On 16 December 2015, Vietnam's internationally acclaimed human rights lawyer and religious liberty advocate Nguyen Van Dai (47) was re-arrested, just days after being violently assaulted.
On 10 May 2016, his wife, Mrs Vu Minh Khanh, presented her testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, chaired by religious liberty champion, Rep. Chris Smith.
After explaining that her husband has already suffered four years imprisonment (March 2007-2011) followed by four years house arrest (to March 2015) on account of his human rights advocacy, Mrs Vu Minh Khanh proceeded to plead her husband's case.
|Mrs Vu Minh Khanh, Washington, 10 May 2016|
testimony: pdf / c-span video of proceedings
“. . . In 2000, my husband officially began his activism and fought for freedom of religion and was a human rights lawyer. . . Thereafter, my husband provided free legal services to Christians who were oppressed based on their religion, those who fought for democracy and human rights who are harassed and detained, victims of land grabs or home lost, and to people who were physically attacked and arbitrarily detained. He lead training courses about human rights at his law office.
“. . . he always fervently tried to fight for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly through non-violent methods and through providing education on human rights. . . Throughout his human rights activism, my husband was constantly followed, threatened, harassed and beaten. My husband is currently charged under Article 88 of the Penal Code [“conducting propaganda against the state”] and faces 3 to 20 years imprisonment.
“. . . My husband has worked hard to protect human rights and these activities cannot possibly be seen as criminal. Therefore, I hope that Congress and the U.S. government will help demand for his immediate and unconditional release.
“I sincerely thank you for spending time to listen to my husband’s case.”
“Epic Failure in Diplomacy”
Subsequently, on 23 May, whilst on an official visit to Vietnam, President Obama lifted the decades-long embargo on selling lethal weapons to Vietnam, without requiring any concessions in return, leaving Rep. Chris Smith to lament the “epic failure of diplomacy”.
In April 2015, Smith sponsored the Vietnam Humans Rights Act of 2015, which “prohibits U.S. nonhumanitarian assistance to the government of Vietnam in excess of FY2014 amounts unless the President certifies to Congress that the government of Vietnam has made substantial progress respecting political, civil, media, Internet, and religious freedoms, minority rights, access to U.S. refugee programs, and actions to end trafficking in persons and the release of religious and political prisoners.”
The Act also states: “It is the sense of Congress that: it shall be U.S. policy that further easing of the prohibition on the sale of lethal military equipment to Vietnam shall require Vietnam to take additional and sustained steps to advance human rights protections.”
Unsurprisingly, Rep. Chris Smith believes Obama struck a “bad deal”.
“President Obama gave up one of the few remaining leverage points that the United States has in exchange for vague promises of expanded port use by the U.S. Navy,” said Smith, who quite reasonably believes that “Vietnam would have offered the U.S. Navy port access without condition, given China’s advances in the South China Sea.”
Phil Robertson, deputy director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch agrees. “In one fell swoop, President Obama has jettisoned what remained of U.S. leverage to improve human rights in Vietnam – and has basically gotten nothing for it.”
While Stratfor Global Intelligence confirms that, “Hanoi is reportedly interested in U.S. helicopters, communications equipment, and possibly even used F-16 fighter jets,” the reality is, Vietnam has long purchased the bulk of its weapons from Russia, and this is unlikely to change anytime soon. Maybe this, and not Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, was foremost in Obama’s mind.
A Green Light to Escalate Repression
In 2006, the State Department removed Vietnam from its list of Countries of Particular Concern, citing the release of religious prisoners and the easing of religious restrictions. Two months later, the US granted Vietnam permanent normal trade status, which paved the way for Vietnam to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) in January 2007.
However, as soon as Vietnam had secured its goals, repression and persecution escalated. On 6 March 2007, Nguyen Van Dai was arrested as the regime cracked down on pro-democracy and human rights advocates. Writing in March 2007, I described the crackdown as a “watershed moment”, wherein, “Through a wave of harassments, arrests and criminal charges against human rights and democracy advocates engaged in peaceful and perfectly legal activities, Vietnam is openly showing its hand and waiting to see if anyone will challenge, or if everyone will fold.”
In giving the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam exactly what it wanted without requiring anything in return, President Obama essentially "folded", giving the regime a green light to escalate repression and persecution.
This will certainly crush the hopes of Vietnam’s more than 100 political and religious prisoners, along with their loved ones and supporters. More critically, it will embolden a brutal totalitarian regime intent on silencing a multitude of Vietnamese dissident bloggers, pro-democracy activists, human rights lawyers and religious liberty advocates . . . including, of course, Mrs Vu Minh Khanh, who soon will return to Vietnam.
For more details on religious persecution in Vietnam, see
“Vietnam: Serious suffering as persecution escalates.”
Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin (RLPB 359), 1 June 2016
By Religious Liberty Analyst, Elizabeth Kendal.
Elizabeth Kendal is the author of Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat.
Elizabeth Kendal’s new book, After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East, is presently being published by Wipf and Stock (Eugene, OR, USA) and will be available shortly.