Vietnamese police detain Viet Tan members for visiting imprisoned colleagues

Security police in Vietnam detained three members of Viet Tan as they went to visit colleagues who have been held for over four months at a Ministry of Public Security detention center in Saigon.

The three recently detained Viet Tan members are:

  • Ms. Nguyen Thi Xuan Trang, 35-year-old medical doctor and Swiss citizen. Dr. Nguyen is also a member of the Comité Suisse Vietnam (COSUNAM).
  • Mr. Mai Huu Bao, 38-year-old electrical engineer and American citizen. Mr. Mai is a past Executive Board Member of the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations of Southern California and past President of the Phan Boi Chau Youth for Democracy.
  • Mr. Nguyen Tan Anh, 28-year-old manager of a health-care non-profit and Australian citizen. Mr. Nguyen is a past president of the Vietnamese Students Association of New South Wales.

The three traveled to Saigon at the end of March with the goal of visiting Dr. Nguyen Quoc Quan, Mr. Somsak Khunmi, Mr. Nguyen The Vu, and Mr. Nguyen Viet Trung — held since November 17, 2007 at the Ministry of Public Security detention center located at 237 Nguyen Van Cu street, district 1, Saigon — and later with other democracy activists.

On the morning of April 3, Mai Huu Bao, Nguyen Tan Anh and Nguyen Thi Xuan Trang brought medicine and food to the detention center. After entering the facility at 10:00 a.m., they have not had any further communication and have gone missing. It has been over 24 hours since anyone has heard from them.

Vietnam rejects US rights report

HANOI (AFP) — Vietnamese authorities rejected a US State Department report criticising the communist country for curbing human rights, saying no one had been arrested for their political or religious views.

In a statement released late Thursday, foreign ministry spokesman Le Dung said the annual State Department report was not objective and based on “false and prejudiced information.”

“During the past years, Vietnam has made great achievements in ensuring and developing its citizens’ freedom in all fields, including freedom of speech, freedom of press and freedom of information, which can be clearly seen through the strong development of means of communication, especially the Internet,” he said.

“Nobody in Vietnam has been arrested for reasons relating to political views or religion, and only those who violate laws are handled in accordance with law.”

The report said last year’s parliamentary elections were neither free nor fair, and that the government was continuing to crack down on dissent, arresting political activists and forcing several dissidents to flee the country.

It also said authorities tightened their grip over the press and Internet and limited people’s rights to privacy and basic freedoms of speech, movement and assembly.

Le Dung said the report “still does not give objective observations on the real situation in Vietnam and is based on false and prejudiced information.”

Christopher Hill, US assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, Wednesday credited Vietnam during a Senate committee hearing with making great strides in economic and social reforms.

But he cautioned there were “serious deficiencies” in political and civil freedoms, citing a crackdown late last year that netted prominent Vietnamese dissidents.

Democratic pebble in Vietnam’s shoe

KUALA LUMPUR – Before an audience of enrapt young ethnic-Vietnamese pro-democracy advocates, the political dissident spelled out his movement’s non-violent strategy for undermining Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party’s pillars of political power.

Behind the speaker hung conspicuously the red-and-gold striped flag of the former South Vietnam, a still potent symbol for the country’s post-1975 diaspora. So potent, in fact, Vietnamese diplomats requested on January 5 that Malaysian officials remove the flag from the civil society-promoting conference, which assembled 200 ethnic-Vietnamese youth from around the world, including from Vietnam.

The Vietnamese officials also claimed that some of the conference’s speakers promoted terrorism inside Vietnam during their presentations and told their Malaysian counterparts that if the dissident flag was allowed to fly, it could complicate bilateral ties only days before an official Vietnamese delegation was due to arrive in Malaysia. The flag, nonetheless, remained aloft throughout the event.

The symbolic skirmish marked the latest confrontation on an international stage between Vietnam’s Communist Party and the exile-run, pro-democracy Viet Tan. On November 17, Vietnamese authorities arrested and jailed a group of Viet Tan members, including US, French, Thai and Vietnamese citizens, who distributed fliers calling for non-violent democratic change. Four of the six foreign nationals have since been released, with one American and one Thai citizen still in detention.

Vietnam’s state-controlled media have since taken to accusing Viet Tan of terrorism – charges the US ambassador to Vietnam has publicly contested. The Communist Party’s strong response, after years of publicly ignoring the underground movement and its frequent calls from overseas for democracy, points to an official squeamishness about Viet Tan’s rising profile and increasingly daring in-country civil disobedience campaign.

Last year the Vietnamese government cracked down hard on pro-democracy activists, including against the loosely organized protest group Bloc 8406. For its part, Viet Tan claims to be Vietnam’s second-largest political organization, trailing only the Communist Party, which since seizing power and reunifying the country in 1975 has maintained a monolithic hold on power.

Viet Tan declines to reveal its membership figures, saying its ultimate strength lies in the power of its ideas, not its numbers, but also that its growing network includes both exile-based and in-country members. After operating underground for nearly 25 years, Viet Tan members say they are now in the process of bringing the party above ground, with plans to implement its 10-program action plan, including grassroots activities to improve social welfare, restore civil rights and promote pluralism openly inside Vietnam.

Burying the past
Viet Tan’s origins somewhat controversially stem from the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam (NUFLV), a group established by exiled Vietnamese in 1980 which aimed to topple the Communist Party-led government through a popular uprising, which to date has notably failed to materialize. Two years later, Viet Tan grew out of this movement along the Thai, Cambodian and Lao borders, advocating peaceful political change through underground activities.

The Vietnamese government has frequently accused the NUFLV of funneling arms and fomenting armed struggle inside Vietnam – charges one current Viet Tan member characterizes as a “misunderstanding” and “misperception”. In 2004, Viet Tan surfaced for the first time as a public organization in Berlin, Germany, symbolically where Soviet-led communism fell, and formally announced the dissolution of the NUFLV.

Those familiar with Viet Tan’s history say that the 2004 announcement and the party’s recommitment to non-violent struggle was at least partially influenced by the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the US and Washington’s subsequent recategorization of several armed resistance groups as terrorist organizations.

A competing interpretation points to the generational change inside the party, where the first generation of political refugees who initiated Viet Tan are slowly being replaced by a new generation of Western-educated professionals who are more willing to seek a political accommodation with the Communist Party with the implementation of democratic reforms.
To be sure, that’s still a political long shot, particularly in light of the government’s recent counter-propaganda campaign against the party. Consider, for instance, Duy Hoang, 37, the second-youngest member on Viet Tan’s executive committee, as a gauge of the Vietnamese government’s antagonism towards the party. Hoang fled Vietnam when he was three years old and was raised and educated in California, where he received degrees in economics and political science.

For nearly a decade he served as an investment banker at the World Bank-affiliated International Finance Corporation (IFC). However his appointment last year to head Deutsche Bank’s investment banking activities in Vietnam was shot down by government authorities, apparently over a critical op-ed he penned in an international newspaper in 2005, coinciding with the 30-year anniversary of the Vietnam War’s end, according to Hoang. The authorities may have also been unnerved by Hoang’s in-country family connections, which includes a high-ranking cadre in the Communist Party’s central committee

Hoang recently quit his job at the IFC and now works full-time calculating Viet Tan’s next moves. He believes the Communist Party, in light of last year’s accession to the World Trade Organization and this year’s assumption of a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council, is more sensitive than ever to outside pressure and garnering international support for Viet Tan’s democratic cause is a key party strategy.

What a communist fears
Hoang also contends that the Communist Party fears in particular outside-inside linkages between pro-democracy groups, which he hopes may one day be unified in popular front demanding political change, akin to the so-called “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. He points to the recent student-led nationalistic demonstrations in Hanoi against China’s maneuvers in the contested Spratly Islands and farmer-led protests in Ho Chi Minh City against alleged state-backed land grabs as evidence of a growing civil society movement that is increasingly willing to confront the authorities with their complaints and grievances.

Indeed, one of the Viet Tan presentations at the recent youth conference featured a video demonstrating how political dissidents in Serbia had organized to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic’s abusive regime in 2000. That particular movement was controversially known to receive financial support from the US Congress-funded International Republican Institute; according to party members, Viet Tan does not receive any US or other Western government funding but rather raises funds through business investments, share holdings and, to a lesser degree, donations.

At the same time, Viet Tan has developed strong connections on Capitol Hill. US officials have in recent years dangled economic carrots to persuade Vietnam’s Communist Party government to undertake democratic reforms, including allowing for greater religious freedoms. Last May, Viet Tan chairman Do Hoang Diem was called on by the US National Security Council to a meeting in the Oval Office with President George W Bush to discuss Vietnam’s rights situation.

Bush later publicly criticized the country’s rights record when Vietnam’s President Nguyen Minh Triet visited Washington. Despite such moral support, Viet Tan is clearly fighting an uphill battle, complicated by the fact the movement is managed mainly from overseas by people the Vietnamese authorities consider foreign nationals.

Despite its authoritarian and repressive ways, the Communist Party’s self-appointed mandate will nonetheless remain strong as long as the economy continues its breakneck expansion, including last year’s 8.5% GDP growth rate. In many rural areas, particularly in northern Vietnam, the Communist Party is still popular, particularly among the older generation who lived through the war and still views the three million strong political party as a national liberator.

Moreover, the government continues to implement World Bank and United Nations Development Program advised economic reforms and recently took onboard a certain civil society call for more participation in government planning approvals. Compared to Cambodia and China, where corrupt government officials have with impunity seized lands occupied by poor peasants, Vietnamese authorities have shown more sensitivity towards its aggrieved farmers, addressing land-grabbing complaints on a case-by-case basis. That would seem to indicate that certain upward pressures are impacting on the Communist Party’s decision-making, a realization Viet Tan has made and is now trying to capitalize on through calls for more clean governance, social justice and political freedoms. Barring any sudden collapse in economic growth, political change in Vietnam is still most likely to emerge from Communist Party cadres themselves, including the younger generation who favor political reforms that move the party away from its traditional faceless functionary approach.

In recent years, the party has allowed certain candidates to the National Assembly to run under an independent rather than Communist Party banner – though only one such candidate was selected last year, down from a previous three representatives. That’s clearly not the big bang sort of democratic reform Viet Tan envisages, and as the party ramps up its campaign of civil disobedience and the government retorts with accusations of terrorism, expect more crackdowns, confrontations and international outcry in the months ahead.

Shawn W Crispin

Youth delegates grill government on key issues

Vietnamese youth need to develop a long-term vision and self-motivation and master information and technology if they want to be a part of globalization and the knowledge economy, a deputy prime minister said Thursday.

In the first-ever direct dialogue between the government and members of the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union, held on the sidelines of the union’s 9th National Congress, Nguyen Thien Nhan, who is also the Minister of Education and Training, called on more young people to venture into business.

But for that, the deeply-etched belief that “entering university is the only way to career success” needed to go, he pointed out.

The government was working on a project to help those not choosing to pursue a university degree start up or develop their own business, he told them.

Members of the youth union challenged the deputy PM and other senior officials on a wide range of topics including the sluggishness in administrative reform, the role of the youth union in the Government’s policy in dealing with road safety, and employment for young people who complete their army service.

Replying to the question on administrative reform, Nhan admitted that the work to eliminate red tape was still far from satisfactory for the public, saying any ideas put for-ward by the union to accelerate the process were welcome.

He acknowledged that performance-based salaries and good allowances were vital to ensure highly-qualified young people in Government offices remained dedicated.

Some of the youth delegates called for more contribution from youths for soldiers deployed in the Paracels-Spartly Archipelago.

The appeal found almost unanimous support from the others.

There was also a suggestion that the youth union should organize more exchanges with the soldiers in the archipelago to educate all students about the situation there.

Reported by Dang Long

High Political Oppression

Speaking under house arrest, Mr. Thich Quand Do reveals the political oppression he is facing along with other dissidents of the Vietnam’s government.

Below is an article published by Al Jazeera:

At 80 years old, Buddhist Monk Thich Quang Do is still one of Vietnam’s most prominent dissidents.

He is deputy leader of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and has spent more than 25 years in detention for advocating greater religious freedoms and rights.

In video tapes smuggled out of the country and obtained by Al Jazeera, Thich Quang Do reveals a life of political repression and misery not found in the glossy tourist brochures luring vistors to Vietnam.

In Vietnam today we are not free. We are prisoners in our own country … Prisoners of a regime which decides who has the right to speak, and who must keep silent.

As I speak to you today, I am under house arrest at the Thanh Minh Zen monastery in Saigon. Secret police keep watch on me day and night, and I am forbidden to go out.

I have been continuously repressed right from 1975 by the communist regime. For me, I’m not afraid of anything, of anything, because I am struggling for the right cause. For the truth.

Today we have no opposition parties, no free press, no free trade unions, no civil society. All independent religions are banned.

All citizens who call for political reform, democracy or human rights risk immediate arrest. Only economically speaking [are things] any better. But politically speaking, nothing changes.

If you go to the country from here 20km from Saigon, you will see. People more or less as peasants [are] very, very miserable.

We must have pluralism, the right to hold free elections, and to choose our own political system.

To enjoy democratic freedoms. In brief, the right to shape our own future, to shape the destiny of our nation. For the last 32 years we always speak out to the outside world. And we hope like you … that you foreigners listen to our cry.

Chinese local official denies plan to designate islands as city – HK paper

(BBC Monitoring Asia Pacific) Text of report by Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post website on 19 December

[Report by Kristine Kwok: “Plan To Designate Islands a City Denied”]

The diplomatic row with Vietnam over the designation of disputed islands at China’s southern tip as a city took another turn yesterday when a Hainan official denied such a plan was on the agenda.

A Wenchang government representative said there was no plan to set up Sansha, a 2.6 million sq km county-level city to govern China’s claims in the Spratly and Paracel islands, a source of territorial disputes between China and its Southeast Asian neighbours.

It had been reported that Wenchang would administer Sansha, an abbreviation for Xisha, Nansha and Zhongsha, the terms Beijing uses to refer to territory it claims in the two island groups.

“There is no such thing. In Hainan, we only have Sanya, but not Sansha,” the official said.

Another official from the Hainan provincial government said the authorities had not received any documentation from the central government on redesignating the area as a city.

News that Beijing ratified a plan last month to create Sansha was first reported by Vietnamese media and followed up overseas. In sharp contrast to the attention outside China, no mainstream mainland media have covered the issue, which would otherwise be a source of pride.

But the reports have been discussed in many internet chat rooms and widely circulated through personal blogs. In one of the few available reports by mainland media, , a website affiliated with the official Hunan Daily , said the new city would administer a quarter of China’s total area.

It also said the Wenchang government had pledged in a Communist Party Committee meeting it would promote the State Council’s plan to change the status of the islands.

But the Foreign Ministry gave a rather vague response yesterday when asked to confirm such a plan, with spokesman Qin Gang saying it was normal for China to conduct activities in its own territory.

Mr Qin said Beijing was concerned by anti-China protests in Vietnam over the past two weekends in response to the alleged Sansha plans.

“We require the Vietnamese government to take practical and effective measures to prevent the situation from getting worse,” he said.

Rallies in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City on Sunday attracted several hundred demonstrators and followed similar protests in the cities a week earlier. Analysts said the protests were the most damaging in the relationship between China and Vietnam, where demonstrations are a rarity.

A territorial dispute between the neighbours in 1979 sparked a brief border war.

Zhang Xizhen, of Peking University’s School of International Relations, said the border war remained a scar between the two countries despite warming trade and political ties.

But Anthony Wong Dong, chairman of the International Military Association in Macau , said a more pressing issue than the scars of history was the right to explore energy in the disputed areas. The Spratlys and Paracels are claimed, in part or in full, by the mainland, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia, and are believed to have oil and gas reserves.

China, Vietnam clash over lonely islands

Vietnam and China have plunged into a new war of words over Asia’s most hotly contested pieces of real estate, the Spratly Islands.

For the second week in a row, hundreds of Vietnamese nationalists have been holding rare public demonstrations outside the Chinese embassy in Hanoi and the Chinese consulate in Ho Chi Minh City.

Shouting anti-Chinese slogans and singing patriotic songs, they accuse China of staging a creeping invasion of the Spratlys, which have become one of Asia’s major potential flashpoints.

Most of the islands are low-lying coral reefs and rocky outcrops in the middle of the South China Sea, home to little more than a few dozen seabirds. Some of them are so small they are covered at high tide.

Yet the island chain is strategically located in the centre of one of Asia’s largest potential reservoirs for oil and natural gas, and surrounded by rich fishing grounds.

Six nations, including China, have staked overlapping claims to the 200 islands, rocks and reefs that make up the chain.

Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei have claims to some of the islands, while China claims sovereignty over them all. Taiwan’s claim is similar to China’s.

There have been numerous military skirmishes in the past 30 years to reinforce the conflicting claims, the most serious in 1976, when China invaded and captured a nearby island chain, the Paracel Islands, from Vietnam.

Twelve years later, the two countries clashed again as their navies waged a brief battle off Johnson Reef in the Spratlys. Several Vietnamese boats were sunk and more than 70 sailors died.

Since then, Beijing and Hanoi have tried to ease tensions by promising to seek a diplomatic solution.

But China has continued to build military installations on some of the islands and reefs, insisting they are only shelters for Chinese fishermen.

More recently, the legislature in Beijing ratified a plan to manage the Paracels and Spratlys as a new administrative district of Hainan province, turning the islands into a new “county-level city” called Sansha.

That has infuriated Vietnam, which tried last spring to let drilling and pipeline rights for a US$2-billion gas field to energy giant BP in an area of the Spratlys off its southern coast.

When Beijing accused Hanoi of infringing Chinese territory, the company decided to halt exploration work.

Still, Vietnam insists many of the Spratly Islands lie within the bounds of its sovereignty and it resents China’s claims, which are backed by an assertive new nationalism and one of its biggest military spending sprees ever.

Regional rivalries take on an added geopolitical importance because the islands straddle Asia’s most vital seal lanes.

About 25% of world shipping passes through the region, carrying Middle East oil to Japan and the western United States.

Washington’s alliances and defence agreements with countries in the region could drag the United States into a confrontation with China if the conflict over the Spratlys turns violent.

That concerns Washington, because in 1995 the U.S. Naval War College ran a series of computer war games simulating a conflict with China over the South China Sea, and in each case China won.

Since then, Beijing has spent billions modernizing and expanding its navy with an eye to a possible confrontation in the Spratlys.

China has filled a virtual power vacuum in the South China Sea after the end of the Cold War and the withdrawal of the former Soviet Union’s navy from Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay and the U.S. withdrawal from Subic Bay in the Philippines.

As if to assert that fact, China infuriated Vietnam by staging a naval exercise in the South China Sea in November near the Paracels.

Now, Beijing is accusing Vietnam of threatening relations between the two countries by permitting street demonstrations in front of the Chinese embassy for two weekends in a row.

The Vietnamese Foreign Ministry insists the protests were spontaneous and quickly ended by police.

But a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said, “We are highly concerned over the matter. We hope the Vietnamese government will take a responsible attitude and effective measures to stop this and prevent bilateral ties from being hurt.”