Citing evidence including religious persecution of ethnic Khmers and ethnic minority Montagnards, an independent commission established by the US Congress has said that Vietnam deserves to return to a US government list of violators of religious freedom.
Since acceding to the World Trade Organization in January, Vietnam has scaled back improvements in religious tolerance and has not made enough progress to justify its removal from the State Department’s annual list on religious freedom, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a report released this month.
Vietnam was added to the list in 2004 in part because of thousands of Montagnards, many of whom are Christians, crossing into Cambodia since 2001 seeking refuge and claiming religious and political persecution.
However, citing policy reforms and a freer climate of worship, the US in November made Vietnam the first country ever to be removed from the list.
A State Department spokeswoman on Friday said that while concerns persist, Vietnam no longer meets the list’s high legal threshold.
Vietnam has meanwhile dismissed the findings, calling them “utterly groundless and unacceptable.”
In its report, the 11-member Commission, which was established in 1998 to review US government policy and make recommendations, said Vietnam should be returned to the list in 2007.
While conceding that there have been some improvements, the report asserted that many of these appeared to be momentary efforts to improve Vietnam’s relations with the US and its international image in advance of WTO accession and November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hanoi.
“[S]ince January 2007, Vietnam has carried out a wide-ranging crackdown on individuals associated with human rights, democracy, legal reform, labor and free speech organizations,” the report stated.
“Montagnard villages and com- munes remain under tight control, and no international observer has been allowed unobstructed access to the region, though diplomats have occasionally visited,” it continued.
“Since November 2006, religious leaders in the Central Highlands have reported that progress made in the previous year has stalled.”
While noting that some information about Khmer Buddhists in Vietnam is “difficult to confirm” the report alleged that Vietnamese police “have expanded arrests, harassment and restrictions on Khmer Buddhist religious activity” in response to peaceful demonstrations by monks.
State Department spokeswoman Nancy Beck wrote in an e-mail Friday that US law requires that countries be added to the list solely on the basis of religious freedom violations.
Countries on the list were those that engaged in continuing and systematic religious freedom abuses such as torture, excessive detention without charge and abductions, Beck wrote.
“This is a high bar and Vietnam does not currently meet it on religious freedom grounds,” she said.
Vietnamese Embassy spokesman Trinh Ba Cam said Monday that the report was wrong.
“It is their right to express opinions but it is not true,” he said. “What standard did they use in talking this way?”
State-run Voice of Vietnam radio earlier this month also denounced the report.
“In reality, Vietnamese people enjoy the right to follow or not to follow any belief or religion that they choose,” according to an English-language VOV statement posted to the broadcaster’s Web site on May 7.
The call to restore Vietnam to the State Department’s “Countries of Particular Concern” list is “utterly groundless and unacceptable as it is out of tune with the real religious situation in Vietnam and the fine development of Vietnam-US relations,” it added.
(Additional reporting by Prak Chan Thul)