To supplement themes already heard at this forum, permit me to make three short points, partly taken from the Vietnam section of the Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples:
- Between 1978 and 1981, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, especially the so-called boat people, fled the country, with more than 50,000 eventually settling in Canada. Today, there are an estimated 180,000 living across our country according to the 2006 census, mostly residing in larger cities in BC, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec. They are active and successful in virtually all occupations.
- The Vietnamese people have a long tradition of independence despite influence during periods by China and France. The rebellion from China led by the still- renowned Trung sisters in 43-39 BCE failed, but separation from China was finally obtained in 939. French domination ended in 1954. The Americans left defeated in 1975, but many observers contend that Karl Marx and Marxism are so European as to be never acceptable to most Vietnamese. In fact, the Vietnamese people have improved their standard of living only since features of Marxist economics have been abandoned by the party-state in Hanoi. Amartya Sen put this phenomenon most succinctly, "Freedom and development are inextricable."
- In my own experience, most Canadians of origin in Vietnam are as strongly anti-totalitarian as are most of our cultural communities of origin in, say, central and eastern Europe. The Canadian Vietnamese Federation, the sponsor of this event, is today the national umbrella organization. It and most voluntary organizations of the community across Canada oppose the current unelected regime in Hanoi, partly because it ''has destroyed genuine Vietnamese culture'' and have vowed to restore that culture when the current regime collapses.
The Venerable Thich Quang Do, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, has spent a total of 28 years in prison because of his belief in human dignity. An article about a visit with him in Saigon written by Thor Halvorssen, president of the Human Rights Foundation, is found at:
Sarah Jackson-Han wrote some weeks ago in Radio Free Asia that the Vietnamese government had released one of its best-known political prisoners, Catholic priest Van Ly, 63. www.rfa.org/english/news/vietnam/Ly-03152010142919.html. On leaving prison, Ly said, “I have suffered three strokes... Roughly 160 years ago, Karl Marx wrote his Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital in London—he wasn’t arrested and he finished both works...Nowadays, when Vietnamese people do the same things, they get arrested. This proves that Vietnam’s laws are even more backward than laws back then, 160 years ago in London.”
During his four-hour 'trial' in 2007, Ly was denied access to a lawyer and silenced by security guards when he attempted to speak. Televised images of a guard slapping his hand over Ly’s mouth became an international icon. Ly has in fact spent 16 years in prison over the last 30 years for advocating human dignity for all in Vietnam. He is a national and international hero.
Democracy activists Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, Nguyen Tien Trung, Le Thang Long and Le Cong Dinh were tried in 2010 and convicted of trying to 'overthrow the state'. They were among targets of a widespread crackdown, leading to numerous arrests and international outcries. The U.S.-trained human rights lawyer Le Cong Dinh, 41, received five years in jail. All could have faced the death penalty for subversion. They were convicted under Article 79 of Vietnam’s criminal code, for “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration.”
These sentences came against a backdrop of escalating repression against critics of the regime. A new wave of arrests began in May 2009, targeting independent lawyers, bloggers, and pro-democracy activists. More than 30 prisoners of conscience remain behind bars after sham trials, according to Amnesty International. Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said: ''Dinh’s conviction in particular is a very worrying sign that we expect will accelerate this year—again in part because of the lack of vocal criticism from the international community...I think the fact that today we see a trial going on of Le Cong Dinh—a Fulbright winner, a lawyer, [an] establishment figure in Vietnamese political terms—that he is being tried, I think shows you just how grim the situation is in Vietnam for people who are trying to peacefully articulate views that are different from the government’s.”
Democracy and Dignity
Representative democracy in its numerous forms is the best means of fulfilling most individual lives while respecting common national, regional and local goals. Elected, accountable governments, transparent and equally applied rule of law, independent media, protection of the dignity of all, freedom of speech and religion, and universal suffrage in selecting political representation-all are important democratic governance features.
These values are reflected today in the political cultures of most of the world’s peoples and in the aspirations of most if not all others. By some counts, the number of democratic countries has more than doubled in recent decades, while the number of tyrannies has dramatically declined.
There are unfortunately still too many of the latter in the world, including Vietnam's, doing much harm to their own peoples and the natural environment within and often beyond their national boundaries.
What We Can Do
In my opinion, the next wave of rule of law/representative governance will sweep away most of the remaining world despots, including those in Vietnam. Skeptics about this optimism should recall that in the 1980s there were many in central/eastern Europe who predicted that the Soviet empire would survive for another 100 years. How wrong the pessimists were.
Regimes which abuse their own people often seem as indestructible as billiard balls until months or even weeks before they disintegrate as the result of popular non-violent protests and civil disobedience. Many of them did so in the last wave of democratization in the late 1980s and 1990s. This decade has brought setbacks for democratic governance in some countries, but human dignity is ultimately indivisible today on our shrunken planet. The need to choose one's government is probably universal in the 21st century.
Roles for the Diaspora
- Form political action committees in each province and do what the Polish, Ukrainian, Hungarian, Taiwanese, Tibetan and other communities have done for years on the provincial and national levels, including:
o lobbying MPs, senators, MPPs/MLAs at regular intervals to inform them about current realities in Vietnam, and
o appoint a contact constituent for each elected representative to keep him/her and staff informed about developments in Vietnam.
- Provide Vietnamese-Canadian youth with opportunities to get information and acquire knowledge about current human rights violations in Vietnam.
- Hold a Canada-wide public awareness campaign.
- Build a broader base of support by involving mainstream institutions and citizens in the cause of dignity for the Vietnamese people.
- Engage in political participation at all levels and get more Vietnamese-Canadians elected in your province at all three levels of government.
- Work cooperatively with existing human rights organizations, for example, the Paris-based Buddhist group.
- Form a strategic alliance for mutual support and collective action with the Tibetan, Burmese, and Falun Gong communities
For more ideas, check out the Diplomat's Handbook for Democracy Development Support, a project of the non-political Community of Democracies and managed by the NGO Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). It is accessible at www.ccd21.org and contains resources and case studies documenting how groups and individuals can effectively assist civil society activists to promote democratic change.
The final words go to Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher and writer in his 80s, who has taught in 35 countries, but whose books are banned in his own country (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/september-19-2003/thich-nhat-hanh/1843/).
He urged Martin Luther King Jr. to oppose the Vietnam War. He has opposed violence for more than 50 years. Dr. King nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize in January 1967. For all these years, he has been active in the peace movement, promoting non-violent solutions to conflict. He is talking about peace in a world of terrorism. He rightly says that “Using violence to suppress violence is not the correct way. America (He says America, but we could say ‘the whole world’) has to wake up to that reality.”
In a conflict, he recommends deep listening to each other and gentle speech which stems from the virtues he believes in: compassion and reconciliation. Reconciliation, he says," is to understand both sides; to go to one side and describe the suffering being endured by the other side, and then go to the other side and describe the suffering being endured by the first side". He adds that the people of this world are manipulated by those with power: "In order to rally people, governments need enemies. They want us to be afraid, to hate, so we will rally behind them. And if they do not have a real enemy, they will invent one in order to mobilize us."