“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.” — Joseph Goebbels
Of the many myths about the Vietnam War, the most prevalent is that United States lost the war. In fact, militarily, the US never lost the war. Rather, our politicians surrendered to the North Vietnamese communists. Fast forward to the present day, and once again our politicians are capitulating to the Vietnamese communists, and creating another host of myths as a smokescreen in an attempt to cover up that repressive regime’s trail of broken promises.
Hanoi’s current foreign policy is based on the same premise as Goebbels’ statement above, and it is evident that the State Department, the Bush administration and Congress again have bought the communists’ lies, for they are about to reward Hanoi with Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) and an endorsement into the World Trade Organization.
At the White House meeting with President Bush on June 21, 2005, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai promised a marked improvement in religious freedom and human rights in Vietnam. Since then, religious repression and human rights abuses have not abated, especially against the Protestant Montagnard, Hmong and other ethnic and religious minorities.
Hanoi has broken every agreement that it has ever made with the U.S., and the communists know U.S. preconditions are fungible if a façade of cosmetic changes is created that looks like progress.
For years, the US has insisted that Hanoi needs to institute major reforms before being awarded PNTR and membership into the WTO, including: adherence to the rule of law, judicial and contractual reforms, respect for intellectual property rights, tackling rampant graft and the culture of bribes, and creating transparency in trade and other dealings. Now U.S. politicians are stating that they are confident that Vietnam will institute these changes once they embrace the WTO global rules-based trading system.
The Vietnamese government subsidizes the growing of Vietnamese catfish for export to the US and elsewhere. For years, the WTO has been negotiating with the U.S., Europe and other trading partners to cut government assistance to farmers, and open their markets to competition; however, negotiations have collapsed and suspended indefinitely. Vietnam’s problem isn’t the lack of laws, but it lacks the will to change or enforce existing laws because of high-level corruption.
U.S. corporations in the US-ASEAN Business Council and US-Vietnam Trade Council looking for lucrative contracts and cheap labor are on full-court-press with their lobbyists and wining and dining of politicians for approval of PNTR and WTO. This list includes Speaker of the House Dennis Haskert, and Senators John McCain, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, who are major endorsees of PNTR, and one can rest assured that they will be rewarded with ample campaign contributions for their help.
In Vietnam, facades of unions have been set up at many western-financed factories; however, the communist party tightly asserts total control and workers are not allowed to strike. The party recently allowed wages at factories to be increased by 50%, from US $30 to $45 per month; however, many workers are required to work 10 hours a day and 6 days a week. From that wage they have to pay the “company store” for sleeping quarters and for the purchase of a little food and other necessities, which according to women workers, “doesn’t even leave enough to buy milk for their babies.”
“In order to authorize PNTR, the U.S. Trade Relations office said it would be necessary for Congress to terminate application to Vietnam of the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Trade Act of 1974. The Jackson-Vanik provision denies normal trade relations to certain countries with non-market economies and restrictions on emigration rights.” Yet Vietnam continues to suppress emigration rights.
Diplomacy has failed with China, as it will with Vietnam. Six years ago there was the fight against granting PNTR to Communist China, and proponents sugarcoated it by promising that “trade will bring freedom.” Trade has not brought freedom to the Chinese; instead, human rights abuses have escalated, and our trade deficit has shot up from $86 billion to $202 billion.
Vietnam has adopted China’s strategy of accepting capitalism while maintaining total control of over its population. The U.S. ran a $5.4 billion trade deficit with Vietnam last year. According to Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, “This deal is a disaster for U.S. manufacturing, and the U.S. textile industry in particular.”
The New Myths
Restrictions on emigration have abated: In spite of claims by some, Vietnam’s restrictions on emigration have not abated and enormous bribes are still demanded for exit visas and passports, and related harassment and human rights abuses continue. Under the threat of death, the Police Chief of Ea Xier Village in Kontum Province repeatedly raped a Montagnard woman as the price she had to pay for an exit visa so that she and her family could join their husband in the U.S. A Montagnard refugee from Darlac Province who has been trying to get his three children out of Vietnam received a call from a Vietnamese man who said he was connected with the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City and for $1,000 each, paid through a travel agency in North Carolina, he would guarantee they would be allowed to leave Vietnam.
Religious Freedom has improved: Freedom House has obtained documentation on Hanoi’s intention to purge religion from society. Vietnamese officials continue to force Montagnard and Hmong Christians to sign pledges renouncing their religion. Those that refuse are beaten and sometimes killed. Christian gatherings and celebrations continue to be banned in many areas. Although Vietnamese officials claim to have given more freedom to house churches, the fact is that the communist regime has imposed even more restrictions. Families can now legally pray in their own homes; however, they cannot pray in groups outside their homes, or even invite family members living outside their home in to pray with them. Pictures of Ho Chi Minh are required to be hung in churches as the true savior of the Vietnamese people.
Human Rights have improved: Although Hanoi has released a small number of high profile political and religious prisoners from jail, they remain under house arrest. There are still over 350 Montagnards languishing in prison, mainly for peaceful protests against religious persecution and human rights abuses. The communist prisons have revolving doors, and the regime persists in criminalizing peaceful dissent, unsanctioned religious activity and efforts to seek sanctuary in Cambodia, and violators are charged with either violating Vietnam’s national unity policies or its national security by organizing illegal migration and given sentences up to 17 years in prison.
In April of 2006, two young Montagnards, Y-No Buonkrong and Y-Hlu Adrong from Buon Cuor Knia, Darlak Province were arrested and severely beaten. Y-No was charged with illegally enrolling in school for computer Internet classes and attempting to contact his relatives in the U.S.; however, his “real crime” was that his brother-in-law had testified before Congressman Chris Smith’s committee on religious persecution in June 2005. Y-Hlu’s “real crime” was he reported Vietnamese officials for stealing money from a housing fund. He suffered compound fractures of both legs from the beatings and because he was not given medical treatment, he is not expected to be able to walk again. Far from isolated incidents, abuses such as these are “par for the course.”
Freedom of movement has improved: The Central Highlands remain off limits to the Western press and to U.S. and other diplomats unless taken on strictly controlled tours by Vietnamese security personnel. According to a Rhade woman who was recently interviewed by Human Rights Watch, “When foreign officials go to Dak Lak province, canh sat co dong (riot police) are sent with guns and electric batons to the village. They worry we will demonstrate. They declare a holiday, block the road to the city, and prohibit us from leaving the village.”
Vietnam is fully cooperating in the accounting of the POW/MIAs: Hanoi advocates Senators John McCain, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel are among those perpetrating this myth, and all three are spearheading PNTR for Vietnam. Of the more than 275 cases of Americans known to have been in the hands of the Vietnamese communists but not released, only a handful of their remains have been returned. Furthermore, Hanoi will not let the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) into the Central Highlands to search for the MIAs because of the “purported unrest.” The only reason for unrest would be due to the communists’ repression of the Montagnards.
The U.S. needs Vietnam as a buffer against China: Whoever professes this myth needs to take remedial math: i.e., Vietnam has an estimated population of 78 million while China has over a billion people.
Under new management: The choice of Nguyen Tan Dung, Vietnam’s youngest post-war premier, is being touted by the U.S. diplomatic and business community as a sign of change because of his promises to fight mismanagement and corruption and hasten economic reform. However, the 56-year-old political conservative has solid communist party credentials with the regime’s elders and is a protégé of former hardliner president Le Duc Anh, and nothing more than old wine in a new bottle.
According to Vietnam expert Carl Thayer of the Australian Defense Force Academy, “He has a firm network in the military, in security, in southern province networks and within the party apparatus”, and until recently, he could only speak in set propaganda language. He was appointed as deputy public security minister in 1994 three years later before joining the elite politburo in 1996 as its youngest-ever member. Since 2000 he has been in charge of maintaining security in the troubled Central Highlands where military and security forces have brutally crushed protests over religious freedom, land disputes and other human rights abuses, and thousands have been killed, tortured and jailed as a result.
In a recent Washington Times article, titled “Trade with Vietnam: Economic ties in the interest of the U.S.”, former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage and former deputy assistant of secretary of state for East Asia Randy Schriver, now partners of Armitage International, wrote that the U.S. should fast-track the granting of Permanent Normal Trade Relations to Vietnam to “provide concrete evidence that we are committed to putting U.S.-Vietnam divisions behind us.” What is sorely evident, however, is that the Vietnamese communists are not committed to putting U.S.-Vietnam divisions behind them.
Michael Benge spent 11 years in Viet Nam, over five years as a Prisoner of War—1968-73. Mike is a student of South East Asian politics, is very active in advocating for human rights, religious freedom, and a full and accurate accounting for our POW/MIAs, and has written extensively on these subjects.