The visit of an American president is normally a moment of high sensitivity for the Vietnamese government – an opportunity for rights activists to exert pressure for political reform and fewer arrests.
With President Trump due in Vietnam late next week, some 40 foreign based scholars have made a rare and impassioned appeal for the release of two female bloggers sentenced to long prison terms in the summer.
However, President Trump has shown no interest in the human rights and pro-democracy agenda that was championed, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, by his predecessors.
The concern is that without direct pressure from the United States and other western countries, Vietnam will see no reason to moderate its campaign of arrests, intimidation and violence against government critics.
The scholars, many of whom are seen as friendly towards the government of Vietnam, wrote to the country’s top four leaders, expressing deep disquiet at the current crackdown.
“While the country prepares to host APEC 2017, it is important to recognise that APEC goals for ‘sustainable economic growth and prosperity’ are based on a fundamental respect for the inherent dignity and worth of all persons,” they wrote.
They highlighted two cases – that of Me Nam, Mother Mushroom, who was sentenced to ten years in prison in June for “conducting propaganda against the state” – and another blogger, Tran Thi Nga, who received a nine year sentence the following month.
“These are particularly heavy sentences against the two women who are mothers with children under 10 years old, for activities that should not and must not have been criminalised in the first place,” said the letter.
“As friends of Vietnam, we urge the authorities to reconsider their position on all prisoners of conscience….and trust that you will respond in a manner that reflects the civility and dignity of Vietnam,” they continued.
The signees included academics from leading universities in North America, Europe and Australia, amongst them Jonathan London, David Brown and William S. Turley, and others known to maintain good relations with the Vietnamese government.
The appeal reflects growing disquiet that Vietnam no longer feels the need even to pay lip service to the development of a more pluralistic political culture.
There had been hope, particularly during negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that Vietnam would align itself more closely with the United States, and gradually improve its record on rights and freedoms.
President Trump, however, scrapped the TPP on coming to office and has shown no interest in pursuing policies that promote human rights and representative government in Asia or anywhere else.
His overwhelming preoccupation in Asia has been the threat from North Korea, and relations with China.
Vietnam, when it enters into the administration’s calculations, is in danger of being considered little more than a minor player in the broader China game.
Human Rights Watch has also called on world leaders attending the APEC summit in Danang to encourage an end to “the systematic persecution of peaceful critics”.
It named 105 people imprisoned for political and religious reasons, the highest number in any Southeast Asian country, and said the list may not be exhaustive.
“At the same time that Vietnam is playing the role of a friendly host to welcome international delegations, the authorities are intensifying their crackdown on anyone with the courage to speak up for human rights and democracy,” said Brad Adams of HRW in a statement.
Vietnam has kept up the pace of regular arrests and convictions for activists in the weeks leading up to the summit.
Despite all attempts to exert pressure, the leadership in Hanoi seems to have concluded that the international community has less will than ever to hold it to account.