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US lawmakers urge Trump to push Vietnam on rights record during North Korea summit

Vietnamese rallying for democracy, human rights in Vietnam and protesting the Vietnamese communist government's human rights abuses, on April 30, 2012 in commemoration of the Fall of Saigon. (Magicloveisintheair/Wikimedia Commons)
February 26, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Three U.S. lawmakers have called on U.S. President Donald Trump to raise human rights issues with officials in Vietnam when he travels to the one-party Communist Southeast Asian nation next week for a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

In a letter dated Feb. 19, U.S. House of Representatives members Zoe Lofgren, Chris Smith, and Alan Lowenthal—co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus on Vietnam—expressed concerns that Hanoi is hosting the second U.S.-North Korea summit scheduled for Feb. 27-28, given Vietnam’s poor rights record.

“Being chosen to host a summit of this magnitude is an honor the Vietnamese government neither merits nor has earned, particularly given its deplorable human rights record, the detention of American citizens, and a new cybersecurity law that has already led to the censorship of social media posts from American and German citizens,” the letter reads.

“We ask you to raise these issues in any discussion you may have with Vietnamese government and Communist Party leaders during your visit. They must not come away from the summit emboldened to expand restrictions on fundamental freedoms, but should know that the Administration views the status quo as unacceptable.”

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The lawmakers highlighted what they called Vietnam’s “disturbing record” on prisoners of conscience, pointing to a list released last year by London-based Amnesty International that includes nearly 100 dissidents jailed for expressing views critical of the government, and who they said endure “alarming” treatment in detention.

American citizens have been arrested and reportedly “brutally beaten” during visits to Vietnam, they said, adding that U.S. citizen Michael Phuong Minh Nguyen has been held on what they called “trumped up charges” since July last year.

On July 31, the U.S. Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City Franc Shelton confirmed that Nguyen—a 54-year-old father of four from California—had been arrested and was being held at a detention center in the city while under investigation for “activity against the People’s government,” according to Article 109 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.

His brother-in-law said at a press conference during the time that during the investigation, Nguyen is not allowed any family visits or access to a lawyer, and cannot receive any letters or other written communication, “even from his children.”

Lofgren, Smith and Lowenthal urged Trump in their letter to make Nguyen’s case a priority during his visit “to signal that the Vietnamese government’s actions are unacceptable.”

“If you cannot reconsider the venue of the North Korea summit, we ask that you meet with Vietnamese leaders and make the case why substantive improvements in the protections of religious freedom, free speech, and other basic human rights are a prerequisite for enhanced U.S.-Vietnamese relations,” the letter read.

The three lawmakers closed by calling on Trump to strongly push for Nguyen’s release, as well as the release of all prisoners of conscience, and asked that he specifically raise the cases of Amnesty International’s list of jailed dissidents, which they enclosed in the letter.

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During the Hanoi summit, Kim is expected to demand relief from economic sanctions and the U.S. is expected to press Pyongyang to follow through on previous pledges to denuclearize.

Additional letters

The request from the three U.S. representatives followed two separate letters from Vietnamese intellectuals and activists, urging Trump to help thwart China’s gradual takeover of the South China Sea, where Hanoi and Beijing are embroiled in maritime territorial disputes.

The two letters—one from Vietnamese exiles and another from intellectuals inside of Vietnam—had praised recent tough speeches about China by Trump administration officials and called for Washington’s support in the dispute over islands and reefs, saying China’s actions in the waters were threatening the freedom of navigation and challenging the authority of the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific region.

China has aggressively asserted its claims to the Spratlys, the Paracels, and the rest of the South China Sea—which Vietnam refers to as the East Sea—based on its so-called “nine-dash” demarcation line that encompasses some 90 percent of the waters, including territory claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia.

Beijing has been fortifying the islands it claims in the vital waterway with weaponry, runways and deep water berths. China has also created artificial islands in the South China Sea by dredging massive amounts of sand and Chinese officials have promoted tourism to the islands.

Le Trung Tinh, a France-based member of the South China Sea Researchers group and signatory of the Feb. 14 letter by Vietnamese exiles, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that he hopes Trump will ask China to seek a resolution to the South China Sea dispute through international arbitration.

“If China is so adamant that they have strong evidence to support their case for sovereignty over the Paracels, why won’t they accept bringing the case to a third party,” he asked.

Former political prisoner Nguyen Vu Binh, who is now living in exile, said he signed the letter because he believes China’s actions in the sea, and particularly its aggressive behavior against Vietnamese fishermen, “blatantly violate international law.”

“If we want to keep our sovereignty over the sea and keep the islands free for fishing, we have to bring the issue to the attention of the international community,” he said.

“The dispute in the South China Sea is not only between Vietnam and China, but the U.S. is also involved in strategic issues there, plus there is the issue of freedom of navigation, so I think President Trump will acknowledge the letter and the concerns of the Vietnamese people. To what extent is unclear, but I believe it will have an impact.”

Prominent blogger Mother Mushroom, who won a surprise release from a 10-year jail term for “anti-state propaganda” in October last year and relocated to the U.S., said she also believed the letter would have some effect on Trump’s interactions with the Chinese.

“At least it will show the Vietnamese government that Vietnamese all over the world will never give up the desire to regain the Paracels and Spratlys,” she said.

Growing influence

Signatories to the Feb. 17 letter penned by intellectuals and activists inside Vietnam, told RFA that its purpose was largely to inform the wider international community about the danger Chinese control of the South China Sea and growing influence poses to the region.

Retired police colonel and former official with Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Nguyen Dang Quang said the letter is “not only to let [Trump] know, but to show the world … that when Vietnam’s sea and islands risk invasion, the U.S. is a natural ally of Vietnam.”

Hoang Dung, a linguistics professor, told RFA that those who signed the letter “don’t expect Trump will do anything for Vietnam, as any state leader makes decisions based on his own country’s interests.”

“However, with this letter, we would like to inform the world and the Vietnamese people that the Vietnamese government has two options: to become more and more influenced by China, or to quickly move itself out of that influence,” he said.

“When Trump and Kim Jong Un meet in Vietnam, this is a good time for us to show that the need to move out of China’s influence is becoming increasingly urgent.”

Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by An Nguyen. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.