Why does Vietnam fear a nonviolent, 69-year-old physician?

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Monday, February 28, 2011; 7:42 PM

IT'S NOT EVERY day that a Washington Post op-ed has its truth proven within a few hours of publication, but author Nguyen Dan Que had that dubious satisfaction on Saturday.

In Saturday's Post, Dr. Nguyen, a noted Vietnamese democracy advocate, wrote, "While the world's attention is riveted on the Middle East, democracy continues to struggle to take root in other regions."

Sure enough, within hours security police were at his door. They seized his computer and telephone and hauled him down to the district police station.

"They worry about the wind of democracy from North Africa and the Middle East," Dr. Nguyen's brother, Quan Nguyen, who lives in Northern Virginia, told us.

That the communist authorities in Hanoi would come after Dr. Nguyen - again - is indeed a sign of their vulnerability. Dr. Nguyen, 69, has spent 20 years in prison, in three terms, since 1978. He has been consistent in his nonviolent promotion of human rights. In a recent open letter, he called for demonstrations demanding "the freedom to choose the right leaders of the nation."

The United States has been eager to improve relations with Vietnam, despite its deteriorating human rights record. But as Dr. Nguyen pointed out, "the truth is that Hanoi needs Washington much more than Washington needs Hanoi. . . . Vietnam looks out at a re-militarized China and an ongoing dispute in the South China Sea, not to mention domestic woes that include a sluggish economy and an outdated education system."

On Sunday, under pressure from human rights groups and expatriate Vietnamese, police released Dr. Nguyen, his brother told us, but insisted that he report to the police station Monday, where they wanted him to account, page by page, for 60,000 documents they had found on his computer. Dr. Nguyen refused, insisting that he has always been forthright and public about his views. It wasn't clear if he would agree to resume the farce Tuesday or face possible rearrest. The harassment is "unacceptable," a State Department spokesman told us last night. "We have and will continue to express our deep concerns to the Vietnamese government."

Vietnamese authorities, who seem to be learning the wrong lesson from the Middle East, should understand that the best hope for their country is more freedom and reform. The United States should heed the words whose publication preceded Dr. Nguyen's arrest: "[I]f Washington is looking to Vietnam for a long-term partner for peace and regional stability, America would do well to recognize publicly that only a Vietnam that is free and democratic can provide one."


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