December 16th, 2013
05:20 PM ET

Time for U.S. to press Vietnam over freedoms

By Scott Flipse, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Scott Flipse is the deputy director for policy at the U.S. Commission in International Religious Freedom. The views expressed are his own.

John Kerry is finishing up his first visit to Vietnam as Secretary of State, a trip billed as a chance to “highlight…a growing partnership” against a backdrop of increasingly intertwined bilateral interests. Yet despite the progress over the past decade, Vietnam’s sometimes fierce suppression of free speech, religion, ethnic minorities and independent labor unions complicates closer cooperation. It’s time for the U.S. to use its considerable influence with Vietnam to press for change.

Few Secretaries of State can draw on the kind of goodwill Kerry has built up through his efforts to improve ties between the United States and its former adversary. This, coupled with Vietnamese concerns over China and Hanoi’s need to further develop U.S. economic and security ties, means there is space for U.S. diplomatic efforts to have small but significant impacts on the lives of ordinary Vietnamese, particularly in the area of human rights.

True, the question remains of how realistic it is to hope for such a push given the administration’s insistence that democracy and human rights are no longer “core interests” of the U.S. globally.

Kerry should start by securing the freedom of Le Quoc Quan and fellow dissidents. Quan is a human rights lawyer and blogger who represents a new generation of dissident in Vietnam. It is the third detention for this lawyer and former fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy (and, full disclosure, a friend of mine). Over the past five years he has become an irritant to the Communist Party leadership, repeatedly defending dissidents in court, demonstrating with fellow Catholics at confiscated Church properties, and posting articles online about needed legal reforms.

Le Quoc Quan is a priority case for both the Vietnamese-American community and Reporters Without Borders, which organized an appeal signed by a dozen international human rights groups. But he is only one of hundreds of dissidents locked up in Vietnamese jails, and many other prisoners are in poor health.

Like their Communist brethren in Beijing, the Party in Hanoi faces popular dissatisfaction due to lagging economic performance and corruption. Also like Beijing, Vietnam has sometimes restive ethnic and religious minorities – making up almost 20 percent of the population, Khmer, Hmong, Montagnard, Hoa Hao, and Cao Dai communities face persistent racism, discrimination, religious persecution and abject poverty in part because they sided with the French or U.S. powers in the past.

Over the past several years, Communist Party leaders have become increasingly sensitive to public criticism and challenges to its political dominance, expanding efforts to silence dissidents and other critics of government policies. They believe that free speech, internet freedom, independent labor unions, and freedom of religion will eventually erode their legitimacy and political power, as it did it with the Communist parties of Eastern Europe.

It is probably too much to ask of U.S. diplomacy to halt all arrests of dissidents, censorship the Internet, or marginalization of minorities when Vietnamese leaders sees such actions as critical to their political survival. Still, the U.S. should be asking Hanoi to pay some price for improved relations. After all, Vietnam depends on U.S. export markets and security cooperation to survive China’s growing economic and military footprint.

Also, Hanoi is actively seeking admission to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) a trade regime that will include the likes of Chile, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, and Malaysia. Vietnam is the clear outlier among largely democratic TPP members. With this in mind, bipartisan coalitions in the U.S. Congress are moving to block Vietnam from TTP membership and additional U.S. trade benefits without measurable human rights improvements.

Hanoi also seeks U.S. military and diplomatic assistance for its conflict with China over territorial jurisdiction in the South China Sea. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, along with a bipartisan groups lead by Senator John McCain, have reportedly conditioned expanded military-to-military ties on human rights improvements. It is unclear whether the second term White House, along with new Secretaries Kerry and Hagel, share this stance, but the U.S. should make clear this linkage to the Vietnamese while promising further backing for Hanoi’s maritime claims.

Ultimately, the leverage exists to encourage meaningful reforms that marry U.S. interests in prosperity and principle. The question, then, is whether Vietnam will simply be allowed to jail hundreds of dissidents, expand internet controls, and marginalize millions of religious and ethnic minorities when the leverage and goodwill exist to stem the rising tide of rights abuses?

Not doing so would be a loss for long-term U.S. interests in East Asia, a blow to the millions of Vietnamese seeking democratic openness and human right and, potentially at least, may shape the way historians view John Kerry’s tenure as Secretary of State.
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Topics: Asia • Human Rights

soundoff (48 Responses)
  1. Jerry Falwell

    Have we not done enough to that country as it is? Now those idiots in Washington D.C. are trying to tell the Vietnamese how to run their own country! It's this kind of stupidity that's making us the most hated country in the world today!

    December 16, 2013 at 2:38 pm | Reply
    • Jet Falwell

      I suggest to you to drink for tranquilizer life

      December 16, 2013 at 5:23 pm | Reply
      • Marine5484

        I completely agree with Jerry above, Jet. Our jumping into Vietnam is one of the most stupid things that the brainless politicians in Washington ever did! That war was one big, fat no brainer! Only Ronald Reagan said that it was worthwhile which anyone with half a brain knows better than that! Now these idiots want to tell Vietnam what to do. How ludicrous can this be?

        December 16, 2013 at 5:50 pm |
  2. rightospeak

    How about pressing for freedoms in the US and end of censorship in the media ? We lost in VietNam so they could create sweat shops and flood the US market with cheap goods and the rich got richer while many lost their jobs. What a fine mess they got us into ?

    December 16, 2013 at 6:50 pm | Reply
  3. Danro

    In my time at college, I made friends with a Vietnamese student. I even worked in a Vietnamese duck factory Afro a couple of days. After talking with my friend a lot I realized that most Vietnamese love and respect the US. Let me repeat that again for the author of this article and anyone who will read this, The Vietnamese people Love America!!! Despite what we did they are mainly concerned with developing their country. As such they look to the developed world and especially America for ways to better themselves.
    That being said, Vietamese are also very proud of their country and respectful of authority. So there is no reason for the majority to challenge the ruling communist party. The US should unconditionally use its influence in the same way as it did in South Korea and Taiwan to guide the government towards democracy.
    The Vietnamese need the US for protection from China and will listen to it. This is a second chance to make an ally of Vietnam and guide it toward democracy and liberty.
    I'm happy that someone body realized that we can have normal relations with Vietnam again. Please go further than that.

    December 16, 2013 at 10:11 pm | Reply
    • HERO

      RIGHT , US & VN WILL CO.OPERATE SO STRONG TO DEVELOP FRIENDLY RELATION FOREVER ... THANKS FOR MR.JOHN'S COZY SHARING ... NON STOP TO GO AHEAD ... OK ???

      January 12, 2014 at 10:38 pm | Reply
  4. Danro

    Sorry for the typos. Sometimes my thoughts get ahead of my words and I don't check for errors.

    December 16, 2013 at 10:26 pm | Reply
  5. anonymousalpha

    America has already had plenty of opportunities to lead Vietnam in the right path to full democracy to become the country that American expects of everyone; once with South Vietnam, then Doi Moi and now this.. America needs to be more tougher with Vietnam on Democracy! Forget the people who're telling America that she needs to mind her own business with what the lawmakers in Vietnam are doing. If America does nothing to help Vietnam become a better country now, then she'll lose Vietnam once again to China. But before anything can happen, American needs to be a role model and show the true meaning of Democracy. As a Vietnamese, I truly believe that Vietnam and America has the full potentials to develop strong alliance with each other. Vietnam just needs America to lead it in the right path. Forget the past, this is a whole new opportunity for America to right all the wrongs.

    December 17, 2013 at 12:29 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      This is about one of the most ignorant posts I've seen here yet, anonymousalpha. You sound like a Tea partying dimwit who thinks that we Americans can do no wrong! What about our heinous bombing of the Amriya air raid shelter in Baghdad, Iraq on Feb. 13, 1991 by two American pilots, slaughtering well over 414 innocent civilians who had absolutely nothing to do with the First Gulf War? Need I say more?

      December 17, 2013 at 8:23 am | Reply
      • Hoang

        John McCarthy,
        It is idiot liberals like you that helped China to rise to bully all its neighbours. The demise of Vietnam and Asia to China is a demise to the U.S.

        December 18, 2013 at 5:57 am |
  6. Tuan Nguyen

    Yes! bring all countries into democracy. Can't wait till that day. Don't make me talk to alien to help us out if we cant help by ourself. Anyway, I'm trying my best to talk to alien in case China will try to bring communism to the world world.

    December 17, 2013 at 1:41 am | Reply
    • Felix Unger

      Can you explain Tuan, why "democracy" failed so miserably in the Middle East and in Egypt in particular? Besides, South Vietnam itself was a dictatorship even before the fall of Saigon in 1975! It was, just like Iraq is today, a U.S. backed pseudo-democracy!

      December 17, 2013 at 11:17 am | Reply
      • Tuan Nguyen

        Felix, they failed because they are new to democracy, every countries are different. They have to pay a great price first and learn to advance to a pro democracy.

        December 17, 2013 at 10:00 pm |
      • Hien

        There was no "dictatorship" in South Vietnam before 1975. There was "lied, fabricated, and abnoxous Americans' to have "reason" to pour old military equipment into South Vietnam. The Lying is still haunted US for ever. Don't lean to lie like you parents in the 60s, and 70s about South Vietnam.

        December 19, 2013 at 10:32 am |
  7. peinpein61

    STOP TALKING !!! NSA IS WATCHING YOU ...... so much for freedom

    December 17, 2013 at 6:33 am | Reply
  8. Felix Unger

    Jesus once said, let him who has not sinned cast the first stone. Today a lot of ignorant people led on by the right-wing Western media seem to be casting a lot of stones these days! We Americans have already done too much damage around the world to have the moral authority to tell others how to govern themselves!

    December 17, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Reply
    • Jerry Falwell

      Thank you, Felix. I couldn't have said it better!

      December 18, 2013 at 8:49 am | Reply
    • Hien

      Felix Unger: If you know how to say "We Americans have already done too much damage around the world to have the moral authority to tell others how to govern themselves!" then read more books and information to know "who a dictatorship" to kill South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem who built South Vietnam within 9 years from damaged country created by French to a "Pearl of Asia". US arrogant like Lodge, Harriman, JFK, Conien, are killers.
      Those people created million Vietnamese suffered in the war as well as fleet out of the country to be safe. Don' bring Jesus as a picture to frame America.

      December 19, 2013 at 10:42 am | Reply
      • Felix Unger

        Hey Hien, who do you think orchestrated the overthrow of both Pres. Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu on Nov. 1, 1963? It was done by our C.I.A., no less! The reason was because Pres. Diem was negotiating secretly with the Viet Cong in South Vietnam for a timetable for the eventual unification of Vietnam. Upon learning about it, Pres Kennedy started to plan a complete U.S. withdrawal no later than the summer of 1965.

        December 19, 2013 at 11:19 am |
  9. Sanjoy Das

    Hang on a sec – aren't we the same nation that caused the Mai Lai massacre, and sprayed Agent Orange in Vietnam?

    In view of China's rising levels of aggression I suggest that we bolster our friendship with Vietnam instead.

    December 17, 2013 at 6:54 pm | Reply
    • Felix Unger

      Well said, Sanjoy. I agree!

      December 19, 2013 at 11:22 am | Reply
    • Jiang

      And all of ASEAN, Bangladesh, Mongolia, Maldives, Sri Lanka, etc.

      December 20, 2013 at 11:50 pm | Reply
  10. SirGalahad

    So the United States, which

    * saves every emails you will ever write
    * saves every phone call you ever make
    * records every Skype, IM call or chat you make
    * saves all your Google searches
    * imprisons journalists for revealing government criminality
    * murders its own people in drones
    * murders journalists for speaking the truth (Michael Hastings)
    * has waged unprovoked wars of aggression against numerous poor countries, INCLUDING Vietnam
    * protects corporations (Monsanto) from prosecution

    is supposed to "press" Vietnam over freedom

    It's too daft to laugh at

    December 17, 2013 at 8:21 pm | Reply
  11. j. von hettlingen

    John Kerry is a Vietnam veteran and he returned to Vietnam last week to bolster ties with his former captors, offering security assurances and seeking to promote democratic and economic reform.
    The visit was Kerry's first to Vietnam since 2000, when he was part of Bill Clinton's historic trip there, the first by an American president since the end of the war in 1975 and the start of a US embargo. Between 1991 and 2000, Kerry traveled 13 times to Vietnam, beginning with visits to clear up lingering questions over the fate of American prisoners of war and those listed as missing in action from the conflict. So he knows his business there and the author must be disappointed.

    December 18, 2013 at 11:01 am | Reply
  12. Jiang

    GOD BLESS VIETNAM, crush Red China, go, go!

    December 20, 2013 at 11:49 pm | Reply
  13. Daniel Hoang

    What some of the Vietnamese nationalists and intellects, panda-faced blood sucking communists and pro-democracy alike, think about the US's involvement in Vietnam are these: 1) you bombed the hell of the country mercilessly and indiscriminately, 2) you respected no international rule of war, and thus poisoned our land and people with biological weaponts of mass destruction, i.e., agent orange, so that our next generations can remember you whenever we think "democracy" 3) you had no ideas what "human rights" were all about when you let go unpunished those war criminals who burned our villages and slaughtered our women and children, 4) you had no idea what our farmers needed so you helped them fertilized the lands by trapping tons and tons of cluster bombs and agent orange in our rice fields, 5) in the battle fields many young men fought valiantly and were fallen as great warriors and heroes, yet you turned your back and so too left your Vietnamese compatriots as free birds for the communists, and so also millions of civilians have died and suffered under the communist hands or lost at seas (I lost 2 brothers in the battle fields, 3 nieces and nephew and a sister in law at sea), 6) you entered the war based on your idiotic rationales without even knowing the grammar grade history about the thousands years hostile relationship between Vietnam and China, thus inadvertently you turned the two former enemies as friends of communism, 8) . . . should I write more . . .

    Inspire of all these, yesterdays were yesterday bygone, we still love the USA and consider this mighty great nation as the role model. We believe that the USA is the right path for all countries because we know the good, kind hearted, and freedom loving American people are none of those horrific things. We have hope in the USA because we know this great nation was found under God, and many of the braves have made sacrifices so that generations to enjoy the reality of all men are created equal to freely preserve justice and to live as free men, and so on.

    So next time when fate brings you, in your passing by some of the so-called slanted eye dog meat lovers bare footed dumb looking peasants in the rice field, don't think too little of them, for, though they might not be able speak the language you speak, but through their friendly smiles you can tell that they embrace you and love you because they know about the values of the great way of life in which you live more than you can imagine and give credit for.

    December 21, 2013 at 4:34 am | Reply
  14. Daniel Hoang

    In spite of all these, yesterdays . . .

    December 21, 2013 at 7:20 pm | Reply
  15. Ken Herrmann Jr

    It is time for Washington to recognize the vast freedoms, including religious freedom, enjoyed by the Vietnamese. Washington just can't avoid its imperialism. It is time for the USA to stop telling other peoples what to do and what not to do.

    December 23, 2013 at 4:19 pm | Reply
  16. Bi

    This article is a good reminder that the development of countries and, subsequently our world, lies in our ability to influence and create friends in the right way. No one will argue that human rights are important. In our country, we see them as a right of life. It only makes sense that new friendships we make as Americans convey this message as well and we support our ethics completely. Vietnam needs us and we can forge a really strong alliance with the country and bypass the negativity of recent history. We can't do this if we're not straight with the Vietnamese government. I do not advocate trying to change the country through force... I'm an advocate for helping the country grow and change by respecting our friendship and learning to understand each other.

    December 23, 2013 at 9:45 pm | Reply
  17. simon cao

    I'm from Vietnam and am studying in U.S for college , and let me tell you from our perspective. Among us there are people who are educated and well developed. They know what is right and what is wrong. They know that their government is doing such terrible job in a communist way. It is corrupted from the top to bottom, the whole system is fulled of inflation. We want some changes but it seems to be impossible. The majority of people who lives in rural area or not well informed are brain washed. They support the government which they dont know that it's communist. Our history was edited completely. Kids dont learn about Ngo Dinh Diem and that story is hidden. It is a mess in Vietnam and god know where to start for changing such crazy country

    January 10, 2014 at 5:18 am | Reply
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