Statement of Nguyen Dinh Thang**, Executive Director
Boat People S.O.S., Merrifield, Virginia
Testimony Before the Subcommittee on Trade
of the House Committee on Ways and Means
Hearing on U.S.-Vietnam Trade Relations
June 18, 1998
Mr. Chairman and distinguished members of the Subcommittee,
I am Nguyen Dinh Thang, Executive Director of Boat People S.O.S., a human rights and refugee rights organization that has worked on issues related to Vietnamese refugees and immigrants for almost two decades. Today I would like to present hard numbers and facts that are self-explanatory about Vietnam's attitude towards free and open emigration. I also would like to raise my concern over the Administration's foreign policy towards Vietnam in the broader context of human rights and trade.
Three months ago President Clinton granted Vietnam waiver to the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. His justification is that the waiver will substantially promote free and open emigration. Under the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, free and open emigration means: (1) no citizen should be denied the right or opportunity to emigrate, and (2) no citizen should be made to pay more than a nominal tax, levy, fine, fee on emigration or on the visas or other documents required for emigration.
After the waiver, Vietnam has substantially slowed down its clearance of eligible returnees for interview under the Resettlement Opportunity for Vietnamese Returnees (ROVR) program. This program was officially announced in April 1996. After 18 months of foot-dragging, Vietnam suddenly cleared for interview 14,000 of the 18,000 persons of interest to the U.S., all of this within a period of three months leading to the waiver. The State Department was optimistic that the remaining 4,000 names would be cleared before the end of March.
We are now in the second half of June and some 2,000 names are yet to be cleared. Worse yet, Vietnam has already denied interview clearance to over 1,200 eligible returnees. Based on some 600 cases that we have compiled and submitted to the State Department, I have reasons to believe that many victims of persecution with the most compelling refugee claims are among those denied access to U.S. interview. I have brought to the attention of the State Department a significant number of returnees currently under house arrest, in prison or in hiding.
Similarly there has been little progress in the HO program, which resettles former U.S. employees and former political prisoners. Of the 900 Montagnards that the U.S. has tried to gain access to for years, only 3% have been granted exit permission since the waiver. Thousands of former political prisoners denied exit permission prior to the waiver are still without exit permission after the waiver.
I have also worked on numerous cases of beneficiaries of current immigrant visa petitions or religious visa petitions who continue to be blocked from U.S. interviews. Appeals by their U.S. relatives or U.S.-based religious institutions to Ambassador Pete Peterson, to Vietnamese Ambassador Le Van Bang, to the State Department, and intervention by members of Congress have been fruitless.
With the above facts and figures I cannot see how any sensible and fair person could argue that the waiver has substantially promoted free and open emigration. Vietnam has become less, not more, cooperative after the waiver.
The problem is actually many times worse than those numbers may show. Most emigration applicants must pay hefty amounts of bribes in exchange for required documents, clearance and exit permit. I have interviewed many of these victims who arrived in the U.S. in recent months. Some of them had to pay several hundred dollars; others several thousand dollars; and many had to practically give away their houses and other properties to state officials. Considering the average annual per capita income in Vietnam is only 250 dollars, such payments cannot be characterized as nominal. Those who cannot afford such bribes are often excluded from emigration altogether. I would like to submit in confidence to the subcommittee signed statements of two witnesses who recently arrived in the U.S. One had to pay 500 dollars, the other 3,000, in order to get clearance for interview with the U.S. delegation.
Because it has nothing good to say, the State Department chooses to ignore such corrupt practices, which constitute a gross violation of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, altogether.
The problem is even uglier if we look beyond the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. I have worked on the case of a Montagnard now in North Carolina whose wife in Vietnam is offered exit permission only if she renounces her religion. She refuses and is still in Vietnam. I know another case who must leave his real wife and children back in Vietnam, and take substitutes assigned by the government as condition for exit permission. A former political prisoner, now living in Washington DC, has come to me to ask for help because Vietnam's Ministry of Interior had required that, once in the U.S., he gather intelligence for them as condition for his exit; his relatives left in Vietnam would suffer the consequences if he fails to cooperate. I am quite certain that the State Department is aware of but would like to overlook such problems.
Earlier this year, President Clinton opposed the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act on the ground that the threat of mandatory sanctions would cause U.S. officials to overlook the problem so as to avoid the imposition of the sanctions. I believe he spoke from experience. That is exactly how the Administration acts with respect to Vietnam, not only on the issue of free and open emigration, but also on the broader issues of human rights and trade.
In July 1995, when President Clinton normalized relations with Vietnam, the Administration reassured skeptics that such a move would promote democracy and human rights in that communist country. Since then, the Communist government has further tightened its grip over its citizens. The number of imprisoned religious leaders and political dissidents has gone up, not down. So has the number of ordinary citizens detained and charged for criticizing corruption in government, and the frequency and severity of reprisals against independent voices in the government-controlled press. December of last year, I took part in a Congressional staff fact-finding mission to Vietnam. On our own initiative, we talked to several intellectuals, dissidents, ordinary people, and even members of the Communist party. The consensus was that human rights conditions had deteriorated since normalization.
Last year, when President Clinton pushed for "fast track" authority, the Administration convinced Congress and the American people that it will ensure that trade expansion will promote workers rights. However, within a day of the President Clinton's announcement of the Jackson-Vanik waiver for Vietnam, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) hurriedly announced programs in Vietnam, despite a statutory requirement that OPIC should not operate in any country that violates basic international labor standards. Knowing that workers are not allowed to form independent labor unions and that forced labor remains common practice in Vietnam, OPIC bypassed the requirement with a waiver.
Aggressively pushing for expanded trade with Vietnam, the Administration seems intent on glossing over rampant and uncontrollably spreading corruption in that communist country, which not only violates the Jackson-Vanik Amendment but will also affect the health and fairness of trade between the U.S. and Vietnam. A survey published in April by the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC) ranks Vietnam the third most corrupt Asian country, only ahead of Indonesia and Thailand. A report issued by the United Nations Development Program four days ago warned that serious lack of transparency in financial dealings means peril and trouble for Vietnam in the months ahead. In two weeks, Vatico Inc., the first American firm licensed to operate in Vietnam, will close shop after 6 rough and unprofitable years. Its president was quoted in the press that he would be surprised "if 10 percent of foreign-invested companies in [Vietnam] are making a profit." Twenty years ago Congress passed the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. With regard to Vietnam, this Act may face the same fate as the Jackson-Vanik Amendment and the statute on OPIC.
Worst of all, Vietnam seems to know how our Administration thinks and acts. Let me quote an electronic message from a high-ranking Communist official whose email address, although based in Thailand, can be traced all the way back to Hai Phong, North Vietnam. This message was sent to us a few days ago: "I believe that US now or later would have to waive the Jackson-Vanik for Vietnam but the problem is when. And so why don't Vietnamese overseas support such a move but go against it? If Vietnam's economy develops, they at least can be proud that their homeland would not be in the list of poorest countries in the world. I believe the human rights issue is the western issue to rule Asian countries more than actually from their heart."
It is time that we send a different message to Vietnam, that our Administration speaks from its heart, not its lips.
In her testimony before Congress on February 23rd of this year, Secretary Julia Taft, representing the State Department, reassured Congress that if Vietnam fails to live up to its promised cooperation with U.S. resettlement programs, the State Department would recommend that the waiver to the Jackson-Vanik Amendment be rescinded. Vietnam does not keep its words; our State Department should.
**Dr. Nguyen Dinh Thang grew up in South Vietnam and entered college after the communist takeover in 1975. He escaped by boat to Malaysia in 1978 and arrived in the U.S. seven months later.
He obtained his doctorate in Mechanical Engineering from Virginia Tech in 1986 and since then has worked as an engineer at David Taylor Research Center. Ever since his arrival in the U.S., he has been active in the refugee community. In 1986 he founded the College Entrance Preparation program for newly arrived immigrants and refugees. In 1988 he joined Boat People S.O.S. and became its Executive Director in 1990. In the same year he co-founded Legal Assistance for Vietnamese Asylum Seekers (LAVAS), a project sending pro bono lawyers and paralegals to first-asylum camps to assist Vietnamese boat people in their application for refugee status.
In December of last year, Dr. Thang took part in a Congressional staff delegation to Vietnam to look into the conditions of repatriated boat people and into the general human rights conditions in Vietnam.
Dr. Thang presently serves as the President of the Vietnamese Community of Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia.