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Throw them a Dissident” Vietnam Lures the US into Trade Deal

31 August 2006, By Scott Johnson

The recent announcement by the Vietnamese government in August 2006 that they will release “some” dissidents in a general amnesty reminds me of a conversation I had with a former US State Department official about his dealings with the Soviets during the cold war. “Throw them a dissident” was what he said and he described how the Soviets would play the stalling game, by keeping Western diplomatic pressure at bay for a time. Every now and then the Soviets would just release a dissident from the gulags. The former official also noted the Soviets would sometimes arrest a bunch of dissidents just before an important US diplomatic visit – specifically to have some prisoners to release, thus in effect creating their own bargaining chips. The pressure would ease off for a while until it built up again and they would release another poor dissident or two. On and on it went…..and of course the Soviet Union never eased up on human rights violations or permitted multi party elections. No, of course the old communists clung to power until they had it eventually wrenched from their iron grip.

With Vietnam , it’s the same ol’ story. On the eve of getting into the World Trade Organization (WTO), we see Hanoi up to its old tricks, releasing a dissident or two. While some thousands of prisoners are due to be released, how many of them are actual political prisoners? How many are indigenous Montagnards (who have been electric shock tortured)? According to Vo Van Ai of the Buddhist Information service in Paris there are only four prisoners of conscience, out of 5,313 and he describes this “piecemeal amnesty” as a “propaganda exercise”. Kok Ksor of the Montagnard Foundation states “he has serious doubts the Vietnamese would release the 350 Montagnards currently held in prison”. Mr. Ksor should know, as he has a brother currently serving a seven year jail sentence for merely trying to flee the country as a refugee. His 80 year old mother too had her ribs broken by police during an interrogation.

As to the fate of Mr. Ksor’s people the Montagnards, the indigenous peoples of Vietnam ’s central highlands, these people were America ’s loyal ally during the Vietnam War. At any one time some 40,000 Montagnards served with the US military during the Vietnam War. Yet, how many people know that after 1975 the vengeful communists commenced a decade’s long policy of land exploitation, Christian religious repression, torture, killings and imprisonment of the Montagnards? Today in September 2006 the US State Department has continued to maintain Vietnam on the “country of particular concern” (CPC) watch list of countries that are the worst violators of religious freedom. In fact the entire Montagnard population faces continual repression by security forces who commit regular human rights violations against them.

Yes, a lure has been cast out to the United States , just prior to Congress’ vote on Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) scheduled with Vietnam in September 2006. A lure to catch the US Congress. PNTR you see is a stepping stone for entry into the WTO and the proponents of PNTR will argue economic engagement is the key to Vietnam ’s development. They will say ‘we must engage economically with Vietnam and this will assist Vietnam in changing its repressive ways”. This is what the US trade lobby argues, and to be fair they have a point. However, Vietnam ’s northern neighbor (and communist big brother) China , has spoiled the “miraculous cure all” remedy of economic engagement. The United States indeed granted PNTR to China some years ago and it didn’t result in any great reforms. No, judging from a comment by Senator Charles Grassley, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, one can see that China has actually ruined the image of economic engagement. Senator Grassley stated in a Senate Hearing on PNTR negotiations for Vietnam that, “We need to make sure that we aren’t played for a sucker in the case of Vietnam , as we have been with China .”

The question should really be, how does the United States do things differently to ensure Vietnam does indeed bring about the promised human rights reforms? Admittedly this is a dilemma as Vietnam has a history of diplomatic trickery and is one of the most corrupt nations in the world. But we can safely say that outright appeasement will not work. Once Vietnam gains PNTR and accedes to the WTO, there are few if any sticks left to wield against Hanoi . But such outright appeasement is a real danger and possible reality. Recently in July 2006 Chris Seiple of the religious based think tank, Global Institute for Engagement testified in front of the US Senate Finance Committee stating “we should send a strong and unambiguous message to Vietnam ’s leaders that we are willing to work with them. Establishing PNTR and lifting CPC sends that signal.”

In other words, the onus is on the United States to appease the oppressors, (i.e.: we reward Vietnam , for doing something they should never have been doing in the first place). It is difficult to comprehend whether Mr. Seiple’s organization has starry eyed ideals or simply wants to protect their future visas to Vietnam . (I hesitate to claim they are on Hanoi ’s payroll). Perhaps I just read their title wrong, was it Global Institute for “appeasement”? No, of course I read it right and yet, as I read it again each time I have clear visions of Neville Chamberlain coming back from Nazi Germany waving a paper, “peace in our time”.

In Vietnam ’s case the United States needs to engage with Vietnam , but not in a weak position on human rights. Now is the time to stand strong with the dissidents, time to show courage and state loud and clear that the United States will not tolerate repressive governments in lieu of trade deals. It is time for the United States to give hope to the embattled Montagnard population inside Vietnam , its former ally, to give hope to all Vietnamese citizens. Engagement yes, but not appeasement. The old chain smoking communists in power in Hanoi , they know how to play the West and will resist and lie all the way. They will never change, they will only die off, but unfortunately for those who desire freedom in Vietnam , in particularly the younger generation of people in Vietnam , the old communists will just not die off fast enough.

Scott Johnson