Hanoi sees red at name in book

Posted on July 17, 2012


RAIDS by police are not uncommon in Vietnam but visits to bookshops to confiscate issues of travel guide Lonely Planet are unusual.

The guidebook has raised the ire of authorities because its maps mention the South China Sea, which in Vietnam is firmly referred to as the East Sea (China calls it the South Sea).

The vast oil, gas and fish-rich area and the Spratly and Paracel islands are contested by Vietnam and China. The Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia also lay partial claim to the area.

Tensions between Vietnam and China rose again recently when China’s National Offshore Oil and Gas Corporation invited foreign companies to bid on blocks Vietnam says are part of its Exclusive Economic Zone. Foreign companies already operate there, under the protection of Vietnamese patrols.

A bookshop owner who had been visited by the Ministry of Information said things were ”more sensitive now because of the tension with Vietnam and China”. They have also put away other books likely to anger authorities as more general crackdowns are common in times of tension (bars will often be closed early by police in Hanoi for the same reasons).

Anti-China sentiment in Vietnam is sometimes tacitly encouraged as a way to ”send a message to Beijing”, but it is also closely monitored lest it spill over into anti-government sentiment. Bloggers have been arrested in the past for criticism of their government’s dealings or supposed capitulation to China.

These past two weeks anti-China protests have been held in Hanoi, albeit under the watchful eyes of police. From April last year there were nearly a dozen protests, held every Sunday morning in the centre of the city. After a rapprochement with Beijing they were swiftly shut down. That last round was sparked by the cutting of cables of a Vietnamese survey ship, supposedly by a Chinese naval vessel. The detention of Vietnamese fishermen has also raised ire.

During the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, last week US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: ”We do have an interest in freedom of navigation, the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law and unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea,” despite the US having no territorial claims in the vast waters. Mrs Clinton had visited Hanoi the day before.

Helen Clark

Clinton in Vietnam, Ambassador Shear, and the Day They Seized My Passport

In a recent open letter to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, I admonished her to press Vietnam on human rights, and to work for the release of Vietnam’s political prisoner, the American citizen, Nguyen Quoc Quan (I also urged her to pull the US back from supporting Vietnam’s new nuclear program).

Clinton has now come to Hanoi and left. Nguyen Quoc Quan, a peaceful pro-democracy activist, remains in a dank Vietnam prison, awaiting a puppet trial where he will learn his sentence, which could mean execution by lethal injection.

I applaud Clinton for at least bringing up the issue of human rights in her public speech from Hanoi:

“So I also raised concerns about human rights, including the continued detention of activists, lawyers, and bloggers, for the peaceful expression of opinions and ideas. In particular, we are concerned about restrictions on free expression online and the upcoming trial of the founders of the so-called Free Journalists Club. The Foreign Minister and I agreed to keep talking candidly and to keep expanding our partnership.”

However there was no mention of Nguyen Quoc Quan. We may hope, even presume, that he was the topic of conversation in private meetings in Hanoi. However, I know from personal experience that the State Department does not necessarily press particular human rights or diplomatic issues unless it deems them strategic. We are left to wonder.

Meanwhile, for at least the second time since May, US Rep. Frank Wolf has called on President Obama to fire Ambassador Shear in Hanoi. Wolf first called for Shear to be sacked after it was learned that he made no attempt to speak with the wife of Nguyen Quoc Quan, both California residents, after he was taken prisoner by Vietnam this spring. Further, Wolf asserts that the Ambassador misled him, as well as the public, by promising to invite Vietnamese human rights activists to the embassy’s July 4th party, but then apparently inviting other VIPs instead.

Whether accurate or not, US Ambassador Shear is gaining a reputation for behaving more as a socialite than a diplomat.

All of this comes along a series of other distressing moves by the Obama administration in its dealings with Vietnam over the last few months.

The week after Vietnam announced the arrest of Nguyen Quoc Quan, the US Navy arrived in Vietnam and conducted exercises and provided training to the Vietnam military. These exercises culminated—of all possible days—on Vietnam’s ‘Liberation Day’ which commemorated the Fall of Saigon, which is followed by the Communist May Day holiday. It’s hard to comprehend why the US would choose these highly-significant dates.

Just a few weeks ago Communist Vietnam was invited to attend naval exercises’ in Hawaii.

Now this week, after Clinton’s own failed visit to Hanoi, the USNS Mercy has arrived in Vinh, Vietnam to deliver humanitarian aid.

I love Vietnam, and I generally support the idea of providing humanitarian aid. But is it the job of the US Navy to deliver aid to nations whose government still consider the USA their enemy, and particularly to do this while they hold American political prisoners?

All of these events bring to mind the next Chapter in my Vietnam experience, which I have yet to write about. As readers know, in May of 2011 I was detained by Communist officials, after receiving an invitation from the government to attend an official tourism ceremony in Quang Ngai. I was invited because the government liked the related stories that I had written for CNN and BBC. However, when I stumbled into an area where the government has a long history of persecuting Christian minorities, they panicked and arrested me and my friends.

I was released that evening, and in the months that followed in Vietnam I saw many terrible things, including friends laying in hospitals after being tortured for hours by police, and a riot of more than 1000 Mui ne residents who attacked the police station with fire bombs and rocks. I also found myself constantly followed and spied on by secret police.

However, at the end of this period, my passport was seized by immigration police. I had broken no laws, and I was in the country on a legal, valid visa.

I went to the US Consulate and asked for assistance. The consulate called the police and asked them why my visa had been seized, but the Vietnamese police refused to provide a reason to the US Consulate.

However, when I was in the police office, I heard officials discussing the incident in Quang Ngai, as well as the fact that I was a journalist. This was the reason why I was targeted.

I should say that the folks at the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City were very friendly, helpful, offered candid advice, and did make calls to the government on my behalf. However, I was disappointed and shocked when it was all left to me to work out the situation with the police myself.

I expected the US State Department to demand my passport be returned. After all, a US passport is the property of the US government! However, I was told I had to get it back myself. At that time, I felt a little betrayed by my own government.

So, in the light of my own personal experience, the inability—and perhaps the unwillingness—of the State Department to pursue the matter of Nguyen Quoc Quan’s imprisonment with urgency, does not surprise me.

The Obama administration has demonstrated a willingness to let Vietnam’s human rights issues fall by the wayside, even when it includes turning its back on US citizens, in an effort to maintain Vietnam’s cooperation in the containment of China, as well as prevent Russia from re-asserting influence within the Vietnam government and military, in place of the United States.

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Adam Bray