Everyone who stood outside the American embassy in London's Grosvenor Square will remember how the horrifying pictures of the Vietnamese Buddhist monks who burnt themselves alive helped to turn world opinion against the corrupt South Vietnamese governments supported by Washington. Quang Duc was the first monk to kill himself in public. He sat down, calmly poured petrol over his robes and lit a match. As his body burned, a colleague held aloft a multi-coloured Buddhist flag and declared, 'This is the flag for which the venerable Quang Duc died.' Pictures were printed on the front pages of every newspaper around the world. In all, seven monks and nuns were to take their own lives protesting against the oppression of the Buddhist church. In those days it was big news.
On 21 May this year another Buddhist monk, Da Quang Ho, burnt himself to death at the Linh Mu Pagoda in Hue. Behind him was the memorial to Quang Duc - the car he used to drive to Saigon on his last journey in 1963. This time, though, there were no front-page pictures. The suicide barely made the news at all. A string of other protests and demonstrations against religious repression in Vietnam have been virtually ignored by the Western media.
Human rights in Vietnam have not been an issue for years now. Prominent individuals such as Tariq Ali, who actively opposed the war in Vietnam, have barely raised their voices this time. Only a handful of people, mostly based in Paris or the United States, continue to take an interest. The well-known radicals of the Sixties moved on to attack American policies in Central America or elsewhere.
This is a betrayal of the Vietnamese people. Buddhists in Vietnam are still denied the freedoms they fought for 30 years ago, when the pro-Roman Catholic government of President Ngo Dinh Diem was persecuting Vietnam's 2,000-year-old Buddhist church. After the North's victory in 1975, the Buddhists, who claim the allegiance of three-quarters of Vietnam's 70 million people, welcomed the new government. But hopes of religious freedom were soon dashed. The state tried to control all the Buddhists through the Unified Buddhist Church it had created in the North in the Fifties.
Since 1981, church leaders have been imprisoned or kept under house arrest. Last year, the government refused to allow the monks to organise their own funeral for the last patriarch of the church; the Buddhists organised a hunger strike in Hue and 30,000 people took to the streets. Shortly after last month's self-
immolation, the government again tried to prevent the funeral of the monk from taking place and protests resulted in arrests.
Buddhists are the most organised force fighting continuing repression in Vietnam, but they are not alone. The strong Roman Catholic Church opposes the government for much the same reasons. Overseas opposition groups have also begun to infiltrate the country. Earlier this year a group was arrested for allegedly planning to set off bombs in Saigon. With the collapse of Communism around the world, Vietnam's ruling party has become increasingly nervous. It has even trained a special army unit to practice putting down Tiananmen-style mass demonstrations.
It has also stamped down on the intelligentsia. Last year, more than 50 prominent intellectuals were given heavy sentences ranging from over 20 years to life, simply for expressing their views. The worst case this year was of Professor Doan Viet Hoat, who was sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment for publishing a newsletter advocating human rights and democracy. He had already spent 12 years in the labour camps that the Vietnamese Communists set up after 1975. Human rights activists claim that Hanoi continues to run an extensive network of labour camps, many of them set up in the Fifties, and is still holding political prisoners from that era.
Vietnam is now trying to improve its image in the hope of getting the American embargo lifted. But it is not trying very hard. Professor Hoat's sentence was announced the same day that Vietnam took part in a human rights conference in Bangkok organised by the United Nations.
Hanoi has made it clear that it has no intention of allowing democratic freedoms in the country. A spokesman recently declared: 'Western standards should not be imposed on the East', because Vietnam has different historical and cultural traditions. What this means is that Vietnam has now joined those of its East Asian neighbours that want to enjoy all the benefits of Western trade and aid while maintaining a dictatorship.
There is no neat solution to these problems. In the US, President Bill Clinton is weighing up the cost to his shaky administration if, as expected, he finally lifts the economic embargo against Hanoi imposed 30 years ago. Hanoi is fervently hoping that on 5 July the International Monetary Fund will at last vote to resume lending to Vietnam and that soon there will sufficient foreign loans and investment to to stave off the collapse of the Vietnamese Communist Party.
The Americans are pleased by the efforts Vietnam has made to clear up the question of American servicemen missing in action - the condition set by Washington for normalising relations. Yet actually taking that decision is fraught with difficulty. For Mr Clinton's generation, the issue of Vietnam has strong moral associations. The President can hardly ignore the fact that respect for human rights in Vietnam, North or South, is no better now than it was during all those years of American involvement. In addition, Mr Clinton has already decided to impose restrictions on trade with China from next year if there is no improvement in its human rights record. Business interests are applying pressure in the opposite direction.
Some Americans argue that, as with China, investment by Western companies, along with the government's increasing willingness to adopt market economics, will inevitably bring improved respect for basic human rights. This case has yet to be proved in China. There, World Bank loans and foreign investment have kept the economy growing and kept the lid on political opposition. It would be a great irony for the left wing to argue now that the best way to bring prosperity and civil liberties to the long-suffering people of Vietnam would be to allow American (or British) capitalists to invest and exploit their cheap labour.
The author is on the staff of the BBC World Service.Reuse content