Last year Hilary Clinton, US Secretary of State delivered a speech on the freedom of the internet. In her speech she set out her ideas on how internet freedom would become a foreign policy priority for the US – saying that the US government was "supporting the development of new tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship" and that those tools would be put "in the hands of people who will use them to advance democracy and human rights". At the time, Clinton's speech was thought mainly to be a response to Google's censorship of search results in China but the Secretary of State answered questions on government censorship in various countries. Now, when you hear about internet censorship you might think of China, North Korea, Iran or Burma. But Vietnam? Most people don't know much more about Vietnam than what they studied at school in history class. But flying under the radar of most news outlets is the multitude of human rights violations that the Vietnamese government are committing.
When asked, Clinton repeated her adamant opposition to the arresting and silencing of pro-democracy bloggers, Buddhist monks and nuns and others including Catholic priests and politicians from previous governments. However, on meeting Vietnam's foreign minister in October nothing of these violations were mentioned but instead she chose to talk about the success of the US's renewed bilateral trade agreement with Vietnam. Yet another missed opportunity for a powerful western country to sanction human rights violations of marginalised and suppressed communities.
Examples of these violations are plentiful. During demonstrations against a government industrial project in May last year, two people, one of them a 12-year old boy, were shot dead when police tried to disperse crowds. In October, nine people were given prison time of up to six years for hanging banners which promoted 'multiparty democracy'. In December the Vietnamese authorities charged a prominent American-educated human rights lawyer with subversion, a crime which carries the death penalty there. He has written blogs on the internet which advocated democracy and spoke out in support of exiled democratic political factions. Last month, the authorities again jailed a 69-year old doctor who had allegedly called for a middle-east style revolution in the country. Again, he faces a possible death penalty on charges of "trying to overthrow the state". What is more, he has already spent twenty years in prison as a result of his previous attempts at peaceful protest. Unsurprisingly, his arrest happened on the same day that an article of his was published in the Washington Post criticising the Vietnamese authorities.
In 2008, there were over four hundred people in Vietnamese prisons on charges relating to their political views or beliefs. Three years later, given the news every month of more "dissidents" being arrested by the Vietnamese authorities, this figure can only have worsened. But it is not only that the government are violating the rights to freedom of expression and association of their people. Not only that they are arresting and stripping the freedoms of people who speak out against them. In order to understand the level of oppression maintained in Vietnam, understand this: before some of these individuals can be put forward for a show trial, they are beaten to death in the custody of the Vietnamese police. This is about the right to life. These people are not murderers, they are not thieves. These are ordinary people who are simply blogging about what they believe in.
Where are the US's 'tools' whilst these people are locked up and beaten? During their imprisonment, Hillary Clinton has gone on to make further speeches on the freedom of the internet in US foreign policy. I will leave it to you to decide whether western governments are ignorant of this suffering or are simply arrogant enough to brush it under the carpet. The West continues to pander around Vietnamese officials, conveniently side stepping the atrocious human rights record of the country so that they can focus on their economies. What the world doesn't see is that this is happening at the expense of a people who want change. That with every time a western official goes on TV and complains about censorship we've all heard about in countries like China, Burma and Iran, the world goes blind to the unheard cries of the Vietnamese people.