WORLD REPORT 1999 - Vietnam

Human Rights Developments
The unexpected release of some of the country’s best-known political prisoners was a highlight of the year. Arbitrary detention in substandard prison camps continued, however; press freedoms remained strictly curtailed; independent associations and trade unions were not allowed to operate; and little progress was made in legal reform. Rural unrest that had erupted in 1997 continued, with peasant protests against high prices, corruption, land confiscation, and excessive taxation. Differences between reformers and conservatives at top levels of the political power structure appeared to deepen during the year, but it was difficult to tell from human rights developments who was in the ascendant. Veteran revolutionaries and influential intellectuals tried to test the newly-installed Communist Party leadership during the year by openly criticizing the government and advocating for increased democracy, economic reforms, and press freedom.

Arbitrary detention of individuals for their political beliefs remained a major concern, but in September, the government freed at least eleven prominent dissidents and religious leaders as part of a broader amnesty involving more than 5,000 prisoners, with more releases announced in October. Those released in September included Dr. Doan Viet Hoat, arrested in 1990 for publishing the pro-democracy bulletin, “Freedom Forum”; Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, arrested in June 1990 for issuing a public appeal for political pluralism; prominent monks Thich Quang Do, Thich Tri Sieu, and Thich Tue Sy, who are all members of the banned Unified Buddhist Church, as well as Paul Nguyen Chau Dat and Tadeo Dinh Viet Hieu, members of the Catholic Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix. It was not clear what prompted the releases, but the planned visit in October by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance may have been a factor in the release of the religious activists. Despite the prisoner amnesties, dozens of other dissidents remained under surveillance or in “administrative detainment” under Directive 31/CP, which authorizes detention without trial for up to two years by the Ministry of Interior. Critics who remained under house arrest included biologist and writer Ha Si Phu, poet Bui Minh Quoc, writer Tieu Dao Bao Cu, and war veteran Nguyen Ho. Vietnam’s leadership, with newly appointed Communist Party Secretary Le Kha Phieu at the helm, was deeply divided over political and economic reform. In January, in the first of several open letters to the party leadership, Gen.Tran Do, a respected retired military officer, criticized the party’s concentration of power and proposed reforms, including free elections.

Other well-connected intellectuals and military veterans issued letters and statements during the year criticizing high-level corruption and calling for reform. Most did not suffer reprisals; respected geophysicist Nguyen Thanh Giang was detained for three days in March before being released after going on a hunger strike.

The country’s farmers continued to show their anger over rampant corruption, punitive taxation, unfair rice prices, land disputes, and compulsory labor contributions to national infrastructure projects. Sporadic incidents of rural unrest surfaced in Thai Binh province, the site of the most severe unrest in 1997; Long Binh in southern Dong Nai province, where farmers protested evictions by the military in January; Ha Tay Province near Hanoi, the site of ongoing dissatisfaction over land rights and corruption; as well as Ha Nam, Nam Dinh, Thanh Hoa, Quang Ngai, and Bac Ninh provinces. In March, at least nine local people were convicted for disturbing public order during the January clashes in Dong Nai. In July, the People’s Court in Thai Binh sentenced more than thirty local people, whom the government termed “extremists,” to prison terms for inciting people to disrupt public order during uprisings in the province in November 1997.

Unusually candid reporting in the domestic press on farmers’ unrest in various provinces demonstrated the degree to which the leadership wanted the public to believe that it was resolving the farmers’ grievances. For example, a lengthy front-page article in the official Nhan Dan (People’s Daily) newspaper on February 5 carried the results of the government’s investigation into the Thai Binh unrest, which it blamed on local officials’ failure to respond to administrative corruption and excessive taxation. The government dispatched high-level officials, including Politboro member Pham The Duyet (ironically the object of corruption charges himself during the year) to sites of unrest, notably Dong Nai and Thai Binh, where they launched inquiries and suspended, fired, or levied fines against dozens of corrupt local cadres. In a February 23 press conference, President Tran Duc Luong made one of the strongest public acknowledgments of the problem to date, blaming local corruption for spurring peasant discontent. In March an anti-corruption ordinance was passed that contained provisions requiring officials to declare their assets. The National Assembly heatedly debated a draft law to facilitate the filing of complaints by citizens against local officials but failed topass the legislation by the close of its session in May.

The government continued to require that all religious activity be approved by the state and to apply restrictions on travel by religious leaders and on the contents of their sermons and speeches. In July, the Politburo issued its first directive on religion, saying the party’s policy was to respect religious freedom but banning “superstitious practices” without defining what those were. The directive also prohibited the printing and distribution of Bibles, banned “excessive mobilization of the population,” and threatened legal repercussions against those who abused religion to cause social unrest or oppose the government. In July, the government turned down a request for a papal visit in August during the two-hundredth anniversary of the sanctuary of the Notre Dame of La Vang in Quang Tri province. It also attempted to discourage citizens from other provinces from traveling to La Vang for this event. (Nevertheless, more than 60,000 Catholic pilgrims were able to attend, making it the largest religious gathering in Vietnam in decades.) On the other hand, in March, the government approved the Vatican’s appointment of a new archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City, a position that had been left vacant for five years because of official rejection of an earlier nominee. In July, three years after a request was originally submitted, the government approved the October visit of Abdelfattah Amor, the U.N. special rapporteur on religious intolerance.

The press remained under tight government control during the year. None of the criticism of the government by senior party leaders or retired officers was published in the media. In a stern reminder to journalists not to exceed state-imposed limits, Nguyen Hoang Linh, editor of Doanh Nghiep (Enterprise) newspaper and a Communist Party member, was brought to trial on October 21 after his arrest a year earlier. He was found guilty for “taking advantage of democracy to damage the state” and sentenced to time served (one year and thirteen days). In 1997 Nguyen had reported on high-level corruption. Troubled areas such as Thai Binh and Dong Nai remained off-limits to foreign journalists, aside from a one-day, officially sponsored tour in mid-February. In an effort to control information about the regional economic crisis and its impact on Vietnam, the Ministry of Culture continued to implement a 1997 press edict that prohibited media coverage of the banking system and instructed editors to tone down critical economic coverage.

Defending Human Rights
Freedom of association remained tightly controlled, and there were no independent nongovernmental organizations. No domestic human rights groups openly conducted activities.

The Role of the International Community
An international aid package of U.S. $2.4 billion for 1998 was approved in December 1997 at a World Bank-chaired donor consortium meeting in Tokyo, from donors that included the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), Asian Development Bank (ADB), United Nations Development Program, Japan, France, Sweden, and Australia. On June 13, major donors met in Hue with Vietnamese government officials to press for economic and legal reform, privatization of more than 6,000 state-owned companies, measures to address corruption, and greater financial transparency. On September 8, the World Bank approved three loan agreements totaling U.S. $193 million dollars for agricultural development, higher education, and urban transportation projects in Vietnam. On the same day, the ADB announced a lending package of U.S.$300 million a year for each of the next three years, contingent on Vietnam showing progress on economic reforms, particularly of state-owned enterprises.

Japan continued its support of doi moi (renovation) in Vietnam, focusing on promoting economic reform, and provided technical assistance to help design a new five-year budget plan. Privately, Japanese officials were concerned about the growing social unrest but failed to raise the issue during the December 1997 donor meeting. Japan pledged U.S. $720 million to Vietnam for 1998, most of it in yen loans, plus some grant aid and technical assistance. Japan also continued to give assistance for legal reforms, including a program on civil procedure law, but undertook no initiatives in the area of criminal or penal law. In the first known intervention by Japan with Hanoi in the case of a political prisoner, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’s appeal on behalf of dissident Doan Viet Hoat helped bring about his release in September.

European Union and the United States
The European Union also took action on behalf of political prisoners, including Dr. Hoat and Dr. Que, making demarches in Hanoi on their behalf. President Jacques Chirac of France raised Dr. Hoat’s case with the Vietnamese delegation to ASEM in London in April. The European Parliament passed a resolution on human rights in Vietnam in July, in which it called for release of prisoners of conscience, an end to house arrest for other dissidents and religious leaders, repeal of administrative detention Directive 31/CP, reform of the judicial system, and guarantees for complete freedom of religion.

In the third year of normalized diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Vietnam, the U.S. took tentative steps towards establishing trade relations. In March, President Clinton issued a waiver of the Jackson-Vanik emigration requirements in order to allow U.S. companies that do business in Vietnam to obtain credits from the Export-Import Bank and loans and political risk insurance from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). On June 3, Clinton extended the waiver for one year. The Houseof Representatives voted on July 30 against a resolution to overturn the waiver. On March 19, OPIC signed an agreement with Vietnam, despite the results of OPIC’s own investigation of labor rights abuses (a precondition for receiving OPIC assistance), which pointed out the lack of freedom of association in the workplace, lack of collective bargaining, and other serious abuses.

In May, the State Department held another meeting in its bilateral human rights dialogue with Vietnam, but the dialogue produced no immediate results. For the first time, as requested by Congress, the talks took place at the level of assistant secretary of state.

In September, the United States praised the prisoner release, stating that the amnesty would improve relations between the two countries, but urged the Vietnamese government to release everyone detained in violation of international human rights standards.