Thứ Sáu, 5 tháng 12, 2014

The Vietnamese Women For Human Rights (VWFHR) organization celebrated the first anniversary of its founding at Ky Dong Redemptorist Church in Saigon on the morning of November 25, 2014.

Many representatives from civil societies and religious organizations came to celebrate with us. They included Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, Venerable Thich Khong Tanh, Venerable Thich Thien Minh, Pastor Huynh Thuc Khai, Pastor Nguyen Hoang Hoa, Pastor Nguyen Manh Hung, Mr. Pham Ba Hai, M.S., Mr. Pham Chi Dung, Ph.D.,  reporter Truong Minh Duc, and several other members of the Hoa Hao Buddhist Faith from the Southern provinces. Their presence was a great honor and joy for all of us at the VWFHR.

VWFHR members and invited guests also attended the celebration. They came from all three regions of the country. Some of the female guests were very dear to us. Among them were the sister of Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh who came from Gia Lai province, Ms. Tran Thi Thu, the mother of Mr. Do Van Binh (a young man who was beaten to death by Hoa An Public Security Forces early in 2014) who came from Quang Nam province; and Ms. Le Thi Kim Thu, an Unjustly Dispossessed Home and Land Owner who came from Dong Nai province.

This celebration gave us and the members of other Vietnamese civil society organizations an opportunity to share our experience in the struggle for democracy and human rights. It also give us a venue to start discussing and drafting plans of  actions for 2015.
We were very happy to hear encouraging words from Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, Venerable Thich Khong Tanh, Venerable Thich Thien Minh, Pastor Huynh Thuc Khai and Mr. Nguyen Van Soc (who represented the Hoa Hao Buddhist Faith).

On this occasion, we would like to share with you a brief review of the VWFHR’s journey in 2014.

Vietnamese Women For Human Rights: Looking Back After One Year
November 25 is the date the United Nations chose to be the International Day Against Violence Against Women. On exactly that day in 2013, a new civil society organization came into being in Vietnam: Vietnamese Women for Human Rights. While November 25, 2013 could be just another day for most people, it was a very special day for us, the women human rights activists who gathered and cooperated to establish this organization.
Dear honored guests, although in the beginning we had some difficulties regarding our leadership team, financial resources, and organizational skills – difficulties that were compounded by the relentless harassments from the government – starting on that day in November, we were and still are extremely proud to be the first organization of women, by women, and for women in Vietnam that have as guiding principle the defense of  human rights and human dignity.

We live in a dictatorship where a genuine civil society doesn’t exist. We live in a society where the law is nothing but a tool for the rulers to do as they please. We live in a country where a set of figure 8 handcuffs is forever ready to be slapped on the wrists of dissidents. Where we live, we were never taught about civil society organizations. We didn’t have any experience with an open environment where free men and women cooperate and work together freely and voluntarily. We were just female dissidents, female bloggers and the wives or daughters of prisoners of conscience. We were totally unequipped in terms of knowledge and experience to come together in an civil society organization dedicated to defending human rights. 

But we do have one advantage. We have what those who oppressed us, our family and the people we love and care about, don’t have and will never have: a deep and abiding love and compassion for those whose dignity and freedom are being trampled upon, for those who are downtrodden, for those who are the most vulnerable members of our society, and especially for those who were or still are the prisoners of conscience and their family.
A year is a long enough time for an experienced civil society organization to achieve observable results. But a year is just too short a time for a newly established organization such as ours to show significant results and make its mark. This is especially true in the context of Vietnam, where the government is doing all it can to suppress the emergence of a civil society. All over Vietnam one can hear the cries of the weak being trampled upon. All over Vietnam there are countless people suffering from unjust court verdicts. And wherever you go in Vietnam, you can witness the tragic and sad situation of women and children who don’t have enough to eat and must go hungry days after days. If truth be told, we felt so powerless and ashamed in the year past because we just couldn’t do as much for our compatriots as we would like.

Believers in the Hoa Hao Buddhist Faith  live in all six Southern provinces. Regardless of where they live, the government routinely do everything it can to suppress their religious freedom. It doesn’t allow these believers to perform the most basic rite of their religion, which is to hold an annual service to commemorate the passing of the founder of their faith. It sentenced many of the Hoa Hao believers to harsh prison terms because they non-violently and courageously opposed the dictatorial regime that prevent them and their family to practice their religion freely. Many of these believers have been in jail for decades with no trials or court sentences. Worse, when they were released, some of them didn’t even have a piece of paper that say they were released from prison just like any other prisoner. We met with some of these believers, just with some. There are so many of them out there enduring beatings and repressions and yet no one including us  knows anything about them. We visited the family of Mrs. Nguyen Thi Thu who burned herself to death in 2001, the family of Mr. Ut Hoa Lac, a devout lay practitioner of the Hoa Hao Buddhist Faith who burned  himself to death in 2005, and about ten other families. But there are still so many people to visit and comfort…

We followed right from the beginning the trial for “disturbing the public peace” of two Unjustly Dispossessed Home and Land Owners from Can Tho province, Mrs. Nguyen Thi Tuyen and Mrs. Nguyen Thi Anh Nguyet. We stood by them and their families through the darkest days of their lives. We met and shared what we could with Unjustly Dispossessed Home and Land Owners from Duong Noi district and similar people from all three regions of the country. As we don’t have much to offer, we could only share with them a very modest meal and a glass of water during the long days and months when they marched and submitted petitions requesting that the government return the lands and homes it took away from them.

We made our way to the remote villages and hamlets hidden deep in the hollows of the mountains around Phu Yen province to visit the Bia Son Mountain Buddhist Congregation. This congregation is one of the most severely persecuted religious group we ever came across. The government arrested and harshly handed out prison sentences averaging more than 10 years to more than twenty members of the congregation. The government sent the congregation spiritual leader, Mr. Phan Van Thu, to prison for life. The government also confiscated all the funds the congregation had raised, took over the thriving Da Bia Mountain Eco-Tourism Park that the congregation spent years developing and building up through back breaking work. The government carted away all the Buddhist sutras and texts – including sermons and commentaries on Buddhism that Mr. Phan Van Thu wrote to teach Buddhism to the congregation. The injustice and the pains the government heaped upon the congregation are immense and reached the high heavens. We wrote a report on the situation of the Bia Son Buddhist Congregation and submitted it to Mrs. Katherine Lawson, the official in charge of religious affairs for the US Department of State when she visited Vietnam. To better understand the situation, we also visited Mrs. Vo Thi Thanh Thuy, the wife of Mr. Phan Van Thu at her home.  But for now, these are the only things we could do.
We visited the wife and the young children of pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh. He was  arrested recently and sentenced to 11 years in prison. For years, Pastor Chinh endured severe repression by the government as he tirelessly defended the human rights and the religious freedom of many Protestant communities. Most of these communities are at-home Protestant communities, as they don’t have church to worship in. Of these at-home Protestant communities, the ones Pastor Chinh particularly cared for are those of the ethnic minorities in the remote mountains of the Highland provinces of Gia Lai and Kontum, probably because they are also among the most repressed one. For example, they can’t enjoy even the simplest of Christmas celebrations, although such celebrations are taken for granted by members of Kinh majority in the cities. Or, members of these communities are followed, chased away, beaten, arrested and jailed as the media and public opinion are kept in the dark about their fate.

We visited and brought gifts to the family of Mr. Ro Cham Hm Rek, a Protestant preacher. He was kidnapped and jailed for nine long years without any contacts with his family. When released, he was half-paralyzed and could no longer speak. Before his arrest, was a fluent speaker of his native dialect and also Vietnamese.  We wish we could have done more for him. But that is all we could do for him for now.

Human rights are universally recognized as fundamental human values. Yet, in too many places on earth thuman rights are still not recognized. In these places, all too often denunciations, truncheons and prison terms still target those who dare to exercise or defend these rights.  Even as humanity has progressed to the point where it can now venture into space to explore faraway planets and the entire universe, there will still be those who will use any means to crush others. As long as there are people suffering and groaning under the boots for their rulers, or the destructions caused by rebel groups, or the cruelty of family clans, civil society organizations that defend human rights will have to press on with their long and dangerous mission. We the women of Vietnamese Women for Human Rights hope that our organization will to be able to lend a hand in this global mission.

The road toward democracy and a civil society in Vietnam is long and arduous. Our organization has only just begun. We are still taking baby steps. We are still learning and growing. We hope that our Vietnamese friends from overseas and in our local communities here at home will trust us and support us with their goodwill.

A difficult year has gone by. Given that government now prefers to use violence and repression when dealing with members of Vietnamese civil society organizations, we don’t want to make any predictions regarding the safety of the members of our organization, and especially the safety of those on our executive committee. All we can do is hope for the best and above all, continue with our efforts. We will never stop loving, defending and helping those who are the most vulnerable members of Vietnamese society, especially the women and the female activists.

 For the Executive Committee of Vietnamese Women for Human Rights