On Monday, August 23, US Vice President Kamala Harris started her diplomatic trip to Southeast Asia on a colourful note thanks to a bouquet of hybrid orchids presented as a gift from Singaporean dignitaries.
The new variety of purple flowers was even named after the vice president, who is visiting the region as the third and now highest-profile member of the Biden administration. But despite this light-hearted beginning, Harris’s trip, which took her first to Singapore on Sunday before her two-day trip to Vietnam starting today, carries significant geopolitical weight in a region battered in recent years by government attacks on freedom of expression, crackdowns on independent media and increasing intolerance for political dissent.
Harris’ visit, according to the White House, is intended to “strengthen relationships and expand economic cooperation” in the region. In meetings with Vietnamese and Singaporean authorities, Harris will address climate change, business, trade and the South China Sea conflict. Following on the heels of a July trip by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, her presence this week is widely seen as part of the Biden administration’s reinvigorated effort to build strong alliances in Asia that might aid the US positioning vis-à-vis the Chinese government.
But the administration must not overlook human rights in its efforts to strengthen partnerships with regional allies. Rights violations committed by the Chinese government, such as Hong Kong’s draconian National Security Law, which has had a devastating impact on freedom of expression, draw quick rebuke from the US. However, governments across Southeast Asia garner less attention as they increasingly embrace similar tactics of suppression, weaponising ‘security’ to eliminate dissent and target activists.
From her first stop in Singapore, where authorities have used a so-called “fake news” law to target and silence political opposition, Harris travels today to Vietnam, where crackdowns on free expression were recently on display with the May sentencing of mother-and-son land rights activists Trinh Ba Tu and Can Thi Theu to eight years’ imprisonment for peaceful protest.
The trip to Hanoi will present Harris with opportunities to raise critical regional threats facing activists, journalists and human rights defenders with an influential ASEAN member state at a time when freedoms and protections for civilians are under threat across the region.
Vietnam is a good place to start. As of December 2020, at least 173 known prisoners of conscience were imprisoned in Vietnam, including 72 who were held for posts they had made online. In efforts to quell dissent and silence activities, the Vietnamese authorities have used Article 331 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe the interests of the State” and carries penalties of up to seven years’ imprisonment.
Officials have also made use of Article 117, which criminalises “making, storing or spreading information, materials or items for the purpose of opposing the State of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam” and carries a sentence of up to 20 years’ imprisonment.
The government has used these laws to target land rights advocates such as Can Thi Theu, who became an activist after authorities confiscated her land in 2010 and who was arrested with her two sons and charged under Article 17 earlier this year. She and one son have since received eight-year prison sentences, to be followed by three years of parole.
Human rights defender Nguyen Thuy Hanh was also charged under Article 17 in a politically motivated attempt to silence her advocacy, including her work on behalf of unjustly detained prisoners.
Amnesty has decried these arrests. With an open letter to Harris published last week, it is now urging the vice president to call on the Vietnamese authorities to release all those unjustly imprisoned in Vietnamese jails, including the activists mentioned here, and to end its relentless attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful critics.
Amnesty is also urging Harris to raise cross-border rights issues, as Vietnam’s continued trade of illicit timber from Cambodia enables human rights violations perpetrated against that latter country’s indigenous peoples. Given the ongoing US trade representative’s Section 301 investigation into Vietnam’s import and use of illegal timber, the vice president will be well-positioned to press Vietnamese authorities for guarantees that no timber linked to violations of indigenous peoples’ rights can be imported.
The Biden administration should seize the opportunity to advocate for the government to demonstrate human rights leadership by addressing repressive laws and practices within its borders
Increasing government encroachment on human rights is evident beyond Vietnam and, looking across the region, there are many other situations calling for a rights-based foreign policy.
In Thailand, the government is deploying excessive and indiscriminate force against peaceful protests, arresting demonstrators and imprisoning children, who they have saddled with criminal proceedings under repressive laws. And just days after last week’s resignation of Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who lost public confidence after his poor handling of the pandemic, Malaysian authorities arrested 31 people for holding a candlelight vigil in honor of those who had died of Covid-19.
Over in Myanmar, the human rights situation has rapidly plummeted since the February 1 military coup. Among the many rights violations after the military takeover stands a “bitter reversal” in press freedom, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, pushing a crisis-wracked Myanmar to become “one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists”.
In the midst of all this, the Vietnamese government, which currently holds a seat on the UN Security Council, wields influence among ASEAN member states. The Biden administration should seize the opportunity to advocate for the government to demonstrate human rights leadership by addressing repressive laws and practices within its borders and pushing neighbours to do the same.
The administration’s engagement with Southeast Asia can deliver benefits and strategic opportunities both to the region and to the US. But these alliances must be built on a respect for human rights and a commitment to upholding international human rights norms.
Vice President Harris should engage with the Vietnamese government both to address and remedy violations and to urge for course correction on regional human rights backsliding.
Carolyn Nash is the Asia Advocacy Director for Amnesty International USA