Illegal marriage brokerage raided in Vietnam

Police in Vietnam say they have raided an illegal marriage brokerage in Ho Chi Minh City, in the latest in a series of such actions.

They say 11 South Korean men were caught selecting potential brides from among 112 young women from the Mekong delta region.

Four Vietnamese marriage brokers are said to have been taken in for questioning.

Local media reports say the women had been taught Korean and cooking before being paraded before the Korean men, who had to pay up to $US10,000 if the introductions led to marriage.

Illegal marriage brokerage raided in Vietnam

Vietnam suspects anthrax in mass food poisoning

HANOI (AFP) — Health authorities in communist Vietnam suspect the bacterial livestock disease anthrax caused an outbreak of food poisoning in the country’s far north, a health official confirmed Wednesday.

Hundreds of people fell ill, and at least one person died, after eating beef in a village in Meo Vac district in the mountainous Ha Giang province near the Chinese border late last month, local newspapers have reported.

Vietnam’s National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology was testing whether the outbreak was caused by anthrax, institute official Le Quynh Mai told AFP.

“There are 13 suspected cases of anthrax found recently in Ha Giang province, and we have received seven specimens to be tested here,” she said.

Mai confirmed that one person had died but stressed that “the result of our tests is not available yet.”

Local newspapers said large numbers of cows, pigs and goats had died in the region since late June, and that local people had complained of skin ulcers, vomiting and fever after eating meat from infected animals.

Anthrax, a bacterial spore that can lie dormant in animal feces in the soil, attacks people’s skin, lungs and digestive systems.

Humans can be infected with anthrax — which has also been used to develop biological weapons — through eating undercooked meat from infected animals or handling animal products such as wool.

In gastrointestinal anthrax, which causes nausea, bloody diarrhea, fever and severe stomach pain, between one quarter and half of infections are fatal, according to the US Centers for Disease Control website.

Say a prayer for Vietnam

WASHINGTON – Days after taking up the presidency of the United Nations Security Council in a long-sought affirmation of its international standing, the government of Vietnam issued dark warnings to Buddhist leaders not to turn the funeral of the 87-year-old patriarch of their banned church into an “anti-government rally”.

Instead of issuing threats to continue its abuse of international norms on religious freedom, the government should end its unjustified restrictions on Vietnam’s largest Buddhist organization, the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV). In assuming its prominent position at the UN this month, Vietnam should be protecting, not violating, fundamental freedoms.

The latest government threat to the UBCV follows the death of The Most Venerable Thich Huyen Quang, the supreme patriarch of the UBCV and a widely respected champion of freedom and human rights. For his peaceful advocacy, he spent half his life in detention or prison, first under the French colonial authorities, then under the South Vietnamese government, and finally under the communist government. He died on July 5 in the monastery where he had been detained since 2003.

The new presumptive leader, Thich Quang Do, and most other senior UBCV leaders, are also under a form of detention. Even their recent efforts to organize provincial-level charitable and youth organizations have met with government harassment, intimidation and detentions. Hanoi views the peaceful monks’ advocacy of freedom and human rights as a threat to government “stability”. Millions of Vietnamese, in contrast, see the UBCV as a much-needed spiritual and humanitarian organization.

The death of Thich Huyen Quang offers the Vietnamese government a rare opportunity to honor a tireless advocate for human rights by allowing the UBCV to exercise freedom of religion according to international norms to freely select its own leadership and carry out its activities without interference. Sadly, this is unlikely to happen.

The US government continues to publicly praise Vietnam for the progress made expanding protections for its diverse religious communities. During a visit to the United States last month by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, US President George W Bush extolled the Vietnamese government’s efforts to advance religious freedom.

Such a statement, however, does not reflect facts on the ground. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent federal body, travelled to Vietnam late last year and met with senior government and religious leaders, including from the UBCV, as well as with members of Vietnam’s civil society. At least 30 human-rights, democracy, religious freedom and labor advocates have been imprisoned for more than a year following their arrests in 2007, and others are under constant surveillance.

Religious adherents and communities in Vietnam also continue to experience government interference, intimidation, and heavy intrusive surveillance, particularly those who peacefully advocate for greater religious freedom or seek to organize independently of government oversight. Dozens of individuals are in prison or detention for reasons related to their religious activity or religious freedom advocacy, despite the US State Department’s insistence that there are no longer any so-called “prisoners of concern” in Vietnam.

The harassment and detention of UBCV monks and the abuses still experienced by Vietnam’s diverse religious communities directly contradict the claim that religious freedom conditions in Vietnam have improved so substantially as to warrant removing the country from the list of religious freedom violators. Buddhism is the primary religion among Vietnam’s 86 million people and the continued suppression of the UBCV remains an obvious blight on the country’s human-rights record that must not be ignored.

Between 2004 and 2006, the United States designated Vietnam as a country of particular concern (CPC) under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. This designation requires the US to take enhanced diplomatic action and includes sanctions and incentives for countries to engage the US on ways to protect this fundamental freedom.

Vietnam took several positive steps to expand religious freedom until 2006, when the CPC designation was lifted. Thereafter, religious freedom progress stalled: prisoners remained in jail, new arrests were made, and many of Vietnam’s diverse religious communities once again faced restrictions. The Commission on International Religious Freedom found that the Bush administration acted too soon and recommended that it re-designate Vietnam as a CPC.

As the US-Vietnamese relationship grows, the US should think more clearly about how to shape its policies to press the Vietnamese government to cease its severe violations of religious freedom, including the arbitrary detention of dissidents, and to expand legal protections consistent with internationally recognized human rights.

The courageous UBCV leaders and monks and their followers deserve the right to practice their religion freely, without fear of official harassment and arrest, as international statutes provide. American policies and programs should show – in word and deed – that the US stands firmly on the side of liberty, freedom, and human rights in Vietnam.

Preeta D Bansal, a partner at the international law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, and Dr Richard D Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, are members of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

(Copyright: US Commission on International Religious Freedom.)
By Preeta D Bansal and Richard D Land

80 contestants at Miss Universe pageant help put spotlight on booming Vietnam

NHA TRANG, Vietnam: Eighty of the world’s most beautiful women have converged on a stretch of the Vietnamese coast better known for war than glamour.

They were preparing for the 57th annual Miss Universe competition, which will be broadcast to millions of viewers across the globe on Monday.

Like her 84 million compatriots, Vietnam’s 20-year-old contestant is hoping the show will let the world know about the new Vietnam, where commerce and fashion are thriving and war has become a fading memory.

“I want to introduce my country and my culture and our history to everybody,” said Nguyen Thuy Lam, whose traditional costume is a Vietnamese ao dai, a colorful silk pantsuit. “I feel very confident when I wear the ao dai. I wish everyone would wear it and feel confident too.”

The contest is being held in Nha Trang, a seaside city located next to a major American air base during the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975.

Given the history of hostilities between the two nations, Miss USA Crystle Stewart has been impressed by the warmth of her Vietnamese hosts.

“The USA and Vietnam are working together, in cooperation and peace,” said Stewart, a Texan who is writing a motivational book. “Hopefully we’ll be role models for other countries.”

The show will be co-hosted by British pop singer Mel B, known as “Scary Spice” during her days with the Spice Girls. She will be joined by American television personality Jerry Springer, host of “America’s Got Talent” and a long-running tabloid talk show that often climaxes with angry guests cussing and brawling with one another.

Springer is clearly enjoying his new Miss Universe job.

“Whoa!” Springer said during an interview with The Associated Press on Saturday, as dozens of contestants strutted across the stage during a rehearsal. “This is a plum assignment.”

The 80 contestants have been in Vietnam for nearly four weeks now, receiving intense coverage from the Vietnamese media as they met with local dignitaries, frolicked in their bikinis and participated in various charity events.

They were hard at work Saturday preparing for the show.

Miss Serbia, 21-year-old Bojana Boric, is eager to compete in the swimsuit competition.

“It’s a very good feeling,” said Boric, who enjoys modeling, cooking and extreme sports. “It’s your moment. It’s the moment when everyone will see your face, and everyone will remember.”

Beauty pageants have been derided by many as exploitative of women, celebrating superficiality over substance. Sweden’s 2007 contestant dropped out after coming under pressure from pageant critics in her homeland, and the country is not sending a delegate this year.

But beauty contests are extremely popular in Vietnam, which is also hoping to host the 2010 Miss World competition.

After years of war and poverty, the country has been booming economically, and high-end cosmetics and fashion stores have sprouted up in Hanoi, the capital, and in Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s southern business hub.

“It’s great to have the Miss Universe competition here in Vietnam,” said 18-year-old high school student Nguyen Thi Kieu My. “It will help to promote Vietnam’s image in the world and bring in more tourists.”

Thousands mourn Vietnam’s top dissident Buddhist monk

HANOI (AFP) — Thousands of followers on Friday mourned the death of Vietnam’s top dissident Buddhist monk Thich Huyen Quang at a funeral at his pagoda in central Vietnam, supporters, a witness and an official said.

Quang, who died last Saturday aged 87 after decades of internal exile, led the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), which has refused to come under state control and was effectively outlawed in the early 1980s.

“Thousands of people and followers were at the funeral, many of them Buddhist monks wearing their robes,” said the Vietnamese eye-witness, who asked not to be identified. “The funeral was organised by his followers.”

A provincial official, speaking to AFP on condition he not be named, said: “No representative from the Vietnamese government attended the funeral.”

A Paris-based UBCV spokesman said that 6,000 monks, nuns and lay followers of the banned church defied police warnings and controls to attend the funeral at the Nguyen Thieu monastery in Binh Dinh province.

Around 200 wreaths and plaques honouring Quang under his title of UBCV Supreme Patriarch were placed around the coffin, he said.

“The fact that Vietnam did not interfere in the funeral is a victory for the international human rights community, and the result of concerted pressure from diplomats, legislators and civil society movements worldwide,” said UBCV spokesman Vo Van Ai.

“UBCV followers were able to pay their last respects to Thich Huyen Quang in dignity and calm, and he was laid to rest by those who loved and supported him throughout his peaceful combat for religious freedom and human rights.”

State-controlled media had earlier in the week announced the ceremony would be conducted by the state-sponsored Buddhist church and labelled UBCV followers “extremist elements disguised as Buddhist monks.”

The media attacks, and reports that large numbers of plain-clothes police were at the pagoda, sparked protests this week from international human rights groups and raised fears of disturbances at the funeral.

Amnesty International — which first named Quang a prisoner of conscience in the 1990s — urged Vietnam to allow his funeral to take place “without hindrance and harassment of UBCV members by agents of the state.”

The UBCV’s deputy Thich Quang Do — who had been attacked in the state press for his “evil plot” to hijack the funeral — led the ceremony.

Do, who has also spent decades under “pagoda arrest,” is expected to become the new supreme patriarch of the UBCV after an interval of several weeks, in line with Buddhist beliefs.

According to the Paris UBCV office, he said, standing before the coffin:

“Over the past 30 years, from 1975 until today, whereas religious and political repression raged in Vietnam, you were like a great tree that brought us shade and shelter.

“You were the helmsman whose firm hand safely guided the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam through persecution and oppression.”

On Thursday Vietnamese foreign ministry spokesman Le Dung said that “there is no organisation called UBCV.”

But Do, according to his supporters, said to his late friend Quang: “You have left us for ever, but the struggle for UBCV legality goes on. We pledge to continue your peaceful combat, to follow the path you traced.

“We know that countless obstacles lie ahead, and we are ready to confront them. We will not cease until we have fulfilled your dream to see the UBCV regain its legal status and win back the freedom of religious activities stolen from us by the communist regime in 1975.”

5 killed by explosives left over from the Vietnam War

HANOI, Vietnam: Five people, including three children, died in central Vietnam when 30-year-old unexploded ordnance left behind from the Vietnam War exploded, police and state media reported Friday.

Three boys, aged 12 to 14, were killed in an explosion Thursday in the Hai Lang district of Quang Tri province, said a district police officer who identified himself only as Binh.

The boys discovered four unexploded bombs in bushes while looking after water buffaloes and the explosives went off when they examined them, he said.

Authorities suspect that farmers may have found the bombs while plowing their rice fields and put them in the bushes.

The area was a communist stronghold during the war and was heavily bombarded.

On Tuesday, two men aged 19 and 31 were killed in the central highlands province of Kon Tum when an artillery shell they were cutting up for scrap metal exploded, Friday’s Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reported.

The explosion also left the wife of the 19-year-old man seriously injured, the report said.

About 38,000 people have been killed by unexploded ordnance since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, according to government figures.

Vietnam denies existence of outlawed Buddhist group

The communist government in Vietnam has denied the existence of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.

The statement came as crowds gathered outside a monastery for the funeral of the country’s leading dissident Buddhist, Thich Huyen Quang.

He was the patriarch of the group which has refused to come under state control and was outlawed in the early 1980s.

He died last Saturday, aged 87.

Foreign ministry spokesman, Le Dung, in reply to a question at a regular media briefing, said there is no organisation called UBCV.

He says the founders of the Nguyen Thieu monastery, his followers and his family are organised the funeral.