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Vietnam's Post-WTO Rights Record Slipping, Panel Says

Vietnam's human rights record has been backsliding since its accession into the WTO in January, a Congressional panel heard Thursday. The abuses include the arrests of monks and laymen of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom ethnic group, rights advocates say.

Since Vietnam's removal from the State Department's list of Countries of Particular Concern and its entrance into the World Trade Organization, rights abuses are worsening, a panel of democracy advocates and rights experts told Congress.

Dissidents are increasingly harassed and prevented from assembling because of their religious or political views throughout Vietnam. Some of them are jailed.

This includes members of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom, the minority ethnic group living in Vietnam's Mekong Delta region.

The Congressional Human Rights Caucus, chaired by California Representative Loretta Sanchez, heard testimony from a panel of experts, including rights advocates from Vietnam and the US.

"And we're particularly concerned about the renewed pressures—the renewed pressures—and the renewed restrictions being placed on ethnic minority Khmer Buddhists and Hmong Protestants," said Richard Land, of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Vietnam's rights abuses increased after it gained entrance into the World Trade Organization in January, the experts said.

The good faith shown by the US and other countries was a betrayal, said T. Kumar, a rights advocate for Amnesty International. Recent arrests and trials of dissidents have increased, in what Kumar said caste a gloomy future for the country.

"I hope I'm wrong, but all the examples that's coming up today, tomorrow and in the near future, I think it's extremely gloomy," Kumar said. "So what can the US do? Basically I think the US was taken for a ride by the Vietnamese authorities, behaving very well before PNTR (Permanent Normal Trade Relations) and WTO, and changing its habits, once it gets it. So I would say it's a betrayal to the US's good intentions."

Among those being persecuted are members of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom minority. The Khmer Kampuchea Krom Federation, who had North American representatives attend the hearing, wants to see Vietnam placed back on the Countries of Particular Concern, or CPC, list, in order to force greater adherence to international human rights norms.

"Because to put Vietnam back to the CPC list, that sends a signal to the government of Vietnam that what they did is not welcome by the United States and also by the world," said Tran Mannrinh, a spokesman for the group.

A return to the list would censure Vietnamese authorities and take some rights pressures off the Khmer Kampuchea Krom, who have at least 13 monks and 67 laymen currently in jail, according to the Federation, citing reports from members of the group living in Vietnam. The reports have not been independently verified.

By allowing Vietnam to trade under WTO rules and keeping the country off the list of countries of concern, the US sends a message of acceptance to Vietnam, and ultimately undermines its own reputation in the country, Tran Mannrinh said.

"They send the wrong signal," he said. "The Vietnamese government thinks that, oh, the United States or the world doesn't care about what they do, [they] just care about the economy, just care about trade, just, white people want to go there and make money."

Rumors of rights abuses of Khmer Kampuchea Krom have trickled out of Vietnam in recent months, but many times those accusations are filtered through factionalized groups who claim to support the minorities, but are also politicized.

Tran Mannrinh said the Federation did not condone politicization of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom among Cambodians.

His colleague, Chan Kosal Vong, a monk who attended the Congressional meeting in his saffron robes, put it this way: "Our Khmer Kampuchea Krom groups, even though they are many, but in total there is only one group, the Khmer Kampuchea Krom people."