|10/26/2005: Testimony by Michael Cromartie, Chair Before the Congressional Caucus on Vietnam & the Congressional Human Rights Caucus|
"Vietnam: Ongoing Religious Freedom Violations "
Madame Chair and Members of the Caucus let me begin by thanking you for holding this hearing on a topic that is very important to improving U.S.-Vietnamese relations. It is an honor for me to be here.
This hearing is timely because the State Department is deciding currently whether or not to re-designate Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). The Commission believes that Vietnam should remain a CPC this year and we have made this recommendation to both the Secretary of State and the President.
We have been encouraged by the Vietnam government's promises over the past year to improve conditions for its ethnic and religious minorities, but we remain disappointed that promises have not yet been translated into positive change. Though there have been some releases of prominent religious prisoners, recent events suggest that repression of the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief continues.
U.S.-Vietnamese relations are experiencing a period of growth, change, cooperation, and contention. While the two nations move forward on issues of trade and security, it will be progress on human rights, including religious freedom, which will define the scope and flexibility of future bilateral relations.
More than any other issue, differences over human rights and religious freedom have the potential to inhibit the forward momentum in our bilateral relationship. Relations can never fully develop until the government of Vietnam protects and promotes the fundamental human rights of all its citizens.
We were all encouraged by the historic visit of Prime Minister Pham Van Khai (PHAN VON KY) to the United States in June of this year, but it is crucial that the U.S. government continue to speak with one strong voice that economic and security interests should not precede human rights. We should continue to make clear that progress in all three areas is critical to developing stable trading relations, stable alliances, and stable regions.
Human Rights & Freedom in Vietnam: The Current State of Affairs
Madame Chair, the government of Vietnam's human rights record remains poor and freedoms of speech, assembly, association and religion continue to be significantly restricted. Though Vietnam is in some respects a less repressive society now than ten or fifteen years ago, we should not conclude that Vietnam's economic openness has led directly to political openness or greater respect for human rights.
Our deepening economic and commercial relationship with Vietnam may encourage economic reform and transparency--and it may draw Vietnam further into a rules-based international trading system--but the evidence suggests that it has not yet resulted in greater political freedom for Vietnamese citizens.
Because our time is short, Madame Chair, let me now focus my remarks on the current state of affairs concerning protection for the freedom of religion and belief and to introduce some new information that bolsters the Commission's contention that Vietnam should remain a CPC in 2006.
Vietnam As Country of Particular Concern (CPC): Evidence that International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) Works
The Commission has followed events in Vietnam closely. Commissioners and staff have traveled to Vietnam and we have established contacts with religious leaders, scholars, and human rights activists inside and outside of Vietnam.
Over the past fifteen years, the government of Vietnam has slowly carved out a noticeable "zone of toleration" for government approved religious practice. However, at the same time, it has actively repressed, and targeted as subversive, religious activity it cannot control or that which resists government oversight. Targeted in particular are leaders of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), ethnic minority Christians in the Central Highlands and northwest provinces, "house-church" Protestants, and followers of religious minority groups such as the Hoa Hao (WA-HOW) and Cao Dai (COW-DIE). This repression has not abated in the last year.
In May of this year, the State Department announced that it had reached an "agreement" with Vietnam to avoid more stringent actions, including economic sanctions, for countries designated as a CPC. Though the agreement is secret, from public statements we understand that essentially, Vietnam has promised to implement its new laws concerning religious affairs and consider releasing prisoners of concern. In response, the U.S. promises to consider removing the CPC designation.
We should not downplay the significance of this agreement and the part played by Ambassador-At-Large for International Religious Freedom John Hanford. Ambassador Hanford should be commended for the time and effort he has invested in Vietnam. The agreement reached was the first such diplomatic agreement signed with a CPC country since the passage of IRFA in 1998. We should see this as evidence that both vigorous diplomatic action and the use of the CPC designation can produce results that might lead to future improvements in religious freedom in Vietnam. The agreement also illustrates that the IRFA legislation and the CPC designation can be flexible and useful diplomatic tool. The Commission has heard recently from Vietnamese officials that their government now understands that human rights, including religious freedom, are issues they have to address to improve bilateral relations.
Madame Chair, these are encouraging developments, but they have not yet been followed up with concerted action. The actions taken thus far to carry out the aforementioned agreement only signal promises of improvement and not actual measurable progress. Promises do not mean progress and they do not address the human rights violations that landed Vietnam on the CPC list in the first place.
Religious prisoners remain behind bars, churches remain closed, and restrictions on and harassment of all of Vietnam's diverse religious communities continue-on which I'm sure the panelist that follow can offer specific information.
Don't Lift the CPC Designation Without Concrete Results
Since announcement of the May 2005 religious freedom agreement, troubling reports about abuses and continued restrictions continue to surface. It is obvious to the Commission that the situation in Vietnam at the present time can be summed up as "repression as usual"-particularly concerning Vietnamese ethnic and religious minorities. Though promises of future improvement are encouraging, we should not reward Vietnam too quickly by lifting the CPC designation.
Let me offer a few examples:
The events above happened in the Central Highlands, but forced renunciations also continue among the Hmong (MUNG) in Vietnam's northwest provinces. Police and security forces continue to summon Hmong Christian villagers to "re-education" where they are told to give up their faith traditions, are harassed, beaten and sometimes forced to drink wine.
Madame Chair, the Commission has collected 21 of these police summons, most dated in May of 2005 from Dien Bien (DEEN-BEEN) Province in the Northwest Highlands. We have very specific and very recent evidence that forced renunciations of faith continue.
Restrictions on all religious groups continue, but pressure has recently has been the most acute on the Mennonites, Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, Ethnic Minority and "house church" Protestants, and the Hoa Hao (WA-HOW) Buddhists. On August 5, the public security police arrested twelve Hoa Hao Buddhists, including four monks. In protest, a Hoa Hao Buddhist monk and a follower committed self-immolation. It is my understanding that the monk later died. In addition, a Hoa Hao monk known as Nam Liem (NAHM LIAM) was arrested and sentenced to seven years in prison for "opposing public authorities." Nam Liem was arrested for submitting testimony to the June 2005 hearing on Vietnam in the House International Relations Committee. Another Hoa Hao follower Bui Thien Hue, (BOWIE THEE-AN WAY) who also submitted testimony to the Committee Hearing has been harassed by security forces.
In addition, the Commission has also obtained a copy of a February 2005 Communist Party document-Plan 184-indicating that plans to rid the country of the "illegal Protestant religion" are still fully functioning in some places. Plan 184 is an update on a booklet, "Direction for Stopping Religion," used by security forces in the 1990s. The new document was released in the same month that the Prime Minister's "special instructions on Protestantism" and the new "decree" on religious affairs took effect, legal changes expected to have a positive effect. Plan 184 does not mention the new laws, but refers only to the Communist Party Central Committee's resolution on religion of January 2003. It was at that Central Committee meeting where local cadres were urged to "stamp out" democracy, free speech, and religious freedom advocates, internet users, and missionaries who were determined to be undermining the Party's authority.
Nonetheless, Plan 184 is a disturbing discovery and we hope that the Vietnamese government can immediately repudiate it and its contents. When the Vietnamese government issued the new instructions and decrees in February and March of 2005, the Commission viewed this as a positive step toward structural change. However, at the time, we suggested waiting for the law to be implemented fully before determining whether it was going to improve religious freedom conditions in Vietnam.
Though it is too soon to tell, the initial results are in, and Vietnam's recent legal reforms regarding religious affairs are either being ignored by Vietnamese security forces or used as a basis for ongoing abuses of religious freedom.
Because we have not seen positive results from promised legal reforms, the Commission believes that it is too soon to lift the CPC designation.
We know that human rights remain a problem for U.S.-Vietnam relations. But the question that always arises is, what can we do about it?
The Commission's 2005 Annual Report includes policy recommendations that we believe can improve U.S. human rights diplomacy for Vietnam. In general, the Commission recommends that U.S. diplomatic and assistance programs be expanded and re-prioritized to directly promote freedom of religion and related human rights in Vietnam. Non-humanitarian assistance programs have been declining in Vietnam, except for new HIV/AID funding and assistance programs to help Vietnam enter the WTO. We believe that new public diplomacy, economic development, and technical assistance programs should be targeted to address ongoing human rights problems.
We have made specific recommendations for congressional and Administration action in the areas of public diplomacy, economic development, education, good governance, and rule of law programs for Vietnam.
I have included a copy of the Commission's recommendations as part of my testimony.
If the government of Vietnam were to take further steps to honor its international commitments and improve its respect for human rights, U.S.-Vietnam relations would improve for the long term and serve as the basis for a strong and healthy relationship built on mutual interests, the rule of law, and the non-negotiable demand of human dignity.
Thank you Madame Chair and Members of the Caucus. I welcome your questions.
Commission Recommendations: Vietnam
Following the designation of Vietnam as a CPC, the Commission has recommended that the U.S. government should:
With regard to religious freedom conditions in Vietnam, in addition to recommending that Vietnam be designated a CPC, the Commission has recommended that the U.S. government should:
In addition, the U.S. Congress should appropriate additional money for the State Department's Human Rights and Democracy Fund for new technical assistance and religious freedom programming. Funding should be commensurate to new and ongoing programs for Vietnamese workers, women, and rule of law training.