Freedom of religion and expression topped the areas of discussion for Vietnamese civil groups attending forums on the sidelines of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Malaysia Friday, during which they engaged with their counterparts and government officials from the region.
The ASEAN People’s Forum (APF) is being held on April 21-24 to provide civil society groups with a platform to address the organization’s leaders through workshops on various rights issues alongside the ASEAN Summit of Heads of State.
One young Vietnamese presenter, Nguyen Anh Tuan, told RFA that she attended the seminar because she wanted to convey how poor Vietnam’s rights record is compared to other nations in the region and discuss ways to improve it.
“Based on what I know, the human right abuses in Vietnam exceed other countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand,” she said.
“During this session, I will try to prove that the human right abuses in Vietnam are systematic and not limited to some areas. They are everywhere and include freedom of religion, expression, information and association.”
At the People’s Forum on freedom of religion, Vietnamese presenters displayed photos of religious leaders, including Mennonite pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh and Catholic priest Ngo The Binh of Tam Toa church, who have been harassed and beaten.
Vietnam’s constitution guarantees freedom of belief and religion, but religious activity is closely monitored and remains under state control.
Chinh, who is also an activist, was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2012 for "undermining unity" by maintaining ties with dissident groups and distributing material deemed to have “slandered” government authorities.
Last May, Vietnamese religious leaders appealed to President Truong Tan Sang and Public Security Minister Tran Dai Quang to end Chinh’s ill treatment in jail.
In August 2013, Chinh was beaten in An Phuoc prison when guards incited prisoners to attack him, and in May 2012, he was assaulted by police while praying in his cell, according to his wife.
Priest Phan Van Loi and blogger Huynh Thuc Vy gave speeches at the seminar via Skype from Vietnam.
Lucia Phan Nhung, a parishioner of Da Nang city’s Con Dau Catholic church, which local government authorities cracked down on in 2010 and have been harassing ever since, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service about a raid authorities conducted on the church during the funeral of another parishioner on May 4, 2010.
“They beat a lot of parishioners and arrested about 60 people,” she said. “After the crackdown, they still continued pressuring us, forcing us to sell our lands and move our church somewhere else.”
Nhung said her husband, Le Thanh Lam, was among those arrested and was tortured in prison. Authorities gave him a nine-month suspended sentence and put him on probation for 12 months.
“Since then, the local government has continued pressuring us to move,” she said. “They are determined to eliminate our church.”
Alex Quynh Nhu, the nephew of prominent prisoner of conscience Tran Huynh Duy Thuc who is serving a 16-year sentence for attempting to overthrow the government under Article 79 of Vietnam's Penal Code, told RFA that he attended the forum to present his uncle’s case as well as other similar cases.
“I wish to bring the truth to the people and community of ASEAN, and seek the support from the community,” he said.
Nhu also said this year’s APF was more meaningful than ones in previous years because organizers did not follow the “empty model” that they had adhered to in the past nine years.
“This year they have group discussions to give information about what really happen in ASEAN,” he said.
“The ASEAN’s APF this year has created a special focus on what people care about the most. Based on that, the 10 governments of ASEAN will have opportunities to review what civil society organizations present.”
‘Sweeping across the region’
The final day of the civil society conference began with an address by Malaysian Senator Datuk Paul Low Seng Kuan, a minister in the prime minister’s department, who stressed the need for respect of human rights.
“The duty of the state to promote and protect human rights is fundamental,” he said according to an ASEAN press release.
“States cannot absolve themselves of their duty to respect human rights by saying that the rights of the majority need to be respected when this is only a thin veil to promote racism, subjugation, apartheid, slavery, genocide, or even extractive forms of industry.”
London-based human rights group Amnesty International, one of the discussion hosts at the People’s Forum, had called on governments across the region to end their clampdowns on freedom of expression and stop the use of repressive laws to silence dissenting voices, in a press release issued Thursday.
The group noted the suppression of peaceful, social and religious activism in Vietnam and other countries in the region.
It said that the country had at least 60 prisoners of conscience, including bloggers—many of whom were convicted for peacefully expressing their views after unfair trials.
Amnesty also slammed restrictions on freedom of expression across the ASEAN region under the guise of laws protecting religion, the monarchy, and national security, as well as the silencing of dissenting voices, calling the two trends “troubling steps backwards.”
“Government leaders attending the ASEAN summit in Malaysia have an opportunity to reverse this trend,” it said.
It went on to call for an end to continued intimidation, harassment, arrest, imprisonment and other forms of attack against human rights defenders operating within their countries and for the unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience detained for peacefully exercising their human rights.
No decision on Laos
Ahead of the next APF in 2016, the forum’s organizing committee has not decided whether to hold the meeting in Laos, which will assume chairmanship of the 10-member ASEAN coalition next year, because civil society groups from the region are concerned about the safety of human rights defenders in the country.
When the APF was last held in Laos in 2012, authorities cracked down on Lao citizens who spoke about the obstacles they endured. Later that year, they authorities expelled Anne-Sophie Gindroz, director of the Swiss nongovernmental organization Helvetas, for criticizing the one-party regime for stifling public debate and making it difficult for aid groups to do their jobs in the country.
And in December of 2012, prominent civil rights leader Sombath Somphone was abducted when police stopped him in his vehicle at a checkpoint in the capital. He was transferred to another vehicle, according to police surveillance video, and has not been heard from since.
“In many ways, Laos in 2015 is a far more restrictive society than Laos in 2012,” Glenn Hunt, a civil society organization official who worked in the country for more than 10 years, told RFA’s Lao Service.
“If they speak out about the real problems they face in their lives, they will be subject to investigation, intimidation and possibly persecution.”
Members of the organizing committee met with Lao civil society organizations and members of such groups from other countries on Thursday.
“Based on the discussion that took place last night, personally, I would be extremely surprised if the APF organizing committee decided to hold the APF in Laos next year,” Hunt said.
Lao government officials have worked to prevent the country’s civil society organizations from presenting at this year’s APF in Malaysia.
“The CSOs [civil society organizations] that would like to present at the events must submit their material to the government for review,” said a Lao official from one such group, who declined to be named. “And the members of CSOs who want to participate must be investigated by the Lao CSO committee.”
Reported by Mac Lam of RFA’s Vietnamese Service and Ounkeo Souksavahn of RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by the Vietnamese Service and Ounkeo Souksavahn. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.