Human Rights watch

World report 2001



Human Rights Developments

Defending Human Rights

The Role of the International Community


The twenty-fifth anniversary of Vietnam's reunification saw the government maintaining tight control over freedom of expression and other basic rights. Highly publicized steps to liberalize the economy, including the signing of a landmark trade agreement with the United States and the establishment of the country's first stock exchange, were not accompanied by rights improvements. Authorities continued to take strong action against those who criticized the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) or spoke out in favor of democratic change. Disaffected former CPV leaders, long-time academic critics, independent religious leaders, and the press were common targets. A wide range of political subjects remained off-limits to the media. In a show of reconciliation, the government granted amnesties to more than 20,000 prisoners during the year, but only a handful were people held for their political or religious views. The government restricted access to areas affected by social unrest.


Human Rights Developments

Twenty-fifth anniversary celebrations in April highlighted recent social and economic openings and the government's success in reintegrating returning refugees and bringing recovery after decades of war. Peaceful critics of the government, however, continued to have few outlets for independent expression. Communication among dissidents, and between them and the outside world, was hampered by officialinterception of mail, blockage of telephone lines, and denial of publishing rights. When dissidents or former political prisoners criticized the CPV or called for reforms they were subject to heightened surveillance or interrogation by officials. The 1997 Administrative Detention Decree 31/CP remained in force. It allowed officials to detain individuals suspected of posing a threat to national security without a warrant or prior judicial approval.

Early in the year, the CPV's ideological commission accused Nguyen Thanh Giang, a leading geologist and outspoken intellectual who had been detained for two months in 1999, of writing documents which showed "close collusion with reactionary forces abroad to disrupt the social order." Giang remained under surveillance throughout the year.

On May 12, police in Dalat put dissident intellectual Ha Si Phu (Nguyen Xuan Tu) under house arrest and threatened to charge him with treason under Article 72 of the Criminal Code. Authorities apparently linked him to dissident intellectuals who were drafting an open appeal for greater democracy. On April 28, police searched his house and confiscated his computer and diskettes. As of October, Ha Si Phu remained under investigation and confined to his home, although he had not yet been officially charged.

The government announced several times during the year that it was taking steps against terrorist plots allegedly supported by overseas Vietnamese and "imperialist countries." On August 16, Nhan Dan (The People) newspaper stated that more than forty people had been arrested since March 1999 for "directly participat[ing] in the reactionaries' sabotage plan," but it was unclear whether those arrested were indeed saboteurs or peaceful critics.

Several religious leaders and former political prisoners were denied exit visas to attend conferences abroad, including prominent dissident Nguyen Dan Que, Thich Tue Sy of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), and Thich Thai Hoa, a leader of the Buddhist order in Hue.

Despite government repression, several dissidents issued critical public statements though, typically, they were able to do so only on the Internet and primarily reached an overseas audience. On May 19, five prominent dissidents issued a public appeal to the National Assembly for greater democracy, the withdrawal of charges against fellow dissident Ha Si Phu, and the repeal of Administrative Detention Decree 31/CP. In April, Thich Huyen Quang, supreme patriarch of the UBCV, who remained under pagoda arrest in Quang Ngai province throughout the year, issued a letter to the party leadership calling for greater religious freedom.

The domestic media remained under strict state control and published scarcely any criticism of the government. One exception, however, was criticism published in Nhan Dan by Vietnam's most prominent war hero, General Vo Nguyen Giap, who stated that the CPV should be more democratic and accused it of "ideological stagnancy." Requests by dissidents such as Tran Do and Thich Quang Do for publishing licenses were either denied or ignored by the authorities.

Provisions in the 1999 Press Law, which allowed media outlets to be sued for defamation whether the information they publish is accurate or not, were applied for the first time in September 2000. The Haiphong Agriculture Materials and Transport Company sued Tuoi Tre Hanoi (Youth News) for damaging the company's prestige because of its critical reporting on the company's operations. As of October, the case had not yet gone to trial.

The potential for press censorship increased in August when the Ministry of Culture proposed new regulations that would more than triple the number of activities, from 200 to 650, defined as offensive to Vietnamese culture. The regulations, which had not been officially adopted as law as of October, would impose fines for the production or possession of "culturally inappropriate" materials, including those which "distorted Vietnam's history or defamed its national heroes."

Foreign journalists based in Vietnam received strong warnings from government officials after trying to contact and interview dissidents. On December 26, 1999, Pham The Hung, a French journalist for Radio France International, was expelled from Vietnam after meeting with Catholics whose names were not on a list of interviewees he had submitted with his journalist visa request. In April, French reporter Arnaud Dubus, traveling on a tourist visa, was interrogated and had his notes confiscated by police after he met with several dissidents. On April 12, security police in Ho Chi Minh City arrested Sylvaine Pasquier, a reporter for the French weekly L'Express, after she tried to meet dissident Nguyen Dan Que. Pasquier was deported on April 14.

Vietnamese listeners had access to most international radio stations, but the government jammed access to Radio Free Asia and Hmong-language Christian broadcasts from the Far East Broadcasting Company. In June, the Foreign Ministry confirmed that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which had an application pending since 1993, would be authorized to open a Vietnam bureau.

While foreign language newspapers and magazines could be purchased in the major cities, an internal Customs Department bulletin in December 1999 announced a crackdown on illegally imported foreign publications because of their "poisonous" content. Singled out were the South China Morning Post, Asian Wall Street Journal, Singapore's Straits Times, and Thailand's Nation. Foreign publications were occasionally censored. In May, government censors blacked out an International Herald Tribune editorial that criticized Vietnam's human rights record. In March, the Ministry of Culture and Information ordered the confiscation and withdrawal from circulation of a book by Hanoi author Bui Ngoc Tan. The only book to be banned during the year, Chuyen Ke Nam 2000 (An Account of the Year 2000) described the author's experiences in North Vietnamese prisons between 1968 and 1973.

Internet access remained tightly controlled for Vietnam's approximately 85,000 subscribers (0.1 percent of the country's population). The government maintained control over Vietnam's only Internet access provider, Vietnam Data Communications (VDC), as well as over five Internet service providers operated by state organizations, including one owned by the army. VDC was authorized to monitor subscribers' access to sites and to use firewalls to block connections to sites operated by groups critical of the government. In January, the Foreign Ministry stated that all information relayed through the Internet in Vietnam must comply with broadly worded national security provisions in Vietnam's press laws and could not damage the reputations of organizations or citizens. These measures had been selectively applied in the past to keep critical voices out of public media. In September, the government launched a new domestic Internet service, which, unlike other services did not require users to register with the government. The new service, however, restricted subscribers to Vietnamese websites only. Several protests over alleged abuses by local officials reported during the year, although coverage was limited by strict controls on media access to the affected areas. In April, several dozen people from southern Dong Thap province assembled for several days in front of the CPV headquarters in Hanoi to protest corruption and lack of democracy in their province. That same month, villagers in Nam Dinh province denounced alleged interference by local Communist Party officials in commune-level People's Council elections. In June, citizens in Nam Dinh held two district party members hostage for a week. After promises that the hostage takers would not be punished, the officials were released. In August, a group of 150 ethnicEde highlanders in Dak Lak province stormed a lowland Vietnamese settlement in protest over encroachment on their land, part of which was being developed for coffee plantations and gem mining. In September, more than one hundred protesters from provinces in the south as well as the central highlands camped outside government offices in Ho Chi Minh City for several weeks, protesting graft and land confiscation.

As the Ninth Party Congress, scheduled for March 2001, neared, party officials appeared increasingly apprehensive about the potential for rural unrest to boil over, as it had in Thai Binh and Dong Nai provinces in 1997. Party Secretary Le Kha Phieu announced in September that cabinet-led inspection teams would be dispatched to fifteen cities and provinces to look into citizen's complaints about corruption and abuses by officials. In October, Nhan Dan reported that more than 2,000 government and party officials had been disciplined in Thai Binh as a result of peasant demonstrations in 1997 against graft and unfair taxation.

Religious freedom also remained sharply curtailed. The government's ban on independent religious associations continued, with all religious groups required to register with and seek the approval of the state. In March, a year-long controversy escalated over whether the party had the right to appoint, not simply to approve, abbots at the historic One-Pillar Pagoda in Hanoi. Congregation members contacted UBCV members abroad and prepared a petition protesting the replacement of their abbots with party appointees. In March, the Hanoi People's Committee ordered head abbot Thich Thanh Khanh to leave the pagoda by April 30; however, as of October, he remained in place.

Members of the Hoa Hao sect of Buddhism came under increased pressure, with at least twelve in detention or prison as of mid-2000. Sect elder Le Quang Liem's telephone line was disconnected in December 1999 and he was interrogated several times by police after he signed a joint appeal calling for greater religious freedom. Surveillance of Liem increased in February 2000, when he announced the restoration of the Central Hoa Hao Buddhist Association, separate from a government-dominated Hoa Hao committee established in 1999. Hoa Hao members in An Giang province clashed several times with police, who reportedly blocked a pilgrimage to their prophet's birthplace, and detained and beat some adherents in December 1999. Police arrested at least eight Hoa Hao members in March 2000 as tensions increased in the approach to a religious anniversary. On March 30, police detained ten Hoa Hao members and blocked thousands of other followers from observing the religious anniversary. Additional clashes with security forces broke out in An Giang in September, when Hoa Hao followers protested the trial and conviction of five members arrested in March.

Conflict continued between the government and the UBCV. In April, police made late-night visits to the pagodas of church leaders Thich Quang Do and Thich Tue Sy, ostensibly to conduct identity checks. On April 24, police took leaders Thich Khong Tanh and Thich Quang Hue to a Ho Chi Minh City police station for questioning. In July, Quang Ngai provincial officials and police interrogated UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang about a statement critical of the government that he had issued in April. In late September and early October, UBCV monks attempting to conduct independent flood relief missions in the Mekong Delta and distribute aid packages marked with UBCV labels clashed with local authorities. Government regulations limited flood relief operations to state-sanctioned organizations. On September 21, authorities halted a UBCV flood relief mission in An Giang province, led by Thich Nguyen Ly. In early October, a contingent of UBCV monks, including Thich Quang Do and Thich Khong Tanh, travelled to An Giang, where security police blocked their flood relief plans. Police reportedly detained the monks for twelve hours on October 7 before ordering them to leave the province and return to their pagodas in Ho Chi Minh City. The Foreign Ministry later denied that the monks had been detained.

The government also continued its attempts to suppress the growth of Protestant evangelical churches which had gained converts among Vietnam's ethnic minorities. While two dozen ethnic Hmong Protestants reportedly were released from detention at the end of 1999, at least eight other Hmong and Hre remained in prison or police custody as of October 2000. The government, however, began to recognize more "Tin Lanh" (Good News) churches, mostly in the North, and hundreds of Protestants were able regularly to attend un-recognized Tin Lanh churches in southern and central Vietnam.

Catholics, too, were not immune from state meddling, with the government continuing to restrict the number of parishes, screen candidates for the priesthood and for appointments as bishops, and to reject requests for a papal visit. One member of the Catholic Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix was released in April, but at least three other Catholics remained in prison.

Unregistered sects and religious activities officially labeled "superstitious," prohibited by a 1999 decree on religion, came under increasing pressure. In November 1999, the state press reported that Vietnam had more than thirty illegal cults. That same month, officials fined members of an unregistered religious sect in Hanoi known as Long Hoa Di Lac (Chinese Dragon Buddha Sect) for unlawful assembly and use of religion for propaganda purposes. In June, the state press reported that police in Thai Binh were "cracking down on heresy." The target was the Thanh Hai Vo Thuong Su sect, originally established in Taiwan but led by a Vietnamese woman. In August, police in Quang Binh reportedly confiscated religious texts from the Tam Giao Tuyen Duong sect, forcing members to destroy altars and pledge to abandon the sect, and fined the group's leader for allegedly providing illegal medical treatment.

Prison conditions remained poor, with prisoners reporting the use of shackles, dark cells, and torture. Dozens of death sentences were issued during the year, with twenty-nine crimes considered capital offenses, including drug trafficking, many economic crimes, some sex offenses, murder, and armed robbery. In April, Canadian citizen Nguyen Thi Hiep was convicted of heroin smuggling and executed.

While the government insisted it had no political prisoners, in March the Public Security Ministry stated that more than one hundred people were then imprisoned for crimes against national security.

In its largest ever prisoner amnesty, Vietnam released 12,264 prisoners on April 30 to commemorate the reunification of the country, and a further 10,693 on National Day on September 2. The government did not publicly release the names of those freed, but political and religious prisoners known to have been released in the two amnesties included Catholic Brother John Euder Mai Duc Chuong, Hmong Protestant Vu Gian Thao, political dissident Nguyen Ngoc Tan (alias Pham Thai), Protestant Nguyen Thi Thuy, and Cao Daist Le Kim Bien.


Defending Human Rights

No domestic human rights organizations were allowed to operate in Vietnam, nor were international human rights organizations allowed to monitor conditions or conduct research there.


The Role of the International Community

In December 1999, Vietnam's donors pledged U.S. $2.8 million in aid to Vietnam, with $700 million conditioned on accelerated economic reforms. For the most part donors were publicly silent about human rights violations, aside from the international outcry after the executionof Canadian citizen Nguyen Thi Hiep. Convicted of drug trafficking, she was executed by firing squad in April, despite the fact that Vietnam had pledged to review her case on the basis of additional information provided by the Canadian government. Afterwards Canada temporarily withdrew its ambassador and its support for Vietnam's entry to the World Trade Organization. Talks on restoring full diplomatic ties resumed in September, when Hiep's mother, Tran Thi Cam, was granted an early release from prison.

In April, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights stated that it would be examining complaints against Vietnam for human rights violations under the "1503 Procedure," a confidential procedure whereby complaints are investigated and sent to the full U.N. Commission on Human Rights. In May, Vietnam was elected to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights for a three-year term. The U.N. Development Program's Growth in Governance program focused on legislative, judicial, and procedural reforms, including revision of the labor code.

United States

U.S. policy towards Vietnam centered on using trade and investment as a means to press for gradual political and economic reforms. Human rights concerns were addressed through a bilateral "dialogue" meeting that failed to include concrete incentives for progress and had minimal effect on overall U.S.-Vietnam relations. The State Department's annual report on religious freedom provoked an angry response from the Vietnamese government, which rejected being labeled one of several "totalitarian or authoritarian regimes" along with China, Myanmar, Laos, and North Korea. In July, after four years of negotiations, Vietnam signed a bilateral trade agreement with the United States. As of this writing the agreement had not received U.S. Congressional approval. In November, President Clinton was scheduled to become the first U.S. president to visit Vietnam since Richard Nixon in 1969.


Japan, which was Vietnam's largest donor, announced in June that it had extended Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Vietnam for another five years. The foreign ministry was considering including human rights and legal reform in a bilateral dialogue with Vietnam at the vice-foreign ministers' level beginning late in 2000. In 1999 (the latest year for which figures were available), Japan gave $680 million in loans and grants to Vietnam.

European Union

The E.U., Vietnam's third largest donor and its biggest trade partner, has provided approximately U.S. $2 billion in ODA since 1993. Most of the bilateral assistance to Vietnam came from France, Germany, Denmark and Sweden. During a visit to Vietnam in May, the Swedish Minister of Culture called for more openness in the media and greater democracy when she announced a grant of U.S. $4 million to support media training and live broadcasting programs. During a December 1999 visit to Hanoi, Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman raised issues of democratization and political prisoners.


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