by Hao-Nhien Vu
U.S. Congressman Alan Lowenthal, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, represents most of Little Saigon in California, with the highest concentration of Vietnamese abroad. Still in his first term in Congress, Lowenthal has already taken on the cause of human rights in Vietnam. Vietnamrightnow.com‘s Hao-Nhien Vu held the following exchanges with the Congressman, former State Senator and Assemblyman, and former professor of psychology.
VNRN: How do you evaluate the progress in human rights in Vietnam from four years ago?
Alan Lowenthal: This is my first term in Congress and for the past two years, I have been greatly concerned with the deteriorating human rights conditions and the increase of government crackdown, human rights abuses, and the arbitrary imprisonment of dissidents, including activists, bloggers, journalists, intellectuals and many other prisoner of conscience. Just this year, Reporters without Borders ranked Vietnam 174 out of 180 countries for freedom of the press, ranking worse than Iran and only better than 6 other countries. It is clear that Vietnam has little to show as far as improving its deplorable human rights record.
VNRN: Your district includes a large part of Little Saigon in Orange County. What have Vietnamese-American voters from your district been saying about Vietnam?
Alan Lowenthal: For the past two years, at each of the many community events that I attended, I hear a common message from Vietnamese Americans and that is the government of Vietnam must respect human rights and end its crackdown on religious freedom, the imprisonment of activists and people who have a different opinion than that of the Communist Party of Vietnam. They also want to see the government of Vietnam respect the people’s aspiration for democracy by ending the Communist Party’s monopoly on governing the country and allow the people of Vietnam to determine the future of the country and to safeguard Vietnam’s sovereignty against foreign threats, particularly from China’s Communist leadership.
VNRN: How high of a priority is Vietnam human rights in Congress right now? Are a lot of your colleagues aware of the situation?
Alan Lowenthal: Human rights in Vietnam is a priority for myself and many of my colleagues, particular those who serve with me in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, and the Congressional Caucus on Vietnam. There are also Senators who are concerned with ongoing human rights abuses in Vietnam. While some are aware of the issues, we need to continue to double our efforts in raising more awareness and support among Members of Congress and the President on issues of human rights violations in Vietnam and how we can support the people of Vietnam in their struggle for democracy, social justice and human rights. Last year, I had the opportunity to raise my concerns about Vietnam’s human rights abuses personally to President Obama, just prior to the visit of the President of Vietnam to the White House. I plan to take every opportunity I can to continue raising this issue. We must also find ways to support the development and growth of civil society in the country which will serve as the medium for change.
VNRN: You have “adopted” some Vietnamese prisoners of conscience such as Nguyen Tien Trung. What does it mean and what steps have been taken to help free them?
Alan Lowenthal: What it means is that I have committed myself as a Member of Congress to continuously raise awareness of the continuous unjustified imprisonment of Nguyen Tien Trung to my colleagues in Congress and beyond and also to advocate for his release. Since adopting Nguyen Tien Trung, I have raised his case multiple times during Congressional hearings, public events, and floor speeches. When I had the opportunity to talk with President Obama during a 2013 meeting at the White House, I mentioned to the President the need for Vietnam to improve its human rights record by ending human rights abuses and releasing prisoners of conscience. I will continue to advocate for this.
VNRN: What measures do you think the community in your district can take to help protect human rights for people in Vietnam?
Alan Lowenthal: One way Vietnamese Americans in my district can do is to continue writing to my office and educating me on human rights abuses in Vietnam. Vietnamese Americans elsewhere should do the same with their respective Congressional representatives.
Another way is to continue to raise public awareness locally and internationally about the different cases of human rights abuses by the government of Vietnam. The Vietnamese government has recently crackdown on a dissidents, journalists, bloggers, youths, activists, intellectuals, and ordinary citizens who were suppressed for simply exercising his/her rights. That is wrong and we must speak up.
Lastly, Vietnamese Americans should do whatever they can to support the families of activists and prisoners of conscience whichever way they are able to. This will help strengthen the overall movement for human rights and democracy in Vietnam.