Hundreds of backers of an initiative calling on the United States to tie human rights progress to any expansion of trade with Vietnam gathered in Washington Tuesday to push officials for the release of political prisoners in the tightly ruled communist state.
A group of 165 leaders of the Vietnamese-American community met with White House officials in Washington Monday after submitting a petition with 132,000 signatures calling on U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration to push for the release of an estimated 600 jailed Vietnamese dissidents.
Another group also met with members of the U.S. Congress and lobbied for legislation calling on Vietnam to respect human rights.
The U.S. Trade Representative, which reports directly to the President, is considering Vietnam's efforts to expand trade with the U.S. through the Trans-Pacific Partnership and gain preferential tariffs on goods exported to the U.S.
"Show the world America puts freedom first," exhorts the petition, which was launched on Feb. 8 by the California-based Saigon Broadcasting Television Network (SBTN) through the White House website and required 25,000 signatures to receive an official response.
The initiative reached that goal within four days.
The Obama administration is expected to respond to the petition by March 8.
Voices of support
Ethnic Vietnamese from around the U.S. and the international community joined the group of hundreds of supporters, expressing hope that the White House would place greater importance on human rights in its dealing with the one-party communist nation.
One activist from Connecticut said that he had met other Vietnamese from Canada and Europe who had joined the rally on Monday.
“Our aim is to raise the voice of justice to fight for democracy and human rights for Vietnam,” he said.
A Vietnamese blogger said that the spontaneity of the rally was an example of the “strength and unity” of Vietnamese communities.
“Previous demonstrations had come after a long time and with lots of organizing efforts. But this time a large number of people formed a crowd in just a short time. I’m really impressed,” he said.
The blogger said that he was moved by the use of music composed by a prominent Vietnamese activist who was arrested for songs critical of his government’s handling of a territorial dispute with China and the beating of Vietnamese youth who protested over the issue.
“This event occurred with some artistic elements, involving the musical work of Viet Khang,” he said, in reference to the activist whose arrest sparked the petition campaign. “It’s unprecedented.”
And a woman from Australia said that she had been sent as a representative of the Vietnamese community back home following the success of the petition campaign’s organizers in being given the chance to meet with U.S. officials.
“I’m very excited with the event today,” she said, praising the work of the campaign’s leaders.
“When Viet Khang was arrested, we in Australia held a campaign for him, but it was not until Truc Ho and Nguyen Dinh Thang’s success in this campaign petitioning the White House that everybody back in Australia decided to contribute for my trip here to the capital of the U.S.”
Vietnam is currently the 30th largest trading partner with the U.S., with some U.S. $18.6 billion chalked up in two-way trade in 2010, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
The U.S. goods trade deficit with Vietnam was U.S. $11.2 billion that year.
And despite differences on issues of human rights, 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.
Last September, 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.
Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner indicated that the situation in Vietnam, which was on the CPC blacklist from 2004 to 2006, would continue to be monitored.
The independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a congressional watchdog, had asked President Barack 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.
The 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 last year.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese service. Translated by Viet Long. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.