Sanchez asks Rice to help Vietnamese detainees

Three lawmakers write letter after two U.S. citizens arrested in Ho Chi Minh City.

WASHINGTON – Rep. Loretta Sanchez and two other members of Congress sent a letter Tuesday to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asking her to persuade the Vietnamese government to release two U.S. citizens arrested Saturday in Ho Chi Minh City.

“We are disappointed to hear that the government of Vietnam has arrested United States citizens in Vietnam for reportedly having a peaceful discussion,” Sanchez, D-Garden Grove, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, and Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, wrote to Rice. “Not only do we ask you to work to return these United States citizens to the United States, but we ask you to convey to the government of Vietnam that the arbitrary detention of United States citizens is unacceptable.”

According to news reports, Vietnamese police arrested six political activists, including citizens of France and Thailand. Sanchez and Lofgren this month testified before a Foreign Relations subcommittee about what they said was an increased crackdown on political expression in Vietnam.

The two U.S. citizens arrested were Nguyen Quoc Quan, a co-founder of the Vietnamese Professional Society who lives in Sacramento, and Truong Van Ba, a community activist who lives in Honolulu.

The House earlier this year passed a bill that would tie future aid to Vietnam to the country’s human-rights record. The bill has been stalled in the Senate.

Reuters reported Tuesday that a Vietnamese government official declined to comment on the arrests. A U.S. embassy official said it had confirmation of the arrest of one U.S. citizen and had asked Hanoi for access.

Reuters also reported that Viet Tan, the Vietnamese Reform Party, said that the arrests occurred after the two U.S. citizens, one French citizen and on Thai citizen “participated in discussions with other democracy activists on promoting peaceful democratic change.”

Vietnam Arrests a New Activist Breed,8599,1686037,00.html

Vietnamese security agents had been tracking their quarry for days, and when police made their move on Nov. 17, they took no chances. At least 20 officers surrounded a house in Ho Chi Minh City and swarmed inside, arresting six people and confiscating documents connected to planned “democracy seminars”, witnesses told a pro-democracy group. Such raids are far from unusual: this year at least a dozen Vietnamese activists have been arrested, most charged with “propaganda against the Socialist Republic,” a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

But what made the weekend roundup different is that this time the targets were “hostile foreign elements”, as the Vietnamese government describes overseas activists — including two U.S. citizens, a Frenchwoman and a Thai national. As of Tuesday, there was no official word on what crime they are accused of; Vietnamese authorities refused to discuss the arrests.

All four of those detained are members of Viet Tan (Vietnam Reform), an organization of overseas Vietnamese working for political change in the motherland. According to the group, the banned materials the activists were distributing included a booklet called “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” a summary of peaceful democratic movements from Eastern Europe to Indonesia and the Philippines. “This was simply a peaceful expression of these people’s beliefs,” says Duy Hoang, the group’s Washington, D.C.-based spokesman.

Viet Tan identified its arrested members as Nguyen Quoc Quan, 54, of California and Leon Truong, 54, of Hawaii, both U.S. citizens born in Vietnam. French-Vietnamese writer and activist Nguyen Thi Thanh Van, 51, and ethnic-Vietnamese Thai national Khunmi Somsak, 58, were also arrested. The activists’ respective embassies said they are now trying to find out what law they are accused of breaking.

The latest arrests say a lot about Vietnam’s intolerance for dissent, but the circumstances of the raid — the democracy seminars — also illustrate new strategies that Vietnamese groups overseas are adopting to challenge the ruling Communist Party. For a long time, in Little Saigons around the world, anti-communist groups tended to be dominated by former officers of the South Vietnamese regime, pushing to create a government in exile, and had little contact with the people in Vietnam itself. Some groups continued to advocate violence: as late as 2001, members of the California-based Government of Free Vietnam were convicted of plotting the attempted bombings of Vietnamese embassies in Bangkok and Manila.

But in recent years, a younger generation of Western-raised Vietnamese has taken a different approach. These new activists — characterized by 35-year-old Hoang, a former investment banker who left Saigon in a boat with his family at age 12 — have been leading a p.r.-savvy campaign for Vietnam’s hearts and minds, ditching anti-communist rhetoric in favor of pro-democracy advocacy and strenuously denouncing violence in favor of peaceful grassroots movements. Viet Tan, founded in 1982, uses mass emails to recruit new members inside Vietnam (it won’t say how many) and coordinate them with dissident groups. It raises funds to funnel to sympathizers who hold democracy seminars inside the country. Members seek to convert Vietnamese studying in overseas universities to the cause. “This is not your father’s overseas Vietnamese political group,” says Hoang.

Regardless, the new-style pro-democracy groups have had difficulty making even the smallest political change inside Vietnam. Association with any overseas group — Hanoi still classifies most as terrorist organizations — is grounds for arrest; several of the Vietnamese activists put on trial this year had their links to overseas groups like Viet Tan used as evidence against them. “They are on the right side, advocating non-violent political change, but are they doing good?” asks Carl Thayer, a veteran Vietnam analyst who lectures at Australia’s National Defence University. “Any action like that provokes repression. The key leaders of the pro-democracy movement in Vietnam have been systematically rounded up. So they just aren’t getting any traction.” Its not clear whether the latest arrests will help get their message across, either. So far, reaction from the U.S. embassy and other foreign missions has been muted, with officials saying they are still seeking more information. Still, the targeting of foreign nationals, apparently for the crime of promoting democracy, is not likely to win many hearts and minds abroad.