Prominent Dissident Released After Serving 30 Months in Vietnam

Catholic dissident lawyer Le Quoc Quan (L) poses with his wife Nguyen Thi Hien after he was freed from a prison in the central province of Quang Nam on June 27, 2015 (AFP Photo)

Catholic dissident lawyer Le Quoc Quan (L) poses with his wife Nguyen Thi Hien after he was freed from a prison in the central province of Quang Nam on June 27, 2015 (AFP Photo)

Prominent Vietnamese lawyer and blogger Le Quoc Quan completed his thirty month prison sentence on June 27th. He was reunited with his family in the province of Quang Nam, and stated that he will now resume his work in defense of human rights: ‘’I will go ahead, because I believe it is good for the people of Vietnam.’’

Le Quoc Quan is a prominent lawyer, blogger and human rights defender who was convicted on the trumped up charge of tax evasion in 2013. Prior to his imprisonment, Le Quoc Quan ran a blog where he wrote about various issues including civil rights, political pluralism and religious freedom. As a lawyer, he represented many victims of human rights violations, before being disbarred in 2007 on the fabricated suspicion of engaging in “activities to overthrow the regime.”

Quan,  43, was arrested in December 2012, on allegations of tax evasion. He was held incommunicado for the next two months and spent fifteen days on hunger strike. On October 2nd 2013, over nine months after his arrest, he was sentenced to 30 months’ imprisonment, and his company ordered to pay a fine of $59,000 USD. In February 2014, the Hanoi Court of Appeal upheld Quan’s conviction despite international calls for his release. He was on hunger strike five times during prison, his most recent strike ending June 24th.

International organizations have long asserted that the charges against Quan were politically motivated in response to his daring exercise of the right to freedom of expression and religion on his blog, despite Vietnam’s history of crackdowns on journalists and writers. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention labeled Quan’s jailing as “a deprivation of liberty result[ing] from the exercise of the rights or freedoms guaranteed by… the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”—and thus arbitrary—in June 2013.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said prior to Quan’s release that ‘’we are pleased to anticipate Quan’s imminent release from prison on June 27, though we are sad to note that Quan owes his release not to a change of heart on the part of the Vietnamese government, but the fact that he has served the full term of his 30-month prison sentence related to politically-motivated charges of tax evasion.’’

Supporters hold posters with portrait of Le Quoc Quan, Vietnam's leading critic of the Communist regime, outside the court house in Hanoi, Feb.18, 2014. (AFP photo)

Supporters hold posters with portrait of Le Quoc Quan, Vietnam’s leading critic of the Communist regime, outside the court house in Hanoi, Feb.18, 2014. (AFP photo)

The Vietnamese government has a long history of persecuting Quan for his human rights work. In 2007, after representing numerous victims of human rights violations, he was disbarred from practicing as a lawyer on suspicion of engaging in “activities to overthrow the regime.” He has been arrested several times for continuing his human rights work. Following an attack by unknown assailants in August 2012, he was hospitalized and the attack was never investigated by the police. On December 27th 2012, Quan was arbitrarily arrested and detained while taking his daughter to school. In 2011, he was arrested while protesting outside the trial of fellow human rights defender Mr Cu Huy Ha Vu and detained for a week. In 2007, Le Quoc Quan was detained for three months and charged with taking part in “activities to overthrow the people’s government”. He was later released following international protests.

PEN American Center welcomed his release. “The jailing of Le Quoc Quan was a brazen attempt to suppress his works that were critical of Hanoi,” said Karin Karlekar, director of Free Expression Programs at PEN. “PEN has followed Quan’s case through the years and noticed a pattern of legal harassment by the government against him and other writers and journalists in Vietnam. With at least 16 journalists remaining in jail there, PEN American Center calls on the government of Vietnam to cease their harsh crackdown on individuals who simply exercise their human right to free expression.”

Quan told Article 19 the day after his release that the eighteen months of his imprisonment were very difficult: ‘’The conditions were harsh. I was in a prison cell of 60 square meters with about 50 other persons. Among them were killers, robbers, people with severe diseases.’’

He also said that the process against him is ‘’a miscarriage of justice’’, stating that his sentence is ‘’based on false accusations of tax evasion.’’ He continued: ‘’The fine of USD 59,000 is still outstanding. I do not want to pay, as I am innocent. The big question for me is what will happen if I do not pay. We don’t have enough money to pay anyway. I was afraid to be arrested again as soon as I was released. But they let me go. I am at home now. There were many supporters waiting for me at the airport, even people I never met before. Many people come to visit me at my home now.’’

When asked whether he would continue blogging about human rights issues, he answered: ‘’Of course! I will continue with doing what I believe is good for the Nation. I will be working for a better Vietnam. Progress for our Nation is my goal. Yes, I am afraid that I will be arrested again. I try to overcome the fear. I will go ahead, because I believe it is good for the people of Vietnam. I will not go abroad, I prefer to stay in Vietnam. It is worth it, even if I devote my life.’’

A coalition of NGOs including EFF, Amnesty International, PEN and Frontline Defenders urges the Vietnamese government to respect and protect Quan’s rights in the wake of his release as he resumes his legitimate human rights activities. Specifically, they call on the government to refrain from any further persecution or harassment and/or unlawful arrest, reinstate his license to work as a lawyer and undo his disbarment, and grant him reparations for the arbitrary detention he has suffered.

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As Conflict in Myanmar Continues, Refugees Face Increased Uncertainty

Refugees gather to mark World Refugee Day. Photo courtesy Burma Partnership.

Refugees gather to mark World Refugee Day. Photo courtesy Burma Partnership.

Many refugees who have fled Burma due to ongoing conflict, persecution, and human rights abuses, mark World Refugee Day on June 20th with a sense of uncertainty and anxiety towards their future. This year, as the rainy season begins, refugees along the Thailand-Burma border and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Kachin, Chin, Arakan and northern Shan States, as well as other conflict-ridden areas, face severe shortages in aid, according to Burma Partnership. Over 220,000 IDPs are in camps in northern Burma, while a further 110,000 refugees live in a protracted refugee situation along the Thailand-Burma border.

If Myanmar hopes to make a genuine transition towards democracy it must recognize, respect, and protect the rights of refugees and IDPs, says Burma Partnership.

Since 2012, funding along the Thailand-Myanmar border has been steadily decreasing, fueling fears that the 110,000 refugees who live there will be repatriated before the Myanmar Government’s rhetoric of democracy, peace, and transition comes to fruition. The recent enforcement of regulations on movement in and out of the camps by authorities has restricted refugees from ataining other sources of income to support their daily needs, increasing the plea for adequate aid at a time when funding is becoming scarce.

Burma Partnership says that rather than alleviating their concerns, governments and international donors have neglected their fears of repatriation. Further exasperating their worries, reports of possible pilot projects for refugees, IDPs and/or families of ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in Karen, Karenni, and Mon States, along with Tenasserim and Bago Regions have emerged. While the Myanmar Government and EAOs are currently the main initiators of these resettlement projects, international actors have also been actively involved in monitoring and constructing shelters for these sites – without consultations with the refugees themselves.

Over 110,000 refugees who fled Myanmar to seek protection in the nine camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border, embodying the years of conflict and the struggle for democracy. According to a statement issued on World Refugee Day by the Karen Women Organization (KWO), a community-based organization working closely with refugees along the Thailand-Myanmar border that has been endorsed by 77 solidarity organizations, the “conditions that led refugees to flee in the first place have yet to be resolved, as initial ceasefires have proven to be fragile and regularly breached.”

As ethnic communities continue to “seek refuge from the Myanmar Army’s relentless offensives, there is no guarantee that fighting will not occur in or spread to locations where refugees may return.” KWO calls on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Myanmar Government, the international donors, and all parties to respect the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, and uphold the rights of all refugees.

Despite ceasefire talks, according to Free Burma Rangers (FBR), a humanitarian organization delivering aid to civilians, fighting between the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Myanmar Army in the Kokang area, northern Shan State, has been escalating over the past two months. “The Burma Army has increased its troop levels in the region and has engaged in major military operations, including the use of tanks and heavy artillery barrages” said FBR in a statement. Over 100,000 people have been displaced from the Kokang area since fighting broke out in February 2015.

These numbers are in addition to the 120,000 displaced people in Kachin State who have fled their homes since the Myanmar Army breached a ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) four years ago. Both local and international organizations have struggled to provide aid to those displaced by the conflict as the Myanmar Government restricts movement of aid in conflict ridden and/or EAO controlled areas.

According to a statement endorsed by over 55 solidarity organizations, starting this month, “IDPs are expected to receive as little as 200 Kyat per day (USD $0.18) in aid, which is impossible to survive on.”

The organizations also say that ‘’While the Government continues to use its rhetoric of peace and reform to invite donors and investors to continue to fund the peace talks and development projects, some of the heaviest fighting in ethnic areas took place this year as the Burma Army attacked the KIA and civilian population in Laiza with airstrikes for the first time in March 2015.’’

In addition, food supplies for 350 Khumi Chin IDPs who fled the outbreak of conflict in March 2015 between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar Army will also run out at the end of the month. “The long-standing pattern of abuses hasn’t stopped; in fact we see it escalating in the Paletwa area, [Chin State]” said Rachel Fleming, Chin Human Rights Organization’s Advocacy Director in a statement. To add insult to injury, the Chin IDPs are being pressured by the Myanmar authorities to return to areas where they believe both sides have already laid landmines.

Burma Partnership reiterates the calls of KWO that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, international donors, the Myanmar Government and all parties involved must hold genuine consultations with refugees and IDPs as primary stakeholders in the timing, conditions and locations of their safe and dignified voluntary return. If the Myanmar Government hopes to bring home the refugees and convince IDPs to return, it must “participate in the peace process in good faith by immediately ceasing all offensives and withdrawing all troops stationed in ethnic areas, honor original ceasefire agreements, and begin political dialogue prior to the discussion of repatriation.”

Until a safe and dignified return of refugees and IDPs can be ensured, the international donors must continue the provision of aid and assistance; and the Myanmar Government must allow international aid agencies access to those affected by conflict, in cooperation with local organizations. Otherwise, the ethnic communities of Myanmar will continue to be caught in a cycle of conflict and displacement, and peace in Myanmar will remain elusive, the organization says.

Worldwide displacement hits all-time high
António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, warned on June 17th that the world is facing a staggering crisis as the number of forcibly displaced people rises to record numbers – 59.5 million at the end of 2014. The UNHCR said in a statement that the deaths of hundreds of migrants at sea is one of the most visible consequences of the crisis, with people experiencing ”terrible suffering”.

Guterres issued the stark warning a few hours after UNHCR had issued its annual Global Trends Report: World at War, showing worldwide displacement was at the highest level ever recorded.

The report said the number of people forcibly displaced at the end of 2014 as a result of war, conflict and persecution had risen to a staggering 59.5 million compared to 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade ago.

Long one of the world’s major displacement producing regions, the number of refugees and internally displaced people in Asia grew by 31 per cent in 2014 to 9 million people. Continuing displacement was also seen in and from Myanmar in 2014, including of Rohingya from Rakhine state and in the Kachin and Northern Shan regions.

“When you see the news in any global network we clearly get the impression that the world is at war. And indeed many areas of the world are today in a completely chaotic situation and the result is this staggering escalation of displacement, the staggering escalation of suffering, because each displaced person is a tragic story,” Guterres added.

“To those that think that it doesn’t matter because humanitarian organizations will be there and able to clean up the mess, I think it’s important to say that we are no longer able to clean up the mess,” he told reporters in Istanbul.

“UN agencies, NGOs, the Red Cross — we no longer have the capacities and the resources to respond to such a dramatic increase in humanitarian needs.”

In this video, the UNHCR warns of dangerous new era in worldwide displacement as report shows almost 60 million people forced to flee their homes:

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Two Chinese Activists Detained in Escalating Crackdown

Yang Zhanqing (left) and Guo Bin (right). Photo: Chinese Human Rights Defenders

Yang Zhanqing (left) and Guo Bin (right). Photo: Chinese Human Rights Defenders

Chinese human rights defenders Guo Bin and Yang Zhanqing were detained on the evening of June 12th in Guangdong province by Guangdong police acting in coordination with state security officers from Beijing and Henan Province. They seized the two activists and detained them on suspicion of “illegal business activity” according to human rights network Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD).

Both men have worked with NGOs pushing for policy reform and the promotion of the rights of persons with disability or those facing discrimination due to certain health conditions such as Hepatitis B. They also advocate for consumer rights and food safety, equal education and employment opportunities and the rights of sex workers.

“The government has recently targeted those who work on what had generally been considered “politically nonsensitive” issues, such as health rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and anti-discrimination,” CHRD said in a statement on its website on Monday.

Both Guo Bin and Yang Zhanqing worked at the Beijing Yirenping Centre (“Yirenping”) and were formerly the directors of the non-governmental organisation’s Zhengzhou offices. Yirenping was founded in 1996 to combat discrimination and offer support to people suffering from hepatitis B and HIV. The NGO also champions gender equality. Guo Bin is now head of the NGO ACTogether, which advocates for the rights of persons with disabilities. He recently filed a report concerning nearly 2,000 cases of employment discrimination. Yang Zhanqing currently works to promote health rights, particularly concerning food and medicine, and advocates for improved regulation in these areas.

Guo Bin was detained at the Children’s Hospital of Shenzen, where he had been looking after his son, who had recently undergone surgery, and was reportedly taken to the Futian District Detention Centre in Shenzhen, Guangdong province. Yang Zhanqing was detained at around 10:00 pm at his home in the city of Huizhou, Guangdong and reportedly taken to the Huiyang District Detention Centre before being transferred to Zhengzhou.

The detentions of Guo Bin and Yang Zhanqing follow Yirenping’s publication and outspoken criticism of the detention of gender equality activists in March 2015. All of those detained had ties to Yirenping. Following the release of the five detainees, the NGO was identified by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs as having been involved in illegal activities, and signalled that it would be penalized. This threat followed a police raid at the Beijing office of Yirenping on March 24th 2015.

The detentions of Guo Bin and Yang Zhanqing suggest the coming of further harassment against Yirenping according to human rights organization Front Line Defenders. The charge they are being held on is identical to that brought against human rights lawyer Chang Boyang in May 2014. Chang Boyang, who was representing detained participants in a memorial for the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 at the time of his detention, was a former legal representative of the Zhegzhou office of the Yirenping. The office was subsequently raided as part of the investigation against the lawyer.

Front Line Defenders expresses its grave concern at the detention and charging of Guo Bin and Yang Zhanqing. It believes the actions to have been taken against them solely as a result of their legitimate work in the defense of human rights. It sees the illegitimate action against them as part of the systematic closing down of civil society space, instigated by the Chinese authorities and including human rights defenders as specific targets for harassment, intimidation and groundless sanctions.

According to CHRD, the detention of Guo and Yang indicates an intensifying crackdown on NGOs under President Xi Jinping and says it is in step with the month long detention earlier this year of the Five FeministsLi Tingting, Wang Man, Wei Tingting, Wu Rongrong, and Zheng Churan. The five women remain under police surveillance as criminal suspects after they were released on “bail pending further investigation.” The government has recently targeted those who work on what had generally been considered “politically non-sensitive” issues, such as health rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights and anti-discrimination.

These two newest detentions follow a trend in China’s criminalization of NGO activists by accusing them of the crime of “illegal business activity.” In May 2014, police detained lawyer Chang Boyang for “illegal business activity” for six months. Police subsequently raided the office of the NGO Zhengzhou Yirenping, which Chang co-founded and served as legal counsel, and interrogated other staff members.

Earlier this year, the office of the NGO Beijing Yirenping was also searched, and the organization singled out by the foreign ministry as having “violated the law.” Additionally, Guo Yushan, the co-founder and former director of independent think tank the Transition Institute, and He Zhengjun, the group’s administrative director, have spent six months in detention and face trial imminently also on charges of “illegal business activity.”

“The government … has recently taken a further step to legitimize its repression of civil society with the introduction of three draft laws,” CHRD said, citing the draft Overseas NGO Management Law, draft National Security Law, and the draft Anti-Terror Act.  Once enacted, these laws would provide the state with legal backing to continue to shut down space for civil society and the systemic deprivation of the rights to freedom of assembly, association, and expression.

According to CHRD, these draft laws ‘’go far beyond legitimate steps used to combat terrorism, protect national security, or regulate overseas groups operating in China.” The government is legitimizing mass police surveillance, harassment, criminalization, and imprisonment of those who challenge the Chinese Communist Party’s power by exposing corruption and rights abuses, and advocate for positive change, such as human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, and other civil society actors.

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Engaging in Commerce Brings Abuse and Arrests in North Korea

In North Korea, authorities arbitrarily arrest, unfairly prosecute and severely mistreat people for conducting private business activity with punishments varying with bribes and connections, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday. The North Korean government should amend its criminal code to abolish “economic crimes” of engaging in commerce and order the authorities to stop arresting people for such activity.

“While many North Koreans engage in petty business to survive, government officials prey on them with arbitrary arrests, extortion, and detention,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Those who can’t bribe their way out of prison camp can face months or years of forced labor, deprivation, and abuse.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 12 North Koreans extensively involved in private commerce who had fled to South Korea since 2013. They said that when authorities confronted them about engaging in business activities, their fate often depended on their capacity to pay bribes or mobilize personal connections, or the government’s need for forced labor. Those accused without money or connections could face lengthy sentences at prison camps, especially when the need for forced labor was high.

Economic Crimes
After the collapse of North Korea’s public distribution system for food between 1993 and 1995, a severe famine provoked massive starvation and compelled North Koreans to engage in private commercial activities, known as jangsa, or dealings with the marketplace, for the first time. The growth of these activities has created an unofficial, parallel gray economy with a highly uncertain and risky political and regulatory environment. Authorities treat the same economic crime differently depending on the person or groups facing charges.

Among the economic crimes for which people face punishment are attempts to engage in market economic activities without government permission and the trading of forbidden goods, such as mushrooms, spices, medicinal herbs, or seafood. Enforcement of laws prohibiting these activities takes place alongside the enforcement of other criminal laws against violating the terms of government-issued travel permits, not having a state-sanctioned job, having contacts in China, and crossing over or smuggling goods to or from China.

Failing to report to a government-assigned workplace is also punishable by law. All men and unmarried women who have finished their studies are required to report to their assigned state-approved company, but may be able to pay the company a fee if they do not go to work.

A former manager at a state-owned company who left North Korea in January 2014 told Human Rights Watch that his wife bought clothes in bulk from cities with more active market activity such as Rason, a port city in the northeastern tip of the country. She sold these clothes at the market in Chongjin, in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong. Because of his connections, they were doing well and may have avoided being arrested for their economic activities. He regularly visited his bosses at the company where he was formally listed as being employed as well as members of the State Security Department (bowibu) and the Ministry of Public Security (the police), providing them with gifts including money, meat, squid, and liquor.

“To be protected, you have to remember special holidays and react to the moment, to the new directives, or to crackdowns where they confiscate your products,” he said. “Otherwise you can lose everything you have, or end up in prison or forced to do hard labor.”

Fear of being caught makes traders prepare for extortion attempts by carrying extra money and packs of cigarettes to pay off authorities if necessary. “We are always scared and never know what may happen to us,” a trader told Human Rights Watch. She explained that she engaged in bulk trading from one province to another and left North Korea during the winter of 2014. “Once a friend of mine did not hear a member of a patrol team calling her,” she said. “So then he beat her up and, because she had no money to pay him, he sent her to a labor training center.”

North Korea’s restrictions on economic activities that infringe on basic economic and social rights violate the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which North Korea ratified in 1981. Under the ICESCR, individuals have the right to work, “which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts.” Governments are obligated to “take appropriate steps to safeguard this right.” The government must also “achiev[e] progressively” the right to “an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.”

The actions taken by North Korean authorities against perceived perpetrators of economic crimes violate international legal protections under the ICESCR. These include the rights to freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, freedom of movement, freedom from torture and other ill-treatment, and a fair trial.

United Nations’ Commission Findings
The UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea found in its February 2014 report that the vast majority of inmates at detention camps using forced labor “are victims of arbitrary detention, since they are imprisoned without trial or on the basis of a trial that grossly fails to respect the due process and fair trial guarantees set out in international law.”

The commission also found that ‘’The ordinary prison camps also operate mines, factories, farms and logging camps by extracting forced labor from their inmates. The profits of these ventures do not seem to be reinvested in the prisons. Prisoners produce more food in quantity and variety than is provided to them. While international law does not outlaw all forms of involuntary prison labor for purposes of reforming duly convicted criminals, the type of labor that ordinary prison camp inmates are forced to do amounts in almost all cases to a form of illegal forced labor as defined by international standards’’ and recommended that North Korea reform its criminal code and code of criminal procedure “to fully enshrine the right to a fair trial and due process guarantees articulated in the ICCPR [and] [r]eform the ordinary prison system so as to ensure humane conditions of detention for all inmates deprived of liberty.”

Forced Labor
Labor training centers (rodong danryeongdae), where detainees are forced to work for short periods, are operated by government bodies at regional, local, or sub-district levels. The authorities often send people to them if they are suspected of engaging in simple trading schemes involving non-controversial goods, or are unemployed. Detainees are forced to do hard labor, receive little food, and are beaten regularly to ensure good performance. Working hours are extended when production goals are not met.

A smuggler from a town near the China border who left North Korea in September 2014 told Human Rights Watch that he was caught in early 2014 for being unemployed and was sent to a labor training center for three months. The center guards forced him to do hard labor and regularly beat and hit him with sticks if he did not perform properly. “My mother had leave to China and I did not have anybody who could go and pay for my release,” he said.

In 2014, Choe Myong-nam, a North Korean foreign ministry official in charge of United Nations affairs and human rights, said that North Korea’s reform-through-labor detention centers used labor to improve people “through their mentality and look on their wrongdoings.” But people interviewed said punishments were also dictated by detention facilities’ need for forced labor or orders from those above them.

A former prisoner told Human Rights Watch that “the number of prisoners was allocated in all prisons in the country according to the number of days of labor per person needed for production.” He explained that he had been a prisoner in the Chongori prison camp (kyohwaso) and was in charge of the camp’s production planning between 2001 and 2007. The kyohwaso (place to improve through reeducation) are detention facilities for political and criminal offenders operated by the police for detainees who face lengthy sentences of reform through labor. They perform forced labor in farming, construction, mining, and logging activities.

These camps are characterized by critical shortages of food and medicine and by regular mistreatment from the guards. “Because conducting almost any type of economic activity can be prosecuted, officials and patrol teams can always find people to send to the different holding facilities for forced labor,” he said.

The earnings from forced labor in the prison camps go to the controlling government body; those from re-education camps go to the police; and benefits from labor training camps are directed to cities or local people’s committees, the former prisoner said.

A smuggler who operated across the Chinese border said that in May 2012 she was sent for one year to a labor detention facility run by the police. She said the authorities in charge preferred to allocate significant numbers of prisoners to projects that could earn hard currency. “When the camp would get a contract with a company to produce goods for export to China, every healthy person had to work,” she told Human Rights Watch. She said she had been forced to manufacture hooks for necklaces and fake eyelashes. “Theoretically we were supposed to work for eight hours but really we could not leave until we finished our daily quota, and it did not matter how late that was.”

Labor shortages also lead to the use of forced labor. For example, a couple of months before April 15, the birthday of North Korea’s first president, Kim Il-sung, or ahead of the deadline for finishing a large construction project, a person who committed a crime that is not usually punished by being sent to a labor detention center could be sent to a re-education camp.

“North Korea is operating a predatory system to extract bribes from people conducting small-time business activities to survive,” Sifton said. “Those who can’t pay or don’t have connections end up doing free forced labor for the benefit of local officials and the government. The lives of many North Korean people are already marked by serious deprivation, yet officials are using abusive laws to make life even worse.”

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Rights Groups Demand Accountability for Tiananmen Square Victims

Visitors at the June 4th Memorial Museum in Hong Kong. Photo courtesy VOA.

Visitors at the June 4th Memorial Museum in Hong Kong. Photo courtesy VOA.

Ahead of the 26th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, rights groups say the Chinese government should finally acknowledge and take responsibility for the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in June 1989. Human Rights Watch says authorities should release activists jailed for commemorating the occasion along with all others imprisoned in China for the peaceful exercising of their political views.

The Tiananmen Mothers, which has campaigned for 26 years for official redress for the loss of their loved ones, on Monday said Beijing should bear as much historical responsibility for the 1989 massacre as Japan’s leaders should bear for the country’s war of aggression in China during the 1930s.

Beijing’s recent arbitrary detentions and prosecutions of 1989 protest veterans epitomize a severe new crackdown on dissent over the past two years, Human Rights Watch said.

“Twenty-six years ago, the Chinese government decided that violent repression was the appropriate response to peaceful protest,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Until the government acknowledges its actions and provides redress to the many victims and their families, there is no safeguard that future protests won’t provoke a similar reaction.”

The massacre, now referred to by Chinese authorities as the “June 4 incident,” remains a politically sensitive topic for China’s government. Beijing bans public memorial events and open political discussion around the events of June 3-4, 1989, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deployed troops with machine guns and tanks to put an end to weeks of mass student-led protests on Tiananmen Square. Officials have ignored growing calls for a reappraisal of the “counterrevolutionary rebellion,” and to bring the perpetrators of the massacre to justice.

Severe crackdown on dissent
Veteran journalist Gao Yu, 71, was convicted for the third time in April 2015, this time for allegedly leaking state secrets by sharing an internal Communist Party document warning against liberal values with the US-based Mirror Media Group. Authorities refused her lawyers’ request to review whether the document constituted a “state secret,” or to examine the publisher’s claim that the version they published did not come from Gao.

Prominent human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, 50, was detained on May 4, 2014, after attending a small private seminar in Beijing about the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre. Pu has since been indicted for “creating a disturbance” and “inciting ethnic hatred”; it remains unclear when he will actually be tried.

Maverick Sichuan activist Chen Yunfei, 46, has been detained since Tomb Sweeping Day on March 25, 2015, when he commemorated the killing of two student protesters. Chen was later formally arrested for “creating a disturbance” and “inciting subversion.” The government of President Xi Jinping has detained and imprisoned over 100 activists.

People across China continue to demand the right to participate in formulating and implementing policies that affect their lives. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences reported that there are an estimated 100,000 “mass incidents” – or protests with at least 100 people – per year.

Most of these demonstrations revolve around labor disputes, forced land seizures, evictions, and the environment. In April, for example, thousands of people in Heyuan, Guangdong Province protested against the proposed construction of a power plant that they say would further pollute the environment. There has been greater interest in civic activism, as evidenced by the rapid growth of domestic nongovernmental organizations and volunteerism, especially around the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In 2003, China had approximately 250,000 registered nongovernmental organizations; within a decade the number had doubled.

Social media platforms are often filled with discussions of injustices and calls for accountability, such as the recent outrage over the police shooting of an unarmed man traveling with his family in Qingan, Heilongjiang Province, or the detention in a reeducation through labor camp of a mother who had been seeking punishments for those who raped and prostituted her daughter.

The government has responded to greater demands for civic engagement with increased controls over the Internet, universities, media, and nongovernmental organizations. It has established a new National Security Commission that aims to maintain “social stability,” a well-known euphemism for stifling dissent. It has enacted or is drafting a number of state security laws that would impose significantly harsher controls over the very limited civil liberties in China. As laid out in Document Number 9, the internal Party document that journalist Gao allegedly leaked, the Party leadership has identified the freedom of the press, democracy, and other “universal values” as perils that will undermine the Party’s grip on power.

“Despite the Chinese government’s acute fears about freedom and democracy 26 years after Tiananmen, people in China are more willing than ever to embrace these ideas,” Richardson said.

Bloodshed in 1989
The Tiananmen massacre was precipitated by the peaceful gatherings of students, workers, and others in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and other cities in April 1989 calling for freedom of expression, accountability, and an end to corruption. The government responded to the intensifying protests in late May 1989 by declaring martial law.

People Liberation Army soldiers leap over a barrier on Tiananmen Square on June 4th 1989. Chinese troops forcibly marched on the Beijing square. Hundreds of demonstrators were killed in the crackdown as tanks rolled into the square. File photo.

People Liberation Army soldiers leap over a barrier on Tiananmen Square on June 4th 1989. Chinese troops forcibly marched on the Beijing square. Hundreds of demonstrators were killed in the crackdown as tanks rolled into the square. File photo.

On June 3 and 4, 1989, the military opened fire and killed untold numbers of peaceful protesters and bystanders. In Beijing, some citizens attacked army convoys and burned vehicles in response to the military’s violence. Following the killings, the government implemented a national crackdown and arrested thousands of people for “counter-revolution” and other criminal charges, including disrupting social order and arson.

The government has never accepted responsibility for the massacre or held any perpetrators legally accountable for the killings. It has refused to conduct an investigation into the events or to release data on those who were killed, injured, disappeared, or imprisoned. Jiang Zemin, then the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, dismissed international concern about June 4 as “much ado about nothing” in 1990, though the government now refers to the incident as one of “political turmoil” (zhengzhi fengbo) rather than “counter-revolutionary” activity.

Seeking accountability
“The continued failure of the government to advance basic freedoms has wide-ranging implications for China today, fueling social problems from corruption to pollution,” Richardson said. “The Chinese government should at long last admit honestly its role in the killings so it can start dealing with the crackdown’s legacy.”

Human Rights Watch calls on the Chinese government to mark the 26th anniversary of June 4, 1989, by:

  • Respecting the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly and ceasing the harassment and arbitrary detention of individuals who challenge the official account of June 4;
  • Permitting an independent public inquiry into June 4, and promptly releasing its findings and conclusions to the public;
  • Allowing the unimpeded return of Chinese citizens exiled due to their connections to the events of 1989; and
  • Investigating all government and military officials who planned or ordered the unlawful use of lethal force against peaceful demonstrators, and publishing the names of all those who died.
Tiananmen Mothers founding member Ding Zilin in an undated photo. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Tiananmen Mothers founding member Ding Zilin in an undated photo. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Tiananmen Mothers established the details of 202 people who were killed during the suppression of the movement in Beijing and other cities. Despite the government’s efforts to suppress all public discussion of the massacre, a group of 12 Chinese students studying abroad recently issued a public letter calling for accountability for the massacre.

The group seeks ”truth, compensation, and accountability’’, asks for a public and just resolution to the June Fourth issue and seeks discussion and dialogue with the government concerning the remaining June Fourth issues. Their three demands are: re-investigate June Fourth and make public the names and number of the deceased; provide an explanation and compensation to the family of each of the victims in accordance with the law; and prosecute those criminally responsible for the June Fourth tragedy.

In an online essay commemorating the anniversary, the group says ‘’A quarter century has passed since the June Fourth Massacre that took place in Beijing, China’s capital, near the end of the last century. But the truth of this tragedy has to this day not been laid bare to the world, and the massacre victims, who have still not received justice, cannot rest in peace. This is a disgrace for the whole Chinese people, and a disgrace for all of civilized humanity!’’

They continued: ‘’The Chinese government’s concealment and deception about June Fourth since 1989 has rendered the whole society an empty shell, where every corner of society is shrouded in pervasive gloom, apathy, despair, and depravity, without fairness, justice, integrity, shame, reverence, remorse, tolerance, responsibility, compassion or love. Post-June Fourth youth, in particular, cannot find anything about June Fourth in books, magazines, or online media. They cannot find anything about June Fourth victims, their families, or the Tiananmen Mothers. Even the entire history of June Fourth has become a blank for them. Whose fault is this?’’

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Myanmar’s New Population Control Law a Blow to Women’s Rights and Religious Freedom

As Myanmar’s President recently signed a population control bill, rights groups caution that the new law entrenches already widespread discrimination and risks fueling further violence against religious minorities.

On Saturday President Thein Sein signed off on the law which requires a three year spacing for some women between child births. It was passed by parliamentarians last month despite objections from rights groups who say that the bill will undermine reproductive rights, women’s rights and religious freedom.

Amnesty International warned that the bill could become a blueprint for state population control. The rights organization says that the law plays into fears that minority groups are having more children than the Buddhist majority. An almost complete lack of human rights safeguards means that the bill could even pave the way for state-enforced contraception, abortions or sterilizations.

Calling it ‘’extremely disappointing’’ that President Thein signed this bill into law, Amnesty spokesperson Olof Blomqvist told me that  Amnesty was also concerned that the last version that Amnesty International reviewed contained no safeguards or protection against potential discrimination on grounds of gender, ethnicity or religion. Blomqvist also cautioned that this law could show a trend toward population control similar to that in China: ‘’At worst, this law could become a blueprint for state population control – but one targeting minority groups in particular. It appears to play into stereotypes that certain minority groups are having more children than the Buddhist majority. Family planning is to be encouraged, but should never be imposed by the state.’’

A legal review by Amnesty of the The Population Control Healthcare Bill – ostensibly aimed at improving living standards among poor communities – found that it lacks human rights safeguards. The bill establishes a 36-month “birth spacing” interval for women between child births, though it is unclear whether or how women who violate the law would be punished. The lack of essential safeguards to protect women who have children more frequently potentially creates an environment that could lead to forced reproductive control methods.

Amnesty said that the new law is another blow to women who already face already multiple types of discrimination and human rights abuses in Myanmar, which is a patriarchal society. ‘’Just one example is how women continue to bear the brunt of violations by the Myanmar Army in the armed conflicts in ethnic minority areas. Amnesty International continues to receive reports of rape and other forms of sexual violence that are almost never investigated. Thankfully, women human rights advocates are very outspoken in Myanmar. Despite the numerous insults – and even death threats – they have received for taking position against hard-line Buddhist groups, they continue to courageously work against gender based discrimination,’’ Blomqvist commented.

United to End Genocide called the President’s actions ‘’troubling’’ and said this law is the latest in a long history of policies of persecution aimed at the minority Rohingya and other Muslims in Burma. ‘’The extremist nationalist Buddhist monks behind the bill, the so-called Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, are the same that have been stoking violence against Muslims and have been clear that this bill is meant to target Muslims as well,’’ Daniel Sullivan, Director of Policy and Government Relations at End Genocide commented.

He added that what is even more disturbing is that Burma’s President signed the bill just as the number two diplomat at the U.S. State Department (US Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken) visited Burma, a major slap in the face of the Obama administration that appears to have gone without reaction.

‘’The persecution of the Rohingya is a root cause of the recent crisis at sea and the continued discovery of over 100 mass graves in trafficking camps in Malaysia and Thailand. Addressing those atrocities requires addressing the conditions in Burma that are causing so many to risk their lives at sea and at the hands of human traffickers. Signing a bill that adds further discrimination against the Rohingya does just the opposite,’’ Sullivan said.

In March, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific Director Richard Bennett advised against passing the law: “If these drafts become law, they would not only give the state free rein to further discriminate against women and minorities, but could also ignite further ethnic violence.”

These laws play into harmful stereotypes about women and minorities, in particular Muslims, which are often propagated by extremist nationalist groups. The laws come during a disturbing rise in ethnic and religious tensions, as well as ongoing systematic discrimination against women, in Myanmar. In this context, where minority groups – and in particular the Rohingya – face severe discrimination in law, policy and practice, the draft laws could be interpreted to target women and specific communities identified on a discriminatory basis.

In the wake of the on-going Rohingya refugee crisis, this development is seen by human rights activists as a smokescreen and say that the Myanmar government is avoiding the root cause of discrimination entrenched in law: ‘’There is a reason why so many thousands of Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar are desperate enough to risk their lives on dangerous boat journeys to escape the conditions they face at home. The Rohingya have suffered decades of institutionalised discrimination where they are denied citizenship. Waves of violence between Muslims and Buddhist dating back to 2012 has left tens of thousands of mainly Rohingya displaced in Rakhine state, where they live in camps in squalid conditions. Myanmar’s authorities must do everything they can to address the root causes of this crisis and improve the situation facing the Rohingya in Myanmar – not potentially further entrench discrimination by passing laws such as the Population Control Health Care Bill,’’ Blomqvist said.

Amnesty also said that the bill does not comply with international human rights law and standards, including Myanmar’s legal obligations as a state party to the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

‘’Myanmar is entering a crucial year with elections in November. The country is facing a range of serious political and economic issues – ranging from widespread poverty to questions over the progress of political reforms that were introduced in 2011. The proposed “protecting race and religion” laws are a distraction from these serious issues – they should never have been tabled in the first place and must be scrapped. Myanmar’s authorities should work for reconciliation between religious and ethnic groups and address the range of pressing issues facing the country – not play into hatred and fear, and seek to cement already widespread discrimination,’’ Bennett said.

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Threats to Internet Freedom in Cambodia

Venerable Sovath is internationally known as the multi-media monk and his efforts voice human rights abuses in Cambodia. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Venerable Sovath is internationally known as the multi-media monk and his efforts voice human rights abuses in Cambodia. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Since coming to power, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has controlled and censored traditional media outlets. Government controlled broadcast licenses have systematically been denied to independent broadcasters while journalists have been threatened, prosecuted, jailed, and in some cases murdered for crossing invisible lines of what can and cannot be publicly discussed.

LICADHO, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights,  releases its report Going Offline? The Threat to Cambodia’s Newfound Internet Freedoms, describing the vital importance of the Internet for freedom of expression in Cambodia and the imminent threat that this last bastion for independent voices now faces.

Over the past few years, Cambodia has experienced a boom in web connectivity—a development which has transformed the country’s information environment. In 2010 just 320,000 Cambodians had access to the internet; by the end of 2013 that number had climbed more than tenfold to 3.8 million—nearly a quarter of the country’s population. Driven by the increasing availability of cheap web-enabled smartphones and extensive mobile networks, young Cambodians—mostly in urban areas— have embraced social media networks like Facebook and YouTube. There are now approximately 1.76 million Cambodians on Facebook, with an estimated 1,100 new users joining every day.

As a result, web-based social media networks have been taken up enthusiastically by bloggers, monks, community activists, and opposition politicians to circumvent government media controls and disseminate information about important issues such as land-grabs, police violence, impunity, corruption and deforestation, to name but a few.

ReportAccording to LICADHO, this new found space for free expression is under attack. The government has created the Cyber War Team (CWT) to monitor and collect information from Facebook and other websites in order to “protect the government’s stance and prestige.” The government has visited the headquarters of Cambodian telecoms firms and ISPs to examine their network equipment and will reportedly begin installing surveillance equipment. Such reports are especially troubling given recent vaguely worded telecommunications deals between Cambodia and China, a country that appears ambivalent at best with respect to internet freedom.

“Freedom of expression is a right that many Cambodians have never truly experienced,” said Am Sam Ath, Technical Coordinator for LICADHO. “It comes as no surprise that as soon as Cambodians found a way to have their voices heard, the government has begun a comprehensive effort to once again silence them.”

Because of its late and sudden emergence, the Internet is one of the few spaces left for free expression in Cambodia. Since the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has maintained a tight grip on the traditional print and broadcast media. Journalists have been killed, threatened, and sued for crossing invisible lines. Independent and opposition-aligned media outlets have been co-opted and forced into closure.

Government broadcast licenses have been denied to independent broadcasters and the political opposition, except for one recent notable exception which arose out of secretive political negotiations that have also resulted in the passage of two highly controversial election laws. A window of free expression was opened with the arrival of the United Nations (UN) mission of the early 1990s, but was slowly forced closed during the two decades that followed.

While internet penetration in Cambodia remains low by regional standards, the spread of smartphones and digital technologies has given many Cambodians better access to information than ever before. The web, relatively free from government control, has become an essential tool for through which citizens can share information on the social and political issues that affect their lives.

LICADHO says that in the past two years, the government has contrived an expanded arsenal of legal tools and embryonic surveillance schemes that seem almost tailor-made to target the expression of dissenting opinions on the internet.

In addition, there are two draft laws that, if passed, would allow the Cambodian government to control the content of what Cambodians post online in addition to the very architecture of the Internet itself.

The draft Cybercrime Law would create a new National Anti-Cybercrime Committee (NACC), chaired by the Prime Minister, with expansive powers to search and seize communication equipment. The law would also authorize the government with broad discretion to arrest online users for creating or sharing content that is deemed to violate numerous vaguely worded provisions.

If enacted, the law would extend the government’s authority over not only content posted on the internet but also over the internet services providers. The law will authorize the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications with the power to order any telecoms operator to transfer control of its system to the ministry in order to “maintain national interest, security, stability, or public order.” Further provisions would outlaw the installation of telecoms equipment that might “affect public order or national safety and security.” The vague clauses could potentially encompass any telephone call or email that is viewed as hostile by the government.

“The draft Cybercrime Law and Law on Telecommunications are a clear attempt by the CPP to establish complete control over Cambodia’s Internet,” said LICADHO Director, Naly Pilorge. “The extreme discretion that Cambodian government would wield under these laws could and likely will be used to suppress virtually any form of critical online content.”

If passed, the draft Cybercrime Law and draft Law on Telecommunications would give the government the power to control not just what appears on citizen’s computers and smartphones, but also the very structures which deliver the information in the first place. As with the traditional media, there would be no need to prosecute every instance of critical speech, just enough to plant the seed of doubt and fear in the minds of Facebook users, bloggers, and community activists. In this climate, freedom of expression on the internet would be held subject to a range of capricious controls. In short, it would cease to exist in any meaningful way. Internet access is spreading to more and more of the Cambodian population. But for the freedom to speak openly online, time is running out.

LICADHO urges the National Assembly to reject any legislation that seeks to impose severe restriction on fundamental rights to freedom of expression.

LICADHO also calls upon international donors and the international community at large to recognize and acknowledge that a vital space for freedom of expression in Cambodia is under serious threat, and this space needs to be promoted and protected in better ways.

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Rescue Needed for Thousands of Rohingya Fleeing the Threat of Genocide on Boats in Southeast Asia

Rohingya refugees from Rakhine State in Burma recently arrived in Malaysia via human traffickers. April 2, 2015. Photo courtesy United to End Genocide.

Rohingya refugees from Rakhine State in Burma recently arrived in Malaysia via human traffickers. April 2, 2015. Photo courtesy United to End Genocide.

As an estimated 8,000-20,000 Rohingya are adrift at sea, United to End Genocide, a U.S. based human rights advocacy group, calls on the Obama administration to take immediate action to help rescue them. Thousands of Rohingya are floating in the Andaman Sea in Southeast Asia fleeing horrific conditions in western Burma. The group also called for the imposition of sanctions on the government of Burma if it continues its relentless persecution of the Rohingya – the root cause of the crisis.

Rohingya have been taking to the sea in unprecedented numbers. An estimated 25,000 have fled with at least 300 deaths in the first quarter of 2015 alone according to the UN refugee agency. ‘’The discovery of mass graves in Thai jungle camps and the abandoning of ships full of desperate refugees has opened a whole new level of risk that the world can no longer ignore,’’ said Daniel Sullivan, Director of Policy and Government Relations at United to End Genocide.

“Immediate action is needed to rescue thousands of Rohingya before the Andaman Sea becomes a floating mass grave,” said former U.S. Congressman Tom Andrews, President of United to End Genocide, who recently returned from Burma and Malaysia, where he met with families of Rohingya who had travelled by boat from Burma.

Sullivan and Andrews traveled to Malaysia where they met with several recently arrived Rohingya families.

Sullivan also visited the IDP camps in Rakhine State in March 2014 after which United to END GENOCIDE released the report Marching to Genocide in Burma.

The main finding from both of these trips, Sullivan said, ‘’was that nowhere in the world are there more known precursors to genocide than in Burma today. In terms of the Rohingya refugees we met with in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia last month, several had only arrived days before, including one woman who still bore a black eye from being sexually assaulted. From our conversations with the recently arrived refugees, aid workers helping in Malaysia, and other regional experts it is clear that the Rohingya are faced with a horrible choice between risking their lives at sea in the hands of dangerous human traffickers or staying in Burma to face the highest risk of genocide in the world.’’

United to End Genocide urges three immediate steps to be taken by the United States to stem the growing crisis:

  • Demand that the government of Indonesia stop towing boats full of innocent men, women and children out to sea.
  • Help launch an immediate search and rescue operation that fully utilizes all available U.S. resources to save imperiled lives. There is no time to lose – every hour counts!
  • Address the source of this crisis – the systematic government abuse and persecution of the Rohingya.

Andrews called the Obama administration’s response to this crisis, calling on Thailand and Malaysia to enforce human trafficking laws, ‘’has been wholly inadequate and counterproductive by ignoring the root cause of the problem – the persecution of the Rohingya at the hands of the government of Burma.’’

Pressure on the government of Burma has been lifted even as it increases its persecution and attacks on the Rohingya. The government has repeatedly denied the Rohingya citizenship, restricted their ability to work, attend school, have access to health care, get married or even have children. It has also been complicit in violent attacks against Rohingya villages.

Andrews says the Obama Administration has an immediate opportunity to send a clear message to the government of Burma and that the government of Burma should be warned that its failure to adequately address the Rohingya crisis will lead to the imposition of sanctions.

The Obama administration should also support the call of Members of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) for coordinated action that addresses the root causes of the crises in Burma while providing security for asylum seekers fleeing persecution and conflict.

United to End Genocide urge ASEAN leaders to recognize the Rohingya crisis as an ASEAN crisis and put pressure on the government of Burma to end its policies of persecution, including reforming the 1982 citizenship law that denies Rohingya equal access to full citizenship. ASEAN should further conduct an independent investigation of conditions and risks of increased violence and displacement in Burma and associated risks to ASEAN, including greater refugee flows. In terms of protection, ASEAN countries should grant prima facie refugee status to Rohingya and provide the UN refugee agency with unfettered access to asylum seekers, the organization says.

Sullivan also said that Thailand and Malaysia have turned a blind eye on the trafficking of Rohingya for ‘’far too long, allowing officials to be complicit in profiting from trafficking networks.’’ He said that these countries have also failed to protect asylum seekers and denied refugee status.

Under international pressure Thai authorities have begun to crack down and arrest human traffickers and corrupt officials, but have failed to adequately respond to the crisis as traffickers have abandoned ships full of desperate refugees. Sullivan says that ASEAN countries, including Thailand and Malaysia, should allow the United Nations to conduct refugee status determination screenings of Rohingya and other asylum seekers and abide by international standards by ratifying the 1951 Refugee Convention. ‘’But ultimately, the root of the problem lies in western Burma. As long as the government of Burma continues its policies of persecution Rohingya refugees will continue to seek escape,’’ he added.

Some 140,000 Rohingya remain displaced within Burma and over 100,000 have risked their lives at sea in recent years. More than 25,000 have fled in the first quarter of 2015 alone according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Unless the policies of hate end in Burma, the crisis will only escalate. ‘’We must act now to save those stranded at sea and take the steps needed to protect the Rohingya at home,” Andrews said.

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U.S. Congressional Delegation Visits Prominent Dissident in Vietnam

The US delegation outside Thanh Minh Zen Monastery - From left to right: Rep. Tom Emmer, Rep. Matt Salmon, Venerable Thich Quang Do and Rep. Alan Lowenthal. Photo courtesy IBIB.

The US delegation outside Thanh Minh Zen Monastery. From left to right: Rep. Tom Emmer, Rep. Matt Salmon, Venerable Thich Quang Do and Rep. Alan Lowenthal. Photo courtesy IBIB.

Members of the U.S. Congress visited Thich Quang Do, prominent dissident and Patriarch of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) on Monday at the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery inHo Chi Minh City where he has been held under house arrest without charge since 2003.

Thich Quang Do, 87, who has spent the past three decades in internal exile, prison and house arrest for his advocacy of religious freedom, democracy and human rights, welcomed their visit and told the delegation: “For someone like me who has spent so many years in detention, your visit has a very deep significance. It not only comforts me to know that I am not forgotten, but it also sends a very strong message to the Vietnamese authorities. They have kept me under house arrest, isolated and deprived of all basic freedoms, in the aim of silencing my voice. Your visit here today tells them clearly that they have failed”.

The 11-member delegation was led by Congressman Matt Salmon (Republican), Chairman of the Asia Pacific Sub-Committee of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives (HFAC), Congressman Tom Emmer (Republican) and Congressman Alan Lowenthal (Democrat). They were accompanied by Charles Sellers, Political Section Chief of the U.S. Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City and a number of staff and assistants.

Commenting on U.S.-Vietnam relations, which were normalized just 20 years ago, Thich Quang Do noted that 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War these relations remained complex. “They hold great opportunities but also many challenges,” he said. However, the UBCV Patriarch expressed his firm belief that “this is a crucial moment in our two countries’ relationship, one where the United States can truly make a difference.’’

“Asia is a central focus of U.S. foreign policy. As Vietnam seeks to play a greater role on the regional and international stage, it needs the support of the United States and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to boost its slowing economy. The Communist leadership hopes it can do this without making political reforms – they claim they are “building democracy within the one-Party state.” But this policy of economic liberalization without political reforms is disastrous, resulting in alarming social inequalities and wealth disparity. Without democracy, pluralism and human rights, we can never build a just, safe and peaceful society for Vietnam.

“I believe that the United States has real leverage to help put Vietnam on the path of reform. By maintaining human rights as a cornerstone of U.S. engagement, you can impress upon the Vietnamese leadership that they cannot enjoy full economic relationships whilst suppressing their citizens’ basic rights,” he told the delegation.

The Buddhist Patriarch stressed the importance of religious freedom in Vietnam, not only as a basic human right, but also as “the key to democratization in Vietnam”. He said that ‘’Religious freedom is the key to democratization in Vietnam.” He applauded the report issued by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) last week, and their recommendation that Vietnam be designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” by the United States for egregious violations of religious freedom.

USCIRF found in their report that ‘’The Vietnamese government continues to control all religious activities through law and administrative oversight, restrict severely independent religious practice, and repress individuals and religious groups it views as challenging its authority, including independent Buddhists, Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, Catholics, and Protestants. This occurs despite some improvements in the area of religious freedom, such as generally wider space for some religious communities to practice their faiths. Notably, the government requires religious organizations and congregations to register with a state-sanctioned entity in order to be considered legal. Individuals remain imprisoned for religious activity or religious freedom advocacy.’’ USCIRF has recommended that Vietnam be named a CPC every year since 2001.

Thich Quang Do commented that “I believe that United States’ support for religious freedom in Vietnam in general, and for Buddhism in particular, can have a deep and lasting impact in our region. In this era of global terrorism, where religious extremism is at the core of so many conflicts, the presence of a peaceful, tolerant philosophy such as Buddhism can contribute immensely to maintaining stability and harmony in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Thich Quang Do introduced the delegation to Le Cong Cau, leader of the UBCV-affiliated Budddhist Youth Movement and UBCV Secretary-general, who had come from Hue to join the meeting. Le Cong Cau gave a brief overview of three phases of government repression against the UBCV over the past 40 years.

Beginning in 1975 with a brutal suppression campaign against the UBCV and the detention and murder of many UBCV leaders, Vietnam then sought to bring Buddhism under state control by setting up the State-sponsored “Vietnam Buddhist Sangha” in 1981 to supplant the UBCV. The third and current phase of repression, explained Le Cong Cau, entails a more subtle and sophisticated policy of infiltrating the UBCV in order to “divide to rule” and isolating UBCV leaders, whilst using Police intimidation to create a pervasive climate of fear, threatening Buddhists with losing their jobs or having their children expelled from school if they follow the UBCV.

The U.S. delegation asked Le Cong Cau for the UBCV’s opinion on the draft “Law on Belief and Religion” currently circulated by the Government Board of Religious Affairs to canvass the opinion of religious groups. He replied: “This new draft law brings no improvements. The Vietnamese authorities are hostile to religions. They recognize that religion abd belief are inevitable components of the people’s psyche, but they are afraid that religious movements could challenge the Communist Party’s authority. The current regime will never allow true religious freedom in Vietnam.”

Congressman Alan Lowenthal told Thich Quang Do that he represented the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam, that of Little Saigon, California. He said he was very moved to meet the UBCV Patriarch, whom he said was internationally renowned for his role in the movement for human rights and freedom in Vietnam. Congressman Lowenthal promised to inform public opinion about the situation of Thich Quang Do and the movement for freedom and democracy in Vietnam.

Thich Quang Do handed the U.S. delegation an 8-page Memorandum entitled “40 years of Repression against the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.”

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Vietnam Police Harass Independent Journalist on Vietnam War Anniversary

Independent Journalist Pham Chi Dung in an undated photo. Photo courtesy RSF.

Independent Journalist Pham Chi Dung in an undated photo. Photo courtesy RSF.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) demands that Vietnamese police stop harassing independent journalist Pham Chi Dung and his family, whose Ho Chi Minh City home was surrounded Thursday by police officers. The Vietnamese authorities have gone out of their way to gag independent journalists and bloggers today, as the Communist Party celebrates the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and its victory over the United States. One by one, citizen-journalists and bloggers have been placed under close surveillance, subjected to intimidation and beatings according to RSF.

President of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam (IJAVN), which was founded last year and is supported by Reporters Without Borders, Dung promotes media freedom and constantly criticizes the party’s control of the media, in which he used to work.

Last year, the authorities confiscated his passport to prevent him from travelling to Geneva to participate in a UN Human Rights Council conference. “By illegally preventing me from travelling, the behavior of the authorities constitutes living proof of how the State of Vietnam tramples on the human rights defended by the UN Human Rights Council,” Dung’s letter says.

House arrest measures have been reinforced and independent reporters are being prevented from covering today’s celebrations and demonstrations. Dung, who is on the RSF list of “information heroes,” has released the text of a letter he has written to local Communist Party secretary Le Thanh Hai and Ho Chin Minh City police chief Nguyen Chi Thanh complaining about the harassment and restrictions on free movement to which he has been subjected for months.

“We call on the Vietnamese police to immediately end its targeted acts of intimidation, which are completely illegal,” said Benjamin Ismail, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk. “We also call on the international community to condemn these practices and to bring individual economic sanctions to bear against those within the Communist Party who are responsible for this persecution.”

Those persecuted include Trinh Anh Tuan, a blogger known by the pseudonym of Gio Lang Thang. A few days ago, he was badly beaten by three individuals in civilian dress and had to be hospitalized. He identified his assailants as police officers who were part of the group that had been posted outside his home for months.

The blogger Pham Minh Hoang was also roughed up last November by the plainclothes policemen assigned to watch his home. When the French consul rushed to the scene after being alerted by Hoang, he was attacked by the same individuals.

Freedom of information is steadily worsening in Vietnam, which is ranked 175th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

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