INTERVIEW: Vietnam wants to buy arms? ‘Not when you’re beating up your people’: U.S. Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez

by Hao-Nhien Vu

A nine-term U.S. Member of Congress and longtime co-chair of the Congressional Vietnam Caucus, Loretta Sanchez has been an outspoken voice for democracy in Vietnam and has had several run-ins with the Vietnamese government, to the point that Vietnam no longer issues visa for her visits. Sanchez’s district, in central Orange County in California, has a sizable number of Vietnamese-American voters. Vietnamrightnow.com‘s Hao-Nhien Vu asked the Congresswoman, who serves on both the House Armed Services and Homeland Security Committees, the following questions by Internet.

VNRN: You have been co-chairing the Congressional Vietnam Caucus for a long time. How do you evaluate the progress in human rights in Vietnam during the time you have been in office?

Loretta Sanchez: In 1997, I co-founded the Congressional Dialogue on Vietnam, which later changed to Congressional Caucus on Vietnam with one vision, that is to work across party lines in the Hall of Congress to better inform and advocate against the egregious human rights violations taking place in Vietnam.
In Congress we have worked to call attention to the abysmal human rights conditions in Vietnam and we have sponsored many notable legislations addressing circumstances concerning the Vietnamese and Vietnamese American communities. In addition, since then we have worked closer with the Administration and the State Department to integrate human rights into the overall bilateral relationship.

Over the years, we have adopted many voices of conscience, voiced our concerns on Hanoi’s latest crackdown tactics, and worked collaboratively with so many advocacy organizations such as United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Borders, Amnesty International, Human Rights for Vietnam PAC, Viettan, Vietnam Human Rights Network, National Congress of Vietnamese Americans, VOICE and many more on the issues concerning the Vietnamese and Vietnamese American communities.

What we know is that the Vietnamese government is on an international perspective, they want to be a player, they want to be acknowledged, and the more we shine the light on their deficiencies, especially in something as basic as human rights. I believe that the more embarrassed they get, the more they want to change and/or oppress, the more they deny that, the more they go after people like Le Quoc Quan, like Ta Phong Tan, like Bui Hang, like Nguyen Van Hai, like Do Thi Minh Hanh, like musician Viet Khang, and even me, for example. So, we know that it’s effective because of the pressure they face.

VNRN: What actions do you plan to take in Congress regarding human rights in Vietnam?

Loretta Sanchez: I will continue to call for release of political prisoners and advocate against Hanoi’s efforts to impede Internet freedom.

I will continue to advocate for legislations in the Congress that aim to hold Vietnam accountable for its increased efforts to silence voices of opposition in direct violation of the guarantees of free expression Vietnam has agreed to uphold as a signer of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

It’s important that we advocate for the Vietnam Human Rights Act in the Senate, the Fostering Rights through Economic Engagement in Vietnam (“FREE Vietnam”) Act in the House, a bipartisan bill would bar Vietnam from enjoying special U.S. trade preferences until the country’s communist government takes serious measures to curb human rights abuses. I think that’s important and I have discussed this with US Trade representative as the Administration is working through this TPP negotiation to push back on these human rights issues so that the people of Vietnam will have a little bit of breathing room from their government.

I will continue to work with my colleagues in Congress to urge the Administration to send a strong message that as we deepen our engagement with Vietnam, State must urge them to embrace reforms that would improve governance, protect human rights, and advance political freedoms. There must be clear benchmarks established for the Vietnamese government and the United States must clearly define what consequences will be implemented if they do not improve human rights in their country.

I think that we shouldn’t give them non-humanitarian aid. Vietnam wants military aid, they want to buy military supplies from us, well, you know what? Not when you’re beating up your people and not when you could turn that stuff against your people. So I think there are ways in which we can continue to push, and then again, just shining the light on Vietnam.

VNRN: The Vietnam Human Rights Act have passed the House several times without action being taken in the Senate. What do you think it will take for the Senate to start acting?

Loretta Sanchez: The community advocates have done a great job working with their Members and making sure their voices are heard. It is time that we take it to the next step and do the same with their Senators.
The Vietnamese-Americans need to continue to go to their Senators’ offices, talk to them and/or their staff, ask them to address the ongoing human rights abuses in Vietnam, and ask to support for the legislations efforts such as the Vietnam Human Rights Act.

VNRN: Every time the U.S. raises human rights issues, the Vietnamese government claims the U.S. is interfering in its internal affairs. What is your answer to that?

Loretta Sanchez: If the Government of Vietnam wants to continue to engage in trade and relations with the U.S., then Vietnam must tangibly improve its human rights record by respecting individuals’ rights to freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of information.

If the Vietnamese authorities want to be a respected member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, access to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and security cooperation with the U.S., they must cease its dubious use of articles 79, 88, and 258 in the Vietnamese penal code. These articles are often used to justify the detention of citizens who peacefully advocate for religious and political freedom, and to prosecute citizens for peacefully expressing their views. The scores of peaceful government critics who are unjustly imprisoned and many more should be freed. Government harassment of dissidents cannot be tolerated and Vietnamese authorities must respect open discussion and personal expression. Lastly, if Vietnam wishes to be fully integrated into the broader international community, they must stop making these absurd claims that the international community is interfering in their internal affairs.

VNRN: Do you think activisms by Vietnamese-Americans have had any effect on the situation in Vietnam?

Loretta Sanchez: We know that change will come from the inside by the courageous civil rights activists. I believe that the Vietnamese-Americans community can play a very critical role to support what is being done inside. We can inform and educate the international community; as well as advocating for change in Vietnam. The community is very organized in a political manner, not only in the US, but I also see similar activism in Canada, Europe, etc.. It’s encouraging when we see Vietnamese American youth and professionals organize annual leadership conferences to discuss what they can do for their loved ones in Vietnam. It’s great to see all ages of Vietnamese Americans work together as a collective voice when it comes to human rights issues in Vietnam.

Specifically for Congress, we begin to see better presence in D.C. advocating for change in Vietnam. Many of my colleagues in Congress don’t understand the issue of Vietnam. The Vietnamese-Americans need to continue to go to their Members’ offices, talk to them, ask them to address the ongoing human rights abuses in Vietnam, and ask to support for the legislations efforts such as the Vietnam Human Rights Act, FREE Vietnam Act, Internet Freedom resolutions, most recently, the Vietnam Human Rights Sanctions Act.

The key is to actively bring awareness through public education and ongoing advocacy efforts for those who cannot speak in Vietnam.

VNRN: The US provides funding and assistance to Vietnam but it seems not conditional upon any human rights improvement. Why not, and should that be changed, and if so how?

Loretta Sanchez: On the House side, my colleagues and I have consistently worked hard in a bipartisan manner to pass the Vietnam Human Rights Act, which I am a co-sponsor of since 2001. We’ve taken meaningful actions to address the serious human rights abuses suffered by the Vietnam people, which had gotten worse over the years as Hanoi seeks better relations with the U.S. We have made amendments to the Vietnam Human Rights act to prohibit any increase in U.S. non-humanitarian assistance to Vietnam unless those U.S. funds are commensurate with funding for human rights and democracy programs. The Vietnam Human Rights Act also prohibits non-humanitarian aid authorized by the act unless the President certifies to Congress that Vietnam has improved its human rights record, including the release of all political and religious prisoners, and protects the right to freedom of assembly, religious expression and association.

I believe that the United States has a vital interest in promoting respect for individual rights around the world. I firmly believe that the U.S. must be a strong advocate of human rights, especially when Government of Vietnam continues to disregard the international community’s collective voice to end arbitrarily arrest and imprisonment against numerous citizens for their peaceful expressing their political views.

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