Doan Viet Hoat, journalist, poet and academic, has spent 20 of the past 22 years in prison. His "crimes" include being "a lackey of American imperialism", setting up a reactionary organisation and publishing anti-Communist propaganda - all euphemisms for exercising his right to free expression. Following a concerted international campaign, Professor Hoat, 58, was released from prison on 29 August 1998 and deported. He now lives in the United States with his wife and children, continues to call for greater freedoms in Vietnam from exile and is actively seeking to return to his home country.
Press Freedom: "The Enemy of Corruption"
By Doan Viet Hoat, Vietnam
Just a few months ago I was approaching my twenty-first year of a prison sentence. My crime was to have advocated freedom and respect of human rights in Vietnam.
The Communist government of Vietnam that jailed me has never accepted the term "political prisoner", let alone "prisoner of conscience". For the Communist government of Vietnam, like all other totalitarian regimes, we are only "law violators" or "delinquents".
Ten years ago this government rejected the mere existence of human rights issues in Vietnam. Nowadays, caught up in a socio-economic crisis and under pressure from the international community, the Communist government has to accept dialogue and even reach an agreement over these same issues.
The release of some prominent religious leaders and political prisoners in September 1998 was a positive event welcomed by many governments and all human rights organizations. But three issues should not be forgotten.
Firstly, it is clear that world-wide intervention freed those prisoners, including myself, last year. I, and some others, are proof that international pressure on Vietnam works, and this pressure should continue to be applied on all other unsolved human rights issues in my country.
Secondly, there are still hundreds of oppressed political and religious dissidents in Vietnam who are either imprisoned or harassed. Most of them are unknown to the world. The prisoners suffer miserable conditions, are humiliated and forced into labour. Many are kept under house arrest or administrative detention. Countless others still suffer from police harassment, infringement of privacy, violation of fundamental human rights, disregard and contempt of human dignity - barbarous acts committed by the government and police officials - every day and everywhere around the country.
Thirdly, I am aware that all those who are working for freedom and respect of human rights in Vietnam are appalled by this Vietnamese government that refuses to acknowledge the existence of political prisoners. Under the pretext of law enforcement and the preservation of social order and stability, the Communist government of Vietnam continues to suppress dissidents in various ways. Take for example the Administrative Detention Decree 31/CP, effective since April 1997, which allows government officials even at village levels to place anyone considered "detrimental to national security" under custody for six months to two years without trial. They may be placed under house-arrest or forced to move to an assigned location to be re-educated. This Decree not only violates universal standards of human rights and human dignity, but also makes a mockery of all efforts to struggle for a free and democratic Vietnam.
All of which points to the need for a closer look at the human rights situation in Vietnam. I strongly believe that the recent release of some well-known political prisoners marked the first, and not the last, successful step towards liberalization and democratization in Vietnam. I think that my country is now ripe for an evolution from dictatorship to democracy, as it was ripe for the transformation from monopoly economy to a free market economy ten years ago.
In the beginning of the 1990s Vietnam was on the verge of social and economic collapse. The acceptance of a free market economy gave its people a new opportunity for survival. However, totalitarianism in politics and culture again jeopardized the stable and speedy economic development that the weary Vietnamese so much needed. With the GDP presently set at about $US340 after ten years of economic renovation, prospects for a developed Vietnam are still dim. I believe that economic development cannot be carried out successfully without a parallelled existence of a free civil society. Transparency and openness are sine qua non conditions of efficiency and progress in all aspects of social activities. They are enemies of corruption and power abuse too.
And yet, transparency and openness cannot come about without freedom of the press and freedom of expression. These freedoms are the first step toward democratization.
In my country today the Communist Party keeps a firm grip on all aspects of social life. The Communist leaders still affirm that they have a historic right and duty to "direct" their people. I believe that no one, however wise and powerful, has the right to tell others what they should or should not believe. This conviction, of freedom of belief, lays the very foundation of human civilization.
I continue my struggle for a free, democratic Vietnam where people will have the right to master their own lives and the life of their country, and shall continue to work for the realization of the four following concrete objectives:
I call upon the international community to support the Vietnamese people's struggle for freedom and democracy in Vietnam. I strongly believe that with international support our campaign for a democratic and prosperous Vietnam will become a reality in the near future.