TPP May Not Help Rights Activists in Vietnam

Although the government of Vietnam has agreed to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the Obama administration in Washington has advocated as a vehicle to improve human rights in member countries, there is precious little evidence of it on the ground in Vietnam. Many of Vietnam’s greatest intellects, independent voices, and enduring spirits remain in jail or under house arrest. This repression of peaceful dissent epitomizes the Communist Party’s human rights violations.

For instance, on Nov. 16, the newly released human rights activist Tran Minh Nhat was threatened and physically attacked by police outside Lam Ha Hospital following Nhat. He was also beaten and detained for 12 hours the previous week by plainclothes police while making his way home from Saigon.

Nhat and his father were stopped by two men outside the hospital who proceeded to grab Nhat by the neck to take him to Dinh Van Town Police Station. Nhat was requested to sign documents admitting the violation of his house arrest despite informing local authorities earlier that morning.

Attempt at Forced Confession

“They tried to force me to sign documents stating that I had violated the terms of house arrest however I refused to sign,” he said. Nhat was visiting a clinic near Lam Ha Hospital for rib and lung injuries he had sustained from physical assaults on Nov. 8. He was choked and repeatedly punched in the stomach while being interrogated about his travels to Saigon.

Nhat was first arrested in August 2011 and charged with organizing “to attempt to overthrow the government” under Article 79 of the Vietnamese Penal Code. He served four years in prison before being released under house arrest in August 2015.

Since his release, Nhat’s family has lived under constant harassment from local police. Guests at his sister’s wedding in mid-September were intimidated while arriving at his house.

“We truly hope that there will be less police intimidation and harassment in the future so we are able to contribute effectively in our local community and society in general,” he said.

Repeated Vows to Clean up Act

Despite repeated vows by Vietnam’s leaders that the country’s stance towards labor negotiations and human rights will change, there are literally dozens of stories like Nhat’s. On Nov. 9 – just a week days earlier – two lawyers advising the family of a young man who died in police custody case were attacked by mask-wearing thugs in Hanoi, leaving them bloody and bruised, one of the victims told Asia Human Rights Defenders. Lawyers Tran Thu Nam and Le Van Luan were meeting with the family of Do Dang Du —a 17-year-old who was declared dead by authorities on Oct. 10 after more than a month in detention—when they were assaulted by eight unidentified men, Luan told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.

“We went to see the family to attend to some legal procedures and when we left the house, eight young guys wearing masks attacked us,” Luan said about an hour after the assault. The 17-year-old Du apparently was beaten to death in custody after being arrested on allegations he had stolen the equivalent of US$90 from a neighbor. On Oct. 4, he was beaten unconscious and fell into a coma with a brain hemorrhage until he died six days later.

Police brutality in Vietnam is a common human rights violation. Scores of people detained on minor charges often die each year while in custody, where they are beaten to extract confessions, sometimes for crimes they say they did not commit, or for criticizing police officers.

Nice Words From The White House

A statement from the White House said that “Trade policy should reflect not only our interests, but also our values. The Trans-Pacific Partnership has provided the administration with significant opportunities to make progress on human rights issues. Both in the agreement itself, as well as in our bilateral engagement, we are working through trade to ensure that people everywhere are treated with dignity and respect. We are working on country-specific issues and building on our human rights dialogues. We are also using TPP to support jobs, take on corruption, and improve living standards for workers and families at home and abroad.

But, said Brad Adams, the Southeast Asia executive director for Human Rights Watch in a printed statement earlier this year, ““People point to South Korea and Taiwan and say economic liberalization automatically leads to democracy, but you can also point to Singapore and Malaysia that are economically strong but have no sign of any real democratic futures. The trade policy people in Washington D.C. like to evangelize that the TPP will bring democracy to countries like Vietnam, but the reality is Vietnam’s Communist Party will take the parts of the TPP they want and ignore the rest.”

Unfortunately, Adams may prove more prescient than the White House.

Don Le is a member of Viet Tan, an unsanctioned pro-democracy political party in Vietnam.