HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH
World Report 2006
Vietnam’s membership into the World Trade Organization pending, the government
took some steps in 2005 to counter international concern about its human rights
record. The government released some religious and political prisoners,
officially outlawed forced recantations of faith, and published a white paper
defending its record on human rights.
these gestures, Vietnam’s denial of fundamental rights remained largely
unchanged during 2005. Authorities continue to persecute members of independent
churches, impose controls over the Internet and the press, restrict public
gatherings, and imprison people for their religious or political views.
Legislation remains in force authorizing the arbitrary “administrative
detention”—without trial—for up to two years of anyone suspected of threatening
During 2005 the government released at least twelve political and religious
prisoners, but arrested many more. Most of those arrested were minority
Christians in the Central Highlands, collectively known as Montagnards, who the
government alleged were separatists. The top two leaders of the Unified Buddhist
Church of Vietnam remained under house arrest. At least seven Hoa Hao Buddhists
were sentenced to prison during 2005.
Controls over Freedom of Expression and the Internet
There is no independent, privately-run media in Vietnam. Domestic newspapers and
television and radio stations remain under strict government control, and direct
criticism of the Communist Party is forbidden. Foreign media representatives are
required to obtain authorization from the Foreign Ministry for all travel
The government attempts to control public access to the Internet and blocks
websites considered objectionable or politically sensitive. In May 2005, the
government blocked the Vietnamese-language website of the British Broadcasting
Corporation. A government directive issued in July 2005 prohibits Internet use
by “reactionary and hostile forces.” In 2004, the Ministry of Public Security
established an office to monitor the Internet for unauthorized use and
“criminal” content, including disseminating “state secrets.” A January 2004
government directive requires Internet café owners to monitor customers’ email
messages and block access to banned websites.
Several dissidents have been imprisoned for alleged “national security” crimes
after using the Internet to disseminate views disliked by the government. They
include Pham Hong Son, who is serving five years of imprisonment on espionage
charges after he disseminated articles about democracy on the Internet; Nguyen
Khac Toan, serving twelve years after being arrested in an Internet café, where
he allegedly “vilified” government officials in emails sent abroad; and Nguyen
Vu Binh, a journalist who was sentenced to seven years of imprisonment after he
posted an article on the Internet criticizing the government.
Freedom of Assembly
Public demonstrations are extremely rare, especially after harsh government
crackdowns against mass protests in the Central Highlands in 2001 and 2004. In
March 2005, the prime minister signed Decree 38/1005/ND-CP, which stiffened
restrictions on freedom of assembly. It bans public gatherings in front of
places where government, party, and international conferences are held, and
requires organizers of public gatherings to apply for and obtain government
permission in advance.
Freedom of Religion
Followers of religions not officially recognized by the government continue to
be routinely persecuted. Security officials disperse their religious gatherings,
confiscate religious literature, and summon religious leaders to police stations
In 2004, the United States designated Vietnam a “country of particular concern”
for its violations of religious freedom. International pressure resulted in a
number of prisoner releases in 2005, and the passage of a new ordinance on
religion in 2004. A February 2005 decree by the prime minister bans forced
recantations of faith and loosens some restrictions on Christian organizations.
However, the government continues to require religious organizations to register
with the government in order to be legal, and prohibits religious activities
determined to cause public disorder, harm national security, or sow divisions.
Local authorities have used the new regulations as grounds to arrest minority
Christians suspected of belonging to churches that operate independently. In
addition, forced renunciation ceremonies continue despite the new decree banning
such practices. Since March 2005, Human Rights Watch has received reports of
renunciation ceremonies taking place in Lao Cai, Quang Nai, Ha Giang, and Gia
Ethnic Hmong Christians in the northwest and Hre Christians in Quang Nai
province have been beaten, detained, and pressured by local authorities to
renounce their religion and cease religious gatherings. In February and March
2005, religious repression and a heightened military presence in Lai Chau
province caused a number of Hmong Christian families to flee to neighboring
China, Burma, and Laos. In March 2005, officials in Dien Bien province launched
an official four-month campaign to eradicate Protestantism amongst the Hmong.
In the Central Highlands, the government has continued its persecution of
Montagnards, particularly those thought to be following “Dega Christianity,” a
form of evangelical Christianity that is banned by the Vietnamese government.
Since 2001, close to 300 Montagnard Christians have been imprisoned on charges
that they are separatists using their religion to “undermine national unity.”
Similar claims have been made by officials in the northwest, who claim that the
Hmong’s Vang Chu religion is a front for separatist activity.
The unregistered Vietnam Mennonite Church remains under surveillance and its
members continue to encounter conflicts with local authorities. While Rev.
Nguyen Hong Quang, the Mennonite general secretary, was released from prison in
2005, evangelist Pham Ngoc Thach remained in prison.
One monk from the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), Thich Thien
Mien, was released from prison in 2005. However the government continues to
persecute UBCV members and withhold any recognition of this group, once the
largest organization of Buddhists (the majority religion) in the country. The
UBCV’s Supreme Patriarch, Thich Huyen Quang, and its second-ranking leader,
Thich Quang Do, have been confined without charges to their monasteries for
years, under police surveillance. The Foreign Ministry restricts visitors to the
monks, including diplomats and journalists, on grounds they are under
investigation for possession of “state secrets.”
Members of the Hoa Hao sect of Buddhism, while officially recognized by the
government, have also been subject to police harassment and surveillance. Two
members were arrested in February 2005 for making religious videotapes. In May
and June 2005, police disrupted Hoa Hao Buddhist ceremonies and funeral
gatherings, reportedly destroying religious banners and an altar. In June 2005
Hoa Hao Buddhists announced a hunger strike to protest lack of government
response to a complaint submitted by 500 followers that they were “terrorized
and oppressed” by authorities in An Giang.
Two Hoa Hao Buddhists, Vo Van Buu and Tran Van Ut, self-immolated on August 5,
2005, in protest against suppression of their religion and detention of their
leaders. Police reportedly used tear gas and water cannons to disperse funeral
proceedings for the two, attended by thousands of followers. The Foreign
Ministry called Tran Van Ut’s immolation “an extremist act of destroying
himself.” In September 2005, Hoa Hao monk Vo Van Thanh Liem, who had submitted
written testimony on human rights in Vietnam for a June 2005 U.S. congressional
hearing, was sentenced to nine years of imprisonment. At least six other Hoa Hao
members were sentenced to prison during 2005.
In July 2005, nine members of the Cao Dai religion were sentenced to prison for
between three and thirteen years for “fleeing abroad to oppose the government.”
They had been arrested and repatriated from Cambodia in September 2004 when they
tried to deliver a letter of protest to international diplomats during a meeting
of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Phnom Penh.
Arbitrary Arrest, Torture, and Unfair Trials
Hundreds of religious and political prisoners remain behind bars. There is
compelling evidence of torture and other mistreatment of detainees. Prison
conditions are extremely harsh and fall far short of standards. Human Rights
Watch has received reports of solitary confinement of detainees in cramped,
dark, unsanitary cells; lack of access to medical care; and of police beating,
kicking, and using electric shock batons on detainees, or allowing inmates or
prison gangs to carry out beatings of fellow prisoners with impunity.
Police officers routinely arrest and detain suspects without written warrants.
Political trials are closed to the international press corps, the public, and
often the families of the detainees themselves. Defendants do not have access to
independent legal counsel.
Defending Human Rights
No independent or nongovernmental human rights organizations operate in Vietnam.
In September 2004, Vietnam denied a visa to U.S. Representative Loretta Sanchez,
an outspoken critic of the country’s human rights record and co-founder of the
Congressional Caucus on Vietnam. In August 2005, Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign
Affairs released an eighty-two page white paper entitled, “Achievements in
protecting and promoting human rights in Vietnam.”
Key International Actors
Vietnam’s international donors, who number about fifty bilateral and
multilateral donors, pledged U.S.$3.4 billion in aid for Vietnam at the December
2004 Consultative Group meeting, a substantial increase over 2004. While donors
have publicly focused on economic growth and poverty reduction programs, they
have increasingly expressed concerns about the government’s imprisonment of
dissidents, suppression of freedom of expression and of religion, and its poor
handling of the crisis in the Central Highlands.
In 2005 the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared Thich Huyen Quang
and Thich Quang Do victims of arbitrary detention. In 2005 officials from the
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and foreign diplomats made several
visits to the Central Highlands. Among those visited were Montagnard returnees
from Cambodian refugee camps. Most of these visits were carried out in the
presence of government or party officials. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU)
signed in January 2005 between UNHCR and the governments of Cambodia and Vietnam
commits Vietnam not to punish returnees for their illegal departure, but it
makes no such promise with respect to punishment or prosecution of returnees for
practicing their religion or expressing their political opinions.
Several countries broadened their public support for dissidents in 2005. After
repeated requests, the British ambassador and the head of the E.U. delegation to
Vietnam received authorization to visit Thich Quang Do in September. The
European Parliament held a hearing in September 2005 on human rights in Vietnam,
Cambodia, and Laos.
In November 2005, the U.S. embassy praised Vietnam’s release of religious
prisoners and promulgation of new laws on religion, but continued Vietnam’s
designation as a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom
violations. In June 2005, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai made a state visit to the
United States, the highest-level visit by a Vietnamese official since the end of
the Vietnam War.