other two had met with members of the International Movement for Democracy and Human Rights in Vietnam. What is one government’s terrorist, is another’s freedom and democracy fighter.
In a Sept. 30 letter to the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, Michael W. Marine, International Movement for Democracy and Human Rights expressed outrage over the “absolutely barbaric murder of Mennonite evangelist Ashua in Dakto Province, Vietnam, on August 16.” Pastor Ashua was beheaded after refusing to halt his religious services to thousands of his parishioners after authorities had banned such services. A special unit of Vietnamese national police monitors all church services and ensures that photos of Ho Chi Minh are prominently displayed in churches as the true savior.
Vietnamese religious police, along with their hired thugs, have systematically escalated their repression against Mennonite pastors, Buddhist monks and their followers by the detainment, brutal torture, beatings and public humiliation by disrobing them in public. In Saigon, they destroyed the private residence of a Mennonite pastor that also served as a church. In Binh Phuoc Province, religious police confiscated the lands of members of the Mennonite Church, and they are prohibited from participating in further religious activities.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide recently obtained a document issued by Vietnam’s Central Bureau of Religious Affairs that reveals alarming plans to subdue the Protestant Church in Vietnam and its rapid and spontaneous development of the Protestant religion among ethnic minorities in the Northwest Highlands.
In the Central Highlands, the abuses against the indigenous Montagnard and Hmong ethnic minority populations continue behind closed doors, for this area is strictly off limits to American Embassy personnel and other Western diplomats, journalists and others unless escorted on strictly controlled guided tours by Vietnamese security personnel to Potempkin villages.
Freedom House obtained documents on Hanoi’s intent to purge religion from Montagnards and Hmong communities. Christians are forced to sign pledges renouncing their religion, and if they refuse, they are beaten and sometimes killed.
Despite claims of giving more freedom to house churches, in fact the communist regime has imposed even more restrictions. Christians are now allowed to pray at home, but not in groups – including extended families, churches or in public.
Vietnam remains in gross violation of the Jackson/Vanik Amendment, a U.S. law prohibiting normal trade relations with countries that do not allow their citizens to freely emigrate. This is especially applicable regarding the Christian Montagnards who were our loyal allies during the Vietnam War. Those who are allowed to emigrate first have to pay large bribes demanded by Vietnamese officials. At times, rape is the price for emigration. Under the threat of death, Police Chief Phuong Dong Tran of Ea Xier Village in Kontum Province repeatedly raped a Montagnard woman as the price she had to pay for an exit visa so that she and her family could join her husband and their father in the United States. This was not an isolated incident.
Prisoners of conscience: More than 400 Montagnards have been imprisoned for up to 16 years under the guise of violating national security, a catchall term used by Vietnam’s police and kangaroo courts to prosecute anyone they want. Most are in prisons for practicing their Christian faith, protesting religious persecution and human rights abuses or fleeing to Cambodia to avoid the repression in the Central Highlands. Many more Vietnamese are in prison or under house arrest. Hundreds of Vietnamese political prisoners are also imprisoned.
Contrary to purported U.S. values on religious freedom and human rights, in a seemingly Neville Chamberlain-like appeasement to Vietnam, Michael Orona, the State Department’s deputy director of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, recently said, “There are (only) two remaining political prisoners or prisoners of concern.” Orona, of course, was speaking of the other two imprisoned with Cuc Foshee; however, he chooses to discount the hundreds of other Montagnard and Vietnamese political prisoners.
The only good news the president had to convey to the Vietnamese communists is that the Department of State dropped them from its list of Countries of Particular Concern regarding regimes most repressive of religious freedom. Although the State Department denies that Vietnam’s removal from the blacklist had anything to do with the president’s trip to Hanoi for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, the delisting came over the protests of religious freedom and human rights groups, such as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
A spokesman for the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam stated, “The U.S. has sacrificed principles for profits by removing Vietnam from the list on the eve of the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Corporation) summit.”
I asked the U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, John V. Hanford III, if he was allowed to freely travel in the Central Highlands, and he said, “No!” I replied, “How then can you claim that religious tolerance there has improved?” He answered, “I have good sources of information.” One of his main sources is a Montagnard pastor who has been paid by the repressive communist regime to travel to the United States several times to propagandize that religious tolerance has improved.
* Benge spent 11 years in Vietnam, five as a prisoner of war – 1968-1973. He is a student of Southeast Asian politics and is very active in advocating for human rights and religious freedom for the peoples of this region. He lives in Falls Church, Va.