Obama’s Vietnam Visit Raises Questions

Article by Richard L Johnson, Photo by AP

President Obama is expected to visit to Vietnam on Monday, his first visit to the Southeast Asian country. Key to discussions will be the current situation with Chinese maritime activity in the South China Sea, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and an arms embargo created during the Vietnam War.

While some believe that the President may partially lift the embargo against the Vietnamese government, issues have been raised about the country’s human rights issues. Freedom House, a nonpartisan 501 government-funded organization that conducts research on freedom and human rights, has ranked Vietnam since 2001 as “Not Free”. The organization has never given a Freedom Rating to Vietnam under 6, with 1 being the most free and 7 being the least free, based on Civil Liberties and Political Rights criteria.

In 2014, with the single-party Communist government enacting Decree 174, the state punished and censored those speaking on social media and blogging platforms, arrested several well-known online activists and ignored international pressure for their release. This adds to laws enacted in the past, including laws that require journalists to pay people for damages as the result of news articles, punishing journalists for denying “revolutionary achievements”, banning “antigovernment e-mail messages”, and restricting foreign media inside Hanoi without government approval.

The Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) changed the constitution to permit only the CPV to govern Vietnam. The National Assembly of 500 members, who are responsible for appointing the prime minister, has 454 seats controlled by the CPV.

As Human Rights Watch describes Vietnam in a letter to President Obama: “The Vietnamese Communist Party controls all public institutions and uses them to maintain its hold on power… The courts are party organs and lack independence… In short, Vietnam is a police state.” . The government is oppressive and refuses any criticism of the party, the prime minister, or the president.

After the Vietnam War ended some 41 years ago, millions of South Vietnamese refugees fled the country.

Many came to the US and became US citizens and in the process have assimilates our culture and values.
Many of these citizens now try to come back to Vietnam to promote democracy and human rights One of these men, Cong Thanh Do, an engineer from San Jose, California and a proponent for a multiparty democratic system in Vietnam, was arrested for a month for “terrorist activities”. Nguyen Quoc Quan, a member of a pro-Vietnamese democracy and multiparty organization,was arrested and harassed multiple times by the Vietnamese government. Both are US citizens and were released only after pressure from the United States.

In May 2016, another United States citizen has gone “missing” preceding the President Obama’s arrival in Vietnam. On May 20, 2016, Radio Free Asia reported Nancy Nguyen, a nonviolent activist for free speech, and open elections, as “missing”. Facebook chatter indicated that she was likely arrested by the Vietnamese secret police (Công An). This is a similar pattern to past imprisonments of U.S. citizens in Vietnam, where many were held for long periods without reason or charge.

These incidents are hardly isolated or rare. In May 2016 alone, the Vietnamese government imprisoned hundreds of peaceful protesters in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City for questioning the government’s lack of transparency in the pollution fiasco involving Formosa Plastics. The Vietnamese government also actively suppresses the church, imprisoning many Catholic for years based on trumped up charges.

Questions are being raised regarding whether America should be rewarding a totalitarian police state with lucrative trade packages such as the TPP and provide lethal arms to those who fail to live up to their international obligations regarding human rights. Five Republican Senators have written to the President to request that human rights be a key criteria for US-Vietnam relations.

For many decades, we have challenged similar totalitarian communist states. Our resolve eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Block allies. Hundreds of millions in the former Soviet states and Eastern Europe now enjoy freedom and democracy because of our determination to not compromise the principles upon which this country was founded. The world has become a safer place and democracy has flourished.

Tens of millions of Vietnamese now yearn for the same freedom, and it seems that rewarding the brutal totalitarian communist regime with favorable TPP trade terms, many of which involve serious sacrifices by American workers, and furnishing legal weapons to the very regime that imprison democracy activists, many of whom are US citizens, represent a serious affront to the very values of freedom and democracy for which generations of Americans have fought and died to preserve.

It is the wrong message to send at this time.

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