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The Tendentious US-Vietnam Rights Relationship
Religious groups still look to the US for help
By: Nguyễn Vũ
As the United States and Vietnam have increasingly found common cause on strategic issues in the South China Sea and the bid to keep China at bay over international navigation and occupation of strategic islets, Washington has had to hold its nose and turn a blind eye over human rights issues as Hanoi and the Communist Party, fearing a letup could unleash uncontrollable forces, have stubbornly refused to give ground on religious issues – mostly.
For its part, the US, given what it sees as its strategic needs, is struggling to not push Hanoi too far on religious or human rights issues, even as rights activists see America as their most important hope. They found President Joe Biden's remarks during his September visit to the country to be disheartening, considering his administration's avowed commitment to prioritizing human rights upon assuming office in 2021. In his 2,000-word speech during his September visit to Vietnam, human rights were just fleetingly mentioned.
Biden called Hanoi and Washington “critical partners” at “a very critical time" but shied away from mentioning the worsening record of "a friend, a reliable partner and a responsible member of the international community." Even his brief statement on human rights, in which he said “I also raised the importance of respect for human rights as a priority for both my administration and the American people. And we’ll continue to — our candid dialogue on that regard,” was removed in the Vietnamese version published on Vietnamese state-controlled media without explanation.
Yet the president’s historic visit was still crucial to helping certain activities. Vietnam has tended to release political prisoners prior to visits by US presidents. This trip was no different. Prior to his trip to upgrade the two countries to a comprehensive strategic partnership, in a private arrangement, human rights lawyer Võ An Đôn, who advocated for police accountability, along with a Catholic parishioner whose name was not revealed, and their respective families were authorized to seek refuge in the United States.
Nguyễn Bắc Truyển, an advocate for religious freedom who had been imprisoned for subversion since 2018, particularly on behalf of Hoa Hao Buddhists, was also released on September 9, a day prior to Biden's arrival.
But when presidents aren’t coming and going, things are depressingly different. Since mid-2022, for instance, media outlets have been “asked by above” to publish articles directly or indirectly seeking to refute international criticisms of its repression of religious freedoms. In particular, the state-controlled media seek to emphasize that foreign forces have often taken advantage of the country’s diverse demography to seek ways to distort and dampen the party-state’s policies for their political purposes. These “foreign forces” are often understood as the US, or Vietnamese individuals and entities allegedly associated with the latest comprehensive strategic partner.
These top-down, concerted efforts have been designed to counter a recent report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) that recommended that Vietnam be reinstated onto the list of “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC), in the wake of its repression of different religious groups, which Vietnam argues is in the name of national unity and security. In its 2023 report, the commission concluded that despite increased opportunities for religious communities over the past decade, the overall human rights situation in the country remains extremely unsettling.
In fact, religious freedoms have deteriorated in recent years, the commission concluded. On November 30, 2022, a few months after Vietnam became a Human Rights Council member, the US Secretary of State, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, placed Vietnam on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom, along with Algeria, Central African Republic and Comoros.
Under this kind of repression, religious advocacy groups look to the US as the best dialogue partner to pressure Hanoi. Ahead of the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's visit last April to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the US-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership, the faith-based legal advocacy organization ADF International and 70 international experts and groups wrote the Biden administration, requesting that it raise concerns directly with Vietnamese leaders regarding their government's hostile stance towards religions that resist government control.
However pallid its response has been, the US has still been the most outspoken critic of the Communist Party’s human rights record, while other comprehensive partners of Vietnam, including the EU and Japan, have embraced silent diplomacy. Many human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, are based in the US and led by Americans. Additionally, the US has been a common destination for Vietnam's refugee religious leaders and dissidents and the US government remains among major foreign donors for civil society actors inside and outside Vietnam.
The sweeping 1986 set of socio-economic reforms, known as Đổi mới, and the establishment of diplomatic relations with the US in 1995 have exerted a significant impact on the rise of new religious groups and practices in Vietnam. Also, it was the state department’s removal of Vietnam from its list of Countries of Particular Concern in 2006 that facilitated its entry into the World Trade Organization in 2007. However, soon after Vietnam joined the WTO, its human rights record deteriorated.
These developments have led to increased interactions between Vietnamese residing overseas and those living within Vietnam. However, it is important to note that the state continues to constrict and exercise control over religious activities in the country. Not all ethnic groups benefited from the relaxation of religious opening by the government. In particular, some ethnic groups experienced even further restrictions.
Only 16 religions are recognized in the country, despite its constitutionally granted freedom of religion. Most of the outspoken advocates for religious freedom and human rights belong to one of the five largest religious groups in the country: Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, Cao Đài, and Hoà Hảo Buddhists. Dr Paul Sorrentino, Associate Professor at EHESS, France, in his “The religious question and secularization" chapter in the 2018 book “ History of Vietnam, From Colonization to Today,” edited by Benoit de Treglode, remarked that whether a religious group is revolutionary or reactionary is at the sole discretion of the government.
Spiritual leaders that refuse to be affiliated with state agencies are often accused of sowing division. Both Catholicism and Protestantism are suspected by the party-state of being manipulated by powerful foreign forces that want to undermine Vietnam’s sovereignty. The conversion of hundreds of thousands of Hmong to Protestantism is indeed somewhat related to the US. Their religious shift originated in 1989 with a small group of Hmong Protestants and quickly spread throughout the community.
The process of conversion was triggered by chance encounters with an evangelical radio station called the Far East Broadcasting Company (FEBC), a radio ministry based in California, which in the 1980s initiated a program aimed at converting the Hmong, which was produced by Hmong preachers in California and broadcast from their station in Manila. It was also the Hmong diaspora communities in the US who fled the communists during the Vietnam War that put pressure on the US government on Vietnam’s repression of religious activities. The conversion put this hitherto marginalized ethnic group further at odds with the Communist State, who consider illicit missionaries and foreign-affiliated activists as opportunistic individuals who exploit religion to incite ethnic conflicts, promote anti-communism, and generate social and political instability.
Following Biden's visit, a Vietnamese delegation, led by Deputy Minister of Home Affairs Vũ Chiến Thắng, undertook a working visit to the US, specifically to discuss religious matters. Interestingly, while English-speaking Vietnamese media covered the trip, it received no coverage in the Vietnamese-language outlets. Although the outcome of the meeting remains undisclosed to the public, it marked a significant milestone as the first religious dialogue between Vietnam and a strategic comprehensive partner. Vietnam currently has two other strategic comprehensive partnerships with China and Russia.
Yet, Vũ was quoted as saying "We made specific and rigorous arguments against the misleading and unobjective views and assessments of the religious situation in Việt Nam by US organizations and individuals, and asked the US side not to back or use one-sided information from reactionary Vietnamese individuals and organizations in exile in the US.”