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Monday, 3 March 2003
Page: 8928


Senator SANTORO (9:50 PM) —At a time when the government of Vietnam speaks of `doi moi' as a means of modernising and developing the country, many of Vietnam's greatest intellects, independent voices and enduring spirits are in jail or under house arrest. This repression of peaceful dissent blights the Hanoi government's human rights record. Under the policy adopted in 1997, the security forces can detain any individual without trial for two years and this two-year period is renewable so that detention can be for as long as the government wishes. The clear purpose of this arrangement is to silence public dissent.

I recently was made aware of the good work undertaken by the Free Vietnam Alliance to publicise the plight of democracy advocates in Vietnam. In particular, tonight I want to place on the record the plight of two individuals. Firstly, Nguyen Khac Toan is a 47-year-old former North Vietnamese army member. He served from 1972 to 1977 and took part in the military campaigns against South Vietnam. After the fall of South Vietnam, he became disillusioned with the liberation cause advocated by Hanoi and saw instead the need for real freedom, the rule of law and democracy in a unified Vietnam. He was sentenced in December 2002 to 12 years in prison for espionage and is in prison in Ha Dong province, northern Vietnam. Nguyen Khac Toan first became active in the dissent movement in 1995, and in recent years helped organise petitions by retired military veterans calling for democracy, social equality and an end to corruption. He became a freelance reporter helping to distribute within Vietnam the writings of democracy activists and from November 2001 to January 2002 was the source for reports on the citizen protests outside the National Assembly and party headquarters in Hanoi. He was arrested on 8 January 2002 at an Internet cafe.

The second victim of Hanoi's policy whom I wish to put on the record in the Senate tonight is Tran Khue, a professor of literature and an influential writer in the underground press. In July 2002 Human Rights Watch honoured Professor Tran Khue with its Hellman-Hammett Award, which recognises the courage of writers facing political persecution. He was detained on 29 December 2002 after he spoke by telephone to an overseas conference about the issue of Hanoi donating land to China. In February last year he wrote an open letter to the Chinese President, Jiang Zemin, to protest recent land and sea treaties between Hanoi and Beijing. This letter was published on the Internet. In March 2002 security police raided his house in Saigon.

If the Vietnamese government wishes to be embraced by the global community, it must end its practice of locking away people who choose, courageously, to dispute its policies. I recognise that Australia and Vietnam have begun a dialogue on human rights, and that is welcome news. If the Vietnamese government were to stop repressing dissenters, the large Vietnamese community in Queensland would welcome it. It is to the great credit of Australia's 155,000-strong Vietnam born community—more than 11,000 of them in Queensland—that it has so swiftly and energetically become such an important economic element in our society. In particular, the strong sense of family that Vietnamese people possess means that parents, often themselves highly qualified professional people, sacrifice a lot to ensure their children are educated and become the professional people they do: doctors, dentists, engineers and the like. This is a huge benefit to Australia.

The Vietnamese community demonstrates daily that Australia is indeed a country of opportunity for those prepared to make the inconvenient and sometimes painful extra effort new settlers must make to build a new life and greater prospects for their children. In Queensland the community has been led for a long time by Dr Cuong Bui, a long-time adviser on Vietnamese community issues not only in the state I come from but also right across Australia. Dr Bui has served as president of both the Vietnamese Community in Australia (Queensland Chapter) and the national body. He was a member of the Reference Committee for the Ethnic Communities Council of Queensland Multicultural Reconciliation Project during 1999-2000. Dr Bui's role in his own Queensland community and in the wider Australian community is worthy of being noticed in this place.