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Letter from UBCV Patriarch Thích Quảng Độ to President Obama on the eve of his visit to Vietnam

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Buddhist Era 2560                                                                              Ref. 20 /TT/VTT

The Honorable Barack H. Obama,
President of the United States of America,
The White House,
Washington D.C. 20500


Saigon, 30th April 2016



Dear President Obama,

In May 2016, you will make your very first visit to Vietnam. The Vietnamese people look forward to your visit, and are delighted to welcome you to this land we love so much.

First of all, I wish to convey my thanks, for I have a personal debt of gratitude to the United States. In 1998, when US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made her first visit to Vietnam, I was incarcerated in the notorious Ba Sao prison near Hanoi. My “crime” was leading a relief mission to rescue flood victims in the Mekong delta. During her trip, Secretary Albright called for the release of three political prisoners – Doan Viet Hoat, Nguyen Dan Que and me. Soon afterwards, all three of us were released in a government amnesty. Without Secretary Albright’s appeal and the intervention of the United States, we would have languished in jail for many more long years.

Today, I am still under house arrest, under constant Police surveillance and deprived of citizenship rights. But I am not writing to ask you to win my freedom. More important, I sincerely urge you to use your trip to speak out for the thousands of Vietnamese, young and old, men and women, farmers and workers, academics, journalists, bloggers and followers of all religious denominations who are suffering imprisonment, house arrest, assaults and harassments because of their engagement for religious freedom, democracy and the respect of human rights.

In recent years, Vietnam has opened its economy and become an increasingly active player in the Asia-Pacific region and on the global stage. But the government has made no attempt to open the political system, nor establish the institutions necessary to safeguard its citizens’ rights. Forty-one years after the end of the Vietnam War, we still have no free press, no democratic opposition parties and no independent civil society. Vietnam is a young country, and our dynamic young generation is using social media and the Internet to intercommunicate and learn new ideas. Yet this thirst for connectivity has led many into prison, condemned under archaic laws couched in Cold War rhetoric such as “spreading anti-State propaganda”, undermining national solidarity” or “abusing democratic freedoms to threaten the interests of the state”. Economic globalization has brought new challenges for our workers, many of whom endure sweatshop conditions and inadequate pay, yet have no free trade unions to voice their grievances and defend their rights.

As your visit approaches, human rights abuses are escalating in Vietnam. Promises of reform at the Communist Party’s XII Congress in January were not upheld, and a hard-line leadership has now taken the helm. The former Minister of Public Security is now the President, and the climate of repression is palpable. In March 2016, in the space of just two weeks, seven human rights activists were sentenced to a total of 22 years in prison simply for the legitimate exercise of their right to freedom of expression and assembly. New restrictive legislation has been adopted, such as the amended Press Law, the Law on Access to Information and Circular 13 on demonstrations outside court buildings, and a Law on Associations and a Law on Belief and Religion will come before the National Assembly this year, both of which are inconsistent with Vietnam’s obligations as a state party to the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Mr. President,

Vietnamese people welcome the strengthened relationship between the United States and Vietnam, and we believe it will help put our government on the path to reform. At the same time, we are convinced that this relationship is only sustainable if it is founded on the mutual respect of democratic freedoms and internationally-recognised human rights.

One of these rights – indeed the mother of all human rights – is the right to freedom of religion or belief. Vietnam is home to a wide diversity of religions, but it is in majority a Buddhist country. Over the past 2,000 years, Lord Buddha’s teachings of tolerance and compassion have shaped the culture and identity of the Vietnamese people, and inspired them with a spirit of liberty, social justice and independence that characterises them today. It is precisely this culture of freedom and independence that the Vietnamese government is determined to stifle and suppress.

In your speech to the people of Cuba in March 2016, you said: “I believe in democracy – that citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear, to organize, to criticize their government, and to protest peacefully; that the rule of law should not include arbitrary detentions of people who exercise those rights. I believe that every person should have the freedom to practice their faith peacefully and publicly. And, yes, I believe voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections”.

We Vietnamese share these beliefs, and we will continue our peaceful struggle to realise them, whatever price we must pay. I urge you to stand by us, and speak out for human rights in your visit to Vietnam. By so doing, you will make this a truly historic occasion, one we will remember as a turning point in the movement for freedom and democracy in Vietnam.

Yours respectfully,
(Signature and Seal)
Fifth Supreme Patriarch
Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam


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