On July 30 Dang Thi Kim Lieng set herself on fire outside the Bac Lieu People’s Committee building in southern Vietnam. She died of her injuries en route to hospital. Lieng, who was 64, was protesting the detention of her daughter Ta Phong Tan, who was arrested September 30 last year and was due to go to trial August 7. At the time of publication, the hearing has been postponed indefinitely.
Tan, along with Phan Thanh Hai and Nguyen Van Hai, better known as “Dieu Cay,” was a member of the Free Journalists Club, an unsanctioned group pushing freedom of speech in Vietnam. Without the relevant government permission needed to form their group it was deemed illegal.
The three bloggers are scheduled be tried under section 88 of the criminal code, which relates to propaganda against the state. A maximum sentence could carry with it 20 years in prison, though most bloggers tried receive lower sentences.
It’s the latest in a string of arrests of bloggers and other dissidents. According to Human Rights Watch ten activists have been sentenced this year.
Both the United States and the United Nations have expressed concern and the United States has called on Vietnam to free the three bloggers. Reporters Without Borders called Lieng’s act an “act of despair.”
This year, as in previous ones, much has been said about human rights in Vietnam. Generally the cases that draw the most attention are those of dissidents expressing opinions about the government. Sometimes cases of repression based on creed or ethnicity also make headlines.
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Hanoi in July she mentioned human rights, saying, “There are some who argue that developing economies need to put economic growth first and worry about political reform and democracy later. But that is a short-sighted bargain. Political reform and economic growth are linked.”
The U.S. has a strong and organized Vietnamese community – many of whose older members fled the communists. They hold enough political clout that representatives, such as Rep. Loretta Sanchez in California, regularly pushes for Vietnam to make human rights a priority.
On July 25, Stanford law school’s Alan Weiner tabled a petition to the United Nations about the arbitrary detention of 17 activists from the Catholic Redemptionist Church in Vietnam.
However no matter the amount of pressure applied and the number of statements issued, the situation in Vietnam has not improved. Weiner calls it “a growing pattern of human rights abuses” in a press release sent to media.
In fact, the decline dates back to 2008 when press freedom was curtailed after two reporters were arrested for their reporting on the well-known PMU18 case, when, in 2006, some Party officials were found to be gambling vast sums of Japanese and World Bank aid money on football matches.
That was the same year a new blog law came into force officially banning bloggers from touching anything political.
Some are now raising the question of whether the United States has done as much as it can when it comes to addressing human rights in Vietnam.
Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnam expert and Professor Emeritus at the Australian Defense Force Academy, has said, “The U.S. has influence to the extent that the Vietnamese really want something from the United States. Vietnam wants its president to be received at the White House, they want a strategic partnership with the U.S., and they want the U.S. to lift restrictions on arms sales. U.S. officials have made it clear none of this will happen unless human rights (including internet freedom) is improved. Despite U.S. pressures things have gotten worse.”
Reporters during a State Department background meeting last month were told that even hardliners within the Vietnamese government are beginning to see the value in establishing better relations with the United States. Nonetheless, the conditions set by the U.S. remain unfulfilled.
“What we’re trying to do,” the senior State Department official explained, “is… make clear to them that if they want a better relationship with us they’re going to have to take the necessary steps on the economic side and they’re going to have to improve their human rights record, which in fact in some cases has digressed rather than improved.”
The United States may be the most vocal but is by no means the only nation working on human rights in Vietnam.
A UN statement issued in response to the self-immolation of Lieng reads, “A number of arrests and harsh convictions in recent years suggest a disturbing trend of curbing freedom of expression, opinion and association of bloggers, journalists and human rights activists who question Government policies in a peaceful manner.”
Back at Stanford, Allen Weiner told The Diplomat, “We hope that the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention will confirm what we believe: that the Vietnam government’s arrest of these activists violates Vietnam’s international human rights obligations.”
“We hope that a finding by a respected and authoritative body like the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that Vietnam has violated the human rights of these activists will encourage Vietnam to comply with its obligations.”
Freedom of speech is in fact enshrined in the constitution in Vietnam. Article 69 states, “The citizen shall enjoy freedom of opinion and speech, . . . the right to assemble, form associations and hold demonstrations in accordance with the provisions of the law.”
Those last eight words are key however. Other parts of law, such as Section 88 restricting “propaganda,” can take precedent over Article 69, as it apparently might when the three bloggers are tried.
But why so much effort for so little progress? Partly it could come down to U.S.-Vietnamese relations versus Sino-Vietnamese relations.
Workings in the Party, Politburo, or government are often opaque and many posit that those hostile to America or greater involvement with the United States might try to initiate harsher crackdowns to slow growing relations with the U.S.
Professor Carlyle Thayer says, “Vietnamese party conservatives are only too willing to play on the human rights issue to impede the development of closer defense relations with the United States.”
This is not the whole picture as internal security concerns and fear of a “peaceful evolution” are also rife. With one of the fastest growing Internet user populations in the region and over 30 percent of the population (75 percent of which still lives outside the cities) already online, there are fears of large groups organizing online.
Whether closer ties with the U.S. will eventually trump what some members of the government see as domestic security concerns remains to be seen. However it is likely more bloggers will be arrested despite international protestations.