Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - They may not have a vote in November's U.S. presidential election, but many Vietnamese living in Australia would like to see the campaign focus more on Senator John Kerry's approach toward Vietnam today than on what he did there more than 30 years ago.
Comprising mostly refugees who fled the communist regime's repression in Hanoi, the 200,000-plus Vietnamese living in Australia take a keen interest in the situation in their homeland, community general-secretary Trung Doan said Tuesday.
Like their counterparts living in the United States, many were incensed when U.S. legislation aimed at forcing the Vietnamese government to improve its human rights record stalled in the Senate three years ago.
The measure, which tied U.S. aid to Vietnam's human rights performance, passed by a 410-1 margin in the House of Representatives, but Kerry, then-chairman of the Senate's East Asian and Pacific Affairs subcommittee, blocked any further progress.
Kerry said in a statement at the time that he and fellow Vietnam War veteran Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) "are concerned that denying aid to Vietnam would actually slow human rights improvements."
Last month the House again voted to freeze any increases in non-humanitarian aid to Vietnam.
The Vietnam Human Rights Act, sponsored by New Jersey Republican Chris Smith, passed by a 323-45 vote. Vietnamese American advocacy groups are now lobbying for quick Senate passage.
Hanoi's official Voice of Vietnam broadcaster called the law "a product of the old-fashioned psychological war and full of distortions and fabrications," and expressed the hope that the Senate would, once again, kill the initiative.
Doan said for many Vietnamese living in the West, Kerry's handling of the legislation in 2001 was deplorable.
"He did it in a pretty underhanded way," he said. "He didn't [allow] debate but just put it in a bottom drawer. That showed us he is motivated by his own agenda."
"Many Vietnamese-Americans are concerned about John Kerry becoming president," said Doan. "Based on his past actions they have reason to believe that he will support the regime in Vietnam based on his own emotions, not on America's national interest."
He cited Kerry's actions in 2001, as well as his earlier antiwar activism.
Doan said members of the Vietnamese community in Australia paid close attention to developments in Vietnam and to Western governments' dealings with Hanoi.
"If you look at Vietnamese newspapers [here], human rights issues are often on the front page or quite prominent. Lately there have been quite a few big demonstrations, and they relate in one way or another to repression by the regime."
Of particular concern in recent years has been the treatment of religious groups not recognized by the state. Members of the Protestant Hmong minority have been ordered to renounce their faith, and the mainly Christian Montagnard (mountain people) of the central highlands were subjected to a violent crackdown last Easter.
Democracy activists have been jailed or placed under house arrest, often punished for using the Internet to press for respect for human rights.
One of them, Pham Hong Son was sentenced to 13 years in jail for posting a translated essay on democracy - which he originally found on a U.S. Embassy website - on the Internet.
Another, Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, was recently jailed for 30 months for "abusing democratic freedoms" by posting on the Internet writings critical of government censorship.
Vietnamese living abroad often felt helpless to influence their governments' foreign policy, but they did what they can to make their voices heard, Doan said.
Near Sydney last weekend, some 5,000 marched to protest a celebratory function organized by a local city council which has a sister city relationship with the Vietnamese city of Vung Tau.
Last October, about 20,000 Vietnamese protested in Australia's two largest cities after a government-funded television station aimed at ethnic communities began to air Vietnamese communist news programs. The broadcaster backed down and apologized.
While Vietnamese-Australians are obviously most concerned about Canberra's dealings with Hanoi, what happens in the U.S. is seen of particular importance, and most would have heard about the Vietnam Human Rights Act in the U.S. Congress, Doan said.
"I think most people in my community feel it would be a good development for that law to be passed, because we understand very well that the Hanoi regime will not respect human rights unless it is forced to do so. It doesn't do it of its own volition."
'Worse since 2001'
Many Vietnamese living abroad, along with human rights campaigners, say conditions in Vietnam have deteriorated in the three years since Kerry blocked the legislation.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has since 2002 been pressing the State Department to name Vietnam as a "country of particular concern" (CPCs) for their religious freedom violations, a designation that can lead to sanctions or other punitive measures. Vietnam has yet to be added to the CPC list.
Dr. Cuong Trong Bui, a physician who was federal president of the Vietnamese community in Australia from 1982-1992, said in a phone interview he did not believe passage of the U.S. law in 2001 would have necessarily made a huge difference to "the poor people inside the country."
But it may have brought pressure to bear on Hanoi in various ways, he said, for instance making its bid to join the World Trade Organization that little bit harder: "They would have been forced to change."
Bui, a 59-year-old father of two who fled his homeland in 1975, said he hoped the Vietnam Human Rights Act would get through the Senate quickly.
But he was concerned it may run out of time. And while he thought a Kerry election victory was unlikely, he worried that if the Democrat was successful, efforts to pressurize Hanoi would fizzle out.
Bui expressed strong views about Kerry, whom he said was "so close to the Vietnamese communist government."
He referred to Kerry's anti-war activism, including his claims before the Senate foreign relations committee in 1971 that "war crimes" by U.S. soldiers had occurred on a day-by-day basis in Vietnam.
"He said a lot of things quite harmful to the involvement of America in Vietnam," Bui said.
"He said American soldiers were there to kill Vietnamese rather than to defend Vietnamese. He was a soldier of that army, and finally he comes back and abuses that army. But he didn't mention anything about the atrocities of the Vietnamese communists."
Bui was working as a doctor during the war, and said he clearly recalled the sight of children with limbs blown off by North Vietnamese forces who targeted a school in the town where he worked.
"I saw that with my own eyes and I still remember it vividly - John Kerry never mentioned anything like that.
"And John Kerry just ignores all of the violation of human rights happening [today] in Vietnam," he added.
'Stand with the oppressed'
Meanwhile in the U.S., advocacy groups are lobbying hard the get the Vietnam Human Rights Act through the Senate, Vietnamese-American Public Affairs Committee (VPAC) representative Dan Hoang said Tuesday.
He said the human rights situation in Vietnam provoked strong feelings in the community. "Perhaps the one issue that unifies Vietnamese-Americans is the plight of those from their native country."
"Since Senator Kerry blocked the Vietnam Human Rights Act, some of Vietnam's most courageous voices like Nobel nominees Dr. Nguyen Dan Que and Venerable Thich Quang Do have been persecuted solely for exercising their basic human rights."
Hoang cited other developments since 2001, including the targeting of religious leaders and worshippers and the imprisonment of "Internet activists."
Asked his view about Kerry's 2001 statement that restricting aid to Hanoi would slow improvements in human rights, Hoang gave the argument short shrift.
"The best way to improve human rights in Vietnam is to stand with the oppressed, not the oppressors," he declared.
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