VIETNAM HAS become a rapidly growing Asian economy, but on human rights and political freedom it remains a backwater of repression. On Wednesday, a court convicted 14 democracy activists, many of them bloggers, on flimsy charges of subversion. Thirteen got prison sentences from three to 13 years, and one got a suspended sentence. But the trial’s larger verdict was this: Vietnam’s rulers are guilty of irrational fear of free expression, pluralism and the digital revolution.
The 14 defendants, detained more than a year ago, were charged after attending a training course in Bangkok held by the Viet Tan organization, which led a resistance movement against the Vietnamese Communist government in the 1980s but in recent years has worked for peaceful political reform, democracy and human rights. Viet Tan, based in the United States, is outlawed in Vietnam. Association with Viet Tan may not be the only thing that got the bloggers in trouble. Twelve of those charged are Catholics, and, according to Human Rights Watch, many of them are affiliated with two Redemptorist churches known for strongly backing dissidents, bloggers, and other religious and rights activists. The Redemptorists are a Catholic missionary organization, active worldwide.
What did these bloggers and activists do? They participated in building civil society: encouraging women not to have abortions, helping the poor, aiding the disabled, protecting the environment and standing up for workers’ rights. Some were also involved in peaceful protests about Vietnam’s territorial disputes with China over the Spratly and Paracel Islands, which the government considers extremely sensitive. Some bloggers also called for freedom of expression and spoke out for creation of a multiparty political system.
In a separate case, Vietnamese authorities have lodged charges against prominent dissident lawyer Le Quoc Quan, who has often spoken out on a blog about rule of law and human rights issues. On Dec. 18 he published a piece that questioned the wisdom of an article in a new draft constitution that enshrines the leading role of the Communist Party. He was arrested Dec. 27.
They are all victims of a one-party state that ruthlessly stamps out dissent. The trial and conviction of the bloggers was the largest single crackdown in recent years but not the first. In the past decade, Human Rights Watch reported, hundreds of peaceful activists have been imprisoned. The government exerts strict control over the Internet and media. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung declared in a New Year’s message that “we are regularly challenged by conspiracies to spark sociopolitical instability and violate our national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” These are words of paranoia and insecurity.
In recent years, the United States and Vietnam have been growing closer in economic and other ties, but human rights remains a stumbling block. The United States deplored the latest arrests as “deeply troubling” and “inconsistent” with Vietnam’s international obligations. But it will take more than that to persuade Vietnam’s leaders to change their repressive practices.