Home / News / Press Release / VCHR / Open Letter to Heads of State at the APEC Summit in Hanoi, 17-19 November 2006 : “Sustainable development requires a free press, free trade unions and independent NGOs” : World leaders at APEC Summit must press Vietnam to initiate a process of political reform

Open Letter to Heads of State at the APEC Summit in Hanoi, 17-19 November 2006 : “Sustainable development requires a free press, free trade unions and independent NGOs” : World leaders at APEC Summit must press Vietnam to initiate a process of political reform

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Mr. Vo Van Ai, President of the Paris-based Quê Me : Vietnam Committee on Human Rights has sent an Open Letter to the Heads of State of 21 Member Economies meeting in Hanoi for the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit from 17-19 November 2006. The members are Australia ; Brunei Darussalam ; Canada ; Chile ; People’s Republic of China ; Hong Kong, China ; Indonesia ; Japan ; Republic of Korea ; Malaysia ; Mexico ; New Zealand ; Papua New Guinea ; Peru ; the Republic of the Philippines ; the Russian Federation ; Singapore ; Chinese Taipei ; Thailand ; United States of America ; Vietnam. Participants in the APEC Summit include US President George W. Bush, China’s Hu Jintao and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Vo Van Ai called on world leaders to “place human rights issues on the APEC Summit’s agenda”, release religious leaders and democracy activists such as UBCV leaders Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do, Nguyen Dan Que, Nguyen Vu Binh, and press Vietnam “to engage in a dialogue with democratic opposition on issues of democratization and human rights”. Warning against the dangers of economic liberalization without political reforms, Vo Van Ai urged world leaders : “Do not sacrifice principles for profits”. He also deplored that there would be no NGO People’s Forum parallel to the APEC Summit as in previous APEC gatherings : “Clearly, Vietnam not only suppresses civil society at home, but also seeks to stifle the voices of international NGOs”, he said.

Open Letter to Heads of State of APEC
at the Summit Meeting in Hanoi, 17-19 November 2006

Your Excellencies,

As you gather in Hanoi for the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit, I am writing to express my deep concerns on the grave human rights situation in Vietnam, and urge you to raise these concerns on this important Summit’s agenda.

APEC is an influential forum, accounting for almost 40% of the world’s population, 56% of the world GDP and 48% of world trade. Its aim is to promote economic growth and prosperity. The 21 Member Economies are meeting in Hanoi to discuss cooperation, trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific region. You may therefore think that human rights and democratization in Vietnam are not APEC’s concern.

But this is not so. As history has proved, economic development and democracy are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Development is freedom, said Indian Nobel Economics Prize laureate Amartya Sen, but he stressed that this freedom can only exist where “economic opportunities, political freedoms, social facilities, transparency guarantees and protective security” are equally guaranteed.

In Vietnam, we do not have political freedoms. Whilst Vietnam has opened to the “socialist-orientated market economy” under the policy of doi moi, it remains a politically closed society. The Communist Party has a constitutional mandate to exercise political monopoly, and controls the executive, legislative and judiciary. Opposition parties, free trade unions, independent religions and civil society movements are banned. Advocacy of political pluralism is taboo. According to recent testimonies by former political prisoners Thich Thien Minh and Nguyen Khac Toan, hundreds, possibly thousands of prisoners of conscience are detained under inhumane conditions in Vietnam’s prisons and labour camps. Government critics are subjected to physical harassment and abuse, held under house arrest and Police surveillance, their phones cut and communications monitored.

Economic liberalization without political reforms under doi moi has produced an explosive social and political mixture, and led to grave human rights abuses in Vietnam. Exploitation in the work place, child labour, trafficking of women and children for prostitution, state appropriation of lands are widespread. The wealth gap is rocketing. On the government’s own admission, corruption has reached proportions of a “national catastrophe”, and permeates the highest echelons of the Communist Party and state. Whilst an elite minority of top Communist Party officials known as the “red capitalists” live in luxury and wield power with impunity, millions of Vietnamese live in poverty, totally excluded from the renovation process.

Popular protests against social inequity are breaking out in every domain. In 2006, thousands of workers staged strikes to protest low wages and appalling working conditions, with more strikes in the first two months of 2006 than in the whole year of 2005. In the rural areas, where almost 80% of the population live, power abuse and state confiscation of land has created abject poverty and grave injustices. In recent years, hundreds of thousands of homeless farmers, expropriated by the State without any compensation, have marched to Hanoi to stage peaceful protests. Every day, hundreds of protesters known as the “Victims of Injustice” (dân oan) gather in the Mai Xuan Thuong Park, desperately imploring the government’s help. But instead of seeking to solve their problems, Vietnam adopted Decree 38 banning public demonstrations outside public buildings. Communist Party Secretary-general Nong Duc Manh said : “It is abnormal for people to demonstrate with banners. In some cases, our democracy is excessive”.

Doi moi has lead to grave discrimination regarding health care and education, which have now become paying commodities, penalizing the poorest sections of society. This is especially alarming in face of the serious HIV-AIDS pandemic about to explode in Vietnam. The poorest people, who are most gravely affected, simply cannot afford medical care. Moreover, whilst Vietnam is praised for its impressive growth rate, its GNP per capita remains vastly behind that of its Asian neighbours

Vietnam is reaching out to the international community to boost its economic development. But at the same time, it is suppressing its most precious resource – its own people. The Vietnamese people are dynamic, resourceful and young – two-thirds of the population was born after the Vietnam War. These young people long to put history behind them and build a free society where they can develop their talents and skills. But they cannot do this fully in Vietnam’s closed society, where freedoms are suppressed by the one-Party state. Today, vast sections of the population, including independent religious movements, civil society and human rights defenders are pressing for the right to participate in Vietnam’s economic and democratic development. Yet the government rejects them as “hostile forces” and subjects them to repression, harassment, and detention.

The Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), adhered to by 80% of Vietnam’s 83-million population, is a salient example. Outlawed by the Communist authorities in 1982, the UBCV’s vast network of schools, universities, hospitals, cultural and humanitarian centers have all been confiscated, UBCV leaders arrested and its followers harassed. UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang, 87, and his Deputy Venerable Thich Quang Do, 77, have been detained for almost 30 years simply for their peaceful advocacy of religious freedom, democracy and human rights.

On 4th November 2006, Venerable Thich Quang Do was awarded the 2006 Thorolf Rafto Memorial Prize by the Norwegian Rafto Foundation “as a symbol of the growing democracy movement in the country”. Four previous laureates of this prestigious award have gone on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. However, the Vietnamese government did not allow Thich Quang Do to travel to Norway to receive the prize, despite specific requests from the Norwegian Parliament. Today, Thich Quang Do is prisoner in his pagoda, detained without any justification or trial. For its repression of the UBCV and other religious communities, the United States has placed Vietnam on a list of “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPCs) in 2004 and 2005 for its grave violations of religious freedom. The CPC designation is fully justified, and I sincerely hope it will be maintained this year.

Moreover, contrary to the traditions of APEC, Vietnam has not permitted an NGO People’s Forum to be held alongside the Summit in Hanoi, thus preventing civil society from expressing their concerns. Clearly, Vietnam not only suppresses civil society at home, but also seeks to stifle the voices of international NGOs.

Your Excellencies,

Vietnam cannot achieve sustainable development unless it initiates a process of political liberalization to reinforce its economic reforms, and APEC can play a pivotal role in encouraging this process. Specifically, I urge all Heads of State of Member Economies participating in the APEC Summit to place human rights and democratisation in Vietnam on the Summit’s agenda, and press the Vietnamese government to guarantee the right of all citizens to participate in the process of economic and democratic development, notably by :

a) re-establishing the legitimate status of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam as well as all other non-recognized religions including Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, Protestants etc. and guarantee full freedom of religious activity ;

b) releasing UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang, Venerable Thich Quang Do, Nguyen Dan Que, Nguyen Vu Binh and all other religious leaders, human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists detained for expressing peaceful opposition views ;

c) ceasing all forms of harassment against religious and political dissidents, and engaging a dialogue with the democratic opposition in Vietnam on issues of political pluralism and human rights ;

d) repealing all legislation incompatible with human rights enshrined in the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and restoring political freedoms, such as the right to publish independent newspapers, establish free trade unions and independent NGOs ;

e) immediately abolishing the death penalty in Vietnam.

The APEC Summit provides a unique opportunity for world leaders to support the ordinary people, not just the government of Vietnam. I urge you, therefore, not to sacrifice principles for profits, and place human rights at the core of economic relations. By supporting political reforms as well as enhanced trade, APEC can open vast new opportunities, and offer hope to millions of people living in poverty in Vietnam. At the same time, this will significantly enhance global interests, for a free and democratic Vietnam can play a key role for peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region today.

Vo Van Ai
President,
Quê Me : Action for Democracy in Vietnam &
Vietnam Committee on Human Rights

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