China, Vietnam mark holidays with repression

Friday, January 1, 2010

THE WEST'S Christmas holiday season has become a season of repression for Asia's authoritarian regimes. On Christmas Day, China sentenced one of its foremost dissidents, Liu Xiaobo, to 11 years in prison for the "crime" of helping create the democracy manifesto Charter 2008. Days earlier Beijing induced Cambodia to hand over 20 Uighur refugees who should have been under the protection of the United Nations.

Now Vietnam, whose communist leadership often takes its cues from China, is having its turn. On Monday, a pro-democracy campaigner named Tran Anh Kim was handed a 5 1/2 -year sentence by a state-controlled court in the first of a series of trials of leading democracy activists. Five activists were arrested in June for peacefully advocating freedom of speech, free elections and other reforms. Like several of the others, Mr. Kim, a 60-year-old retired general, is a member of the Democratic Party of Vietnam and of Bloc 8406, a group of pro-democracy petitioners.

The four other activists, who are expected to be put on trial soon, include Le Cong Dinh, a 41-year-old Tulane University-educated lawyer. He has defended other human rights campaigners in court. Originally charged with spreading anti-government propaganda, Mr. Dinh and at least two of the other dissidents were re-charged last month with the capital crime of subversion.

They are only the most prominent of dozens of human rights activists, bloggers and monks whom the government has arrested or otherwise persecuted in recent months. In October, one of the country's best-known novelists, Nguyen Xuan Nghia, and eight other people were given sentences of two to six years for displaying pro-democracy banners on bridges.

Some Vietnam analysts believe the government's crackdown is intended to set the stage for a ruling party congress scheduled for 2011. Yet surely Vietnam, like China, has taken note of the Obama administration's relaxed attitude toward supporting dissidents and its public proclamations that human rights issues must be balanced against other interests. While the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam has criticized the crackdown, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said nothing in public about the arrests when she met Vietnam's foreign minister in October. Instead she focused attention on the "tenfold" increase in bilateral trade she said had taken place since 2001.

That trade boom makes Vietnam sensitive to Western criticism of its human rights record. So the staging of trials of pro-democracy activists during the holiday season is almost certainly not a coincidence. The tactic just might be working: A State Department spokesman said Wednesday that no public statement had been made about Mr. Kim's case, because "no one asked." He then e-mailed us a statement saying "the United States is disappointed in the results of the trial" and noting that Mr. Kim's case was among those raised during a U.S.-Vietnam dialogue on human rights in November. No doubt Hanoi regards such talk as perfunctory; certainly, the Obama administration has done nothing that would suggest otherwise.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company