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Cablegate: Visit of Congressman Smith to Hue

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.



E.O. 12958: N/A


1. (SBU) Summary: Congressman Chris Smith met with provincial
government officials, GVN-backed religious leaders, and
prominent dissidents in Hue on December 3. The exchange with
Hue government was pointed; provincial officials largely
stiff-armed the Congressman's calls for more comprehensive and
immediate protections for individual rights of assembly and
expression. A meeting with the official Buddhist Church was
more encouraging. The senior monk -- also a member of the
National Assembly -- acknowledged shortcomings in Vietnam's
human rights regime and offered increased collaboration in areas
such as trafficking in persons, and legislative, educational and
cultural exchanges. Congressman Smith also met with Thich Thien
Hanh of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and with
Catholic dissidents Fathers Nguyen Van Ly and Phan Van Loi.
Despite police pressure, the three dissidents communicate with
each other and with activists in HCMC. All three were firm in
their anti-Communist convictions. Congressman Smith was
accompanied throughout by Human Rights Subcommittee Senior
Staffer Eleanor Nagy. Septel follows on the Congressman's
December 4 meetings in Ho Chi Minh City. End Summary.

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Provincial Government: We will protect "National Unity"
--------------------------------------------- --------------

2. (SBU) Outlining the GVN position on human rights and
religious freedom, People's Council Chairman Nguyen Van Me
argued that in Vietnam there is "an abundance" of people freely
practicing their faith. Arrests are never made on religious
grounds but because people violate Vietnamese law. Just because
"selfish, bad persons" have a religious title, does not make
them immune to punishment when they break the law, nor does it
mean that Vietnam has violated religious freedom precepts by
prosecuting them, Me said. In fact, the dissidents today are
those who used to enjoy privilege in the pre-1975 regime and
cannot "accept what we enjoy today." According to Me, no monk
has the right to separate from the GVN-recognized Vietnam
Buddhist Sangha, Vietnam's recognized Buddhist Church. The
Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) is an illegal
organization that existed only before 1975. (Technically, the
GVN outlawed the UBCV in 1981.)

3. (SBU) Me said the plight of a few individuals should not
overshadow the accomplishments of the Party's socio-economic
policies. Thua Thien Hue province had made great strides in
overcoming war legacy issues and reducing poverty, including
among the province's 40,000 ethnic minority individuals. In
Me's view, Vietnam is fighting internal extremists just as U.S.
attack on the Taliban is a fight against extremism and not
against Islam. The Party and the nation cannot tolerate persons
who would seek to divide the country or encourage separatism.
Father Ly was a rabble-rouser who encouraged followers to "take
up arms" against the GVN. The Party forgave Hoa Hao dissident
leader Le Quang Liem for all the "crimes" he committed during
the war when he was a military governor in central Vietnam, but
Liem refused reconciliation. Me closed by saying that Vietnam
wanted a good relationship with the U.S. and hoped that the
Congressman would listen to the "vast majority of Vietnamese"
and support continued U.S. assistance on HIV/AIDS, landmine
removal and other bilateral programs as well as speed Vietnam's
entry into the World Trade Organization.

4. (SBU) Congressman Smith acknowledged that Vietnam had made
substantial economic progress. He welcomed improved
U.S.-Vietnam relations; the agreement on religious freedom
issues between President Bush and Prime Minister Phan Van Khai
during his visit in June was an important step. However,
Vietnam also needs to protect the rights of all voices and
opinions in society. This, the Congressman explained, is why he
and many others in the United States and Europe were shocked
when Father Nguyen Van Ly was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment
merely for peacefully expressing his views. The United States
has no axe to grind with the GVN, but wants all Vietnamese
people treated fairly. The experience of the American people is
that diversity of views, freedom of expression and freedom of
conscience strengthens our country. The Congressman stressed
that the U.S. does not want the mistakes it made in dealing with
its African American and indigenous communities repeated
elsewhere. The Congressman also pushed Hue officials to expand
opportunities for faith-based NGOs to provide social assistance,
particularly in the field of HIV/AIDS. This activity is clearly
in concert with Vietnam's new legal framework on religion, which
opens the door to greater participation of religious
organizations in humanitarian and charitable efforts.

5. (SBU) While Me was modestly encouraging on the prospects for
greater NGO participation in social activities, he gave no
ground on the Congressman's human rights concerns, reiterating
that the province would not welcome those who violate "national

The UBCV in Hue: Resisting "stepped up" Pressure
--------------------------------------------- --------------

6. (SBU) Thich Thien Hanh, leader of the UBCV in Hue emphasized
that religion "must have an objective existence outside
politics." Buddhism has operated in Vietnam for 2,000 years
outside political control. The UBCV will not accept the Party's
demand that it be part of or subservient to the Communists.
More broadly, the UBCV will continue to oppose one-Party rule,
as so long as the "faithless Communists" rule there can be no
religious freedom in Vietnam.

7. (SBU) Vietnam's new legal framework has meant nothing to the
UBCV; as an "illegal" organization the Party would never grant
it permission to conduct any activities under the law. For
example, after the Ambassador in an August meeting encouraged
Hanh to explore the possibility of dialogue with the GVN (ref
A), Hanh had written Hue authorities seeking permission to visit
UBCV patriarch Thich Huyen Quang in Binh Dinh province. He was
told orally he would not be allowed to visit. Instead, the GVN
has recently stepped up its repression of the UBCV: On November
12, UBCV General Secretary Thich Quang Do was severely harassed
when he sought to travel to another HCMC pagoda to attend
religious ceremony (ref B). In other provinces, GVN officials
also have stepped up harassment of UBCV monks named by Thich
Quang Do to lead provincial committees. Hanh, as head of the
UBCV in Hue, received a letter from the provincial government
stating that the formation of the Hue provincial UBCV board was
an illegal act and demanding it be reversed. Because of his
refusal to cooperate, Hanh remains under virtual Pagoda arrest.
Provincial officials also visited all other pagodas in the
province affiliated with the UBCV and ordered the monks neither
to deal with Hanh nor to travel to Ho Chi Minh City to visit
Thich Quang Do or other UBCV leaders. Hanh estimated that at
least 50 of Hue's 100 pagodas are pro-UBCV, although all pagodas
nominally belong to the GVN-recognized Vietnam Buddhist Sangha
(VBS). Hanh was convinced that were the GVN to allow the UBCV
to operate legally, the vast majority of monks and nuns would
abandon the VBS. The Party fears that were the UBCV to be
resurrected, it would lose control, Hanh stated.

The VBS: Take a gradual approach
--------------------------------------------- -----

8. (SBU) In contrast to Chairman Me, Thich Cong Thien, in charge
of Buddhist education nationwide, Head of the Hue Buddhist
Academy, and a non-Party member of the National Assembly,
acknowledged that Vietnam had shortcomings in its human rights
regime. Thien, a former member of the UBCV who studied in Ohio
in 1973, argued that patience, dialogue and engagement will lead
to Vietnam's international integration and step-by-step
improvements in religious freedom and human rights that both he
and the Congressman want. Cultural and educational exchanges as
well as increased cooperation between the National Assembly and
Congress were critical in this regard. Becoming emotional,
Thien said that the U.S. and Vietnam should be "helping each
other, not hurting each other, in the future." He respects the
UBCV leaders and their "different point of view," but he was
willing to sacrifice some personal freedoms in the short run in
order to ensure societal stability and general prosperity.

9. (SBU) Over lunch at the Academy, Thien acknowledged that the
Ordinance on Religion was not perfect and that he hoped that the
National Assembly would debate and pass a full fledged law on
religion with expanded rights and protections within the next
two years, but only after WTO-linked economic legislation is
passed. The National Assembly also will soon pass a gender
rights bill; Congressman Smith encouraged Thien to use that
legislation to strengthen provisions against
trafficking-in-persons. The Congressman also pressed Thien to
strengthen protections of the unborn child in Vietnam. Thien
said that he personally agreed that such changes were necessary,
but, over the short term, the Party needed to have mechanisms in
place to restrict population growth.

Father Ly

10. (SBU) A smiling Father Nguyen Van Ly greeted the Congressman
at the Archbishop's residence, where he has lived since his
amnesty release from prison in February (ref c). Ly said he was
healthy, although he continues to be treated for tuberculosis.
Although technically under administrative detention, Ly said
that he has been able to travel to HCMC on two occasions to
visit dissidents, including Mennonite Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang
and Dr. Nguyen Dan Que. He also has been able to call on Father
Phan Van Loi and Thich Thien Hanh in Hue. (Ly subsequently told
us via telephone he also had traveled to Hanoi to call on
Archbishop Kiet and that that dissident Mennonite Pastor Quang
recently had traveled to Hue to visit him.)

11. (SBU) Ly was emphatic that there could not be real religious
freedom in Vietnam until the Communist Party loses its monopoly
on power. Religious freedom cannot be separated from democracy,
he claimed. The new legal framework on religion is a sham, as
it does nothing to eliminate the Party's control over the
Church. Church publications are routinely censored and Vatican
encyclicals cannot be published officially when they deviate
from the Party line, such as in the area of family planning.
(Ly said these materials are circulated "unofficially" within
the Church.) Ly maintained that all candidates for the
priesthood must be approved by the State prior to entry into the
seminary and that they must study Marxist theory intensively
while in the seminary. Those that don't believe in
Marxism-Leninism are kicked out, he maintained. (Comment: In a
subsequent meeting in HCMC, Cardinal Pham Minh Man told the
Congressman that, under the new legal framework, in the past
month, the church has appointed seminarians without Party
intervention and that the study of Marxism in Vietnam's
seminaries is not in the curriculum in HCMC, but elsewhere is
largely perfunctory and consists of about 30-40 hours.)

12. (SBU) Ly noted that government officials asked him to raise
the problem of Agent Orange with the Congressman. Ly commented
that if the USG accepted responsibility for Agent Orange as the
GVN demands, it would face an endless series of economic
demands. Ly said that the current USG approach of providing
assistance generically for the disabled was appropriate.

Father Loi

13. (SBU) Working through a prepared text in English, a fiery
and passionate Father Phan Van Loi, told the Congressman that
he, Father Ly and other religious freedom activists were "not
politicians, but prophets" and were prepared to accept "all
revenge of the government" in the pursuit of religious freedom.
Communism and Marxism were the "poison of humanity," and "Ho
Chi Minh, a great criminal and source of suffering and disaster
for our nation and people." Loi went beyond Ly to criticize any
Catholic Church cooperation with the GVN, including the
concurrent visit of Vatican envoy Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe. (In
Vietnam from November 28 to December 5, Cardinal Sepe attended
the ordaining of 57 new priests in Hanoi and participated in the
consecration a new bishop and the creation of a new diocese in
the southern province of Baria Vung Tau.) Any reforms that the
GVN has undertaken are merely cosmetic, Loi argued and the new
legal framework or religion is merely a "chain around the neck
of the church." Vietnam's CPC status should be maintained and
sanctions applied to punish the communist regime. The U.S.
should focus on democratization, not "capitalization" of
Vietnam. Loi said that he and other dissidents are banding
together to urge a boycott of Vietnam's 2007 National Assembly

14. (SBU) Loi said that, since his release from prison in 1988,
he has remained under virtual house arrest. Police routinely
cut his telephone and block his cell phone, although harassment
against visitors has sharply abated since 2003. The authorities
do not harass his sister or his parents, who reside with him.
(A few days after the visit, Father Loi posted a transcript of
large portions of the meeting with Congressman Smith.)

Atmospherics and Aftermath

15. (SBU) Comment: With the exception of Father Nguyen Huu
Giai, who had to officiate a funeral on the day of the visit,
Congressman Smith was able to meet with Hue's most prominent
political-religious activists privately and without incident.
Ly told us subsequently that when police asked him about the
meeting, he said that the Congressman wanted to understand
religious freedom conditions in Vietnam. The police expressed
concern that the U.S. may be plotting to take violent action
against Vietnam. Father Ly assured them there was no such
intent, that the U.S. only wanted economic relations with
Vietnam to hasten democratization. He also reportedly told them
that the U.S. believes Vietnam is better placed than China to
liberalize politically in tandem with its socio-economic

16. (U) Congressman Smith cleared this message.

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