Vietnam News

How Biden can court Vietnam — and help those stuck behind bars

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The United States and Vietnam are on the cusp of a significant upgrade in their relationship, to be sealed when President Biden visits Hanoi on Sept. 10. The administration’s plan to establish a “strategic partnership” with Vietnam is driven by a desire to counter China in the Indo-Pacific region.

But before Mr. Biden raises a toast to Vietnam’s leaders, he should call out Vietnam’s deteriorating human rights record and press for change. The president has more tools to encourage reform than it might appear.

Vietnam is a one-party state ruled by the Communist Party of Vietnam. Since 2016, under the reign of hard-line General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, the government has undertaken a wide-ranging crackdown on activism, dissent, civil society and religious freedom.

The entire leadership of the country’s climate change movement is now incarcerated, and the jailings have destroyed its organizational efforts and advocacy coalitions. On June 1, Vietnam formally charged the country’s leading climate activist, Hoang Thi Minh Hong, with tax evasion, making her the fifth environmentalist to face such charges in the past two years. A human rights investigation published in April by the 88 Project shows how authorities have weaponized the tax-evasion law to silence environmentalists.

Vietnam’s persecution of these activists runs against its agreement with the European Union and Group of Seven nations, as well as Denmark and Norway, called the Just Energy Transition Partnership, to help Vietnam mobilize at least $15.5 billion from public and private investors to meet its commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050. The agreement stipulates that “for the transition to be just and equitable, regular consultation is required, including with media, NGOs and other stakeholders so as to ensure a broad social consensus.”

There are 193 activists in prison in Vietnam. This does not include those who have been forced into exile or otherwise silenced. Many of those in prison were charged with vaguely worded provisions in the penal code, such as Article 117, which criminalizes “making, storing, disseminating, or propagandizing information, materials and products that aim to oppose the State,” or Article 331, which bars “abusing the rights to freedom and democracy to infringe upon the interests of the state.” For example, Vietnamese author and journalist Pham Doan Trang, who last year was a recipient of the U.S. Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award, is serving a nine-year prison sentence for supposedly spreading propaganda against the state. When in Hanoi, Mr. Biden ought to tell her jailers: Let her go, along with all the other political prisoners.

The crackdown has also led to the dissolution of environmental groups, independent publishing houses, the country’s association of independent journalists and a nongovernmental anti-corruption organization. People who have no history of organized activism but are using social media to voice grievances about corruption, pandemic controls and the misuse of public resources are also facing prosecution. Controls on civil society have become more stringent, including restrictions on academics and international conferences, increased scrutiny of domestic organizations that rely on foreign funding, and censorship of social media. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has found “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom” in Vietnam and has urged the U.S. government to designate it a “country of particular concern” under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act.

The United States and Vietnam established bilateral relations in 1995, and President Barack Obama in 2013 launched a “comprehensive partnership” with Hanoi. The Biden administration’s pursuit of an upgrade to “strategic partnership” is grounded in trade and geopolitics. It will allow Vietnam access to preferential trade terms and greater military cooperation. But Mr. Biden cannot neglect the spiraling human rights situation.

The example of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Mr. Obama’s doomed trade pact, is instructive. Vietnam saw a chance for greater access to one of its biggest export markets, the United States. It agreed to allow independent trade unions, outlaw child labor and give private firms a greater chance to compete against the Communist-run state sector. Citizens were promised a “free and open internet.” Unfortunately, President Donald Trump pulled the plug on the TPP, and the promised gains were lost. Mr. Biden should push again for change — and be more willing to strike substantial trade deals that would both generate wealth and improve conditions in places such as Vietnam.

As other presidents have done, Mr. Biden will undoubtedly offer respect for Vietnam’s differing political system. But he should also speak the truth to Vietnam’s leaders: No ruler or system is made stronger when it destroys the rights and dignity of its own people.

By the Editorial Board – The Washington Post – August 30, 2023

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