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Tuesday, 28 February 2012
Page: 1119

Senator BOSWELL (Queensland) (21:15): I rise tonight in support of the great people of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. For too long, the Vietnamese people have had their basic human rights denied by the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam. In particular, I want to draw attention to an extraordinarily brave musician by the name of Viet Khang, who rallied against the Communist Party and the government through his songs and paid the price.

Viet Khang, born Vo Minh Tri, is a Vietnamese singer and songwriter. He co-founded Patriotic Youth, a network formed to raise public awareness of social injustice in Vietnam. On 23 December last year he was arrested by Vietnamese security forces. He is currently being detained without trial at an unknown location in Vietnam. What did Khang do to warrant indefinite detention? He penned two songs decrying the Vietnamese communist regime's failings. He denounced the government's campaign against his people's right to freedom of speech. He posted these songs online, where they quickly went viral, capturing the attention of people in Vietnam and around the world. This was unacceptable to the communist government.

Khang's incredible bravery cannot be understated. The Communist Party has long utilised violence, intimidation and unjust imprisonment to combat any criticism of its rule. For years now it has indefinitely detained a number of Vietnamese artists, lawyers and human rights campaigners. As with Khang, their only crime was to speak out against the communist regime. Many of these innocent people are still being held without charge. Khang knew what would happen to him once he posted his protest songs online. He knew how the Communist Party would punish him, but he went ahead and defied his government.

This is courage on a scale that the people of our great and free nation will thankfully never have to find within themselves. His sacrifice deserves to be recognised. It is our duty as a leading world advocate of democracy to address the human rights situation in Vietnam. We must do everything in our power to bring these issues to light. We must help secure the release of all human rights advocates who have been imprisoned by the Vietnamese Communist Party government.

The leader of another great democratic nation has already recognised the grave importance of this matter. President Barack Obama has agreed to meet with a delegation of 100 spokespeople for Viet Khang on 5 March. Khang's current predicament will be discussed, along with the broader human rights situation in Vietnam. The delegation will be led by Mr Truc Ho, a US resident who has tirelessly campaigned on Khang's behalf. It is through Truc Ho's efforts that Khang's plight has reached President Obama's attention. On 7 February this year, Mr Ho created a petition on the official White House website calling for the US government to act to secure the release of innocent Vietnamese imprisoned by the Communist Party. Mr Ho aimed to get 25,000 signatures by 8 March. In just three weeks, the petition has received 90,000 signatures and counting.

Ninety-thousand calls for action coming from every corner of the globe is a testament to the severity of the Vietnamese government's crackdown on dissident movements. It is a testament to the power and urgency of Khang's songs, which have awakened an outcry both in Vietnam and overseas. President Obama is so concerned about the issue that he has requested to hear Khang's songs in English to better understand his message.

The songs are called Where is My Vietnam? and Who Do You Think You Are? In Where is My Vietnam, Khang sings about his disillusionment with the Communist Party. He highlights the government's failure to address spreading social injustices. He despairs about how the government has violently persecuted peaceful activists who have criticised its policies in the past. Khang's second song, Who Do You Think You Are? condemns Vietnamese security forces for their brutal tactics. It asks how Vietnamese police could so harshly suppress the people they supposedly protect, and punish them for participating in peaceful protests against the government. Together, Khang's songs have captivated the Vietnamese people. Vietnamese artists have performed them in English and other languages around the world, raising global awareness of the country's dire human rights situation.

The effect of these songs on Vietnam and the fuse they have lit within the Vietnamese human rights movement have terrified the three-million-strong Communist Party. The government's worst fear is the Vietnamese people uniting to tear down its regime. Its worst enemy is anyone who would shine a light on its oppression of its own people. Viet Khang heralded a call to arms against the Communist Party that, for his sake and the sake of his people, must be addressed and acted upon immediately.

Just imagine if Keith Urban or Kasey Chambers were to release a song criticising the Australian government for its recent embarrassments. Just imagine if, as punishment, the government were to throw them into prison. Such an act is unthinkable in our country, yet it is a hazard that Vietnamese citizens face every day under the Communist Party. Viet Khan is not alone on the list of brave men and women who have fallen victim to the Communist Party's campaign of censorship. Father Nguyen Van Ly, a non-violent dissident, was imprisoned for nearly 15 years for participating in numerous pro-democracy campaigns. In 2007, he received an eight-year sentence for supporting the Bloc 8406 manifesto, a Catholic coalition of groups advocating democratic reforms in Vietnam. He was released just last year.

A leading dissident against the Communist Party is Dr Nguyen Dan Que, leader of the Humanist Movement in Vietnam that seeks social and political reform in the country. Since 1978, when he first criticised the government, he has been arrested a total of four times and detained for up to eight years. He has received a Nobel Peace Prize nomination for his tireless efforts to effect change in his country.

The list of individuals who have dedicated their lives to transforming Vietnam into a free and democratic country is endless. Viet Khang and other selfless activists have woken up the Vietnamese people and the world to the Communist Party's suppression of human rights. In the words of one of Khang's admirers, 'Every word, every sentence is like a sword, a bullet that comes down to the Vietnamese Communist Party.'

The US has already made significant contributions to the Vietnamese human rights movement via its Vietnam Human Rights Act and Vietnam Human Rights Sanction Act. Closer to home, it is encouraging to see that on 7 February this month, the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade conducted a public meeting where it took evidence for its inquiry into Australia's human rights dialogue with Vietnam. I pay tribute to the Howard government for establishing an Australian-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue in 2002 so that human rights issues can be discussed at the government-to-government level.

But there is still much to be done. As the decades-long struggle of human rights and democracy advocates in Vietnam demonstrates, the battle will not be won overnight. It is imperative that we assist these extraordinarily brave men and women in their fight against the Vietnamese Communist Party. Australians have always enjoyed freedom of speech without fear of persecution. It is time the Vietnamese people are granted this same right.