Addresses by MPs Anthony Byrne and Luke Simpkins in Australian House Debates on Human Rights in Vietnam – 17 June 2013

Anthony BiyrneAnthony Byrne
(Holt, Australian Labor Party)

I am honoured today to speak on this private member’s motion by the member for Fowler. He is a well-known campaigner for human rights in Vietnam. I read several of his speeches in preparation for this contribution today. I congratulate him on this motion. I also rise to express, in this place, and obviously from my perspective, the concerns of my local Vietnamese community in Holt about human rights abuses in Vietnam.

It is said, when you look at the official briefing papers, that Australia has enjoyed a strong bilateral relationship with Vietnam since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1973. It is said that Australia is a leading study destination for Vietnamese students, with more than 23,000 student enrolments in Australian educational institutions and an estimated 10,000 students undertaking Australian education and training courses in Vietnam. This has apparently been aided by RMIT University beginning operations in 2001 in Vietnam as the first wholly owned foreign university in Vietnam. That is what is said.

In Australia, I am proud to say that we have a wonderful Vietnamese community of over 150,000 people. The DFAT briefing paper says the number is 210,000. Regardless of the number, it is a wonderful community that makes a significant contribution to our country. I believe it is the fourth largest in the world outside of Vietnam. Since 1975, Vietnamese migrants have made a profound contribution to Australia through their culture, their history and what they bring to this country. They are a proud people who are deeply concerned about their country. Whilst, again, it is said that Australia builds closer ties with Vietnam, many Vietnamese people in Australia are deeply concerned about the previous, past and ongoing human rights abuses in Vietnam.

The Vietnamese community that now calls Australia home enjoys the virtues of living in a democracy and universal human rights principles. They have freedom of expression. However, they desire that their relatives in their homeland enjoyed similar freedoms. Under the regime of the current Socialist Republic of Vietnam, such freedoms for many just do not exist. Instead, as we have heard from contributions from the member for Fowler and the other honourable member, the Vietnamese government continues to systematically suppress freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.

I have heard about the ninth Australia-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue, which my colleague the member for Fowler participates in. Whilst that presents an opportunity, it does not stop us in this place speaking with one loud, powerful voice on behalf of the Vietnamese community in our electorates across the country. I, my Victorian state colleague, Luke Donnellan, the member for Narre Warren North—who has actually been to Vietnam-and obviously the member for Fowler and others consistently report, and will continue to report, to this parliament human rights abuses that continue in Vietnam. The Vietnamese government must be held accountable.

I would like to thank Mr Tien Dung Kieu, the President of Vietnamese TV on Channel 31, for coming personally into my office to talk about the human rights abuses that have occurred and are occurring in Vietnam. He specifically brought to my attention the two young Vietnamese activists who were recently arrested and sentenced for criticising the government. Imagine if we did that in this country—we would arrest just about everybody. In Vietnam, basically, if you criticise your government you are put in prison. That is unacceptable. It does not matter if it is a socialist republic; it is unacceptable.

As we have heard, last month student Nguyen Phuong Uyen and computer technician Dinh Nguyen Kha were convicted on subversion charges. It is interesting for young university students to be charged with subversion. According to the state media, that wonderfully free and august independent organisation, Nguyen Phuong Uyen and Dinh Nguyen Kha were arrested for handing out leaflets that:

… distort the Party and the State’s policies related to religion and land, and exhibit a twisted viewpoint regarding the Spratly and Paracel islands and the border land between Vietnam and China.

Those are two young university students. The state media—again, that independent organisation—accused the two of:

… calling and agitating people to protest against the Communist Party of Vietnam and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

As I said, in other democracies, if people were put people on trial for distributing leaflets critical of the government, you would have a revolution on your hands. I find it incredible, and I know that is mirrored by the Vietnamese community that is here today, my Vietnamese community. They feel very deeply about the fact that, after a one-day trial, in May 2013, Nguyen Phuong Uyen—a young university student—was given six years in prison, whilst Dinh Nguyen Kha received eight years following a one-day trial. A one-day trial—that is a system of justice in a country isn’t it?

According to Human Rights Watch, Nguyen Phuong Uyen, 21, from Ham Thuan Bac district, Binh Thuan province, is a student-as I said—at the capital’s university. The police arrested Uyen on 14 October 2012 in Tan Phu district, and took her to the police station in the Tan Phu district’s Tay Thanh ward without informing her family. Imagine if, in this country, your son or daughter, for protesting legitimately, was taken away, and you were not told where they were. Phuong Uyen’s family and friends launched an intensive search for her by making inquiries at the police station and alerting the public via non-state channels, including the BBC and Radio Free Asia. It was not until eight days later-eight days-that an officer at the Tay Thanh police station told Uyen’s mother that she had been transferred to the police of Long An province. On 23 October 2012 the Long An police acknowledged that Phuong Uyen had been charged with ‘conducting propaganda against the state’—that is what free speech gets you in Vietnam—under article 88 of the penal code. According to the indictment, Nguyen Phuong Uyen was officially arrested on 19 October 2012, leaving five days unaccounted for by officials. According to reports, Phuong Uyen’s mother claims that on a visit on 26 April 2013, she saw many bruises on her daughter’s neck, upper chest and arms. Her mother said that Phuong Uyen told her that in detention she was beaten and kicked severely in the stomach. It was only when she fainted that prison guards came in to stop the beating and took her to see a doctor. Human rights in Vietnam!

According to Human Rights Watch, Dinh Nguyen Kha was from the city of Tan An. On 10 October 2012, he allegedly dropped anti-government leaflets at the An Suong overpass in the capital. On 29 September 2012, the People’s Court of Tan An City convicted and sentenced Dinh Nguyen Kha to two years in prison for ‘intentionally dropping leaflets’. Don’t hand out leaflets, because in Vietnam, particularly when they speak about freedom, they cause injury to others, according to the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. He was also charged with terrorism under article 84—a very convenient article.

The Australian government must continue to strongly condemn these human rights abuses because they are nothing more than human rights abuses. On behalf of the Vietnamese community, we need to continue to raise these issues until the government changes its stance, until they treat their people with respect, until they afford their people the rights that Vietnamese people in this country have.

I also want to briefly raise in the time I have remaining the ongoing case of Father Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly, a Catholic priest who has been nominated for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize by members of the US Congress Chris Smith and Zoe Lofgren. We know the story of Father Ly, but what you might not know is that in 2006 my state parliamentary colleague Luke Donnellan, the member for Narre Warren North, visited Father Ly in March 2006 to discuss his treatment at the hands of the authorities. After visiting Father Ly in Vietnam, Mr Donnellan—a member of the state government—was banned by the Vietnamese government from visiting Vietnam for five years. This action by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam to ban a Victorian member of parliament from visiting Vietnam is disappointing to say the least—and I am using diplomatic language. Mr Donnellan was standing up for the universal principles of protecting and defending human rights.

Thank you, again, member for Fowler for this motion. We will continue to raise these ongoing issues and ongoing abuses. Young university students in this country can protest without imprisonment, without being beaten and without being taken off the streets. This happens in Vietnam. The government cannot conduct discussions with Vietnam without continuing to raise these issues. As long as I am in this place, we will continue to do so.


Luke Simpkins 
(Cowan, Liberal Party)

Luke SimpkinsI join with the member for Fowler to speak on this important matter. I know he has a long history in this place of speaking on behalf of the great and good cause of freedom in Vietnam. Freedom in Vietnam includes religious freedom and freedom of speech. Many of us would say, and all Vietnamese people in Australia, look forward to a day when there is true democracy in Vietnam, where anybody who raises even the possibility of an advancement beyond the single party state will not be committing a crime, where the Vietnamese governmentwill be true to the covenants of human rights and democracy that it has signed but never adhered to.

From my two visits to Vietnam and my many talks with Vietnamese people within the electorate of Cowan, and from what I have seen on websites and blogs regarding matters to do with readers in Vietnam, the issues could probably be confined to three areas. That is, religious freedom, land rights and patriotism. I particularly want to mention this last area, which is involving so many of the bloggers and protests we have seen in Hanoi, Saigon and other places in Vietnam. It relates to Vietnamese people, who believe very strongly in their homeland—in their nation. They offer up their voices—whether it is through electronic means, protests or other means—to talk about what is in the best interests of their nation. Yet on so many occasions the Vietnamese government finds fault with that. It locks people up—jails them. It is particularly the case for Nguyen Phuong Uyen and Dinh Nguyen Kha. More recently, Kha’s brother has been arrested, as well.

It is their patriotism—their belief in their country—that so often brings people into conflict with the Communist government in Vietnam. They raise things to do with the national interest. The Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea is something that a lot of Vietnamese people are concerned about. People find fault with the pandering, in many ways, of the Communist government to Beijing. They also find fault with the Chinese concessions—the bauxite mines—in the highlands, which are doing untold environmental damage.

People feel strongly about their country, and for that feeling—that patriotism and the national interests of Vietnam—people find themselves jailed. People are arrested on a regular basis. That is the reality of what is going on in Vietnam.

I have spoken on many occasions about the religious grievance. Again, the member for Fowler mentioned the young Catholic people that have been fairly recently sentenced and jailed in Vietnam. Often that is to do with land rights and the wish to be able to follow their religion without the controls of the state. As we know, in Vietnam people are free to practice religion—provided they have their leaders authorised and licensed by the state! I am being facetious, obviously, because that is no great freedom at all.

If a church is prepared to hand over its membership list to the state then they are free to practice. If they wish to hand over the list of names of people who attend regularly or who come and visit their church, temple or whatever, then they can practice their religion. But if people in Vietnam refuse to do those things—if they refuse to hand over those lists and if they refuse to do exactly as they are told by the state—then they run afoul of the state and they are persecuted by the state.

We have spoken before of the cowshed church in Saigon. I was fortunate enough to visit there back in, I think, the start of 2011, and I worshipped with the Mennonites in the CowShedChurch. They were kicked out of the house church that they had because the local Communist authorities did not like what was being said or did not like the fact that that church did not provide a membership list to the state. They would not do as they were told and, as a consequence, they were kicked out. The pastor’s wife—I saw her there on that day—suffered from mental illness but she were forced to live in that shed while the pastor is in jail. She was forced to live in that shed behind a curtain. The Mekong Riverhad risen at the time of my visit so that we were knee-deep in its waters. The pastor’s wife, who has unfortunately since died, was stuck there, suffering, without any support from the state. She was, amongst her fellows in the church, persecuted by that same state. That is the religious freedom that awaits those in Vietnam who refuse to do the bidding—who refuse to follow the orders—of the state.

The tragedy of Vietnam, as we know and as we see all the time in Australia, is that those that hail from Vietnam are highly successful in this country because the shackles of socialism and communism are taken off their backs. In this country, if they want to work hard, they can get the benefits of working hard. Back there, they have to do as they are told. The Communist Party impose restrictions on people economically, religiously and democratically. In doing that, they hold back a proud country of 88 million people. I can only imagine how successful Vietnam would be without the shackles of an oppressive state and the uncaring, self-motivated and self-serving Communist Party of Vietnam. I can only imagine how successful that country would be if they had the same conditions and opportunities that we have in this country, which Vietnamese Australians have thrived under.

They want the same opportunities. There needs to be a time in the future when article 88 of the Vietnamese constitution, the article that has caused so many people to be arrested and jailed, is taken off the backs of the Vietnamese people, when Vietnam becomes the country where the individual is valued and where, collectively, the success of the country is valued more than is currently the case. As we know, in all communist and socialist systems, the talk is very good at the start about looking after individuals, but, in the end, in every case, the reality is a self-serving organisation, such as the Vietnamese Communist Party, existing for the benefit of a small number of members. In the end, they are the ones looked after while the people do the bidding of the state.

I appreciate the opportunity that the member for Fowler has provided today to, again, let us look at what needs to change in Vietnam. I hope that through the ninth human rights dialogue some progress can be made. At the moment, it looks like progress is not being made. The arrest and beating of young activists, particularly Nguyen Phuong Uyen, is a tragedy that represents what the state of Vietnam is all about. I am sad and sorry that there has been no great progress in Vietnam, but we look forward to better days. Hopefully, through the dialogue we will see better days. Time will tell. I pay tribute to the brave Vietnamese people.

Source: OpenAustralia