Big Mac Won’t Satisfy Vietnamese Desire for Human Rights

What’s past the golden arches of McDonald’s?  Journalist Andrew Lam looks past the call of Big Macs and Happy Meals to bring Viet Nam and its struggles with human rights to the forefront.

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SAN FRANCISCO — Vietnam specializes in irony. Its president, Truong Tan Sang, went to meet President Obama at the White House last week, where he undoubtedly asked behind closed doors the US to lift it ban on lethal weapons sales to his country while also seeking support for a bid to join the UN Human Rights Council.

The irony?

Besides trying to buy weapons from the United States, a country it defeated four decades ago, Hanoi also continues to trample on human rights, and in the last few years has stepped up arrests of dissidents with no fear of international criticism or, for that matter, U.S. rebuke.

Oh, and it’s also preparing to open its first ever McDonald’s store, which, glancing at media headlines here, seems to be the real story. Never mind the persecution.

Vietnam today has more money than ever, and is seeking an international status equal to its newfound wealth. It also needs advanced weapons to counter the looming threat from China, which has laid claim to more or less the entire South China Sea as its own.

“If Vietnam wants to stand on the world stage, its government should repudiate its crackdown on dissidents and embrace reform,” John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director with Human Rights Watch, said in a statement released this week. “The arc of history may be long, but it certainly bends away from authoritarian retrenchment.”

Mr. Sifton added, “President Sang cannot publicly justify his government’s crackdown and should use [his meeting with Obama] to repudiate it.”

U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, echoed HRW’s concern in an open letter this week to President Obama, urging him to make human rights a top priority during the Vietnamese President’s visit.

“Vietnam has long been one of the most oppressive societies in Southeast Asia,” Royce wrote. “Democratic aspirations, human rights advocacy, and grassroots mobilization are met with police brutality and result in show trials where defendants are denied their rights to open and fair proceedings as guaranteed by the Vietnamese Constitution.”

Indeed, dissident bloggers have been arrested routinely, with 50 democracy advocates having been rounded up this year alone. Languishing in its gulags, too, are dozens of prominent clergymen, some of whom, like father Nguyen Van Ly, 67, are in failing health. Father Ly, a Catholic priest sentenced to 15 years in prison for demanding religious freedom in the country (and whose causes are being championed by Amnesty International), suffered a stroke in 2009 and is in dire need of medical care.

Another prominent dissident, Nguyen Van Hai, popularly known as Dieu Cay, is currently staging a hunger strike after he was sentenced to 12 years in solitary confinement for his “propaganda against the state.” His crime: blogging about government corruption and demands for democracy. As of this writing, Nguyen has been on hunger strike for 32 days.

In an unprecedented event, Vietnamese are demanding for human rights on the street of Vietnam earlier this year. The sign above says “Human Rights Exist from the Moment of Birth.”

But unlike in Myanmar, the United States has been hush on the issue of human rights abuse in Vietnam, where for the past decade it has stepped up investments. Hanoi claims that in two years, the United States will become the biggest investor in Vietnam, overtaking Japan and South Korea.

Military ties, too, are deepening. Since 2010 the two nations have engaged in joint navalexercises. Last year, Hanoi went as far as dropping a hint to visiting Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, that it would like to resume talks about renting out Cam Ranh Bay, America’s old naval station during the war.

So why, in this era of seeming openness and economic progress, has Hanoi stepped up its oppression? The short answer is because it can, for now.

Vietnamese hold up signs that say, "Give Vietnam back its Freedom."
Vietnamese hold up signs that say, “Give Vietnam back its Freedom.”

Despite its dismal human rights records, Vietnam has been awarded for opening up economically. It was granted membership in the World Trade Organization and made its entrance to the world’s economic stage in 2006 when it hosted its first Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference. Its Gross National Product has been growing at a steady and impressive seven percent for almost the last decade.

And while political dissent is not allowed, its population is experiencing far greater personal freedoms. Many are allowed to travel overseas, while movement within Vietnam is permitted freely. There’s a burgeoning middle class with disposable income and access to the Internet. And therein lies the problem.

Increased in wealth and more exposure to the larger world bring expectations of increased political freedom. Indeed, despite the arrests, more Vietnamese are blogging online, demanding greater respect for human rights, criticizing blatant corruption, and condemning Hanoi for, as they see it, kowtowing to China.

Hanoi’s efforts to control this rising tide of discontent, moreover, are being stymied by the boom in communications technology. Vietnam has 132 million active cellphones in a country of 93 million, or about two phones per adult. Facebook entered Vietnam last October and by March had over 12 million users.

Vietnamese protesters on the street of Hanoi in March demanding for a new draft in the constitution that includes human rights.
Vietnamese protesters on the street of Hanoi in March demanding for a new draft in the constitution that includes human rights.

Concerned over a potential Arab-spring style revolt, Hanoi’s response to date has been arrests and more arrests.

That it can do this without fear of international condemnation is due in large part to American indifference. President Bush visited Vietnam in 2006 for the APEC summit, and promptly dropped it from the list of nations that severely curtail religious freedom even as religious leaders continued to languish in its gulags.

Under Obama, the United States is licking its chops as it perceived an opening for a grand reentry into the Pacific Rim theatre. It is, therefore, rather muted on the issue of human rights.


“It’s hard to be seen as deeply concerned about human rights when you are in bed with the politburos selling Big Macs and Starbucks,” noted one Vietnamese American living in Hanoi.

It is no wonder, then, that those fighting for democracy in Vietnam no longer look to the United States as their major supporter. In online chatrooms, dissidents are increasingly finding inspiration in protest movements in Tunisia, Egypt, and Burma.

It would be a mistake, however, if Uncle Sam, while voicing concerns about human rights, lifts the ban on lethal weapons sales and supports Vietnam’s bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. That tragedy would turn into a profound irony should a Vietnamese Spring erupt and only to be put down by American bullets and guns.


Andrew Lam is an editor at New America Media where the above essay was first published, and the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese DiasporaEast Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres, and his latest, Birds of Paradise Lost, a collection of stories about Vietnamese refugees struggling to rebuild their lives in the West Coast.


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