Cablegate: Uscirf Meeting with Vietnamese Vice Foreign Minister

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(SBU) Visiting Commissioners from the United States Commission on
International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) discussed religious
freedom, human rights and Vietnam's prisoners of concern with
Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Vice Minister Pham Binh Minh on
October 22. Minh cited positive developments "in all aspects" of
the US-Vietnam relationship and said the GVN remains committed to
discussing differences on human rights. On the question of
recognizing Buddhist sects separate from the State-sanctioned
Vietnam Buddhist Sangha (VBS), Minh said that the GVN will not allow
groups such as the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam to "destroy the
unity of the VBS." Individuals the USG regards as prisoners of
concern are in jail because they violated Vietnamese law, Minh
asserted. USCIRF members rejected Minh's comparison between
terrorists in Guantanamo Bay who are determined to kill Americans
and those in Vietnam who are arrested for peacefully expressing
their political views. End Summary.

2. (SBU) On October 22, four commissioners from the United States
Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) discussed
religious freedom, human rights and Vietnam's prisoners of concern
with Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Vice Minister Pham Binh Minh.
Minh began by citing the positive developments "in all aspects" of
the US-Vietnam relationship. He said the GVN "cares about the human
rights" of its people and noted that the Vietnamese Constitution
guarantees the right to free religious and political expression.
Foreign government criticism of the GVN's domestic practices
actually "helps us look at how we can improve the lives of our
citizens," he added. In this connection, he proudly explained that
Vietnamese living standards have increased dramatically over the
last 20 years. "It is like in your country in that we, too, are
trying to take care of our people," he said.

3. (SBU) Minh said that Vietnam has experienced tremendous growth in
the number of religious adherents since 1975. He cited statistics
that indicate over half of Vietnam's population believes in a
religion. If the GVN restricts religious freedom, it is in effect
"acting against half the Vietnamese population," he said. It is a
GVN policy "to get religious freedom right," he added.

4. (SBU) Minh encouraged the delegation to talk to ordinary
adherents of Vietnam's varied faiths because "if you talk only to
government people, then you get a biased view." He suggested that
they attend a Protestant celebration in Thai Binh Province, and if
they are in the country on the 15th of the month, to take in a
Buddhist "Ve Sak" (full-moon) celebration. USCIRF Chairman Michael
Cromartie responded that, in some other countries, government
leaders tell USCIRF to listen only to them, not religious figures.
He commended the GVN for its openness in encouraging USCIRF to speak
with a broad range of persons and said Minh's encouragement of the
delegation to visit the churches, pagodas and mosques of Vietnam is
a positive sign.

Vietnam's Buddhists

5. (SBU) Commissioner Preeta Bansal commended the GVN for its
"foresight" in recognizing different Protestant denominations in
Vietnam. She asked if the GVN would demonstrate the same foresight
in recognizing Buddhist and Hoa Hao organizations that refuse to
fall under the GVN-sanctioned Vietnam Buddhist Sangha (VBS)
umbrella. Minh responded that the USCIRF should take note of
conditions in Vietnam when it talks about the "universality of human
rights." Vietnam has its own cultural and economic traditions and
the GVN wants to maintain stability, which is why it has required
the religious sects to register, he said. He said that the GVN
"does not intervene" in the affairs of the VBS and that the GVN will
not allow organizations such as the United Buddhist Church of
Vietnam (UBCV) to destroy the "unity" of the VBS. Commissioner
Bansal responded that allowing groups outside the VBS to register is
an "important benchmark" for the commission in evaluating overall
religious freedom in Vietnam.

Connecting Religious and Political Freedoms

6. (SBU) USCIRF members drew a connection between religious and
political freedoms. Commissioner Felice Gaer said that Vietnam will
not enjoy full religious freedom until its citizens can freely speak
their minds. She appealed for the GVN to release Le Thi Cong Nhan,
Nguyen Van Dai, Father Nguyen Van Ly, Thich Quang Do and all other
prisoners of concern.

7. (SBU) Minh responded saying that every country has its own laws
and traditions. Those people who are in prison in Vietnam are there

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because they violated Vietnamese law. Citing the prisoners at
Guantanamo Bay, Minh said the United States has its own ways of
dealing with people who are bound and determined to hurt it.
Vietnam has its own system of laws and those people who are trying
to hurt the Vietnamese state are subject to those laws, the VM said.
USCIRF members rejected Minh's comparison between terrorists in
Guantanamo Bay who are determined to kill Americans and those
Vietnamese who are in prison for peacefully expressing their
political views.

8. (SBU) For provincial, district or commune officials who are
alleged to have violated central government edicts on religious
freedom, the GVN first conducts an investigation, Minh said. Local
officials found to have violated religious freedom are punished, and
Minh promised the GVN would follow up reports of problems
registering Protestant groups in the Central and Northwest

9. (SBU) In response to USCIRF questions about Vietnam using
nebulous national security laws to put people who express political
views in prison, Minh said the Vietnamese Constitution allows for
freedom of expression. He reiterated that the USCIRF must take into
account the situation and traditions of each country when it talks
about the universality of human rights. He concluded by pointing
out that many people ask him why the United States does not want to
discuss the Agent Orange issue in its human rights dialogue with


10. (SBU) Minh is one of two MFA officials on the Communist Party of
Vietnam's Central Committee (though he is a non-voting alternate
member), is the GVN's chief representative in the Human Rights
Dialogue with the USG. His extensive experience in defending
Vietnam's positions on human rights and religious freedom was clear
in this meeting.

11. (U) This message was cleared with USCIRF Chairman Cromartie.


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