House Panel to Probe Vietnamese Rights Concerns

By Patrick Goodenough International Editor
November 06, 2007

( – Vietnam’s communist government, which over the past year achieved its aims of securing normalized trade relations with the U.S. and being removed from a religious persecution blacklist, continues to abuse human rights, U.S. lawmakers will be told on Tuesday.

Rights campaigners and Vietnamese-American activists will testify before a House Foreign Affairs Committee subcommittee hearing on “human rights concerns in Vietnam.”

The House last September passed a bill making future increases in non-humanitarian aid to Hanoi contingent on improvements in its human rights record. The legislation is now before the Senate.

Since Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last November removed Vietnam from a list of “countries of particular concern” (CPC) for severe religious freedom abuses, campaigners have been urging the administration to reverse the step, charging that violations have increased this year.

Among organizations to have made that call are the People’s Democratic Party, an exiled group banned inside Vietnam, and Viet Tan, another underground opposition party.

Representatives of both groups are scheduled to address the subcommittee on international organizations, human rights, and oversight on Tuesday, together with a State Department official, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Southeast Asia Scott Marciel.

Viet Tan representative Duy Hoang said late Monday that in his testimony he will stress that “abuses will continue unless there is genuine political change.” He will also argue that Vietnam should be returned to the CPC list because of ongoing violations of religious freedom.

CPC designation under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) provides for the use of sanctions or other measures to prod foreign governments to respect citizens’ freedom to worship.

Hoang said there is a debate underway within the State Department over what constitutes religious freedom.

“One view has it that religious freedom can be narrowly measured by the ordinances on religion issued by the Vietnamese authorities or the number of religious entities allowed to ‘register’ with the government and thus legally operate,” he said.

“Many of us hold that respect for religious freedom is what occurs in practice, not what a communist government pledges on paper. Moreover, true religious freedom is when people can practice their faith without first registering with the authorities.”

The State Department’s ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, John Hanford, earlier this year said Vietnam was an example of a success-story in U.S. efforts to engage foreign governments on religious freedom — a key aim of the IRFA. He also acknowledged that progress had slowed, however.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent panel set up under the IRFA to make recommendations to Congress and the White House, previously recommended that Vietnam be redesignated as a CPC.

Commission members returned Friday from a 10-day visit to the country, and are expected shortly to report on their latest findings.

In a statement issued during their visit, commission members said they asked top officials “to undertake full, impartial, and effective investigations into reported police abuses, including continued reports of forced renunciations of religion.”

They also called for the release of imprisoned advocates for religious freedom and raised the issue of restrictions and abuses against Vietnamese Buddhists.

Others taking part in Tuesday’s hearing include Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), the primary sponsor of the Vietnam Human Rights Act that passed by a 414-3 vote in September, and co-sponsors Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Loretta Sanchez, both California Democrats.

The subcommittee’s eight members include two other co-sponsors of the bill, Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and Donald Payne (D-N.J.), as well as two of the only three lawmakers to have voted against it, Reps. Ron Paul of Texas and Jeff Flake of Arizona, both Republicans.

Hoang said in his testimony he will appeal to lawmakers to urge their colleagues in the Senate to support the legislation.

A similar bill, also introduced by Smith and passed by a 410-1 vote in the House in 2001, was blocked in the Senate by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the then chairman of a Senate East Asian and Pacific Affairs subcommittee, who argued that denying aid to Hanoi would be counterproductive.

Hoang said a key factor in how the legislation fares in the Senate this time may be how the Vietnamese government responds to growing protests by farmers demonstrating against corruption and land seizures.

“If Hanoi chooses to crack down that would likely tip the Senate toward passing the Vietnam Human Rights Act,” he said.

According to Human Rights Watch, Vietnamese farmers’ protests have come in reaction to the expropriation by officials of farmland without compensation.

In a move supporters said would help encourage Vietnam to step up economic and political reforms, Congress late last year voted to normalize trade relations with Vietnam, ahead of Hanoi’s accession to the World Trade Organization in January.

Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez this week is heading a mission of American business representatives to Vietnam, looking to expand bilateral trade ties and boost U.S. export opportunities.

High tech lake clean-up to save Vietnam’s legendary turtle

HANOI (AFP) — Pollution threatens the lake that is the heart and soul of Vietnam’s capital — and a legendary turtle who lives below its murky waters — but now a high-tech solution may be at hand to save them both.

Over the next three years, in time for Hanoi’s 1,000th birthday in 2010, scientists intend to clean up Hoan Kiem Lake, home to the creature that symbolises Vietnam’s centuries-old struggle for independence.

Vietnamese and German experts say they will use a new device, which borrows from the designs of corkscrews, submarines and tanks, to suck several metres (feet) of toxic sludge from the bottom of the ‘Lake of the Returned Sword’.

The 2.4-million-dollar project will be a delicate one.

The famed, algae-green lake is home to an elusive turtle that is a key figure in Vietnam folklore.

In a story that every Vietnamese child learns at school, the 15th century farmer-turned-rebel leader Le Loi used a magical sword to drive out Chinese invaders and found the dynasty named after him.

When Le Loi, by now the emperor, went boating on the lake one day, a turtle appeared, took his sacred sword and dived to the bottom of the lake, keeping the weapon safe for the next time Vietnam may have to defend its freedom.

Today, occasional sightings of a giant soft-shell turtle draw large crowds, and photographs and amateur video clips attest to the claim that at least one turtle indeed still lives in the lake.

The turtle legend is a staple of traditional water-puppet theatre, and reported sightings of the animal, a symbol of eternity, are deemed auspicious, especially when they coincide with major national events.

“Since 1991 the turtle has come up about 400 times,” said Vietnam’s pre-eminent authority on the animal, Professor Ha Dinh Duc of the Hanoi University of Science — better known here as the ‘turtle professor.’

“Several times when it came up, it coincided with important events,” he told AFP. “It’s something we can’t explain.”

The turtle has appeared when Chinese presidents have visited, during the inauguration of a Le Loi statute, at the start of last year’s Communist Party congress, and even during a conference on endangered reptiles, Duc said.

The professor says he doesn’t know the age of the turtle — which he says is a new species he has named Rafetus Leloiiis. He says it weighs around 200 kilogrammes (440 pounds).

Previously, at least four of the turtles lived here — one of them is now stuffed and on display in an island temple on the lake — but today only one is left and Duc frets about its well-being.

From his Hanoi home, crammed with turtle books, pictures and paraphernalia, he has pushed for efforts to save the turtle, also proposing to catch animals of the same species from another pond to mate with it.

“There has been coffee shop talk about cloning the turtle,” he said, “but I would oppose it.”

The more immediate threat to the turtle is man-made.

Stormwater run-off from the growing city has sullied the stagnant lake with chemicals and organic pollutants that feed algae blooms and choke off oxygen.

“The water quality is decreasing, and we expect a breakdown of the aquatic habitat within a decade,” said Professor Peter Werner of Germany’s Dresden University of Technology. “The lake could be dead in 10 years.”

Hoan Kiem Lake, about 600 metres long and 200 metres wide, is now only about 1.5 metres deep while a four-to-six-metre deep layer of sludge has accumulated on the lake bed, said Christian Richter of German company HGN Hydrogeologie.

German scientists have developed an “subaquatic vacuum cleaner” that will crawl along the lake floor using two corkscrew-like spirals that dig up and funnel the mud into a pipe while also propelling the device forward.

The remote-controlled “SediTurtle” will use buoyancy to rise and sink like a submarine and use brakes on its two coils to move left and right like a tank, said engineer Dr Frank Panning of company GSan oekologische Gewaessersanierung.

“We are using low-impact environmental technology that is silent and minimises turbulence and the release of toxic compounds,” said Werner. “This project is very sensitive. We have to take care of the turtle.”

In the first phase, set to start early next year and take 24 months, scientists will first analyse water and sediment samples from Hoan Kiem and test the SediTurtle in another Hanoi lake.

If all goes well, Vietnamese experts could then take over and use the new technology to clean up the famous lake itself, said Werner.

Professor Duc — whose support is deemed crucial for any project involving Hoan Kiem Lake — has given the green light after vetoing earlier offers for help from Japan, Thailand and elsewhere.

“Many international organisations have offered to help,” he said.

“This project is environmentally sound, and it’s good for the turtle. And the turtle is important for Vietnam.”

Floods kill 46 in Vietnam, Typhoon Peipah nears

HANOI (Reuters) – Floods have killed at least 46 people in central Vietnam in the last 10 days and a typhoon making its way across the South China Sea is forecast to dump more rain this week, reports said on Monday.

The region, which includes the Central Highlands coffee belt, has been hit hard by storms and floods since early October, killing nearly 200 people, causing property and crop damage of $300 million and delaying the coffee harvest by two weeks.

Flooding since October 26 have killed 46 people in nine central provinces and Danang city, reports from provincial disaster management committees said.

Weather forecasters said Typhoon Peipah, which crossed the Philippines island of Luzon early on Monday, would bring rain again on central Vietnam.

The storm killed five people in the northern Philippine province of Isabela and forced 500 people to evacuate their homes, disaster officials said.

The Vietnamese government said a new wave of floods could hit in the next two to three days.

Rains delayed the start of Vietnam’s coffee harvest, squeezing supplies to global markets and thus raised prices on London robusta futures markets to a contract high on November 1.

More rains from Typhoon Peipah, a Chinese word for a popular pet fish in Macau, would further slow farmers’ drying process, delaying the arrival of fresh beans at Saigon Port for loading.

The three-month storm season, packed with up to 10 typhoons, often ends in Vietnam in October but this year tropical storms appear to be hitting later than usual. Peipah is the sixth typhoon forecast to strike Vietnam so far this season.