Bowing to mounting international political pressure, and a cash-starved economy, Vietnam has announced the release of several dissidents ahead of negotiations with the United States over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal.
Nguyen Tien Trung, a 30-year old blogger and political activist, was freed over the weekend after serving four years. He was not due for release till 2017 after being found guilty of attempting to “overthrow the people’s administration.”
Another prominent activist and writer, Vi Duc Hoi, 56, was released on Friday eighteen months earlier than expected, following an an eight year jail term imposed for using the Internet to promote democracy. He was expelled from the Vietnam’s all-powerful Communist Party in 2007 after calling for democratic reforms.
Their release came after Cu Huy Ha Vu, 56, a human rights lawyer and perhaps Vietnam’s most famous dissident, was freed after serving three years of a seven-year prison sentence. He has already left Vietnam for the U.S.
The TPP trade deal will require Congressional approval. Congress has targeted Vietnam over human rights abuses, in particular the jailing of dissidents, which has been well documented in recent years.
The deal will tie the U.S. to 11 countries around the Pacific, from Australia and East Asia to Chile and South America. Vietnam is expected to gain significantly through greater access to the American market. China, a major Vietnamese rival, is not involved in the talks.
“If you have to pick a winner, it’s Vietnam by a significant margin. By 2025, Vietnam would stand to gain nearly $96 billion, or 28 percent of its GDP. This is largely due to exports increasing an estimated 37 percent,” Economist Samuel Rines wrote recently.
Rines said realizing an immediate economic benefit was not the U.S. goal; it was more about engaging with emerging countries in Asia and having a strong presence in the region while the rules of trade are being established.
“Exports and privileged access to the U.S. market benefit emerging Asia, as the terms of trade will favor them over trading partners not at the table. The U.S. and Japan could also act as an economic counterbalance to China in the region—helping the smaller, less-developed countries compete for export growth,” he wrote in The National Interest.
“It is the developed countries that do not fare quite as well. The U.S., Canada and Australia will gain little economically from the TPP, because these nations already have trade agreements in place.”
Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s deputy Asia-Pacific director, said the human rights group was delighted with the release of the dissidents but he also stressed that they should not have been jailed in the first place.
“The releases are a step in the right direction for freedom of expression and we hope that they reflect a shift in Vietnam’s commitment to respecting human rights,” he said.
Amnesty says there are 75 Vietnamese in detention simply for peacefully expressing opinions.
“The authorities should build on this positive step by immediately and unconditionally releasing all prisoners of conscience who still languish in prison simply for peacefully expressing their opinion,” Abbott said.
In March, teacher, blogger and dissident Dinh Dang Dinh, 50, who was jailed on “anti-state” charges over blog posts two-and-a-half-years ago was granted an amnesty after contracting cancer. He died two weeks later and his death was described as a wake up call by rights groups fed up with the jailing by Hanoi of prisoners of conscience.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt