Religious Freedom Lost on Vietnam  

By Michael Benge | Tuesday, August 05, 2008

In direct contraventionof President Bush’s policy of promoting religious freedom abroad, the StateDepartment has established a foreign policy toward Vietnam promoting thatcommunist government’s control of churches.   This is the samegovernment that murdered over a million of their own people after the communisttakeover of South Vietnam in 1975.

In the 1980s, the phrase “CokeBottle Diplomacy” was coined to describe US policy put forth by our best andbrightest of that time, whereby trade and American investment would bringcommunist China into the civilized world and change that country’s long historyof human rights abuses and repression of religion and democracy.  Thepolicy never worked and has only resulted in a huge trade deficit, US dollarsfunding a huge military buildup, poisoned products, and untold number – tens ofthousands – of Tibetans and Chinese killed and imprisoned in slave laborcamps. 

The Bush administrationhasresuscitated this failed policy of Coke Bottle Diplomacy and isapplying it to Vietnam, and in 2007, the US accumulated trade deficit was $10.6billion. 

Recently, dozens ofdemocracy activists, journalists, cyber-dissidents and Christian and otherreligious leaders have been arrested and imprisoned by the Vietnamesecommunists. Congressional leaders and human-rights groups have charged Hanoiwith “unbridled human-rights abuses,” the “worst wave ofoppression in 20 years.”  Somein Congress have accused the Administration of worshiping at the “Alter ofTrade” while turning a blind eye toward religious persecution and human rightsabuses in Vietnam.   

Despite Vietnam’sincreased human rights abuses, on June 24th, President Bush, for the third time, met withcommunist Vietnamese officials in the Oval Office, this time with PrimeMinister Nguyen Tan Dung.  The meeting focused on improving trade,developing even closer economic ties and increasing US investment in Vietnam inorder to bail out Vietnam’s failing economy.  In passing, President Bushtold the prime minister that he “thought the strides the government is makingtowards religious freedom is noteworthy.”

Noteworthy indeed.  President Bush’s Pollyanna view of religious freedom in Vietnam isbased in part on erroneous reporting fed to him by the Department ofState.  In 2006, Vietnam was removed from theState Department’s designation as a Country of Particular Concern for severeviolations of religious freedom. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, joined by Human RightsOrganizations, hasurged the Department of State to put Vietnam back onits CPC religious freedom blacklist.

One of thejustifications that the Department of State gave for removing Vietnam from itsblacklist is that regime’s purported liberalization of restrictions on housechurches.  However, evidence disputes this claim.  The fact is theVietnamese communist regime has imposed even tighter restrictions. AlthoughChristian families are now allowed to pray in their home, they are not allowedto pray in groups – including extended families, in public or in churchesunless they are government sanctioned and controlled. 

In the Central Highlandsand other contentious areas, US officials are taken to Potempkin villages andmodel government churches and fed disinformation by government agents posing as religious leaders.  USofficials often take their word as the gospel.  One such agent andinformant for the State Department’s Ambassador at Large for InternationalReligious Freedom John Hanford is SiuKim, a Montagnard with a church in Plieku, who works for Vietnam’scommunist government.  According to that government’s statistics, theMontagnards are among Vietnam’s poorest inhabitants; yet, Siu Kim has been onfour tours to the US, paid for by the communist government to propagandize theMontagnards here. 

Upon his appointment, US Ambassadorto Vietnam Michael Michalak stated that he was going to continue the policy ofAmbassador Hanford of promoting the accelerated registration of churches inVietnam.  However, Ambassador Michalak neglected to explain thecost to religious freedom that this registration entails.  Toregister, churches must submit to the Central Bureau of Religious Affairs(CBA) a list of names and addresses of members, and only those approved by theCBA can attend services.  All church meetings and sermons must be approvedby the CBA, and sermons must be given in Vietnamese – even in ethnic minoritychurches.  Pastors and priests can neither deviate from the approvedsermon nor proselytize, and CBA police monitor all services.  Nor canchurches and pastors provide aid and comfort to local villagers.  This is defactocommunist control of churches in Vietnam.

Assistant Secretary ofState for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill reconfirmed this misguidedpolicy in his March 12th testimony before the Senate ForeignRelations Committee, and as further justification stated, “Since the CPCdesignation was removed, there has been further progress.The governmentheld over 3,000 training courses and 10,000 workshops for officials throughoutthe country on how to implement the new law on religion.”  What Hillforgot to mention is Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s certification of “theVietnamese communist party’s 2007-8 ‘Religion Campaign Plan’ to train 21,811communist religious workers in the political management of religion, with aspecial focus on ethnic minorities.” (Vietnam News Agency, 6/13/07)  Thesereligious “workers” are to ensure that churches and church members comply withCBA’s registration requirements and the communist control of religion.

The Vietnamese communist governmentrepeatedly promises to ease up on religious repression while it simultaneouslysteps up its crack down those advocating religious freedom.  The communistgovernment does not discriminate in its repression ofreligious faiths, nor who it persecutes – both men and women.  Mostnoted is Roman Catholic Priest Father Thaddeus Nguyen Van Ly who was depictedon television gagged and restrained during sentencing to several years in prisonin a Vietnamese kangaroo court. 

The recently deceasedThich Huyen Quang, 87, patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam(UBCV), one of Vietnam’s most beloved and esteemed spiritual leaders, who alongwith the UBCV deputy leader Thich Quang Do, was sent into internal exile in1982 and detained in remote provinces for the past 26 years for refusing tosubmit Vietnamese Buddhism to Communist Party control.  Although over 80% of the Buddhists in Vietnam adhere to the , the government refuses to recognize the UBCVand continues to try to force the members to join the communist state-controlled Vietnam Buddhist Sangha church.  Monks,nuns and members of the UBCV, the Hoa Hao BuddhistChurch, and the Khmer Krom Buddhist Church (Cambodian ethnic minorities) arecontinually harassed, beaten and imprisoned. 

On February 8, two hundred KhmerKrom Buddhist monks peacefully demonstrated in Soc Treang, Vietnam, asking forreligious freedom.  The Vietnamese government responded by brutallybeating, arresting, imprisoned nineteen Monks — five were given prisonsentences of 2 to 4 years.  Vietnam went so faras to arrange the kidnapping of the Venerable Tim Sakhorn, a Cambodian citizen who was the Abbot of the PhnomDen North Pagoda temple in Takeo province, Cambodia,who was aiding the Khmer Krom refugees who fled the religious repression inVietnam and sought refuge in Cambodia.  The Venerable Tim Sakhorn wasimprisoned in Vietnam and ironically charged with crossing the border withoutproper documentation.  Most recently, Vietnamese authorities claim that hehas been released from prison, but to no one’s surprise, he has since“disappeared.”

While Vietnamese communist officialscan travel freely throughout the United States, US officials cannot travel freelyin Vietnam without advance notice to national and local officials andaccompaniment by Vietnamese government minders and security personnel. UN andindependent human rights organizations are not allowed an established presencein Vietnam; therefore, incidences such as the “disappearance” of the CambodianMonk, nor the plethora of other human rights abuses, cannot be investigated

Routinely, house churchChristians are rounded up and beaten, given electric shocks, and jailed whenthey refuse to join communist controlled churches.  Reports continue toemanate from Vietnam that Montagnard and Hmong men and women are still beingsubjected to forced renunciation of their Christian faith, often resulting intorture and sometimes death.  As communist Vietnam’s “President”Nguyen Minh Triet’s 2007 met with President Bush in the White House, Y-Het Vin, a young Hroi ethnic minority man from Phu Yenprovince was being tortured by Vietnam’s religiouspolice (CBA).  He died from injuries after several days of sustainedbeatings in an attempt to force him to recant his Christian faith.  Thisis not an isolated case.  Over 350 Montagnardpolitical prisoners, many of whom are Protestant pastors, languish in jail, andthe number that died or was tortured while imprisoned is unknown. 

Because of continualreligious persecution and other human rights abuses, large numbers ofMontagnards continue to flee to Cambodia seeking asylum with the UN HighCommissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).  Unfortunately, UNHCR’s policy towardthe Montagnards is heavily influenced by communist Vietnam, and the Montagnardsare continually forced back to communist Vietnam in violation of UNHCR’scharter.  Equally as sad for the persecuted Montagnards is that the US’refugee policy is also heavily influenced by the communist Vietnamese. During a trip Cambodia in February 2007, Ellen Sauerbrey, assistant secretaryof state for population, refugees and migration, told a press conference thatMontagnards should stay in Vietnam and not seek asylum in Cambodia forVietnamese officials assured her that Montagnards were not being abused.

Tell that to H’SuinRmah, a Montagnard, who recently fled to Cambodia seeking refuge with UNHCRafter being raped by Vietnamese officials.  She lives in fear, not knowingif UNHCR will send her back to Vietnam, even though by nature of the crime, sheis qualified for resettlement in the US.  Several cases of Montagnardwomen being repeatedly raped by provincial police/authorities as the price toobtain their papers and passports have been reported. 

Evidence shows thatSauerbrey’s advice is very bad policy.  In April of this year, policearrested Y Ben Hdok in Dak Lak after he and other Montagnards in his districttried to flee the persecution and seek refuge in Cambodia.  Vietnamesepolice refused to allow his family or a lawyer to visit him during three daysin detention. On May 1, police told Mr. Y Ben’s wife to pick up his batteredbody. His rib and limbs were broken and his teeth had been knocked out. Policelabeled the death a suicide.”  This is not an isolated incident, andhappens all too often.     

President Bushhas called religious freedom “the first freedom of thehuman soul.”  However, he wouldn’t attend servicesat St. Johns across the street from the White House if it were controlled by thecommunist party, so why then would his foreign policy makers think the peopleof Vietnam want to worship in churches controlled by a repressive regime whoseonly religion is atheist communism? 

The State Department’s mistaken policyon religion in Vietnam sends the message that if the US supports communistcontrol of churches, we will also turn a blind eye to their continued crackdown and imprisonment of advocates for human rights, democracy, free speech andinternet access.  This is Coke Bottle Diplomacy at its worst, andis playing right into the hands of the same brutal communist regime thatmurdered more than 1 million of its own people.

Michael Benge spent 11 years in Vietnam as a Foreign Service Officer, including five years as a Prisoner of war– 1968-73 and is a student of South East Asian Politics. He is very active in advocating for human rights and religious freedom and has written extensively on these subjects.

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