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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.

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Vietnam Jails Dissidents While Presiding Over UN Security Council

By Patrick Goodenough, International Editor

(CNSNews.com) – 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)
Deterioration

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.

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In Vietnam, Symbols of Capitalism Falter

By SETH MYDANS
THUONG TIN, VIETNAM — Looking out across his green rice fields, Nguyen Van Truong can take pride in hedging his bets when he joined the global marketplace more than a decade ago and began to make money.

When Vietnam began a tentative engagement with the world economy in the mid-1990s, Mr. Truong was one of the first people to see profit in his local craft, embroidery, and he joined with other villagers in marketing it for export and domestic sales.

As hundreds, and then thousands, of farming villages began organizing themselves to sell their traditional crafts — like lacquerware, textiles, straw mats, noodles, fans and incense — they came to symbolize Vietnam’s eager embrace of capitalism after a ruinous postwar period of Communist restrictions on free enterprise.

Some villages, like Thuong Tin, on the rural outskirts of Hanoi, now resemble tiny cities in the midst of the rice fields with three- and sometimes four-story houses clustered along small concrete roadways.

Exports of handicrafts, many of them from village enterprises, earned $1 billion last year, according to official figures.

Now things have changed, both on Wall Street and in the little village of Thuong Tin.

As the world economy contracts and markets disappear, crafts villages like this have become an object lesson in the difficulties and the risks of joining the global marketplace.

Most of the 3,000 crafts villages scattered around the country are in trouble, said Luu Duy Dan, vice chairman of the Vietnam Association of Crafts Villages. Only 30 percent of them are operating normally, he said, and, if nothing changes by the end of the year, half of them will have collapsed entirely, with a loss of some five million jobs.

“Since late 2008, crafts villages have faced so many difficulties caused by impacts of the global economic decline, such as a lack of capital and production materials and a shrinking consumer market,” Mr. Dan said.

“It’s not so simple to join the world economy. It’s complicated. It’s not easy. We should have more coordination and better standards.”

Many villages are already bankrupt, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, including villages that made pottery, ceramics, shoes and high-quality paper.

Unlike Mr. Truong, 76, many of these new capitalists abandoned their farms and now find themselves without an economic safety net. In many cases, they had no choice, squeezed off their land like many rural people by a widespread conversion of farmland for industrial enterprises.

Here in Thuong Tin, the embroiderers sell their work to Do Thanh Huong, whose family comes from the village and who organized their work in a collection of cooperatives.

Ms. Huong, who runs the Tan My fabric shop and Tan My Design clothing boutique in Hanoi as well as an export business, says she is continuing to place orders here to help the embroiderers bridge the downturn.

But she said her exports to Europe were down 60 percent and her wholesale customers in the United States had stopped buying altogether. Mr. Truong’s back rooms are stuffed with unsold tablecloths, napkins and pillow covers.

“When people don’t buy in New York, we feel the effects in the village here,” Ms. Huong said.

Even the biggest and most successful of the crafts villages are suffering, like Bat Trang, which has become famous for its pottery, Mr. Dan said. That village, near Hanoi, which once employed 8,200 workers in 800 small enterprises, has lost thousands of jobs, he said.

Many others are faltering because of a lack of experience in manufacturing or marketing, a shortage of capital and technology and the different import requirements of customer nations, Mr. Dan said.

Lien Minh, a senior official at the Ministry of Agriculture, told reporters in June that because of unplanned and haphazard development, 80 percent of crafts villages lacked the money to buy the equipment they needed.

In some ways, these difficulties reflect the broader challenges Vietnam faces as it adapts to the international marketplace. Its economic growth rate, which had been averaging about 8 percent a year, fell this year to a projected 4.5 percent by some estimates, the lowest in nearly two decades.

Vietnam suffered far less during the Asian economic crisis of 1997, when it was still largely isolated from the world economy.

After years of internal debate, Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization in January 2007, a step that required revisions of its legal infrastructure, banking system and regulations that are still causing pain as they are put into place.

Vietnam is still formulating its postwar identity, and there is a continuing tug between its cultural roots and the excitement of a modern future.

On a visit to Thuong Tin 13 years ago, when capitalism was still young in Vietnam, Ms. Huong had said: “I explain to them and explain to them, leave the fields and work only embroidery. That is how you get rich. But they say, ‘We are farmers. The field comes first.”’

So even during the boom years, ignoring her advice, most farmers here continued to work their fields, and the pace of needlework sometimes gave way to the seasonal demands of planting and reaping.

“Farming is what I live on; it’s how I feed my family,” Mr. Truong said. “If you farm, you have just enough food to eat.”

Embroidery has brought him the upward mobility that parallels his country’s emergence from the poverty of the war and postwar years.

When he stands on the roof patio of his new four-story home, he looks out over a miniature urban jungle that includes three large homes built by his sons, who are also embroiderers.

Just beyond them, the rice fields stretch into the distance, lush and still as their crop matures. Soon it will be ripe, and the people of Thuong Tin will head into the fields for the harvest.

Five die in Vietnam railway station fire: official

May 6, 2009

HANOI (AFP) — A fire at a cargo railway station in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi killed five workers and injured five others, an official said Thursday.

The Wednesday fire in the Giap Bat area of southern Hanoi destroyed a lot of goods in a station warehouse, said Nguyen Xuan Thuc, an official at the Vietnam Railway Cargo Transport Company.

A train car loaded with pharmaceuticals also caught fire, he added.

Police were investigating the cause of the blaze, believed to have started accidentally.

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VIETNAM: Second case of human avian influenza as bird infections spread


Photo: Tung X. Ngo
Two cases of human avian influenza cases have been confirmed in Vietnam in 2009 and avian influenza is now spreading to poultry in seven central and southern provinces

HANOI, 11 February 2009 (IRIN) – Vietnam’s second human avian influenza case this year has been confirmed by health authorities, who are scrambling to contain the disease that has now spread to poultry in seven central and southern provinces.

Ly Tai Mui, from northern Quang Ninh Province, is seriously ill with pneumonia, having tested positive for human avian flu. The 23-year-old was hospitalised with fever and breathing difficulties in January after eating a sick chicken.

Nguyen Huy Nga, head of the Preventative Health and Environment Agency, told IRIN the woman had shown “no improvement despite continuous positive treatment”.

Nga said no other family members had shown signs of the virus even though they had also eaten infected poultry.

Vaccination efforts have become lax because Vietnam had, until recently, considered itself bird flu-free. Farmers have also delayed reporting outbreaks. In one case a crowd tried to prevent authorities from culling birds that were being transported to the capital and lacked proper health certificates.

“Hundreds of people were trying to grab the chickens,” said Nguyen Huy Dang, a senior official with Hanoi’s Animal Health Department. “They jumped into the pit where we were burning the [live] birds, even after we told them they had been sprayed with chemicals.”

Animal health officials and market workers were unable to stop the crowds, which eventually made off with nearly all 1,500 birds. Police arrested nine people for trying to stop the cull.

“We never expected anything like that to happen,” said Dang. “It’s never happened before so we didn’t have the personnel to prevent it.”

''Hundreds of people were trying to grab the chickens. They jumped into the pit where we were burning the [live] birds, even after we told them they had been sprayed with chemicals.''

Complacency

Vietnam has made impressive gains against avian influenza since the virus first appeared in the county in December 2003.

After several dozen people died, the government decided in 2005 to vaccinate all 220 million domestic fowl, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization.

Today, however, vaccination efforts are not as rigorous as when the programme was first introduced. Compliance was initially very high as farmers were terrified their flocks would become sick and be culled. But the success of the programme has also bred complacency.

Tran Cong Xuan, head of the Vietnam Poultry Association, said vaccination programmes this year had been patchy. “In some areas officials have not carried out vaccinations properly, and some localities report fake vaccination results as they want to report achievements.”

Animal health officials in the southern province of Hau Giang said the recent outbreak of bird flu there was due to several farmers failing to register their ducks so the birds were never vaccinated.

“When we learned there were ducks dying, we came, but there were only 212 ducks left [out of about 400],” said Nguyen Hien Trung, head of the provincial animal health department. The rest of the ducks had died, said Trung. “The owners of the farm said they just threw the dead ducks into the river.”

The first human case of bird flu in Vietnam in 2009 was of an eight-year-old girl in northern Thanh Hoa province. She eventually recovered but her older sister, who showed symptoms of the virus, died on 2 January. The girl was never tested for H5N1.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the avian influenza virus is transmitted to humans by eating uncooked meat or coming into contact with the faeces of an infected bird. Cases of human-to-human transmission are very rare but health authorities fear the virus could mutate into a form that could spread easily between people, developing into a pandemic strain that could move between countries.

mao/bj/mw

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Coal mine blast kills 7 in Vietnam

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — A blast Monday at a coal mine in northern Vietnam killed at least seven workers and injured 15, a company executive said.

Rescue workers pulled their bodies from a 750-foot-deep (230-meter-deep) tunnel in Quang Ninh province and were still searching for another victim following the methane explosion early Monday morning, said Nguyen Van Thuan of the Khe Cham Coal company.

Fifteen miners were being treated for burns, while 103 others escaped unhurt, he said.

Authorities believe the miners died from severe burns. Investigators were trying to determine what started the blast, Thuan said.

Quang Ninh, about 120 miles (190 kilometers) east of capital Hanoi, is Vietnam’s main coal mining region.

Vietnam’s worst mining accident occurred in 1999, killing 19 workers.

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