Vietnam’s restrictions threaten progress: donors

Vietnamese Catholics hold a vigil outside a court in Hanoi

HANOI — Vietnam’s restrictions on the news media and Internet sites such as Facebook threaten the country’s rapid economic progress, Western donors told an annual meeting of World Bank and other officials on Thursday.

“Economic growth and development requires an open and transparent environment for all stakeholders, Vietnamese and international,” US ambassador Michael Michalak told the opening session of talks between Vietnam and its aid-givers, known as the Consultative Group.

There has been a “shrinking of the space for honest, reliable information” recently, Michalak told the two-day meeting where pledges of aid are announced.

Michalak and the Swedish ambassador, Rolf Bergman, both expressed concern about recent reports that the world’s most popular online social networking site, Facebook, is being restricted.

“This is not about teenagers chatting online. It is a question of people’s rights to communicate with one another, share ideas and to do business,” Michalak said.

An Internet provider said last month that Vietnam’s public security ministry had ordered blockage of the site which, like other online platforms, offers room for expression not permitted in traditional media which are all linked to the communist state.

The Minister of Information and Communication, Le Doan Hop, last month indicated to legislators that he wanted to reinforce control of the Internet. He said “toxic and bad-intentioned information” has sometimes circulated in cyberspace.
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Donors say Vietnam should respect rights

HANOI (Reuters) – Aid donors urged Vietnam on Thursday to unleash the press to help fight corruption and to respect international human rights norms, or risk negatively impacting investment and aid flows.

“Vietnam’s economic performance and its international reputation are compromised by restrictions placed by the government on the personal freedoms of its citizens,” a statement by the U.S. delegation to an annual donor summit in Hanoi said.

Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party brooks no opposition, and in the past year has detained or jailed several reporters, bloggers, lawyers and dissidents, and deployed an administrative decree to bring down the country’s only independent policy think-tank.

The party recognises widespread corruption as a major impediment to development, but restricts the media’s ability to ferret out cases.

The United Nations said governments must “own” the battle against corruption, but others would make it more effective.

“Broadening the scope for collaboration and involvement of non-State actors such as the media, mass organisations and individuals makes anti-corruption efforts more effective,” it said in its report to the meeting, called the Consultative Group.

Sweden, as president of the European Union, went further.

“The government of Vietnam has to allow media to scrutinise the power,” it said.

“Researchers, journalists and lawyers have to be encouraged to raise their voices to be able to contribute to the future of Vietnam. They should not be silenced or discouraged. Recently, however, worrying signs seem to indicate that the development is going in the wrong direction.” U.S. Ambassador Michael Michalak also noted in prepared remarks that recent events “have contributed to a shrinking of the space for honest, reliable information”.

“Access to reliable, objective information; the ability to conduct research freely and publish one’s findings; the right to articulate and consider differing views — are absolutely essential to technical innovation and economic prosperity.”

(Reporting by John Ruwitch; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)

http://in.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idINIndia-44430120091203?sp=true

Vietnam starts unwinding stimulus

By Tim Johnston in Bangkok

Published: December 2 2009 16:37 | Last updated: December 2 2009 16:37

Vietnam plans to stop its interest rate subsidy scheme at the end of the year, becoming the first Asian nation to start unwinding its post-crisis stimulus programme, the government announced on Wednesday.

Analysts expect Vietnam’s gross domestic product to grow about 5 per cent this year in contrast to many of its neighbours, which are expected to see their economies shrink.

The government’s stimulus programme – which was touted at $8bn (€5.3bn, £4.8bn) but has actually cost nearer $4bn, or 4.3 per cent of GDP, according to the World Bank – has contributed significantly to growth. Its scheme of subsidising commercial loans by 4 percentage points met with particular success but will now finish at the end of the year, as planned, in spite of commercial pressure to keep it open until March.

“The termination of the program is in line with the interest-rate policy and the market stabilisation and will help businesses to increase their competitiveness,” Nguyen Dong Tien, the deputy governor of the State Bank of Vietnam, said in a statement.

The Vietnamese economy is heavily dependent on exports, which fell more than 14 per cent in dollar terms in the first eight months of the year. But the government bet their limited resources on a stimulus programme which concentrated on supporting industry to keep people in work, putting the country in a strong position to make the best of any upturn.

“This is a country that went the China route without China’s resources,” said Martin Rama, the chief economist for the World Bank in Vietnam.

The gamble seems to have paid off, with exports up last month 19 per cent year on year, industrial production rising 16.4 per cent; and retail sales up 30 per cent.

However, Mr Rama says the scaling back of the stimulus is timely.

“The interest rate subsidy scheme was very instrumental in the early days of the crisis,” he said but added that once the working capital requirements had been fulfilled, the take up-on loans had declined substantially and many of the companies that were latterly availing themselves of the facility were using the loans to buy dollars and gold, putting downward pressure on the dong, the Vietnamese currency.

“It is going to be painful for some but the government are counting on that to make borrowers sell gold and dollars to pay the loans back,” said Mr Rama.

Vietnam hit the headlines last week with a 5.4 per cent devaluation of the dong and a 1 percentage point rise in the reference rate, moves that were made to address specific pressures on the currency. The country has generally come through the crisis much better than many analysts expected and by some measures is showing the world’s fastest growth.

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/cb3a2922-df26-11de-be8e-00144feab49a.html

World Bank reassured by Vietnam steps toward stability

HANOI, Dec 3 (Reuters) – It is “reassuring” to see Vietnam rebalancing its economic policy toward stability, but more turbulence could be on the cards as the global economy continues to recover, the World Bank said on Thursday.

Even as monetary policy tightens, inflation is likely to see some acceleration in Vietnam in 2010, it said in a semi-annual report.

“It is reassuring to see that the government is rebalancing its objectives once again, giving more priority to stability. The decisions made between late October and early December amount to an appropriate macroeconomic framework being put in place,” it said.

Vietnam’s macroeconomic management for the past two years has so far been effective, despite having a relatively “heterodox and at times rudimentary nature”, the Bank said in its report, entitled “Taking Stock”.

Vietnam had taken a series of small steps starting in October to begin to tighten monetary policy, capped by last week’s currency devaluation and interest rate hike. The government also announced this week an end to subsidies on short-term business loans, which has been a pillar of its stimulus package.

The moves were designed to address imbalances that emerged during roughly a year of expansionary monetary and fiscal policy to counter the global economic crisis, including chronic currency weakness spurred by dollar hoarding and expectations of depreciation. (Reporting by John Ruwitch; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman) ((john.ruwitch@thomsonreuters.com; +84 4 3825 9623; Reuters Messaging: john.ruwitch.reuters.com@reuters.net)) ((If you have a query or comment on this story, send an email to news.feedback.asia@thomsonreuters.com))

http://www.reuters.com/article/hotStocksNews/idUSHAN47299220091203

Vietnam Buddhist case shows suppression: watchdog

By Ian Timberlake (AFP) – 12 hours ago

Zen Buddhist monk leader Thich Nhat Hanh (front) prays at a requiem for Vietnam War victims near Hanoi

Zen Buddhist monk leader Thich Nhat Hanh (front) prays at a requiem for Vietnam War victims near Hanoi

HANOI — The forced expulsion of more than 300 followers of one of the world’s most influential Buddhists highlights Vietnam’s suppression of religious freedom, Human Rights Watch said Monday.

“The government views many religious groups, particularly popular ones that it fears it can’t control, as a challenge to the Communist Party’s authority,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director of the US-based watchdog.

It said that late last month more than 100 “thugs and undercover police” armed with sticks and hammers broke down doors at the Bat Nha monastery and forcefully evicted 150 monks who follow Thich Nhat Hanh.

Nhat Hanh is a French-based Zen monk and peace activist who was a confidant of slain US civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

A day after the monks were evicted, according to a Human Rights Watch statement, more than 200 nuns were forced out of Bat Nha and joined the monks in a temporary refuge at a nearby pagoda.

Earlier this month Nhat Hanh, on a visit to the United States, said authorities had also surrounded the pagoda in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.

Follower Nguyen Phuoc Loc, reached Monday in the area, told AFP there had been no further incidents “especially since a visit by a mission from the US embassy”.

The government says local authorities “tried to maintain law and order to avoid clashes” and described the matter as an internal dispute between Nhat Hanh’s followers and those of the top monk at Bat Nha, Thich Duc Nghi.

Duc Nghi belongs to the official Vietnamese Buddhist Church.

The communist government says followers of the French-based monk organised religious courses without permission and failed to register their temporary residence at the Bat Nha monastery.

But Human Rights Watch said the ousting of Nhat Hanh’s followers was “clearly linked to his call for religious reforms”.

Last week the US embassy in Hanoi said expulsion of the monks and nuns from Bat Nha is among recent action which “contradict Vietnam’s own commitment to internationally accepted standards of human rights and the rule of law”.

Vietnam says it always respects the right to democratic liberties and freedom of belief and religion.

All religious activity is subject to state control and Human Rights Watch said adherents of some religious groups that are not officially recognised are persecuted.

It said followers of the Cao Dai faith and adherents of Hoa Hao Buddhism are among hundreds of people imprisoned for their religious or political beliefs, or both.

In the mid-1960s the then-South Vietnamese regime forced Nhat Hanh into exile but he returned to visit his unified homeland in 2005 and 2007.

Human Rights Watch said his first homecoming came as Vietnam sought to present “a less repressive” religious stance in hopes of getting removed from a US list of countries violating religious freedom.

It was removed in November 2006 and admitted to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) the following year.

A foreign diplomat told AFP Vietnam’s human rights situation was improving prior to 2007, “before they got what they wanted” — WTO membership and the hosting in 2006 of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit.

Since then, the overall rights situation has worsened, said the diplomat.

Loc, the follower at the scene, said about 250 of Nhat Hanh’s adherents remain at their temporary refuge in Phuoc Loc pagoda, while more than 70 others are elsewhere in the region or training in Thailand.

Copyright © 2009 AFP.

http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5gJKySU52Il4YtDUOykhxERXW1jnQ

Vietnam Jails Dissidents While Presiding Over UN Security Council

By Patrick Goodenough, International Editor

(CNSNews.com) – As Vietnam presides over the U.N. Security Council this month, back at the home the communist government will not tolerate calls for multi-party democracy, and has launched a series of trials of citizens accused of propaganda against the state.

The first of nine expected trials took place on Tuesday, when Tran Duc Thach, a poet, was sentenced by a Hanoi court to three years’ imprisonment, followed by a further three years’ probation, for violating article 88 of Vietnam’s penal code, which covers “propaganda against the socialist state.”

A U.S.-based representative of Viet Tan, a pro-democracy group banned in Vietnam, said Thach, 57, is an advocate for freedom of expression for writers, democracy and human rights, and a critic of the one-party state.

On Wednesday, Vu Hung, a 43-year-old school teacher, appeared in Hanoi and was handed the same sentence, for hanging a 10-foot banner on a Hanoi bridge critical of government policies and calling for democracy.

He was one of a group of eight Vietnamese detained 13 months ago and all accused of violating article 88. The other seven are due to go on trial on Thursday, one in Hanoi and six in the northern port city of Hai Phong.

According to Viet Tan, Reporters Without Borders and other groups monitoring the situation, those arrested were accused of offenses including posting articles online criticizing state policies.

In some cases, the offending material related not to domestic policies, but to a longstanding territorial dispute with China over two groups of islands in the South China Sea, the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Many Vietnamese believe the communist government is not pushing its sovereignty claims over the islands energetically, for fear of offending Beijing

Vu Hung’s banner included references to the loss of the territory. Viet Tan said that by jailing him, “Hanoi has effectively criminalized free speech and patriotism.”

The trials had initially been scheduled to begin on September 24 but they were postponed without explanation.

Viet Tan believes the delay was an attempt to avoid controversy as Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet was in New York City at the time for the U.N. General Assembly session, which he addressed on September 25.

Relatives of some of those on trial this week had written earlier to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and world leaders attending the General Assembly, urging them to take up the matter with Triet.

Sympathetic U.S. lawmakers also urged Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who met with her Vietnamese counterpart Pham Gia Khiem last Thursday, to confront him on the human rights situation, including the dissidents’ imprisonment.

“I find it appalling that a country which blatantly acts in disregard to the U.N. Declaration will be acting as president of the U.N. Security Council in October,” Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) wrote in a letter to Clinton.

“I request that you strongly urge the Government of Vietnam to meet its obligations to the U.N. and its people by upholding the basic principles of the U.N. – respect for human rights,” said Sanchez, whose constituency has a large Vietnamese-American community.

In brief comments to reporters after the meeting with Khiem, Clinton said that “human rights, especially freedom of expression” was one of many issues discussed.


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem speak after talks in Washington on October 1, 2009 (State Department photo by Michael Gross)
Deterioration

The clampdown on free speech since late last year followed a period of relative relaxation as Vietnam sought, and won, permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with the U.S. in late 2006 and World Trade Organization membership in early 2007.

In the run-up to the PNTR decision, Vietnamese activists took advantage of the relative openness by issuing a manifesto calling for multi-party democracy. The signatories called themselves Bloc 8406, after the date of the launch.

During that period, Vietnam also engaged with the U.S. on religious freedom issues and the State Department, citing “significant improvement towards advancing religious freedom,” removed Hanoi from a list of “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) for egregious religious freedom abuses.

Vietnam topped the string of accomplishments with a two-year stint on the Security Council beginning January 2008. One of 10 non-permanent members, this month it holds the council’s rotating presidency for the second time.

Once it had secured PNTR status and WTO accession, the regime began to tighten control again, targeting bloggers and dissidents linked to Bloc 8406.

U.S. critics say Vietnam’s rights record quickly deteriorated despite the significantly improved relations with Washington. Over the summer, members of the Congressional Vietnam Caucus said they had identified at least 100 Vietnamese imprisoned for “peaceful expression of political or religious views.”

A new version of the Vietnam Human Rights Act, introduced in the House of Representatives last April by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) with a bipartisan group of cosponsors, would prohibit the U.S. from increasing non-humanitarian assistance to Vietnam unless the government upholds civil and political liberties. A parallel bill was introduced in the Senate in May by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

Previous versions of the legislation have passed by large margins in the House, but were blocked in the Senate, where opposition was led by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), both Vietnam War veterans, who were instrumental in the normalization of diplomatic relations 14 years ago.

Next year, the 15th anniversary of the normalization of relations, will also see Vietnam chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and host an ASEAN summit in October. Triet has invited Obama to visit.

http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/55151

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