Washington, 19, April, 2017 – Just two years ago, U.S. based human rights organization Freedom House noted in one of its annual reports that global freedom had declined for the 10th straight year in a row. Since then, things have not gotten better.
In Turkey, longtime ruler Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently won a controversial referendum that will enable him to remain in power until the late 2020’s and back home, President Trump has made overtures towards Vladimir Putin. Elsewhere in Asia, Trump recently sent a cordial letter to Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang pledging renewed and warmer ties.
Sure, American leaders routinely do deals with bad actors. We all remember Reagan meeting with the Afghan militants who eventually became the Taliban and no one can forget Nixon’s overtures to Mao. But lately, it seems like even the “Leader of the Free World” cares less than normal about people being mistreated around the globe.
Wanting to know just how dissidents felt about today’s challenges facing the concept of democracy, I sat down with Don Le of the Viet Tan Reform Party. Founded by Vietnamese refugees in the 1980s, the U.S. based group went public in 2005 and was recently declared to be a terrorist organization by Vietnam in 2016.
Pretzer: You’re a member of the Viet Tan, how did you come to be a part of that organization?
Don Le: I worked on a lot of community work. I’m supposed to be based in the U.K. at the moment but I’m originally from Sydney, Australia. I used to do a lot of volunteer work within the Vietnamese community there and through that, I decided I wanted to focus more on this movement that was happening within Vietnam. So that’s how I found the Viet Tan.
Given that your organization was founded by people with connections to the former government of South Vietnam, which wasn’t exactly incorruptible, how do you and your colleagues appeal to members of the older generation in Vietnam?
So, just to clarify, the person [Hoàng Cơ Minh] who was elected at the first chairman of Viet Tan was a navy colonel. So, he wasn’t directly involved in the government per se, a lot of the folks who started up Viet Tan shortly after the war were students studying abroad in Japan or France during the time of the war. So, most weren’t part of the government at that time at all.
Hoàng Cơ Minh served as the first Viet Tan Chairman before being killed while trying to enter Vietnam in the 1980’s. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
You guys are a non-violent organization and you believe in change in that form as a means to transform Vietnam. Given what we’ve seen in the last few years [The rise of IS, erosion of democracy in Russia, etc.], is non-violent action really an effective way of getting things done in 2017?
We are all about non-violent struggle and we’ve worked with the folks who brought down Slobodan Milošević in the former Yugoslavia in the 90’s. I was also present during the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong. So, in terms of current day, non-violent struggle is very effective in my view. We’ve seen how mass mobilization can bring change. It is definitely hard work, the follow-up after that as well.
Viet Tan protesters gather in New Orleans – January, 2008. Image courtesy Viet Tan.
What would you say the “ideal future” Vietnam looks like for your group? Is it one where, like we’ve seen in a lot of former communist countries in Eastern Europe and, to an extent in Russia today, the Communist Party of Vietnam still has a role to play in politics?
We haven’t gotten up to that stage yet. At the moment, we know that we need to build that independent civil society. We need to be able to get that independent media occurring as well. Whether the Communist Party plays a part within Vietnamese politics in the future, that’s really up to the Vietnamese people. What we do want is for the Vietnamese people to have a choice and to have a free election.
Going back to what I mentioned earlier. We see increasingly that violent political movements seem to capture all the world’s attention. Is there anything groups like yours can learn from IS with respect to connecting to people on a global scale? Obviously, you don’t want to hurt people, but can anything be learned from their media wing?
With Viet Tan, we promote ourselves and we get exposure through the work that we do and by highlighting the various human rights violations that occur within Vietnam. So, if there’s anything to learn from IS it’s that if you commit a lot of human rights violations you’ll gain a lot of exposure. So, I don’t think they’re good communicators so much as they do things for shock value.
Given that President Trump has indicated some authoritarian impulses, how does the Viet Tan plan to forge a meaningful connection with his administration? Critics would say that he and his team aren’t as focused on human rights as many of his predecessors were.
I think it’s still very early to say in terms of working with and seeing what the Trump administration will do with respect to human rights. I can’t really say how we’ll work with them because we’re still yet to see the way that they work.
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