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.

Vietnam Jails Dissidents While Presiding Over UN Security Council

By Patrick Goodenough, International Editor

( – 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)

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.

FACTBOX-Five political risks to watch in Vietnam

SINGAPORE, Oct 8 (Reuters) – Vietnam has weathered the global economic crisis relatively well, but the country is still seen as a risky and relatively opaque investment destination.

Following is a summary of key Vietnam risks to watch:


Corruption is endemic in Vietnam at all levels of government, and acts as a major barrier to foreign investment. The authorities had announced aggressive plans to fight corruption, and encouraged the media to act as a watchdog, but these efforts lost steam after several journalists were detained for reporting on major corruption scandals. Progress on corruption will remain a key determinant of investment attractiveness.

Key issues to watch:

— Vietnam’s rank in corruption perceptions rankings. A strong improvement or decline would influence investors.


Corruption, lack of accountability and transparency, and burdensome bureaucracy all impact the effectiveness of the government in formulating and implementing policy. Economic reform and the restructuring of inefficient state enterprises are vulnerable to being undermined by entrenched interests and conservative elements in the government more focused on security.

Key issues to watch:

— While the government stimulus package has boosted the economy, there are questions over how the budget deficit can be financed, how inflationary pressure can be contained, and how the crowding out of private investment can be avoided. Hanoi has embarked on a plan to trim bureaucratic procedures in government, and how that scheme plays out will be something to watch.

— Investors frequently list poor infrastructure as one of the biggest barriers in Vietnam, and the government’s ability to coordinate swift, efficient development in this area is being keenly observed.


Vietnam’s fixed exchange rate policy frequently causes economic pressures to build. The authorities are widely expected to widen the dong’s trading band or devalue it again gradually in coming months, and this has prompted hoarding of dollars. For now, the risk of a sudden big devaluation is considered small.

Key issues to watch:

— Markets are closely watching for any clues to the likelihood and timing of changes to the exchange rate.


Vietnam has seen a rising number of strikes, protests and land disputes, often affecting foreign businesses. Disturbances have erupted in rural areas due to state expropriations of land and the corruption of local officials. But there remains no evidence for now that wider unrest is likely, or that there is any imminent risk of the regime being challenged from below.

Key issues to watch:

— Any sign that a broader national protest movement is emerging out of local disputes. So far, this seems unlikely.

— The role of the Catholic church. Catholics have been engaging in periodic protests over church land taken over by the government after 1954. The Catholic Church, while officially shunning involvement in politics, has 6-7 million followers in Vietnam and is quite well organised.

— Territorial disputes in the South China Sea. This issue is highly charged in Vietnam, where suspicion of China runs high. Any move by China to assert sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea, or perceived weakness by Vietnam on this issue, could galvanise broad based support for demonstrations.


Vietnam has great potential as a source of tradeable carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol, but issues of expertise, transparency and financing have hindered progress. Environmental issues may also become a growing source of popular unrest, as in China. With its huge coastline, Vietnam is recognised as one of the countries that will be hardest hit by rising sea levels, particularly in the rice-growing Mekong Delta.

Key issues to watch:

— The extent to which the government manages to limit the environmental damage from Vietnam’s economic growth.

— Any evidence that extreme weather events affecting Vietnam are becoming more frequent as a result of climate change.

(Compiled by Andrew Marshall and John Ruwitch; Editing by Bill Tarrant)