Rights Advocates Disturbed by Vietnam Arrests

Human Rights Watch says there has been a steady increase in the arrest of dissidents in Vietnam — the worst crackdown seen in two decades. Vietnamese authorities say they are targeting people whose illegal acts are meant to provoke civil disorder.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We turn now to human rights in Vietnam. Human Rights and some foreign governments say that that country is cracking down on dissent. It began, say critics, after Hanoi hosted a recent economic summit in the region and after Vietnam was accepted into the World Trade Organization.

NPR's Michael Sullivan has this story from Hanoi.

(Soundbite of bells)

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Nine o'clock in the morning at Ho Chi Minh City's Vinh Nghiem Pagoda, where hundreds have packed the main hall to hear 80-year-old Thich Nhat Hanh D-Day service for those who died on both sides during Vietnam's long civil war.

Mr. THICH NHAT HANH (Buddhist Teacher): (Singing in foreign language)

SULLIVAN: The 80-year-old Hanh is widely popular in the West, the author of many books on what he calls mindfulness - being awake and fully aware. He's a man once exiled from Vietnam by both the U.S.-backed government and by the communists for his opposition to the war, a man nominated for a Nobel Peace prize by an admirer, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mr. HANH: (Singing foreign language)

SULLIVAN: This is Thich Nhat Hanh's second trip back to Vietnam since the war. But the public mass of healing and reconciliation is unprecedented. And some of his followers say it marks a major step forward in relations between the communist government and Vietnam's Buddhist majority. Hanh is a little more cautious.

Mr. HANH: I think the government is willing to change, to open up, but they still have a lot of fear, suspicion. That is why they cannot go as quickly as they would like to. And there are the extremists, the fanatical anti- communists, and the fanatical communists. They still continue the ideological war, even if the war has formally ended.

SULLIVAN: That ideological war has now engulfed Vietnam's Buddhist community as a result of Hanh's trip, with some arguing his visit only helps legitimize a regime with a long history of suppressing religious freedom and human rights.

Vo Van Ai is a spokesman for the outlawed United Buddhist Church of Vietnam.

Ms. VO VAN AI (Spokesman, United Buddhist Church of Vietnam): Thich Nhat Hanh is manipulated by the communist regime. He do not represent the Buddhist in Vietnam. He is not a member of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. He go out from Vietnam long before the end of the war. He didn't know about the suffering of the population in Vietnam and the regime in Vietnam. And I cannot understand what way he can dialogue in order to bring freedom of religion in Vietnam.

SULLIVAN: One party, Communist Vietnam, severely restricts freedom of religion and expression, but in the past few years has taken steps to improve its human rights record, in part to improve its image abroad as it sought membership in the WTO and a greater presence on the world stage.

Carl Thayer is a longtime Vietnam watcher at the Australian Defense Force Academy.

Mr. CARL THAYER (Australian Defense Force Academy): They strongly believe in prestige as a commodity of their international relations, and they did an awful lot to satisfy the conditions to get removed from the U.S. list of a country of particular concern. There have been notable developments, particularly the Catholic Church loosening up in that direction, and even more recently talks between the Vatican and Vietnam about normalizing relations.

SULLIVAN: But at the same time, critics say, Vietnam has also embarked on a new crackdown on dissidents. A prominent Catholic priest, Nguyen Van Ly, is set to be tried next week on charges of trying to undermine the government.

Sophie Richardson is deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

Ms. SOPHIE RICHARDSON (Human Rights Watch): We've seen a steady increase in arrests of all different kinds of government critics, and also people who aren't necessarily explosively critical of the government but have voiced views the government doesn't necessarily like. And you know, given the variety of people that the government has gone after in the last few months, we have to conclude that is really one of the worst crackdowns we've seen in a couple of decades.

SULLIVAN: Carl Thayer says the government is particularly concerned about a relatively new group called Block 8406, named after the date it was founded last year, a group that Thayer says started out with just a few dozen people.

Mr. THAYER: That's grown into the hundreds and now into the thousands of supporters spread out across Vietnam. Heavy - what we call middle-class concentration in terms of the professions of the people that (unintelligible) distinctly young so that networked, organized virtual pro-democracy movement, which is nascent, insipient, is nonetheless new development. And that surely must have the Hanoi regime concerned.

SULLIVAN: The recent crackdown was one of the issues raised by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during a recent visit to Washington by Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister Pham Gia Khiem. Vietnam government spokesman Le Dzung insists no one in Vietnam is persecuted for their religious or political beliefs. But he says...

Mr. LE DZUNG (Vietnamese Government Spokesman): Recently, Vietnamese relevant agencies have started legal proceedings against some people who committed illegal acts meant to provoke security and order disturbance and to sabotage Vietnam. These are normal and necessary measures to ensure national security and community's common interests.

SULLIVAN: Human rights groups want international donors to pressure Vietnam to end its crackdown by threatening to withhold diplomatic and economic support. But visiting Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says that too much pressure could do more harm than good.

Mr. HANH: We think and we have had the experience that shouting, condemning, judging, accusing doesn't happen very much. So with the practice of compassionate listening, you can help people to remove their fear, their suspicion, their (unintelligible) and you can (unintelligible)

(Soundbite of bells)

SULLIVAN: Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Hanoi.

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