An annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom for the year 2007 has recommended that the Vietnam be reinstated in the Countries of Particular Concern. See below for selected statements from the 2007 report in regards to recent religious prosecution of Khmer Krom Buddhist monks from Khleang (renamed Soc Trang) and the recommendations by the USCIRF to the US government. As stated by the 2007 Annual report: Since Vietnam was named a “country of particular concern” (CPC) in 2004, Vietnam and the United States have engaged diplomatically to address a number of religious freedom concerns. In the process, conditions for many religious communities have improved in some respects, as Vietnam has expanded the zone of permissible religious activity and issued new administrative ordinances and decrees that outlined registration procedures and outlawed forced renunciations of faith. In addition, Vietnam has also granted early release to specific prisoners whose cases were presented by the United States. These advances were cited by the State Department in November 2006 when it lifted the CPC designation. The Commission has noted this progress in Vietnam, but has concluded that these improvements were insufficient to warrant lifting the CPC designation. This conclusion was reached because it was too soon to determine if legal protections would be permanent and whether such progress would last beyond Vietnam’s accession to the World Trade Organization. In addition, the Commission’s view was that lifting the CPC designation potentially removed a positive diplomatic tool that had proved to be an effective incentive to bilateral engagement on religious freedom and related human rights. In the last year, there have been arrests and short-term detentions of individuals because of their religious activity. There were also reports of individuals threatened unless they renounced their religious affiliations, and new legal regulations were used, in some cases, to restrict religious freedom. Targeted in particular were religious leaders and individuals associated with ethnic minority Protestants, Hoa Hao Buddhists, Vietnamese Mennonites, Khmer Krom Buddhists, and monks and nuns of the government-banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV). In addition, since it joined the World Trade Organization (WTO), the government of Vietnam has initiated a crackdown on human rights defenders and advocates for the freedoms of speech, association, and assembly, including many religious leaders who previously were the leading advocates for religious freedom in Vietnam. Given the recent deterioration of human rights conditions in Vietnam and because of continued abuses of and restrictions on religious freedom, the Commission recommends that Vietnam be re-designated as a CPC in 2007. The Vietnamese government continues to remain suspicious of ethnic minority religious groups, such as Montagnard and Hmong Protestants and Khmer Buddhists; those who seek to establish independent religious organizations, such as the UBCV, Hao Hoa, and Cao Dai; and those it considers to pose a threat to national solidarity or security, such as “Dega” Protestants and individual Mennonite, Catholic, Buddhist, and house church Protestant leaders. In addition, Vietnam’s new ordinances and decrees on religion continue to require that religious groups seek advance permission for most religious activity and ban any religious activity deemed to cause public disorder or “sow divisions.” In some cases, the new laws are being used to restrict, rather than promote, religious freedom. Buddhists throughout Vietnam have become increasingly vocal about past and current religious freedom abuses. Since 2003, local Buddhists in Bac Gian province issued multiple petitions to protest the arrest and torture of eight Buddhists, including the beating death of monk Thich Duc Chinh. In July 2006, an appeals court ordered the temporary release of the eight citing the “lack of evidence” against them. Nonetheless, 50 monks and nuns from the government-recognized VBS demonstrated for their complete acquittal and to demand that those responsible for the monk’s death be held accountable. In Soc Triang province, there are also multiple reports of large scale demonstrations against the defrocking and arrest of several ethnic Khmer Buddhist monks. The monks who were arrested reportedly conducted their own peaceful protest over longstanding restrictions placed on the religious, cultural, and language traditions of the Khmer ethnic minority. In response, police have expanded arrests, harassment, and restrictions on Khmer Buddhist religious activity. As Theravada Buddhists, the Khmer have distinct ethnic and religious traditions from the dominant Mahayana tradition of the VBS. Some Khmer Buddhists have called for a separate religious organization from the VBS. The situation of the Khmer Buddhist will require additional monitoring, as information from that remote region is difficult to confirm. Commissioners and staff have traveled to Vietnam and met with Vietnamese government officials and religious leaders. In addition, the Commission has met with officials in the U.S. government, Members of Congress, the Acting UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and congressional staff about current U.S. policy toward Vietnam and the Commission’s policy recommendations. In March 2006, Commission Vice Chair Michael Cromartie testified before the House International Relations Subcommittee on Africa, Human Rights and International Organizations at a hearing entitled “Vietnam: The Human Rights Dialogue with Vietnam: Is Vietnam Making Significant Progress?” In June 2005, Commission Vice Chair Nina Shea testified before the House International Relations Committee hearing entitled “Human Rights in Vietnam.” Shea discussed Vietnam’s record on religious freedom and related human rights, the provisions of the May 2005 agreement on religious freedom, as well as the Commission’s recommendations for U.S. policy. In July 2005, then-Commission Chair Cromartie testified at a joint Congressional Caucus on Vietnam and Congressional Human Rights Caucus hearing on Vietnam entitled, “The Ongoing Religious Freedom Violations in Vietnam.” In addition to its recommendation that Vietnam continue to be named a CPC, the Commission recommended that the U.S. government should:
- Re-allocate foreign assistance funds that formerly supported the STAR (Support for Trade Acceleration Program) to new projects in human rights training, civil society capacity building, non-commercial rule of law programs in Vietnam, education programs for minors and young adults, and exchange programs between the Vietnamese National Assembly and 162 the U.S. Congress. The Commission suggests the funds go to the creation of the Promoting Equal Rights and the Rule of Law (PEARL) program.
Previously, the Commission has urged the U.S. government to make clear to the government of Vietnam that ending violations of religious freedom is essential to the continued expansion of U.S.-Vietnam relations, urging the Vietnamese government to meet certain benchmarks consistent with international religious freedom standards including:
- establishing a non-discriminatory legal framework for religious groups to engage in peaceful religious activities protected by international law without requiring groups to affiliate with any one officially registered religious organization; for example:allow the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and Khmer Buddhists to legally operate independently of the official Buddhist organization, the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha
- establishing a legal framework that allows for religious groups to organize and engage in humanitarian, medical, educational, and charitable work;
- setting up a national commission of religious groups, government officials, and independent, non-governmental observers to find equitable solutions on returning confiscated properties to religious groups;
The Commission has also recommended that religious freedom in Vietnam be both protected and promoted through expanded foreign assistance programs in public diplomacy, economic development, education, good governance, and the rule of law; including by:
- expanding funding for additional Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA) programming for Vietnam and to overcome the jamming of VOA and RFA broadcasts;
- working to improve the capacity and skills of Vietnamese civil society organizations, including medical, educational, development, relief, youth, and charitable organizations run by religious organizations;
- targeting some of the Fulbright Program grants to individuals and scholars whose work promotes understanding of religious freedom and related human rights;
- requiring the Vietnam Educational Foundation, which offers scholarships to Vietnamese high school-age students to attend college in the United States, to give preferences to youth from ethnic minority group areas (Montagnard and Hmong), from minority religious communities (Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, Catholic, Protestant, Cham Islamic, and Khmer Krom), or former novice monks associated with the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and Khmer Krom Buddhists;
- providing grants to educational NGOs to bring Vietnamese high school students to the United States for one year of study, prioritizing minority groups and communities experiencing significant poverty and human rights abuses;
- creating new exchange programs between the Vietnamese National Assembly and its staff and the U.S. Congress;
- working with international corporations seeking new investment in Vietnam to promote international human rights standards in Vietnam and find ways their corporate presence can help promote and protect religious freedom and related human rights; and
- expanding existing rule of law programs to include regular exchanges between international experts on religion and law and appropriate representatives from the Vietnamese government, academia, and religious communities to discuss the impact of Vietnam’s laws and decrees on religious freedom and other human rights, to train public security forces on these issues, and to discuss ways to incorporate international standards of human rights in Vietnamese laws and regulations.