Today the president of the United States hosts a most unusual caller at the White house: the prime minister of Vietnam. When Phan Van Khai calls on George W. Bush, the leader of one of the most repressive and intolerant regimes in the communist world will sit down with the leader of the Free World and the self-proclaimed advocate of human rights and democracy throughout the world.
What you say? The Vietnam war was more than 30 years ago so get over it? The problem is: the communist Vietnamese never recovered from the war that ended in 1975. This is not about the 58,000 U.S. men and women who died there. This is not about bad memories from a long-ago jungle war. This is about facts since the end of the war: a 30-year record of repression, imprisonment, harassment and torture by the communist regime of Vietnam carried out upon those remaining Vietnamese who value free speech, religion, press or tolerance and openness of any kind. The crimes continue today.
We don’t hear much about Vietnam. It has no missiles and poses no apparent threat to regional neighbors. But Vietnam’s leaders terrorize their own people and this places them into a special category that should interest us all.
When Saigon (now renamed Ho Chi Minh City) fell to the communists in 1975, the new government began a 30-year tenure of hate, agony and human destruction. Millions of people were sent to “re-education” camps. Most Americans, upon observation, would call these concentration camps.
No courts, no sentences, no possibility of parole accompanied one’s detention in postwar Vietnam. The lucky ones stayed imprisoned until they were deemed suitable for a return to society. The unlucky ones just disappeared. A local Vietnamese immigrant, now a U.S. citizen, told me recently her brother was “dismissed” in the camps. He was killed for his apparent wrongs: He was a teen-age school leader who chafed under communist rule.
Religious repression of an unprecedented scale also accompanied the communists’ arrival in Saigon. The Catholic bishop of Saigon, Nguyen Van Thuan, disappeared into a communist prison for 13 years.
After the war ended in 1975, every Christian was forced to renounce his faith or suffer added imprisonment. Bishop Van Thuan is emblematic of the religious intolerance and repression that continues. His more modern replacement, Father Nguyen Van Ly, has been in a communist jail since 2001.
On April 28, largely due to Bush administration pressure, a 21-year old Sunday school teacher named Li Thi Hong Lien was released from a prison in Vietnam. Her offense: She is a Mennonite. In prison, one of the beatings by her captors broke her jaw. She suffered a nervous breakdown. Two days after her release, Miss Lien was rearrested for attending a bible study. Her captors figured she just didn’t get the message.
The Montagnards from the Central Highlands are among whole groups marked for continued harm. In April 2004, Vietnamese soldiers and police opened fire upon a Montagnard protest, killing scores and wounding hundreds. The international community might not have noticed except hundreds fled into Cambodia, reporting the Vietnamese demanded the Montagnards renounce Christianity.
The U.S. Department of State reported recently Vietnam’s communists repress “independent Buddhists, Baptists, Mennonites, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Baha’is, independent Cao Dai and Hoa Hao groups, independent Sunni Muslims, and ethnic Cham Hindus.” In other words, the communists violently oppose just about every faith that exists in Vietnam.
The 2005 World Report from Human Rights Watch begins:
“Human-rights conditions in Vietnam, already dismal, worsened in 2004. The government tolerates little public criticism of the Communist Party or statements calling for pluralism, democracy, or a free press. Dissidents are harassed, isolated, placed under house arrest, and in many cases, charged with crimes and imprisoned. Among those singled out are prominent intellectuals, writers and former Communist Party stalwarts.”
The United Nations and a host of other international groups have condemned Vietnam’s record on human rights.
The repressed include not just members of the former democratic regime (most of them dead or gone), “lunatic religious fanatics” (people of almost any faith), or other “extremists.” “Former Communist Party stalwarts” suffer the consequences of any enlightenment they profess.
Vietnam and the United States today share trade topping $6 billion annually. Vietnamese-Americans, U.S.-born Vietnam war veterans and others, frequently visit Vietnam as cash-stuffed tourists. Vietnamese communists recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of the “normalization” of relations with the U.S.
But all is not normal. Today’s leaders in Communist Vietnam support terrorism, torture and the control of the population as did former leaders of Afghanistan and Iraq. The current leadership of Vietnam is full of terrorists who deny the most basic rights and freedoms to the people they subjugate.
Vietnam’s prime minister has earned a place at the table with the president of the United States for an hour or so today. But to truly join the world community and stay out of the “axis of evil,” the Vietnamese leadership needs to emulate more the U.S. record of freedom and human rights and not follow the record of their other big ally: China.
John E. Carey is an international consultant in Falls Church.