It’s been nearly 35 years since the United States negotiated an end to the Viet Nam War. There have been several excellent chronicles of those negotiations most notably, Henry Kissinger’s massive The White House Years gives an obviously self-serving but nevertheless fascinating account of the personalities and twists and turns that led to peace.
For my money, Larry Berman’s No Peace, No Honor is a much livelier read, very critical of Kissinger, and surprisingly harsh on the North Vietnamese.
Both Kissinger and Berman make one thing clear: Following the signing of that agreement, the Soviets, the Chinese, and the North broke both the spirit and letter of the treaty almost immediately. The Soviets and Chinese sent massive amounts of aid to North Viet Nam in direct violation of the accords. And immediately after releasing our prisoners, the North began a buildup in the South, transferring units and supplies to positions in South Vietnamese territory, contravening the stipulation in the agreement that they not reinforce their forces on territory they occupied in the South.
It didn’t matter anyway. South Viet Nam was doomed the day that the US agreed to allow the North’s troops to maintain their positions in the country, something Berman points out and adds that Kissinger knew full well the fate of the South was sealed once the US left.
And now, 30 years later, the United States has once again made an agreement with the Vietnamese Communists. This time, we have sacrificed a nascent democratic reform movement in exchange for some short term political capital at home.
In exchange for our helping Viet Nam achieve membership in the World Trade Organization, the Communists promised to open their society ever so slightly by not cracking down on dissidents and releasing some of those already detained.
It is being characterized by international rights groups as Vietnam’s biggest crackdown on political dissent in more than 20 years. And the intensifying harassment and growing number of detentions are fast sapping the life out of the country’s nascent but bold democratic-reform movement that the US tacitly supports.
Last month, Vietnamese police arrested Catholic priest and democracy activist Nguyen Van Ly on charges that he attempted to undermine the government through the establishment of an independent political organization. Ly is a founding member of Bloc 8406, a budding pro-democracy movement launched publicly last April that has called for more democracy and rights. He and two other Bloc 8406 members have been permitted only state-appointed legal counsel and face trial on Friday.
On March 6, police arrested and jailed human-rights lawyers Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan on criminal charges that they had propagandized against the state. The authorities early last month detained Dang Thang Tien, spokesman for the Vietnam Progression Party, one of a handful of small opposition parties that have been established over the past year. On February 3, engineer and democracy activist Bach Ngoc Duong was arrested, beaten and even strangled during interrogations, according to dissident groups. They all face jail sentences of up to 20 years if convicted on anti-state charges.
As this analysis from the Asia Times makes clear, Viet Nam is spitting in our face as they round up advocates for democracy who have bravely stood up to Hanoi’s oppression:
The hard-knuckled crackdown coincides with Vietnam’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), of which it became an official member on January 11. It’s now brutally apparent that the new, younger generation of communist leaders who took power last year from their war-hardened revolutionary predecessors have no intention of coupling their impressive economic-reform drive with complementing political reforms.
Moreover, the mounting crackdown represents a deliberate diplomatic slight to the United States, which was instrumental in brokering Hanoi’s highly coveted WTO membership. Washington’s support for Hanoi’s WTO bid was predicated on the Communist Party substantially improving its human-rights record, which includes the detention in abysmal prison conditions of hundreds of political and religious activists.
During last year’s negotiations, the Vietnamese government agreed to release a handful of high-profile political prisoners identified by Washington, but simultaneously detained dozens of other democracy activists, journalists, cyber-dissidents and Christian activists. Nonetheless, US President George W Bush’s commercially oriented administration agreed to remove Vietnam from its watch list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC), above the protests of religious-freedom organizations and exiled Vietnamese democracy groups, and successfully lobbied Congress to grant Vietnam Permanent Normal Trade Relations status last December.
Prior to Bush’s trip last November, the Republicans stalled the Viet Nam trade bill in Congress, somewhat of an embarrassment for the President who hoped to hold the trade agreement up at the Asian Economic Summit he was attending as a sign of progress in the region.
The Administration argued unsuccessfully that “normal” trade status was the best way of getting Viet Nam to abide by international trade rules, including bans on copyright piracy – a particular concern given the cheap knockoffs produced in Viet Nam of American movies, CD’s, and other intellectual property. This is a huge business for Viet Nam, as they sell the knockoffs all over Asia raking in billions and costing the American entertainment and software industries hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties. The trade bill eventually passed in December.
But Vietnamese perfidy with regards to their human rights crackdown has hardly raised an eyebrow in Washington. Despite protests and entreaties by Vietnamese exile groups, the issue of Viet Nam’s backsliding hasn’t gotten much support in Congress:
Republican Congressman Chris Smith, who in the past has met with Ly, Dai and scores of other Vietnamese dissidents, recently introduced a resolution in Congress that condemns the attacks and calls for the unconditional release of jailed dissidents and warns that ongoing harassment, detentions and arrests will harm the broadening ties with the US. The resolution also aims to put Vietnam back on the US State Department’s rights-related CPC list.
In a press conference, Smith referred to the jailed dissidents as the future “Vaclav Havels of Vietnam”, a reference to the Czech dissident playwright who became a democratic symbol across former communist-controlled Eastern Europe. Yet so far Smith’s remains a lonely voice in the diplomatic wilderness. President Bush has remained conspicuously mum on the crackdown, presumably because it represents such a clear-cut failure of his administration’s engagement policy toward Vietnam, which from the start prioritized commercial and security concerns over democracy promotion.
So much for those grand words uttered in his second inaugural address about there being “no justice without freedom.” I guess Bush should have added “unless there are markets to be opened for American businesses.”
Viet Nam’s Communists have proved once again that they cannot be trusted to keep an agreement. It remains to be seen whether anyone in Washington will hear the cries of the oppressed and stop handling these brutes with kid gloves.