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Cablegate: Visit of Congressman Christopher Smith to Ho Chi Minh City

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

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 05 HO CHI MINH CITY 001293

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PREL KIRF SOCI PHUM VM HIV AIDS HUMANR RELFREE
SUBJECT: VISIT OF CONGRESSMAN CHRISTOPHER SMITH TO HO CHI MINH CITY

REF: A) HCMC 1277; B) HCMC 846; C) HCMC 600; D) HCMC 1182; E) HCMC 847;
) HCMC 1143; G) 04 HCMC 1481; H) HCMC 15; I) HCMC 1220; J) HCMC 687; K)
CMC 396

1. (SBU) Summary: In an intensive one day visit December 4,
Congressman Chris Smith met with provincial government
officials, prominent political dissidents and religious freedom
activists. HCMC officials did not make any tangible commitments,
but acknowledged their obligation to create a positive
atmosphere for religious practice and welcomed the participation
of religious groups in humanitarian activities, especially the
fight against HIV/AIDS. Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, UBCV leader Thich
Quang Do and other dissidents were firm that there could be no
real political or religious freedom reform without ending the
Party's monopoly on power. The dissidents acknowledged that
international pressure -- particularly from the U.S. -- and
Vietnam's international integration had increased personal
freedoms. They favored Vietnam's WTO accession, but were split
over howmuchlinkage there should be between WTO and human
rights and over the impact of international pressure on the
internal party struggle between pro-China hardliners and
moderates.

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2. (SBU) Summary Continued: Key leaders of the Protestant House
Church community, the GVN-recognized Southern Evangelical Church
of Vietnam (SECV) and Cardinal Man noted improved religious
freedom conditions since the promulgation of Vietnam's new legal
framework on religion. However, the Protestants complained of
inconsistent application of the law, particularly in rural,
ethnic minority areas. Two separate meetings with Hoa Hao
groups highlighted the split in that community; the Congressman
bearded one group for its practice of using self-immolation as a
form of protest. Mennonite Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang made new
allegations of torture against him and his followers,
contradicting earlier information from his wife and lawyer.
Congressman Smith was accompanied throughout by Human Rights
Subcommittee Senior Staffer Eleanor Nagy. Ref A reports on the
Congressman's December 3 meetings in Hue.

HCMC Government
---------------

3. (SBU) A smooth and polished Nguyen Thanh Tai, Vice Chairman
of the HCMC People's Committee, emphasized the GVN's commitment
to improving the "welfare of the people" by ensuring economic
growth and "political stability." Tai welcomed Vietnam's
international integration in general and intensified exchange
and cooperation with the U.S. in particular. Congressman Smith
said the U.S. experience is that religious tolerance and
diversity is the only way to ensure continued prosperity. The
Congressman stressed that the HCMC government should be as
helpful as possible in implementing the legal framework on
religion. It also should enable the participation of religious
groups in the delivery of social services, particularly in the
fight against HIV/AIDS.

4. (SBU) Tai acknowledged the importance of tolerance and
diversity, and stated that the Communist Party recognizes that
"religious belief is a need of the people." The Party also
welcomes alternative views, so long as those views are
"constructive." He noted that the HCMC government is seeking to
facilitate the operation of religious organizations, for
example, granting public venues for large-scale religious events
during the Christmas season.

5. (SBU) Congressman Smith explained how his faith shapes and
informs his actions and pressed the Vice Chairman on why the
Communist Party prohibits membership for religious believers.
Tai replied that the Communist Party also had a code of
principles and that "Communists are just as prepared to
sacrifice to uphold these beliefs." Individuals were free to
leave if their beliefs and principles did not mesh with those of
the Party, Tai concluded.

Hoa Hao Community
-----------------

6. (SBU) Referring to the self-immolations of members of the Le
Quang Liem faction of the Hoa Hao community in the Mekong Delta
and HCMC this summer (Ref B), Hoa Hao elder Tran Huu Duyen,
accompanied by his personal secretary, told the Congressman that
it is a violation of Hoa Hao faith to self-immolate. Unlike Le
Quang Liem, who considers the GVN-constituted Hoa Hao Executive
Board (HHEB) illegitimate, Duyen is ambivalent. He told the
Congressman that he does not support the HHEB, but recommended
the HHEB's current chairman to the GVN. Duyen said allegations
of control of the Hoa Hao faith are exaggerated; the GVN has not
forced any change of the Hoa Hao faith or doctrine. Overall,
conditions for the Hoa Hao have improved significantly in recent
years. However, the lack of an independent leader has split the
Hoa Hao community, followers do not know where to turn to
protest their grievances and thus fall into the orbit of the Le
Quang Liem faction.

7. (SBU) Duyen said that he failed to dissuade Nam Liem (aka Vo
Van Thanh Liem) from participating in events organized by Le
Quang Liem over the summer. Unfortunately, Nam Liem threw
gasoline on a provincial official, which led to his arrest and
imprisonment. In September, Nam Liem was sentenced to six and a
half years in prison for disturbing public order and resisting
officials carrying out their duties. (Per refs B and C, during a
ceremony held by the Le Quang Liem faction in the Mekong Delta
in June, tensions flared with police after the Hoa Hao began
protesting GVN control of the Hoa Hao church.)

8. (SBU) In a separate meeting, Congressman Smith met with four
Hoa Hao supporters of Le Quang Liem: Bui Van Hue and three
brothers of Nam Liem. They accused the GVN of trying to wipe
out Hoa Haoism. They also complained about continued
harassment, including cutting water and power to their homes and
temples and detaining other followers of Le Quang Liem. They
asked for the Congressman's assistance to secure the return Hoa
Hao properties seized after 1975. While supporting the right of
the Hoa Hao to practice their faith free of government
interference, the Congressman sternly cautioned the Hoa Hao
against self-immolation, stating, inter alia, that it
discredited them in the eyes of their followers and the
international community.

Political Dissidents
--------------------

9. (SBU) Human rights and democracy activists Nguyen Dan Que,
Tran Khue, Do Nam Hai (aka Phuong Nam) and Father Chan Tin told
Congressman Smith they were determined to continue the struggle
to bring fundamental political reforms to Vietnam. Que said
that Vietnam's economic reforms over the past twenty years had
brought a gradual expansion of personal freedoms. He strongly
favors accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) as
Vietnam's participation in a rules-based system will hasten the
demise of the Communist Party. Que said that Vietnam's reform
process has been bolstered further by the visit of Prime
Minister Phan Van Khai to the United States in June. It opened
new possibilities for enhanced cultural and information
exchange, which are particularly significant for Vietnam's
youth. Que also pointed to the strengthening of institutions
such as the National Assembly and the increasing availability of
the Internet as developments that, over time, could limit the
monopoly of the Party on power and information. Que then
presented a nine-point roadmap for democracy, including release
of all political prisoners, separation of the Party from the GVN
by decree, and endorsement of a new electoral law, culminating
in a call for general elections for a new constitution in
Vietnam.

10. (SBU) Que noted that as the USG works with Vietnam on WTO
accession, it should also emphasize that human rights and
democracy are essential conditions for Vietnam's successful
participation in the world economy. In this regard, the United
States should find ways to reduce the Communist Party's power
and "tip the balance" in favor of reformers inside the party in
Vietnam. The international community also needed to strengthen
the role of the National Assembly. Que suggested that the USG
consider establishing a website to promote democracy in Vietnam,
pass the Vietnam Human Rights Act, and organize a seminar on
human rights and democracy in Vietnam. Que requested President
Bush to meet with leading dissidents when he visits Vietnam for
APEC in 2006: such a meeting would send a "powerful signal" to
the Communist regime.

11. (SBU) Tran Khue, a former Communist Party member, added that
hardliners and special interest groups are worried about the
implications of WTO accession, because it will spell the loss of
privilege and power for the Party. Khue noted ongoing harassment
against him and that the police recently denied his application
to travel to the Netherlands and the U.S. to attend democracy
seminars. Both Khue and Do Nam Hai told the Congressman that on
December 10, International Human Rights Day, they would launch
an e-newspaper, the "Voice of Democracy," which would be the
official publication of democracy activists in Vietnam. (Note:
On December 9, Hai was detained for 24 hours and questioned by
police on his pro-democracy activities before being released.
The launch of the dissident website went ahead as planned. End
Note.)

House Church Leaders
--------------------

12. (SBU) In a working lunch, Congressman Smith met with seven
leading pastors of Vietnam's house church community: Pham Dinh
Nhan, President of the Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship; Doan
Trung Tin of the Vietnam Good News Mission; Tran Mai,
Pastor-in-Charge of the Inter-Evangelistic Movement; Pham Toan
Ai of the Vietnam Baptist Alliance; Duong Thanh Lam of the
Assembly of God; Tran Cong Tan of the Seventh Day Adventists;
and Nguyen Quang Trung, President of one faction of the
Mennonite Church of Vietnam. Congressman Smith opened by
outlining his efforts to promote human rights and religious
freedom. He underscored his commitment to build on the meeting
between President Bush and Prime Minister Phan Van Khai to
secure greater freedoms in Vietnam, including expanding
opportunity for religious groups to conduct charitable and
humanitarian activities. The pastors welcomed U.S. pressure on
Vietnam to improve conditions for religious freedom.

13. (SBU) The pastors told the Congressman that conditions for
their churches had improved since the introduction of the new
legal framework on religion in early 2005. That said, the
majority told the Congressman of continuing, sporadic local
harassment of their house churches, including police
interference during religious services, confiscation of Bibles,
and intimidation of believers to discourage them from attending
services. A few pastors reported local police and authorities
occasionally ignored the new Ordinance on Religion and Faith and
still based their treatment on more restrictive regulations that
were superceded when the new legal framework come into effect.
In other cases, provincial-level officials intervened to end
local-level harassment and allow house church activities to
continue.
14. (SBU) Mennonite and Seventh Day Adventist leaders noted that
police harassment had stopped following their application
earlier this year for registration under the new legal framework
(refs D and E). Authorities in the Central Highlands province
of Gia Lai have begun proceedings to register two Mennonite
congregations. Both leaders said that they hoped to petition
the GVN for return of church properties seized after 1975 after
their registration has been approved. Other house church
pastors were more skeptical, saying the registration process is
laborious and does not appear to yield concrete benefits for
their organizations.

15. (SBU) Pastor Tin noted that church operations in the
Northwest Highlands remained under significant pressure. The
Vietnam Good News Mission -- a church seeding operation -- is
working with 40,000 ethnic Hmong in 400 congregations. When his
church attempted to register their activities with local
authorities they were pressured to withdraw their application
and told that Hanoi has not yet "instructed" the provinces on
how to proceed. These congregations also have been fined for
"illegal gathering" and pastors and worshipers faced police
harassment and detention.

Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam
--------------------------------------

16. (SBU) Leaders of the GVN-recognized Southern Evangelical
Church of Vietnam (SECV) told the Congressman that conditions
for their church have improved since the promulgation of the new
legal framework on religion. The SECV appreciated the
international pressure on Vietnam that led to this welcome
change. In addition to normalizing its operations nationwide,
the SECV also hopes to recover 217 properties the GVN
expropriated after 1975.

17. (SBU) Although conditions have improved, implementation of
the legal framework is inconsistent and depends on the attitudes
of village-level authorities. In many instances, officials tend
to support the "rights of agnostics" over the "rights of
believers." Rural, mountainous areas -- where three quarters of
the SECV's activities take place -- are particularly
problematic. The SECV leaders noted that forced renunciations
of faith were common in the Central Highlands three or four
years ago; the situation is markedly improved, although there
continue to be sporadic reports of forced renunciation in remote
villages. (Comment: We requested additional information from
the SECV General Secretary on the new allegations of forced
renunciation. The SECV General Secretary demurred, saying that
the SECV wants to try and resolve the problems directly with
Provincial and Central Committees for Religious Affairs first.
Should this approach fail, the SECV would then turn to "other
sources" for assistance. Per ref F, a member of the SECV in the
Central Highlands province of Gia Lai told us local officials in
Chu Prong district reportedly badly beat two ethnic minority
believers and ordered one community of ethnic minority
worshipers not to practice their faith. End Comment.)

18. (SBU) The SECV representatives noted their frustration that
local officials have not been punished for gross violations of
the law, while SECV pastors and preachers are routinely fined
and harassed for inconsequential administrative violations. The
SECV leaders also noted that, contrary to the house churches,
which face government intervention if they become too big, the
SECV faces pressure from the government to consolidate their
Central Highlands "meeting points" into larger churches.

Cardinal Man
------------

19. (SBU) Cardinal Pham Dinh Man, head of the HCMC Archdiocese,
told Congressman Smith that he was initially skeptical about the
new legal framework on religion when it was first promulgated.
Noting that there are "101 ways officials frustrate religious
belief," Man compared the situation in Vietnam to the plight of
African slaves in the story of "Roots." However, there has been
tangible improvement. For example, in June he transferred 60
priests within his diocese and ordained another 90 without
government interference. In October he named 35 new candidates
to seminary, again with no interference. HCMC authorities also
have returned a few expropriated properties to the Church.
Cardinal Man noted that the church has not been pushing hard for
return of expropriated property en masse as it does not have the
resources to rehabilitate them.

20. (SBU) Despite hiccups in cooperation, Man also noted
positively that HCMC authorities for the first time asked the
Church greater scope to assist in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
The Church wants to do significantly more and would welcome the
opportunity to participate in the PEPFAR program, an effort the
Congressman strongly encouraged.

21. (SBU) Cardinal Man said Marxism-Leninism has not been taught
in the HCMC seminary for the past two years and was an
inconsequential part of the curriculum before that. Elsewhere
it is largely perfunctory and consists of about 30-40 hours of
lecture. Man also noted that, after years of foot-dragging, the
GVN had finally agreed to create a new diocese in southern
Vietnam. Man was hopeful that in 2006, the GVN would approve a
pending request to open a new seminary in Dong Nai province.
Man was content to let GVN showcase these developments to answer
international critics of its religious freedom policies, so long
as the Church got what it wanted in the process. The Cardinal
closed by telling the Congressman that one needs to be "very
very patient" in Vietnam.

Thich Quang Do
--------------

22. (SBU) Energetic and well-briefed, Thich Quang Do -- General
Secretary of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam

SIPDIS
(UBCV) -- greeted the Congressman at the entrance to his Thanh
Minh Zen Monastery. Prior to the visit he had spoken with Vo
Van Ai, Director of the International Buddhist Information
Bureau (IBIB) based in Paris, and thanked Congressman Smith for
his advocacy for human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam.
Echoing themes from past meetings with the Ambassador and other
USG officials (refs G and H), Thich Quang Do warned against
trusting the GVN; specific measures must be place to prevent
backsliding. For example, in 2005 the GVN began to ease up on
religious organizations out of fear that CPC designation would
complicate Vietnam's WTO accession. Even the UBCV benefited
from a respite in pressure. However, when it became clear that
Vietnam would be re-designated a country of particular concern
and that the GVN would fail to close out negotiations with the
U.S. by the end of 2005, the Party stepped up its repression of
the UBCV. This led to his confrontation with police at a HCMC
pagoda on November 19 (Ref I) and the increased harassment of
UBCV leaders in other provinces.

23. (SBU) Thich Quang Do told the Congressman that in the run up
to its tenth Party Congress, the Communist Party is badly split
between hardliners beholden to former Party General Secretary Do
Muoi and former President Le Duc Anh and reformers led by former
Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet and Prime Minister Phan Van Khai.
According to Do, hardliners have been working to scuttle
improved relations between the U.S. and Vietnam. This same
group also is firmly opposed to economic reform. Speaking like
a seasoned opposition politician, Thich Quang Do criticized the
hardline faction's pro-China leanings and the "ceding of
Vietnamese territory to the PRC." Do placed Deputy Prime
Minister Nguyen Tan Dung firmly within the pro-China camp; HCMC
Party Secretary Triet "might be" a reformer.

24. (SBU) Saying that he has banded together with other
political and religious freedom activists to push for political
change, Thich Quang Do said that Vietnam cannot develop under a
one-party dictatorship. Whereas in the past he opposed the
application of sanctions, for fear of hurting the Vietnamese
people, he is reconsidering. Perhaps if the Vietnamese people
"suffer once," it may spark them to "stand up" against the
Party. However, he acknowledged that sanctions might be
counterproductive and could tip the balance within the Party in
favor of the hardliners. He noted positively a December
European Parliament resolution on human rights in Vietnam and
urged the U.S. Congress to pass the Vietnam Human Rights Act.

Mennonite Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang
----------------------------------

25. (SBU) In an evening meeting, Mennonite Pastor Nguyen Hong
Quang, accompanied by his wife Le Thi Phu Dung, read from a
prepared letter detailing recent examples of GVN violations of
religious freedom as well as his proscriptions for reform. In
contrast to the other house church leaders, Quang, amnestied
from prison in September 2005, alleged increased harassment of
his church in recent months. Quang added that Mennonite
preacher Pham Ngoc Thach -- the last of the "Mennonite 6" still
in prison -- has been tortured in prison. Quang claimed that he
too was beaten regularly in prison, but he previously "had not
dared" to inform anyone of these incidents.

26. (SBU) Quang said that, within the past few weeks he, former
Mennonite 6 co-defendant Le Thi Hong Lien and his wife had
traveled to Hue "in secret," and "had eluded officials" to pay a
midnight visit to Fathers Ly and Loi. Responding to a question
from the Consul General, Quang denied that he was being singled
out for increased police scrutiny. Other house churches were
facing the same harassment, but were "too afraid to divulge
these facts." (Comment: per refs J and K, Quang's wife and
Quang's lawyer separately told us that following their visits to
prison, they had not seen any evidence that Quang or Thach were
beaten. We also have been unable to confirm other allegations
of torture involving other members of the "Mennonite 6."
Another Presbyterian house church pastor noted that Quang's
group had a tendency to exaggerate to gain international
attention and sympathy. Other house church pastors have told us
that police pressure on Pastor Quang's house church declined
substantially following his release from prison. End Comment.)
WINNICK

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