The Rise of the Vietnamese American Political Consciousness Advocacy on Capitol Hill
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first wave of Vietnamese Americans arriving in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of Southern Vietnamese fled their homeland after the Communist North captured Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) on April 30, 1975. Over the next two decades, waves of political refugees breathed new life into the fabric of American society. Laws such as the Refugee Act of 1980, granted opportunities to political prisoners, children of American servicemen, and those who had belonged to or supported the South Vietnamese military and were suffering retaliation from the communist Vietnamese government (Dept. of Health and Human Services 2015).[i]
Today, the Vietnamese American population has grown to over 1.5 million strong, with the majority of the community living in some of the largest cities in the nation: San Jose, Calif., Garden Grove, Calif., Westminster, Calif., and Houston, Tex. (U.S. Census 2011).[ii] Various measures of political engagement show signs that many Vietnamese Americans are moving from their refugee status to a more politically involved constituent status. The 2008 National Survey on Asian Americans found that 60% of Vietnamese respondents were registered to vote—higher than the overall average for Asian Americans, which stands at 54% (Wong et al. 2011).[iii] Some have also run for local- or state-level elected positions. Moreover, through identity politics, Vietnamese Americans have partnered with Members of Congress (MOCs) who empathize and champion their causes on issues ranging from human rights to political freedom.
Indeed, many of the survivors and descendants of those who escaped the war have united under one common goal: to honor their cultural heritage and advocate for the interests of the Vietnamese people in the United States, Vietnam, and across the globe. Initiatives such as the annual Vietnam Advocacy Day and the Defending Freedoms Project, where MOC’s adopt a prisoner of conscience from Vietnam, have been effective vehicles to establish the Vietnamese American footprint in U.S. politics. “A growing number of Vietnamese Americans realize that being citizens of the United States is our best vantage point from which to effect democratic changes in Vietnam,” Dr. Thang Nguyen (no relation to author), executive director of Boat People SOS (BPSOS) explained. “By influencing U.S. foreign and trade policies, we may exert sufficient pressure on the Vietnamese authorities, forcing fundamental and irreversible concessions on human rights. We understand that such level of political influence can be achieved only if we, Vietnamese Americans across the country, come together, organize ourselves and act in concert.
Vietnam Human Rights Act
Human rights issues have been a focal point of Vietnamese American political activism, particularly through legislation such as the Vietnam Human Rights Act. The bill prohibits non-humanitarian aid to the government of Vietnam until the government has shown “substantial progress respecting political, media, and religious freedoms, minority rights, access to U.S. refugee programs, return of confiscated religious estates and property, and actions to end trafficking in persons and the release of political prisoners.” (“H.R. 1897” 2013).[iv] While the U.S. House of Representatives has passed the bill at least four times in the past, it has yet to pass through the Committee on Foreign Relations in the Senate (“H.R. 1897” 2013).[v] The committee chair determines whether a bill will move past the committee stage, and overall, about 11% of all bills get passed committee and onto the floor for a vote (“Bill Prognosis Analysis” 2015).[vi] The effort to gain more MOC’s to co-sponsor the bill will likely continue until the legislation passes.
United Nation’s Human Rights Council
Despite the long list of human rights violations, Vietnam has been an elected member of the United Nation’s Human Rights Council (UNHRC) since November 2013 for a three-year term (United Nations Human Rights 2015).[vii] For membership purposes, the Council considers the country’s “contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights, as well as [its] voluntary pledges and commitments” (United Nations Human Rights 2015).[viii] Although Vietnam has agreed to adopt the human rights laws suggested by the UNHRC, it has not shown significant steps towards meeting its obligations. Notably, on Human Rights Day in 2013, peaceful gatherings in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City were violently interrupted by police, citing distribution of government propaganda as the major violation (Human Rights Watch 2014).[ix] Similar civil infractions have raised concern for many Vietnamese Americans, who have significant ties to Vietnam, and have sparked their desire to advocate for changes in fundamental human rights in Vietnam.
Vietnam Advocacy Day (VNAD)
The annual Vietnam Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C. combines grassroots mobilization with political lobbying to bring Vietnamese American constituents and MOC’s together to discuss key issues facing the Vietnamese community. Under the leadership of Dr. Thang Nguyen of BPSOS and former Congressman Anh Joseph Cao, and key support from popular ethnic media Saigon Broadcasting Television Network (SBTN) on DIRECTV, Vietnamese American leaders held the first VNAD in 2012 to “promote the political empowerment of Vietnamese American communities across the United States as well as human rights and democracy for Vietnamese people in Vietnam.”[x] Since then, in addition to advocacy on Capitol Hill, VNADs occur alongside leadership and civil society conferences, White House briefings, and rallies that alternate every year.
In its founding year, 500 members of the Vietnamese American community met on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. to meet their MOC’s and brief the legislative staff on Vietnam’s deteriorating human rights record. Through ethnic media and word-of-mouth, participants were recruited from across the nation, representing between 30 and 40 states. For many, VNAD was their first time engaging on this level of the democratic process. To bridge the knowledge-gap, participants learned about the legislative process through bilingual trainings, and developed talking points to call on Congress, to ensure that the Vietnamese government improves its human rights record before expanding U.S-Vietnam relations (BPSOS 2014).[xi] Combined, participants visited between 150 and 200 congressional offices in a single day.
According to Dr. Thang Nguyen, there is a key difference between the new VNAD model and the previous efforts of the Vietnamese community to affect political change. “In the past, the Vietnamese American community focused mainly on demonstrations, rallies or petition campaigns, which defined us as “outsiders,” Dr. Nguyen said. “With VNAD, we insert ourselves into the policymaking process by educating legislators on issues of concern to us, pointing out the intersection between America’s national interests and the promotion of human rights, and offering practical recommendations on trade, security, and diplomatic policies towards Vietnam.”[xii]
March 26-27, 2012: Online Petition and White House Briefing
The first VNAD in 2012 advocated for the sponsorship and passage of the Vietnam Human Rights Act. The event was coupled with a briefing at the White House hosted by the White House Office of Public Engagement, where 200 VNAD participants met with representatives from the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and the U.S. Department of State. The event was spearheaded by grassroots advocacy through an online petition to the Obama Administration on the website Wethepeople.gov. Earlier that year, the Administration announced it would respond to any citizen-created petition that reached over 50,000 signatures in one month. On February 7, 2012, BPSOS in collaboration with SBTN launched a petition entitled, “Stop Expanding Trade at the Expense of Human Rights,” which garnered an overwhelming 150,945 signatures and set the record, at the time, for the most number of signatures since the website’s inception. The petition implores the President to condition Vietnam’s pending membership to trade agreements (such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Generalized System of Preferences which remove import and export tariffs among member-nations), “upon the immediate and unconditional release of all detained or imprisoned human rights champions. Show the world America puts freedom first” (We the People 2011).[xiii]
Michael Posner, then Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at Department of State, responded with a statement explaining the release of political prisoners and freedom of religion as “a necessary part of improving United States-Vietnam relations” (We the People 2011).[xiv] He urged Vietnam “to release all political prisoners, strengthen religious freedom, ratify and implement the Convention Against Torture, and take other steps to protect and promote universal human rights” (We the People 2011).[xv]
June 4, 2013: Roundtable Discussions and White House Briefing
After the first successful VNAD, the community leveraged this momentum to expand on the second annual VNAD. With participant attendance climbing to 800 strong thanks to the use of online platforms such as email and social media, BPSOS established committees to identify different areas of domestic concerns affecting the Vietnamese American community. These committees proposed legislative actions centered on improving accessibility of bilingual resources to recent immigrants, pushing for equal economic opportunities for Asian American women, and increasing leadership opportunities for young leaders in the community (Nguyen 2013).[xvi] Meanwhile, the community continued to press for human rights and political reform in Vietnam, demanding that Vietnam be held accountable to its human and labor trafficking laws as part of the TPP. Following the 2013 VNAD, providing much triumph and moral encouragement to VNAD participants, the House of Representatives voted to pass the Vietnam Human Rights Act in late 2014.
March 27-28, 2014: Transnational Panels
Digital technology helped bridge the geographical divide during the third VNAD, which featured panels of international human rights experts, researchers, and MOC’s at the Vietnam Civil Society Conference. Each panel featured a human rights defender from Vietnam who appeared live via videoconference. For example, panelist Nguyen Van Dai, an attorney and founder of the Committee of Human Rights was under house arrest during the conference. He was arrested in March 2007 on charges for “conducting propaganda” against the state under Vietnam’s vaguely worded Article 88 of the Penal Code (Human Rights Watch 2007).[xvii] During the panel, Nguyen shared his views on the current state of pro-democracy activists and bloggers in Vietnam and gave powerful testimony about the unethical treatment he received during his detainment.
Defending Freedoms Project: Members of Congress Adopt Prisoners of Conscience
According to several international human rights organizations such as U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom and Amnesty International, Vietnam has systematically violated basic human rights, particularly freedom of speech, freedom of association and assembly, and freedom of the press (Human Rights Watch 2013).[xviii] In 2013, the U.S. State Department described Vietnam’s human rights record as “poor” and listed significant problems with the government’s restrictions on its citizen’s political rights (U.S. Dept. of State 2013).[xix] In recent years, dozens of vocal activists have disappeared, been wrongfully jailed, or placed under house arrest with continuous harassment from local authorities. These citizen activists have been considered “prisoners of conscience,” defined as “any person who is physically restrained (by imprisonment or otherwise) from expressing (in any form of words or symbols) any opinion which he honestly holds and which does not advocate or condone personal violence.” (Benenson 2015).[xx]
Since December 2012, MOC’s have adopted prisoners of conscience from around the world to advocate for more humane treatment, a reduced sentence, or a full release. Through the Defending Freedoms Project, MOC’s can elevate a prisoner’s profile by giving one-minute speeches on the House floor, pressing the Department of State and the White House to prioritize the prisoner’s case, holding hearings for relevant legislation, or ensuring that delegations traveling to Vietnam raise concerns about the prisoners (Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission 2015).[xxi] As of November 2014, MOC’s have adopted 13 Vietnamese prisoners, more than one-third of all adopted prisoners in the Defending Freedoms Project—and the most of any country (Ho 2015).[xxii]
Following the March 2014 VNAD, MOC’s adopted six more prisoners of conscience from Vietnam. Amongst them was the case of Pastor Duong Kim Khai. After an impactful meeting with Vietnamese American constituents, Representative Ted Poe (R-TX) adopted Pastor Duong, who has been detained thirteen times since the 1990s for organizing prayer sessions without government permission to worship. Congressman Poe delivered speeches on the House floor about Pastor Duong’s plight: “If [Pastor Duong] is guilty of anything, it is of living to serve others and stand up to an oppressive government,” Poe said. “Freedom to worship is a human right, and the Vietnamese government should immediately release him. Furthermore, I call on the State Department to finally recognize Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern.” (Congressional Record 2014).[xxiii]
June 15-16, 2014: Maritime Sovereignty Disputes in the South China Sea
In recent years, Vietnam has experienced increased tension with its northern neighbor, China, regarding the sovereignty and control of several small islands in the South China Sea that are rich in natural gas and serve as major global trade routes. (Council on Foreign Relations 2013).[xxiv] The dispute over Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands escalated in 2014, when fishermen from both countries claimed sovereignty over the islands. Vietnamese American advocates gathered on Capitol Hill for a two-day event for the Vietnam Freedom and Democracy Day to bring this issue to the attention of Members of Congress and the public (“Vietnam Advocacy Day” 2014).[xxv] The itinerary consisted of meetings with individual Congressmen and requesting assistance from the U.S. government to peacefully resolve this land dispute while promoting the passage of Senate Resolution 412. Sponsored by Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the resolution calls for China to withdraw a strategically placed drilling rig in the disputed waters (“S.Res.412” 2014).[xxvi]
After bringing this issue to the attention of MOCs, Senate Resolution 412 was unanimously passed on July 10, 2014. In December 2014, the U.S. State Department published its own study examining the maritime claims in the South China Sea, specifically questioning the validity of China’s nine-dash line (U.S. Dept. of State 2014).[xxvii] China responded by dismissing the study’s conclusions (Parameswaran 2014).[xxviii] This dispute remains ongoing and will continue to be part of the discussion at future VNADs.
After just three years of advocacy, the Vietnamese American community has furthered its political footprint. Representatives Frank Wolf (R-VA), Chris Smith (R-NJ), Ed Royce (R-CA), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Loretta Sanchez (D-CA), Jim Moran (D-VA), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Gerald Connolly (D-VA), Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) and Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Ben Cardin (D-MD), John Cornyn (R-TX), are just a few of the Congressional leaders who have co-sponsored the Vietnam Human Rights Act and its related legislation over the past congressional terms.
Moreover, several Vietnamese prisoners of conscience have been released within the past year. In April 2014, the Vietnamese government released legal scholar Dr. Cu Huy Ha Vu and bloggers Nguyen Tien Trung and Vi Duc Hoi within a week after the March 2014 VNAD (Nguyen 2014)[xxix]. Later, in October 2014, blogger Nguyen Van Hai, better known by his pen-name “Dieu Cay,” was released. Many of these bloggers were charged under Vietnam’s ambiguous Article 88 of the Penal Code for “conducting propaganda” against the state (Amnesty International 2014).[xxx] Both Dr. Vu and blogger Dieu Cay were both immediately put on a plane to the United States following their release (Amnesty International 2014).[xxxi] Additionally, bloggers Nguyen Tien Trung and Vi Duc Hoi were freed from house arrest. “It was due to international pressure that the government of Vietnam had to release me,” Vi Duc Hoi said (Nguyen 2014).[xxxii] International organizations contributing to Vi’s release by elevating his profile included Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the U.S. Department of State, and a number of private law firms who performed pro bono work to file petitions to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. Despite these releases, “there are still hundreds more political prisoners languishing in Vietnam’s prisons, so there is a very long way to go before we can say that Vietnam is making any sort of appreciable progress on human rights” (Nguyen 2014).[xxxiii]
To continue the dialogue with congressional offices after VNAD, participants tapped into their networks to raise funds and sponsor a full-time congressional staffer dedicated to advancing the issues of the Vietnamese American community. Based in Congressman Frank Wolf’s office, the staffer acts as a liaison to the MOC’s who have adopted prisoners of conscience through the Defending Freedoms Project (Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission 2014).[xxxiv]
Furthermore, another successful outcome of VNAD was the establishment of VietAction. Comprised of 1.5 and 2nd generation Vietnamese Americans who met at previous VNADs, this self-organized youth group is dedicated to advocating for the political, economic, and social empowerment of Vietnamese communities domestically and abroad.
Over the last 40 years, the Vietnamese American diaspora has gradually changed its status from refugees to politically active constituents. This is evident in the recent number of Vietnamese Americans running for elected office, whether on the local, state, or national level. For example, Bao Nguyen (no relation to author) became the first Vietnamese American mayor (Garden Grove, CA) while Janet Nguyen became the first Vietnamese American state senator (CA). Additionally, Hubert Vo was the first and only Vietnamese American to be elected to the Texas legislature thus far, though there have been other Vietnamese American candidates in the race. There has not been another Vietnamese American in Congress since Rep. Anh Joseph Cao; yet, the community’s desire to participate in the U.S. legislative process through organized advocacy has grown exponentially. The annual Vietnam Advocacy Day has played a significant role in developing community leaders and setting an advocacy platform for the Vietnamese American community. Major milestones, such as the passage of the Vietnam Human Rights Act in the House and the adoption of several Vietnamese prisoners of conscience by Members of Congress, are results derived from the teamwork and dedication of community leaders.
In remembrance of the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War 40 years ago, VNAD 2015, entitled “Our Journey to Freedom,” will include advocacy meetings with MOC’s and a celebration at the John F. Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts to pay tribute to American veterans and veterans of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam who served together during the Vietnam War. The organizers expect a strong turnout from the Vietnamese American community as a symbol of their appreciation to the United States for accepting and nurturing thousands of Vietnamese refugees.
As the Vietnamese American community evolves, so may the issues and concerns of the constituents. However, the framework for grassroots mobilization and political advocacy has been built and tested. Through the VNAD model, “Vietnamese American communities from coast to coast will be well empowered, organized and equipped to assert our political influence by 2016, an election year,” Dr. Thang Nguyen said. “That way, we will help to consolidate democracy in America in the process of promoting democracy for Vietnam.”[xxxv]
Further information on the mission and goals of Vietnam Advocacy Day can be found at Coalition for a Free and Democratic Vietnam (http://www.cfdvn.org/).
Cindy M. Dinh is a second-year law student at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law and in a joint JD/Master in Public Administration degree program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She is interested in voting rights and access to healthcare, especially among immigrant populations and those with limited English proficiency. Since 2009, she has organized legislative advocacy visits for religious clerics and community leaders to discuss the Vietnam Human Rights Act with Members of Congress and was the youngest and only female panelist at a White House Briefing on Vietnamese American issues in March 2012. Prior to law school, she was an editor of the Asian American Policy Review at the Harvard Kennedy School, volunteered for six years as a teacher at Trường Việt Ngữ Hùng Vương, served on the Board of the Houston chapter of OCA (a national Asian American social justice organization), and successfully petitioned and reinstated an Asian American Studies course at Rice University, which had not been offered in over 10 years. Ms. Dinh is also the co-inventor of the DoseRight Syringe Clip (www.DoseRight.com), which was recognized at the Clinton Global Initiative University at UC San Diego.
Bao Nguyen is a fourth-year PhD. candidate at the University of Maryland studying bioengineering and is financially supported by the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP). For her thesis, Ms. Nguyen is developing bone tissue engineering strategies for regenerative applications. She is also an involved advocate in her local Vietnamese American community in the Washington, D.C. Metro area, organizing the annual Vietnamese American Youth Leadership Conference (VAYLC) since 2009, and participating in Vietnam Advocacy Day 2013 and 2014 as part of the youth voice. She is greatly motivated by the sacrifices made by Vietnamese immigrants who have found a supportive and accepting home in the United States after fleeing Vietnam. She hopes that with increased awareness and involvement, youth advocates can continue to make a difference in local and national decisions affecting the Vietnamese community in the United States and abroad. After graduating, Ms. Nguyen intends to contribute to federal policy making by combining her interest in science and public policy.