Washington state's Vietnamese community will be watching closely as President Obama embarks on his first trip to Vietnam, a country known for brutal crackdowns of its critics.

Share story

PRESIDENT Obama’s visit to Vietnam this month is an opportunity to remind that authoritarian nation’s leaders of their obligations to respect basic human rights.

A good number of Washington’s nearly 70,000 ethnic Vietnamese residents will be following the trip. Many of them fled communist rule themselves and remain concerned about the welfare of their loved ones in the homeland.

A recent crackdown on peaceful critics of Vietnam’s one-party government casts doubt on the country’s ability to adhere to the promises it made as one of 12 signatories to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

To be included in that international trade agreement last year, Vietnam agreed for the first time to allow the formation of labor unions and to follow higher environmental-conservation standards. Such promises supposedly marked the beginning of a new era of transparency and civil discourse.

For part of 2015, Vietnam reported a decline in arrests and prosecutions of political dissidents.

But the numbers have suddenly crept up. As of last December, the U.S. State Department estimated that the government was still holding 95 political prisoners. On its Vietnam webpage, Human Rights Watch warns the country’s record “remains dire in all areas.” Those who dare to question state media or discuss civil rights in the open are subject to intimidation and assault.

In the last week of March alone, Vietnam courts convicted seven bloggers and activists.

Blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh and his editorial assistant, Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, were sentenced to five and three years in prison, respectively, for “abusing democratic freedoms” by simply posting critical views of the government on their popular website.

Last December, lawyer Nguyen Van Dai was removed from his Hanoi home after teaching human-rights workshops. His family has not been allowed to visit him or get him an attorney.

Other activists have been beaten up by police and subject to arbitrary detention. More than a dozen others have died while in custody.

Before Vietnam and the U.S. get too chummy over trade deals and a mutual desire to contain China’s rise, they must first confront Vietnam’s systemic oppression against its own people.

At every stop, President Obama should not let his hosts forget that the international community is watching and waiting for real reforms.