A congressman who has been critical of Vietnam’s human rights record asked President Barack Obama on Monday to fire the U.S. ambassador to Hanoi following the detention and imprisonment of a Vietnamese-American activist in the Southeast Asian state.
U.S. Congressman Frank Wolf said in a letter to Obama, a copy of which was made available to RFA, that Ambassador David Shear’s “entire handling” of the issue over 58-year-old Nguyen Quoc Quan has been “unacceptable.”
Quan was detained April 17 as he deplaned in Ho Chi Minh city’s Tan Son Nhat airport and Vietnamese authorities charged that the member of the banned opposition group Viet Tan planned to “instigate a demonstration” and disrupt the anniversary of the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, which forced U.S. forces to withdraw at the end of the Vietnam conflict.
The U.S. citizen has been imprisoned in Vietnam since then, and Wolf wrote that during a May hearing at which Quan’s wife, Mai Huong Ngo, gave testimony, he was “shocked and dismayed” to find that no one from the U.S. State Department had been in touch with her since his detention.
“This was disturbing on a number of levels. I have long believed that U.S. Embassies should be islands of freedom—especially in repressive countries like Vietnam,” Wolf wrote.
“Under Ambassador Shear’s leadership it didn’t appear that the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi was embracing this important task,” he said.
“But even more troubling is the fact that Dr. Quan is an American citizen, and yet there appeared to be little urgency to securing his release.”
July 4 event
Wolf went on to chastise Shear for breaking a pledge to host a number of Vietnamese religious freedom and democracy activists at a July 4 U.S. Independence Day celebration at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, which he said would have sent “a strong message that America stood with those who stand for basic human rights.”
After speaking with Shear by phone to request a copy of the event’s guest list, Wolf said the ambassador acted “uncooperative at best and obstructionist at worst.”
“In light of these realities, I write today to call for the firing of Ambassador Shear.”
Wolf said that Shear’s “sidelining of serious human rights issues in Vietnam is symptomatic of this administration’s overall approach to human rights and religious freedom.”
“Time and time again these issues are put on the back-burner—to the detriment of freedom-loving people the world over.”
He called on Obama to put forth a Vietnamese-American to serve as ambassador in Vietnam, saying that such a candidate would better understand the country, the language, and “the oppressive nature” of the Vietnamese government.
“Such an individual would not be tempted to maintain smooth bilateral relations at all costs. Such an individual would embrace the cause of freedom,” he said.
“The Vietnamese people, and frankly millions of Vietnamese-Americans, deserve better than what Ambassador Shear and this administration are giving them,” he said.
The U.S. has been actively courting Vietnam in recent months in an effort to counter aggressive territorial claims and economic influence by China in Southeast Asia.
And Washington has also recently taken steps to back off of earlier criticism of Hanoi’s rights record.
In September last year, the U.S. State Department did not include Vietnam in its annual "Countries of Particular Concern" (CPC) blacklist of top violators of religious freedom, as demanded by rights groups.
Two months ago, the department expressed “great concern” over the deteriorating human rights situation in Vietnam, which was on the CPC blacklist from 2004 to 2006.
Describing the situation as “unacceptable,” the department’s human rights chief Michael Posner said Hanoi’s desire to increase engagement with the U.S. is contingent on measurable progress in improving its rights record.
The independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a congressional watchdog, had asked President Obama's administration to reinstate Vietnam on the blacklist, saying the communist government there severely restricts religious practice and "brutally" represses those who challenge its authority.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has accused Vietnam of mounting a sophisticated and sustained attack on online dissent that includes detaining and intimidating anti-government bloggers.
Reporters Without Borders ranked Vietnam 165th out of 178 countries on its press freedom index and listed the country as an “Enemy of the Internet” in a report issued in March this year.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.