Activist safe in Viet jail 

After two tearful, nerve-racking weeks, Ngo Mai Huong got some good news Tuesday: her husband, Sacramento engineer and pro-democracy activist Nguyen Quoc Quan, is alive and well in a Vietnamese prison.

Ngo said the U.S. State Department told her that her “husband is in jail with two other detainees, and right now he’s teaching one of them English.”

Nguyen, a 54-year-old father of two teenage boys, belongs to Viet Tan – the Vietnam Reform Party. The international pro-democracy movement has been labeled “a terrorist organization” by the Vietnamese government.

Nguyen left Elk Grove Nov. 9 to meet with democracy activists.

On Nov. 17, Nguyen and several other activists, including another Vietnamese American, “Leon” Truong Van Ba from Hawaii, were arrested around Ho Chi Minh City for allegedly distributing pro-democracy leaflets.

Ngo said local Vietnamese activists told her Nguyen had been arrested. She heard nothing for days, and didn’t know if he was dead or alive.

Nguyen and Truong’s arrests triggered protests from Vietnamese organizations in Sacramento and San Jose. Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to help secure their release.

“It’s extremely disappointing to learn that the Government of Vietnam has arrested United States citizens in Vietnam for reportedly having a peaceful discussion,” Lungren wrote to Rice.

On Nov. 30, the Vietnamese government’s official news agency reported arresting several Viet Tan sympathizers, “crushing the plots by a group of reactionaries in exile to sabotage the Vietnamese State.”

The government’s report alleged that Nguyen, “who used a fake passport under the name of Ly Seng for entry into Vietnam … was assigned by the Viet Tan to return to the country to conduct anti-government activities in association with other elements.”

Duy Hoang, a Viet Tan leader based in Washington, D.C., said Nguyen was indeed sent by Viet Tan to Vietnam “to promote methods of nonviolent struggle.”

“I was involved in the planning of his trip,” said Hoang, a 1993 UC Davis grad in economics and political science. “He and other Viet Tan members were in the process of distributing a two-page leaflet on what nonviolent struggle is and how it can be a tool to liberate the people.”

Nguyen was talking about nonviolent protests in Burma, Mahatma Gandhi’s march to the sea in India to protest the British salt tax, and the pro-democracy movements that transformed Eastern Europe, Hoang said.

The Vietnam News Agency reported that police confiscated 7,000 anti-government leaflets published by Viet Tan.

Hoang challenged the Vietnamese government to publish the leaflet in its newspaper “to let the people decide if this is in fact an act of terrorism.

“We view ourselves as patriots who want to bring about political change by mobilizing the power of the people through all forms of nonviolent struggle, from peaceful protest to civil disobedience,” he said.

Nguyen, a high school math teacher in Kieng Giang province, loved to teach, Ngo said. He escaped Vietnam by boat in 1981 and came to the United States. He got his Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of North Carolina in 1987. Then he moved to San Jose, co-founded the Vietnamese Professionals Society and worked on developing a machine to translate English to Vietnamese, Hoang said.

The son of Ho Diep, one of Vietnam’s most famous singers of classic poetry, Nguyen read poetry in Vietnamese American magazines he found in San Jose. In 1989, he fell in love with a poem called “Mother”:

Like the falling rains from heaven

Mother is the star, the heaven and earth.

You are the protective arms from days of war.

Sweet lullabies echoing in the night.

You give me a life, lonely life.

The land tosses and turns in conflicts.

You give me a crib brimming with love

When I grow up my heart will belong to another.

Nguyen sent the author a book about Vietnam’s communist government and a liberation T-shirt, then flew to Chicago to visit her.

Two visits later, “we got married,” said the poem’s author, Ngo, now 47. “I love the way he thinks about our country and our community.”

They moved to Elk Grove in 2002 because Nguyen said Sacramento had good schools, Ngo said. “I’d worked as an accountant in San Jose, but he told me to stay home with the kids because this was a critical time in their lives.”

Nguyen got an information-technology job, and immersed himself in the study of peaceful protest, Ngo said. “He showed us movies about nonviolent struggle. He’s very skinny – I had to push him to eat all the time, and we’d fight about it – and my kids called him a small version of Gandhi.”

On Nov. 9, Nguyen told his family he was going to Thailand and would be back Nov. 29, Ngo said. “I know he works for democracy, but I don’t ask him much about the details.”

She called her husband an idealist who dreamed of returning to Vietnam to become the principal of a rural high school. “He’s very concerned about the educational system there.”

Nguyen is well-known in Vietnamese American circles, said Chan Tran, a host on Sacramento’s TNT Vietnamese radio, which hosted a rally for him last week.

“He’s a wonderful son of Vietnam,” Tran said. “He has a kind heart, he’s very smart, a wonderful storyteller who’s always cracking us up with jokes.”

Tran said Nguyen used to tell his friends: “If one day I’m going back to Vietnam and being arrested, then please don’t fight for just my freedom, but fight for the freedom of others. And in prison or outside, I will never stop fighting for the rights of the people of Vietnam to live in freedom and dignity.”

Jamie Goff, Lungren’s constituent services representative, said the State Department reported Tuesday that Nguyen “appears to be in good health and good spirits.” She’d heard nothing about Nguyen’s alleged fake passport or what, if anything, he’s been charged with. “We really want to know.”

Ngo said that even though she’s Buddhist, she’d love to have her husband home for Christmas. “My sons are very sad,” she said. “Monday night, I heard my oldest son Khoa, 15, tell his friend, ‘You are very lucky you have your dad at home – make sure you love him more.’ “


Natural disasters kill 117 people in Vietnam in November

    HANOI, Dec. 5 (Xinhua) — Natural disasters, mainly floods, whirlwinds and flood-tides, killed 117 people, left nine missing, and injured 88 in Vietnam in November, local newspaper Vietnam Economic Times reported Wednesday.

    The disasters, mainly in the central region, also damaged over 400,000 houses, and many hectares of subsidiary crops and irrigation works, causing total property losses of over 3.4 trillion Vietnamese dong (VND) (212.5 million U.S. dollars) last month, the paper quoted a report of the country’s General Statistics Office.

    The disasters also made 340,300 people or 0.67 percent of Vietnam’s farming population face hunger, said the report.

    The Vietnamese government has recently approved the National Strategy on Natural Disaster Prevention, Response and Mitigation by 2020.

    Natural disasters, including typhoons and hails, killed 339 people, left 274 people missing and injured 2,065 others in Vietnam in 2006. The estimated losses totaled 18.6 trillion VND (nearly 1.2 billion dollars) in the year.

Vietnam holding four American citizens: US officials

HANOI (AFP) — Vietnam is holding four US citizens, American officials confirmed Tuesday, hours after gaining their first consular access to two of the detainees, both Vietnamese-born pro-democracy activists.

Police in Ho Chi Minh City on November 17 arrested six political activists, including two US members of the California-based Viet Tan, or Vietnam Reform Party, which is banned in the Asian communist one-party state.

State-controlled media later said two more Vietnamese-Americans, reportedly carrying a handgun and bullets, were arrested at the city’s airport on November 23, in reports that collectively labelled all the detainees “terrorists.”

US officials in Hanoi said they were able to visit Tuesday the first two arrested, Nguyen Quoc Quan and a second American, who could not yet be identified because of privacy rules, in custody in the southern city.

The US embassy was also aware of the two other American citizens being held, but had not yet been officially informed of their arrests or the charges against them by the Vietnamese side, an embassy spokeswoman said.

The Viet Tan party has previously identified Quan, a mathematician, as one of its members, and said he was arrested along with Truong Van Ba, a Hawaii restaurant owner and fellow activist, and four others in the November 17 raid.

The US-based group denies any links with the couple arrested on November 23 — named in newspaper reports here as Le Van Phan and Nguyen Thi Thinh — and stressed that it only supports peaceful political change.

Senior US diplomat Stephen Mull, speaking during a Hanoi visit Tuesday, said he was not aware that Viet Tan had any terrorist links, and said the US side was still trying to gain information on all the cases.

“We do hope that people are not charged with terrorism just for expressing their opinions peacefully,” added Mull, acting assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.

Also arrested on November 17 were Frenchwoman Nguyen Thi Thanh Van, Thai citizen Somsak Khunmi and two Vietnamese nationals.

A French diplomat in Paris said its mission had been allowed to visit Van, also a Viet Tan member, last Friday but declined to give more information.

Various state media reports in Vietnam have accused Viet Tan of being a “reactionary and terrorist” group plotting to overthrow the communist government and assassinate senior state leaders.

The US-based group has charged that Vietnam, having arrested peaceful activists, “had to fabricate a link with two individuals who allegedly smuggled a firearm into Vietnam in order to paint Viet Tan as a terrorist organisation.”

Vietnam, China: The Dispute over Significant Waterways


Continuing disputes over maritime resources are souring other developing relations between China and Vietnam.


Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry objected Dec. 3 to a Chinese State Council decision to establish symbolic administrative control over the city of Sansha on Hainan Island in order to oversee the disputed islands. This is the second Vietnamese objection to Chinese action in the South China Sea, following a Nov. 23 complaint about Chinese naval exercises in disputed waters.

In recent years, and even recent weeks, China and Vietnam have significantly increased economic cooperation, as well as attempts to settle disputes over their land and maritime borders and access to maritime resources, including oil and natural gas. Bilateral trade reached nearly $10 billion in 2006, up from just under $2.5 billion in 2000, and the two countries are on track for some $13 billion in trade in 2007. In 2006, China was Vietnam’s top source of imports and its fourth-largest export destination.

But disputes over maritime resources continue to sour the other developing relations. Vietnam and China have long bickered over control of the Spratly and Paracel islands (and faced down claims from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan). The two, however, have been largely cordial over the issue since the last flare-up in 2004, when Vietnam renovated an airfield on the disputed Big Spratly Island and expanded Vietnamese tourism to the chain.

By the end of 2004, however, China had charmed its neighbor after defusing even more extreme frictions with the Philippines and coming to an agreement on joint exploration for energy and other resources in disputed territory — a formula it sought to apply to Vietnam as well.

Despite the understanding between Hanoi and Beijing, Vietnam has nonetheless sought its own partners for offshore energy exploration. In June, following Chinese complaints, BP suspended offshore exploration operations in Vietnam’s Block 5.2. More recently, India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corp. (ONGC) faced Chinese objections to its operations in Blocks 127 and 128, which China claimed fell within the disputed territories and thus could only be explored and exploited by Chinese and/or Vietnamese companies.

For both Hanoi and Beijing, however, the issue is more than just access to the energy resources (or the denial of access to competitors). Rather, territorial claims in the South China Sea carry a further strategic element — sovereignty over some of the most significant waterways in the world. The South China Sea is the maritime approach to both the Chinese and the Vietnamese coasts. Control of the Spratly Islands, or even select islands, expands the naval and maritime aviation reach of countries such as Vietnam and China, which have developing navies. In China’s case especially, the Spratly Islands would give it the military foothold to actually project meaningful force toward the Strait of Malacca and establish more than a transitory military presence there — should it choose to base troops on the islands. In addition, vast quantities of energy and goods flow through the area, traversing from the Middle East and Indian Ocean basin to Japan, South Korea, China and Vietnam — and no claimant wants another to be able to interdict its supplies.

For now, no claimant has the ability or will to try to enforce its claim over the entire area — something that would lead to a face-off among claimants. Moreover, attempted enforcement would pit the claimant against Japan and, more important, the United States, which relies on free access through the region and the continued flow of goods to and from its regional allies. But with oil prices still hovering near $90 a barrel, and demand not looking to slack off any time soon, the question of access to the energy resources increasingly will take the forefront of relations. Just as China’s relations with Japan have been tainted by disputes over natural gas deposits under the East China Sea, so will China more frequently butt up against its South China Sea neighbors as they seek to tap the available resources.

Video: Vietnam’s baby boom crisis

Vietnam’s abandoned children
A growing wealth gap is forcing many poor Vietnamese to give their children up for adoption

In a small detached bungalow on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City a teenage girl gently cries.

Her name is Que. She is 17 and pregnant, but she cannot keep her baby.

“I really want to,” she quietly sobbed, “but my family is too poor, we can’t afford to keep it. I am so sad.”

She is not alone. Twelve other women and girls at the house face the same tragic situation.

All want to be mothers, but cannot afford to be.

The home is run by a small charity. Pregnant women come here a few weeks before they are due to give birth.

“This is the tragedy of Vietnam today,” the manager of the home explained.

“Most of these women want to keep their babies. But many are from the countryside and they are from poor backgrounds. It is impossible to keep the baby because they don’t have the money.”

Per capita income in Vietnam is around $700 a year, a threefold increase from what it was 15 years ago, but still only reaching a subsistence level.

The country has one of the fastest growing economies in Asia, currently eight per cent a year. But it comes with a price.

Wealth gap

The gap between rich and poor is widening and Vietnam has one of the highest rates of abortion in the world.

Of those mothers that continue with their pregnancies, more and more are having to give up their babies after they are born.

The maternity unit at Tu Du hospital sees
almost 200 births a day

In the maternity unit of Ho Chi Minh City’s Tu Du hospital there is a daily logjam of women waiting to give birth.

With space at a premium, some women even wait two to a bed.

With almost 200 births a day – nearly 66,000 a year – the hospital’s maternity unit is one of the busiest in Asia.

And now even more couples than normal are choosing to have a baby.

According to the Chinese lunar calendar this is the year of the Golden Fire Pig, an extremely auspicious time to produce a child which happens every 600 years.

“The sheer scale of it is unbelievable,” remarked Dr Jane Hirst a visiting registrar from Australia. “But considering the scale of the birth load they are very professional.”

The hospital’s four birthing sections are in operation around the clock. For non-private patients there are no epidurals and no pain killers.

But despite this most women hardly utter a sound during childbirth.

Tough they may be, but the mothers faced with giving up their newborn child are often overcome with grief.

Of every 100 births at the hospital, an average of three are given up for adoption doctors say.

Nguyen Van Trung, director of Ho Chi Minh City’s Tam Binh orphanage says there are many factors driving mothers to take the painful decision to give up their babies.

“The reasons are economic, the consequences of the war, some children have diseases, some mothers are too poor,” he says.

Many come from the countryside and have to give the baby away because they have no means to look after it.

Lucky few

The Tam Binh orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City caters for some 500 young children.

In a country which has around half a million orphans, it’s not much, but in some ways the ones here are lucky.

Ho Chi Minh City’s Tam Binh orphanage houses
about 500 children waiting for homes

On our visit, children as young as three came out to meet us. They smiled and waved and began singing “we want a mama, we want a papa”.

All were nicely dressed, the girls in colourful dresses, their hair in pig tails, the boys in neat shorts with colourful T-shirts.

It’s a routine guaranteed to win the hearts of any respective parents.

It certainly won the hearts of Hollywood couple Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt who adopted a young boy from this orphanage last year.

Their photograph with staff is pinned to a notice board in the orphanage entrance.

Many of the children are like three-year-old Thi – incredibly cute, her mother was a drug addict and her father disappeared.

Staff at the orphanage hope that one day she may be reclaimed by her mother, but if not there will be no problem finding suitable parents. Thi is one of the lucky ones.


The next building houses the children who are not so lucky.

They are mentally and mentally and physically impaired and the visiting Hollywood couple never saw them.

“These children are our priority,” explained Nguyen.

“Some private centres only receive healthy children and they send the disabled children to our orphanage,” he says.

“Our main purpose is to find happiness for the disabled children.”

The orphanage has had some success in finding homes for these children particularly in the United States and Germany.

But in the next building are children who are devoid of luck – those who almost nobody wants.

They are HIV positive and in the world of orphans they are the ‘untouchables’.

Out of 500 orphans in the Tam Binh orphange, 100 are HIV positive. In the last five years just two have been adopted.

“In a world of sadness, they are the saddest,” says one of the nurses.

Strict protocols

Vietnam has recently tightened up its adoption procedures, introducing protocols with 13 countries which increases safeguards for the orphans but has slowed the process.

Now around 500 children are adopted each year – most of them going abroad.

HIV-positive children are the ‘untouchables’
among Vietnam’s orphans

It costs up to US$10,000 to adopt a Vietnamese child and takes between six months and a year to complete the process.

In most cases they don’t get to see the child for real until the day of collection.

On the day we visited Sandrina Ventrilla and her husband had arrived from Callabria in Italy.

As they stood in the Ministry of justice in Ho Chi Minh City the joy was obvious – in Sandrina’s arms a nine-month-old baby girl they have called Paola.

“It’s like becoming a real mother,” says Sandrina. “For us the child is born today.”

Adoptive parents have to give undertakings to keep Vietnamese authorities informed of the child’s progress, but there is nothing requesting them to retain anything of Vietnamese culture.

As they left the ministry after the 10 minute adoption ceremony, Paola was whisked away to start the kind of life many in Vietnam can only dream of.

Back at the charity home on the outskirts of the city meanwhile, the day is approaching when Que will give birth and then give her baby away.

Here the dreams are altogether of a different kind. Not of a new life, merely a life which will allow her to be the mother she dreams of being.

It’s something so many in the world take for granted.