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Trump, Refugees, and Humanitarianism

January 27, 2017

Vietnamese refugee couple gets married at Camp Pendleton refugee camp. National Archives and Records Administration: Record Group 330: Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1921 – 2008, 5/1/75

Since the end of World War II, U.S. presidents from both major political parties have temporarily modified immigration laws to allow refugees fleeing humanitarian crises entry into the country. In 1956, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower increased the number of visas available to Hungarian refugees fleeing Soviet persecution. Standing at the base of the Statue of Liberty in October 1965, Democrat Lyndon Johnson declared that U.S. authorities would admit any Cuban who reached American shores seeking asylum from the Castro regime. Republican Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter both signed legislation to admit Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees fleeing postwar troubles in Indochina and residual conflicts following the Vietnam War. In all these cases, the presidents invoked America’s humanitarian impulse, arguing that the willingness to take in exiles who had escaped political persecution, war, famine, or other humanitarian crises was part of the American spirit.

Yesterday the Department of Homeland Security halted staff interviews with refugees in anticipation of Donald Trump’s signing of an executive order banning refugees from entry into the U.S. and suspending visas for Syrians and citizens of other Middle Eastern and North African countries. Trump’s approach to refugees departs from the bipartisan consensus that had preceded him regarding humanitarianism and refugees. It is an example of why the Trump ascendancy is such a jarring moment. It’s not because we’re transitioning from one political party’s control of the presidency to another’s. It’s because we are watching a shift away from the worldview that Republican and Democratic presidents generally have shared for the past seventy years.

Trump has argued that refugees from the Middle East pose a national security threat because they come from a largely Muslim region. During the Cold War, Hungarian, Cuban, and Indochinese refugees fled to the U.S. from Communist countries at a time when Americans viewed Communism as the primary global threat. American citizens have not always supported refugee assistance legislation. In 1975, some Americans opposed the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees because they worried about competition for jobs and did not want the reminder of a shocking war. Racism was just below the surface of some of the opposition. Yet President Ford implored Americans to have compassion for Vietnamese refugees and support resettlement efforts. The U.S. had “always been a humanitarian nation,” Ford asserted during a press conference regarding Vietnamese refugees. Taking them in was “a step consistent with our tradition of providing refuge for the homeless, and help for the helpless,” Ford declared.[1]

None of Trump’s predecessors acted solely out of altruism when responding to refugee crises. Politics and international relations influenced their policymaking. But by appealing to the notion that helping those in need is part of the American character, presidents such as Ford and others offered a moral standard that Americans could look to even if actions or policies did not always live up to it. Confucius argued that virtue is the most important characteristic in a leader, and that the best leaders inspire their subjects to strive for higher standards of behavior. Donald Trump’s callous response to the current refugee crisis suggests that he is not interested in this kind of leadership.

[1] Heather Stur, “Hiding Behind the Humanitarian Label: Refugees, Repatriates, and the Rebuilding of America’s Benevolent Image After the Vietnam War,” Diplomatic History, Vol. 39, No. 2, April 2015, pp. 223-244.



September 29, 2014

HO CHI MINH CITY – On the afternoon of Sunday, May 25, Tran Thi Nga was on a motorbike in Hanoi with her two young children, heading home after visiting with blogger and human rights activist Nguyen Tuong Thuy. Along the way, a group of five men attacked the bike and beat Nga with metal pipes as her children, ages four and two, watched. She sustained injuries to her wrist and knee and was eventually taken by ambulance to a hospital. Very quickly, Vietnamese bloggers and human rights activists picked up Nga’s story and began telling it on websites and social media outlets, many of which are blocked here. Nga is not an ordinary citizen who became the victim of a crime. She is a member of Vietnamese Women for Human Rights and is an activist for land rights and religious freedom in Vietnam. Her attackers, according to the bloggers, were undercover police agents trying to scare her into silence.

Three days after pipe-wielding thugs attacked Nga, an online petition to the White House calling for sanctions against China for its confrontation with Vietnam in the South China Sea had received nearly 130,000 signatures. The number is well over the 100,000 needed by June 12 to get an official response. Here is how the White House should respond: The United States will not take sides in disputes between Vietnam and China until the Vietnamese government makes clear progress toward improving its nation’s human rights record. According to Human Rights Watch and the U.S. State Department, as well as Buddhist groups and bloggers who monitor Vietnamese politics, the Vietnamese government severely limits political rights such as freedom of speech and assembly. Some Vietnamese human rights activists would argue those rights do not even exist, although the Vietnamese government surprised observers last month when it allowed citizens to peacefully assemble in protest of Chinese actions in the South China Sea. Vietnam’s corrupt police and judicial system are central to the government’s suppression of civil liberties. Punishments for those who are arrested include beating, torture, and disappearance. The State Department’s 2013 report on human rights in Vietnam provides evidence of the extent of the abuses. Hanoi blogger Nguyen Van Dung was disappeared in 2013. Blogger Le Anh Hung, guilty of writing about government corruption, was placed in a mental institution by police officers against his will for two weeks at the end of January 2013. In May 2013, police seized the computer and cell phone of blogger Nguyen Hoang Vi and beat her, her sister, and her mother. The whereabouts of Buddhist monk Thich Tri Khai of the dissident Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, arrested in 2008, and Le Tri Tue of the Independent Workers Union, arrested in 2007, remain unknown. And that’s information gleaned from just the first three pages of the 46-page report. It also details the poor conditions of prisons, corruption at various levels of government, discrimination against women and minorities, and the harassment and arrests of land rights activists who have protested the government’s practice of confiscating land and forcing citizens to move to make way for infrastructure projects and state-owned enterprises. Vietnam’s human rights abuses are well-documented.

Some Vietnamese human rights activists have used Chinese actions in the South China Sea to push for political reform. On May 12, Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam leader Thich Quang Do, who has been under house arrest for twenty years, issued a declaration calling on the Vietnamese government to institute democratic reforms so that “all Vietnamese, including non-communist political parties and religious communities, may take part on an equal footing in the movement to stem foreign aggression and protect national integrity.” Tran Thi Nga participated in anti-China protests, seeing Chinese expansion as another threat to the freedom and human rights of Vietnamese citizens. The rhetoric of Vietnamese government officials and some protesters has cast China as a bully who is encroaching upon the freedoms of peace-loving Vietnam. The same could be said about the relationship between the Vietnamese government and its citizens. Plainclothes police brutes beat up a woman in front of her kids because she is a democracy activist, and Nga’s experience was not the first of its kind. China is a physical giant throwing its weight around international waters, but Vietnam’s practice of dispatching police to abuse citizens is domestic violence.

The U.S. should use the South China Sea tensions to take a stand against human rights violations in Vietnam. If Vietnam wants the U.S. to come to its defense, then the Vietnamese government must prove that it is better than its Chinese counterpart on the issue of human rights. Some activists here say the government is afraid of a “Vietnamese spring” if gives its citizens a taste of free speech and the right to assemble. Perhaps one will erupt, but the possibility does not justify Vietnam’s continued suppression of its citizens’ civil liberties. The U.S. has an unsavory history of backing authoritarian regimes when doing so seemed to be in its geopolitical interests, but here is a chance to buck that trend. There was a time when the U.S. sent troops to Vietnam under the pretense of democracy building. Perhaps withholding support until the Vietnamese government loosens its grip on citizens’ freedoms might be a more successful way to promote democracy.


September 29, 2014

HO CHI MINH CITY – As the early morning sky began to brighten over Ho Chi Minh City on Friday, May 23, 67-year-old Le Thi Tuyet Mai got out of a taxi at Independence Palace in front of the main gate, poured gasoline on her body, and set herself on fire. Vietnamese newspapers reported that palace guards rushed to put out the fire, but the woman died before they extinguished the flames. She had brought signs protesting China’s recent deployment of an oil rig to contested waters in the South China Sea, and, according to state-run media, her suicide was the latest expression of Vietnamese anger over Chinese belligerence. That is the official story.

The unofficial story, the one told in street side cafes and private conversations here, is that Ms. Mai’s self-immolation, the first reported in Vietnam since Thich Quang Duc burned himself in 1963 to protest the Ngo Dinh Diem regime, was a statement against China and the Vietnamese government. Ms. Mai was the director of the youth committee of the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), a dissident sect that has clashed with the Vietnamese government and whose leader, Thich Quang Do, has been under house arrest for twenty years. On May 12, Thich Quang Do issued a declaration calling on the Vietnamese government to institute democratic reforms so that “all Vietnamese, including non-communist political parties and religious communities, may take part on an equal footing in the movement to stem foreign aggression and protect national integrity.” Earlier this month, police in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi unexpectedly allowed citizens to take to the streets in protest of the Chinese ship Haiyang 981 moving into waters Vietnam claims. Citizens got only a taste of freedom of speech, though, as the government soon returned to its policy of cracking down on public protest out of concern that anti-government forces would use any gathering as an opportunity to denounce the Communist Party. Given the tensions between the UBCV and the Vietnamese government, Thich Quang Do’s call for democratization in the face of Chinese belligerence, and police suppression of anti-China protests in Vietnam, it would not be surprising if Ms. Mai intended her self-immolation to send a dual message.

Both messages were clear to Nickie Tran, the 35-year-old owner of a small seafood restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City not far from the Chinese consulate. She marched in the anti-China protests here earlier this month and is well-connected with Vietnamese bloggers and democracy activists, including those who have been arrested and beaten by police and plain clothes “security” agents working with law enforcement officials. Tran is mad at China, but she is equally mad at her own government for what she sees as its hypocrisy: the government is protesting China on the international stage while prohibiting its own citizens from doing so on Vietnam’s streets. Tran is especially angry because of the sacrifices her family has made in service to Vietnam’s Communist Party. As she has said to me several times, “No family is redder than my family.” Her father’s father fought with the Viet Minh against the French; her mother’s father fought the French and died fighting the Americans. Her parents were among the children of the revolutionary families whom the government sent to Russian universities to get their degrees. Now Tran feels as though she is fighting against her own government, the government that several generations of her family has supported, in order to have the right to protest Chinese belligerence. That national pride that motivated Vietnamese to stand up to France and the U.S. in the twentieth century is now being muffled by a government that appears more afraid of a crowd of its own citizens than its large and powerful neighbor to the north.

Tran thinks the government fears a “Vietnamese Spring” like the uprisings that swept across North Africa and the Middle East beginning in 2010 and toppled governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen. Ms. Mai’s suicide and the statement Thich Quang Do issued from his confinement are part of a chorus of Vietnamese voices that, through blogging and social media, are growing louder in their demands for freedom of speech and the right to assemble publicly. If young, social media savvy Vietnamese, who already know the attention they can get through blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, begin to explore the potential of public assembly, the Vietnamese government might face a serious threat for the first time in nearly forty years. Political leaders now must decide how much it is willing to allow public protest against China knowing that a taste of freedom could lead Vietnamese citizens to demand more. What is more threatening to the Vietnamese government: Chinese warships or Vietnamese democracy activists? Could China’s expansion lead to real democratic reforms in Vietnam?

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