The recent announcement by the Vietnamese government that they will release "some" dissidents in a general amnesty reminds me of a conversation I had with a former U.S. State Department official about his dealings with the Soviets during the Cold War. "Throw them a dissident" was what he said and he described how the Soviets would play the stalling game by keeping Western diplomatic pressure at bay for a time. Every now and then the Soviets would just release a dissident from the gulags. The pressure would ease off for a while until it built up again and they would release another poor dissident. On and on it went, and of course, the Soviet Union never eased up on human rights violations or permitted multi-party elections. No, the old communists clung to power until they had it wrenched from their iron grip.
With Vietnam, it's the same old story. On the eve of getting into the World Trade Organization, we see Hanoi up to its old tricks, releasing a dissident or two. While some thousands of prisoners are due to be released, how many of them are political prisoners? How many are indigenous Montagnards (who have been electric shock tortured)? According to Vo Van Ai of the Buddhist Information service in Paris, there are only four prisoners of conscience out of 5,313 and he describes this "piecemeal amnesty" as a "propaganda exercise." Kok Ksor of the Montagnard Foundation states "he has serious doubts the Vietnamese would release the 350 Montagnards currently held in prison." Mr. Ksor should know, as he has a brother currently serving a seven-year jail sentence for merely trying to flee the country as a refugee. His 80-year-old mother too had her ribs broken by police during an interrogation.
As to the fate of Mr. Ksor's people, the Montagnards, the indigenous peoples of Vietnam's central highlands, these people were America's loyal ally during the Vietnam War. At any one time some 40,000 Montagnards served with the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. How many people know that after 1975, the vengeful communists commenced a decades long policy of land exploitation, Christian religious repression, torture, killings and imprisonment of the Montagnards? Today the U.S. State Department continues to maintain Vietnam on the "country of particular concern" (CPC) watch list of countries that are the worst violators of religious freedom. In fact, the entire Montagnard population faces continual repression by security forces who commit regular human rights violations against them.
Yes, a lure has been cast out to the United States, just prior to Congress' scheduled vote on Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with Vietnam this month, a lure to catch the U.S. Congress. PNTR, you see, is a stepping stone for entry into the WTO and the proponents of PNTR will argue economic engagement is the key to Vietnam's development. They will say 'we must engage economically with Vietnam and this will assist Vietnam in changing its repressive ways." This is what the U.S. trade lobby argues, and to be fair they have a point. However, Vietnam's northern neighbor (and communist brother) China, has spoiled the "miraculous cure all" remedy of economic engagement. The United States indeed granted PNTR to China some years ago and it didn't result in any great reforms.
Judging from a comment by Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, one can see that China has actually ruined the image of economic engagement. Mr. Grassley stated in a Senate hearing on PNTR negotiations for Vietnam that, "We need to make sure that we aren't played for a sucker in the case of Vietnam, as we have been with China."
The question should really be, how does the United States do things differently to ensure Vietnam does indeed bring about the promised human rights reforms? Admittingly this is a dilemma as Vietnam has a history of diplomatic trickery and is one of the most corrupt nations in the world. But we can safely say that outright appeasement will not work.
Once Vietnam gains PNTR and accedes to the WTO, there are few if any sticks left to wield against Hanoi. But such outright appeasement is a real danger and possible reality. In July, Chris Seiple of the religious-based think tank, Global Institute for Engagement, testified in front of the Senate Finance Committee that "we should send a strong and unambiguous message to Vietnam's leaders that we are willing to work with them. Establishing PNTR and lifting CPC sends that signal."
In other words, the onus is on the United States to appease the oppressors, (i.e.: we reward Vietnam, for doing something they should never have been doing in the first place). It is difficult to comprehend whether Mr. Seiple's organization has starry-eyed ideals or simply wants to protect their future visas to Vietnam. Perhaps I just read their title wrong. Was it Global Institute for Appeasement? No, of course I read it right and yet, as I read it again, each time I have clear visions of Neville Chamberlain coming back from Nazi Germany waving a paper, "peace in our time."
In Vietnam's case the United States needs to engage Vietnam, but not with a weak position on human rights. Now is the time to stand strong with the dissidents, time to show courage and state loud and clear that the United States will not tolerate repressive governments in the pursuit of trade deals. It is time for the United States to give hope to Vietnam's embattled Montagnard population, its former ally, and to give hope to all Vietnamese citizens. Engagement yes, but not appeasement. The old chain-smoking communists in power in Hanoi know how to play the West and will resist and lie all the way. They will never change, they will only die off. Unfortunately for those who desire freedom in Vietnam, in particular the younger generation, the old communists will just not die off fast enough.
An advisor to the Montagnard Foundation.