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Quê Me: Action for Democracy in Vietnam : Letter to President George W. Bush

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Paris, 23rd June 2006

Dear Mr. President,

Today, the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung embarks on a 4-day official visit to the United States, accompanied by a large trade delegation, and you will receive him for talks at the White House tomorrow.

The White House’s statement notes that you welcome this opportunity to advance U.S.- Vietnam cooperation on a broad range of issues, including ASEAN, the UN Security Council, education, food security and regional economic cooperation. Last – but hopefully not least – it says: “the President will also take this opportunity to highlight the importance he attaches to respect for human rights and the freedoms of speech, religion and assembly”.

I do not doubt the importance you attach to these fundamental values, Mr. President. But regrettably, your attachment is not shared by Prime Minister Dung and the leadership of Communist Vietnam. When you last raised human rights with Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet during his official visit to Washington exactly one year ago, President Triet made his stand quite clear. Vietnam did not need to improve its human rights record, he said, for its perception of human rights was “different” from the United States. Indeed, President Triet then put his words into practice by pursuing one of Vietnam’s worst crackdowns on dissent, sentencing scores of pro-democracy activists, trade unionists, human rights defenders and religious leaders simply for their peaceful appeals for democratic reform.

Bilateral cooperation on trade, security or regional economic integration cannot be built on this dialogue of the deaf. All UN member states have a binding commitment to respect the rights enshrined in the UN Charter, and Vietnam is no exception to the rule. Human rights are the keys to sustainable development and economic prosperity. They are also indispensable to international security. How can Vietnam play a relevant role on the UN Security Council whilst it creates insecurity at home by repressing its own citizens’ rights?

Mr. President,

I believe that human rights and democracy are essential to U.S.-Vietnam relationships. I therefore urge you to press for measurable, concrete progress in your talks with Prime Minister Dung.

As you have stressed, the right to freedom of religion is an urgent and fundamental concern. When the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) made an inquiry mission to Vietnam in October 2007, Prime Minister Dung told them there were no religious freedom violations in Vietnam. Yet the USCIRF found abuses so grave and widespread that they recommended the re-designation of Vietnam as a “Country of Particular Concern”.

I call your urgent attention to repression against Buddhism, Vietnam’s majority religion, and the plight of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV). Outlawed by the Communist government and supplanted by a state-sponsored Buddhist organization in 1981, the UBCV has suffered brutal repression. Today, its activities are banned, its property confiscated, its members and leaders detained and harassed. As the State Department 2007 Human Rights Report rightly affirms, despite new religious legislation, Vietnam adamantly refuses to re-establish the UBCV’s legitimate status under its current leadership of Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang, 86, and his Deputy Thich Quang Do, 80. These eminent religious leaders have both spent almost thirty years under different forms of detention for their peaceful advocacy of religious freedom, democracy and human rights.

The Most Venerable Thich Quang Do, a 2008 Nobel Peace prize nominee and laureate of the prestigious Rafto Human Rights Award, is an illegal citizen today, deprived of his citizenship rights. Released in a government amnesty in 1998, then detained under strict Police surveillance and control, Thich Quang Do has never been delivered the obligatory residence permit or “ho khau”. Without this document, he is liable to be arrested at any time. Thich Quang Do is forbidden to preach at the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Saigon, where he resides. Security Police keep watch outside his door, and prevent him approaching the microphone to address his congregation.

In May 2008, whereas the Vietnamese government and State-sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Sangha hosted the UN Day of the Vesak to “prove” Vietnam’s commitment to religious freedom, repression against the outlawed UBCV intensified alarmingly. In the run-up to Vesak, UBCV pagodas were seized to use for State-sponsored celebrations, monks expelled from their pagodas, interrogated and harassed. UBCV monk Thich Tri Khai was expelled from Giac Hai Pagoda in Lam Dong Province and subjected to intensive Police interrogations. He disappeared on 7th May and has never been seen since. I fear he has been arrested by Security Police.

The UBCV is Vietnam’s largest civil society movement in Vietnam, and it provides an essential voice for all the voiceless people of Vietnam. I therefore respectfully urge you to press Prime Minister Nguyen Tien Dung to take the following urgent steps as a gesture to advancing bilateral cooperation:

a) re-establish the legitimate status of the outlawed UBCV and guarantee freedom of religious activity;

b) lift all restrictions on UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang and his Deputy Thich Quang Do and restore their full citizenship rights (including the residence permit, right to freedom of movement and communications, right to religious activity);

c) allow UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang, who is currently undergoing treatment for breathing trouble and a heart condition at the Quy Nhon General Hospital in Binh Dinh, to be transported to Saigon, where he can have access to specialized, urgent treatment. Hospitalized in Binh Dinh since 28 May 2008, the UBCV Patriarch is gravely ill, and in danger of his life. The local authorities have refused him permission to travel;

d) account for the whereabouts of UBCV monk Thich Tri Khai, who was last seen in presence of Security Police in Lam Dong province, and restore his function of Superior monk at Giac Hai Pagoda.

These simple but fundamental demands will demonstrate to Prime Minister Dung that your attachment to human rights and freedom of religious in Vietnam is real and profound, and impress upon him that the United States will not be content with words alone. At the same time, you will demonstrate your solidarity with the plight of the persecuted UBCV, and give hope to millions of oppressed democrats in Vietnam.

Respectfully yours,

Vo Van Ai
Quê Me: Action for Democracy in Vietnam
International Spokesman
Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam

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