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Monday, 10 April 2000
Page: 15576

Mrs IRWIN (4:02 PM) —I endorse the comments by the member for Maribrynong and congratulate him on raising in this parliament the issue of human rights in Vietnam, particularly freedom of expression and religion. It is an issue which has been raised many times and should be raised again and again. As a member representing Sydney's south-west, which is home to many thousands of people of Vietnamese background, I can appreciate the heavy hearts of all who hold these fundamental rights dear when considering how slowly the Vietnamese government is responding to the concerns of the international community over the imprisonment, detention and suppression of dissidents and the state's uncompromising control of religious belief.

Religious persecution is poor politics, and the oppression of the Buddhist churches in particular is unlikely to achieve anything for the government. Buddhism has existed in Vietnam as long as Christianity has in all the world. Organisations like Amnesty International, of which I am a member and to which many in this House belong, have voiced continuing criticism over the lack of progress in ensuring basic human rights in Vietnam. Amnesty is not alone. The speed of today's communications means most of the world is aware of the infringements of those rights. A house arrest of any dissenting voice is quickly published to an increasingly wider audience. Oppression is becoming counterproductive.

Many democratically elected Australian representatives have added their support to the nomination of the Very Venerable Thich Quang Do for the Nobel Peace Prize. Such gestures are drawing the world's attention to the stature and humanity of those whose voices the Vietnamese government believes should not be heard. It serves to make their voices louder. The Prime Minister, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and many delegations have pressed the case diplomatically.

Our help in the development of Vietnam's institutions—particularly in its educational and legal framework and its commercial and economic machinery—provides us with a friendly approach in promoting values which recognise the rights of individuals. But, as I have said, this is a slow path, so much so that our willingness to assist in the further economic renovation of Vietnam might not maintain the same momentum unless prisoners of conscience are free, unless there is freedom to practise one's religion. Our largest foreign infrastructure aid project, the My Thuan bridge, is an example of the sorts of projects which might be compromised if more is not done to guarantee human rights.

Friendships can be tested. We were able to respond to last year's devastating floods, the worst for 40 years, quickly because of friendship. We are optimistic that our friendship can grow. What happened 25 years ago should be put behind us so we can work together. Just as communications threaten the state's effective control over dissidents, so too does the need for Vietnam to integrate itself more into the regional and world economy if it is going to have continuing prospects. And the presence of some 4,000 Vietnamese students in this country—more than anywhere else—means human rights and the freedom of religion and ideas is inevitable among the young, who will determine the future of Vietnam. Australia is a friend, but the Vietnamese government needs most to befriend all its people, regardless of religion and regardless of belief.

We also have many wonderful, enterprising, talented Australians of Vietnamese background. Many have contacted me to voice their support for this motion today. I am grateful to them for doing so, because they are promoting the need for some mutual obligation by the Vietnamese government in relation to Australia's aid and investment commitments. It makes good sense for the Vietnamese government to realise the failure to observe human rights could lead to Vietnam's failure to succeed in bringing its 79 million people the prosperity it has fought to achieve.