11/24/2006, 00.00
VIETNAM
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Business, not human rights, at APEC summit in Vietnam

Vo Van Ai, chairman the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights and spokesman for the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, slams Western government and media.

Paris (AsiaNews) – Business rather than human rights matter most to the Western world, and the US in particular, this according to Vo Van Ai, chairman of the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights and spokesman for the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, who spoke after the APEC summit held in Hanoi on November 18-19.

In an open letter to the representatives of the 21 participating countries, Mr Ai said that trade should not be the only issue at the table. Economic development without democracy can only lead down a blind alley, he said. More importantly, only religious movements are pushing the Communist Party to open up the political space.

"Certainly, Vietnam can claim 7 or 8 per cent growth rate, the second fastest economy in the region, but it is not a sign of stability," he told Paris-based magazine Courier international. "Of course, the situation in the country is better than 20 years ago [. . .] but economic changes have not radically improved people's standards of living. In Hanoi, Hô Chi Minh City and other big cities things have changed, but 80 per cent of the people lives in the countryside where they eak out a living at the poverty level."

For him, real change will occur when the Communist Party will be willing to deal with Buddhists. "Religion," he explained, "has an important place in Vietnamese society. [. . .] Religious movements are the only movements calling for the democratisation of the Communist Party. Consequently, repression is very hard on Buddhist leaders."

Western media, Ai said, should talk about social and human rights issues in Vietnam. Countries that provide assistance should put pressure on the authorities. They should put conditions on their help. For instance, "at the beginning of this year, Hanoi and Hô Chi Minh City were affected by a wave of industrial strikes. In two months there were 150 strikes with 140,000 workers walked off the job." However, "there is not free trade union movement," he said.

"The minimum wage was raised from US$ 23 to 25. A few strike leaders were arrested and everything went back to normal," he lamented. Bu thet "Western media practically said nothing about this movement."

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