Monday, February 28, 2005

New U.S. State Department report released

The U.S. State Department posted today its annual report on worldwide human rights conditions. On Vietnam, it said, the "Government's human rights record remained poor, and it continued to commit serious abuses." The report detailed various restrictions on the right of dissent, religious practice, daily living conditions and the right of due process in court. (U.S. State Department report, click here for the section on Vietnam).

Sunday, February 27, 2005

President greets new ambassadors

President Tran Duc Luong greeted six new ambassadors who came to present their new credentials Feb. 24. As reported by Vietnam News Agency, they are:

- Russian Ambassador Serafimov Vadim Viktorovich
- Azerbaijan Ambassador Yashar Aliyev
- Madagascar Ambassador Sikonia Victor
- Slovakian Ambassador Marian Tomasik
- Colombian Ambassador Sergio Naranjo Perez, and
- Kuwaiti Ambassador Khaled Mohammad Ahmad Al-Shaibani.

(Vietnam News Agency Feb. 25, Thai Press Reports Feb. 28).

New Cardinal for Hanoi

Pope John Paul II has appointed Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet as the new archbishop of Hanoi, replacing ailing Cardinal Paul Joseph Pham Ðình Tung, 85, now retired. Archbishop Kiet, 52, was ordained as a priest in 1991 and served as bishop of Lang Son and Cao Bang diocese since 1999. He has been apostolic administrator of Hanoi since 2003. The Vatican also announced the appointment of Bishop Francois Xavier Le Van Hong as auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Hue. (Zenit, Feb. 20; click here for a listing of Catholic dioceses in Vietnam).

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Cultural official arrested for assisting illegal migrants

A high-ranking official of a company owned by Vietnam's Ministry of Culture and Information was arrested Feb. 15, accused of assisting Vietnamese citizens to leave the country illegally. Tong Xuan Thu, 33, chief of the Central Fine Arts Company's import-export department, allegedly assisted company employees fleeing to Europe, claiming they were on missions to organize fine arts exhibitions and tradeshows. (Vietnam News Briefs, Feb. 17).

Paracel and Spratly sovereignty asserted

Vietnam has sufficient historical and legal claim on the Paracel and Spratly islands to affirm its sovereignty over them, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Le Dung said Feb. 17. The statement was in reaction to recent reports that China has begun “aggressively researching” the disputed archipelagoes. Dung said any such action without Vietnam’s approval is a “violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty and sovereign rights to these areas.” (VNA, Thai Press Reports Feb. 18).

Shrimp exports set at $1.5 billion

Vietnam’s Ministry of Fisheries has forecast its shrimp exports this year at $1.5 billion, up 40% from last year. It is pinning its hopes on more orders from the U.S., which had been the biggest importer of Vietnamese shrimp. Exports to the U.S. last dropped by 30%. But the U.S. Dept. of Commerce recently prescribed an average import tariff on Vietnam of 4.5%, which will again make it profitable to export shrimp to the U.S. Vietnam is on target to become the world’s leading shrimp exporter, according to Vietnamese spokespersons. (Vietnam News Briefs, Feb. 17),

Religious policy improving?

An impending U.S. decision on whether to impose sanctions on Vietnam over its religious policy appears to have already sparked significant changes in the government's religious policy, reports Didier Lauras of Agence France Presse. These include:

- The Tet amnesty to two prominent religious prisoners -- Catholic priest Fr. Nguyen Van Ly and Buddhist monk Thich Thien Minh -- both of whom has been serving long prison terms for their religious-based dissent.

- Instructions issued earlier this month (see entry below) by PM Pham Van Khai promising religious freedom to ethnic minority Christians, provided they renounce FULRO. The directive prohibits local authorities from suppressing religious practices, and indicates that Protestants can organize services in their homes, previously forbidden by the regime. The U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom has adopted a wait-and-see attitude, stating that, as with previous directives, the new instructions are vaguely worded and open to interpretation by local authorities.

In another development, a Vietnam press spokesman denounced as "fabricated" claims by the International Buddhist Information Bureau (IBIB) that leading Buddhist monks are suppressed and under increased surveillance. However, the spokesman also noted that the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, which these monks lead, no longer exists legally. The Vietnam Buddhist Sangha -- created under government auspices in 1981 -- is the only approved Buddhist organization in the country (aside from the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai). Most recently IBIB reports UBCV deputy leader Thich Quang Do and other monks were prevented from visiting UBCV patriarch Thich Huyen Quang at his residence in Binh Dinh province. (Agence France Presse Feb. 18, Deutsche Presse-Agentur Feb. 18, IBIB press release Feb. 16).

Campaign for detained Mennonites urged

Open Doors USA has launched a letter-writing campaign for six Vietnamese Mennonites whe were sentenced to terms ranging from nine months to three years last November. It director Carl Moeller said the charges are “completely trumped-up.” He added that the prisoners have been beaten and tortured for refusing to sign documents against their pastor. (Agape Press Feb. 17).

New Protestant instructions praised

A new directive on Protestant affairs approved by PM Pham Van Khai was described as a “landmark in Vietnam’s religious policy” by Dr. Nguyen Thanh Xuan, deputy director of the government’s Committee for Religious Affairs, in an interview with Nhan Dan Feb. 18. Xuan said Instruction No. 1/2005 -- the first instruction issued this year by the Prime Minister -- aims at creating favorable conditions for Protestants and their organizations. He added that Protestant organizations which have not been legally recognized will be assisted through the proper procedures to gain recognition, and that local authorities are required to facilitate their normal religious activities. For ethnic minority members living in the northern mountains, local authorities are to “devise proper procedures in consideration of their religious demands.”

Protestantism has risen fast in the urban areas and among ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands and northern mountains; there are now around one million Protestant Christians in Vietnam, according to official estimates. The Evangelical Church of Vietnam (northern region) was recognized by the government in 1958, while the General Confederation of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (southern region) was not recognized until 2001. Last year the State recognized 36 Protestant branches in the Central Highlands, according to a spokesperson for Vietnam's Commitee for Religious Affairs. (VNA Feb. 18, BBC Monitoring Feb. 18, Vietnam News Briefs Feb. 17.)

Thursday, February 17, 2005

More guest workers to Malaysia

Malaysia continues to receive Vietnamese guest workers who have been granted calling visas, said Nguyen Thanh Hoa, head of the Overseas Labor Management Department, in an interview with Thoi Bao Kinh Te (Vietnam Economic Times). He said Vietnam has sent nearly 90,000 workers to Malaysia since April 2002, and plans to send 70,000 this year. Malaysia ranks second behind Taiwan in numbers of Vietnamese guest workers. Their monthly income ranges from $170-220, while those who work for foreign construction joint ventures can earn as much as $280 per month. (Voice of Vietnam Feb. 17).

More comprehensive legal system urged`

National Assembly chairman Nguyen Van An urged greater efforts toward building a more comprehensive legal system, in a speech to the fifth conference of specialized NA deputies in Hanoi. He said that this year the legislature will discuss and approve 22 laws and codes, and contribute opinions to 20 draft laws. During the May session, the National Assembly plans to approve eleven laws and codes. It also plans to publicize and discuss the revised Civil Code. (Nhan Dan Feb. 17).

Phu My power plant opens

Phu My Power Plant no. 2.2 has begun operation, providing 7.7% of Vietnam's power capacity. The $440 million project is a gas-fired, combined power facility, located 70 km. southeast of Ho Ch Minh City. Construction on the plant began in August 2002. (Vietnam News Agency, Asia Pulse, Feb. 17).

Poultry in big cities to be slaughtered

Vietnam plans to slaughter poultry in big cities in order to prevent bird flu from claiming more victims, an agricultural official said today, part of a plan to move bird-rearing out of urban areas and submit it to tighter controls.It has been banned in Ho Chi Minh City. So far 1.5 million chickens and ducks have been culled in the country.

The bird flu virus in humans normally attacks the lungs causing breathing problems, but a study published today in the New England Journal of Medicine said it can harm all parts of the body and cause other symptoms not normally associated with it, such as stomach illness. (Channel News Asia Feb. 17, Associated Press Feb. 17).

Air France suspends direct flights

Air France will suspend direct non-stop flights from Paris to Vietnam for six months, beginning March 26, in order to concentrate on more lucrative flights to China and Japan, an official said today. During this period, Air France will operate four flights a week from Paris to Ho Chi Minh City, and three to Hanoi, with a stop-over in Bangkok. (Agence France Presse, Feb. 17).

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Religious persecution questioned

Reports of widespread religious persecution in Vietnam are exaggerated, says Matt Steinglass, a Boston Globe correspondent writing from Hanoi. He notes that churches in the country are filled with worshippers, and says that religious leaders and Montagnard Christians in jail or under house arrest are punished more for their perceived political threat to the regime than their religious practices. The U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom this year recommended that Vietnam be labeled as a "Country of Particular Concern" for its poor religious policy. Under the International Religious Freedom Act, Vietnam has until March 15 to demonstrate its progress. If it does not do so, than Pres. Bush is required to impose at least one of 15 possible sanctions, ranging from restricting humanitarian aid to cutting off Export-Import Bank credits. U.S. business interests oppose such sanctions, as would probably the Pentagon, since it has been cooperating with the Vietnamese military in recent years. (Boston Globe, Feb. 13).

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Hanoi's solid waste problem

Although Hanoi’s solid waste rose by 9% in the 2000-2003 period, it has only two waste disposal sites of Nam Son and Lam Du. The average Hanoi resident produces .57 kg of waste per day, .9-1.5 kg lower than other major Asian centers, but economic development will continue to increase the solid waste. (Vietnam News Briefs, Feb. 15).

More private universities

Four private universities and five colleges will be set up this year, said an official with the Ministry of Education and Training. At least nine more private universities will be added next year. Overall, the ministry plans to open 29 new universities and 81 colleges between 2004 and 2010. (Vietnam News Briefs Feb. 15).

Vietnam to invest $13.8 billion in power plants by 2010

Vietnam’s electricity sector plans to invest almost $13.8 billion in upgrading or building 52 power plants during the 2006-2010 period. Of these, 42 are hydro-electric, six coal-fuelled and four gas-fed. (VNA, BBC monitoring, Feb. 14).

Pham Duy visits Vietnam

Singer composer Pham Duy returned to Vietnam for the tenth time since 2000, spending the Tet holidays in his hometown of Hanoi. Duy, now 85, said he would like to come back to spend the remainder of his life in Vietnam with his relatives. If allowed to do so, he would then travel around the country, writing songs about the homeland and seeking permission to perform. He is currently asking Vietnamese authorities to approve nine of his old songs to be performed in Vietnam. These were five composed during the war against the French and four other poetic songs. Altogether he has composed some 900 songs during his lifetime, 300 of them over the last 30 years of his life in the United States. He first became known to the West in the 1960s for his popularization of Vietnamese folk songs. The Vietnamese government limits and strictly watches returning trips and performances of Vietnamese artists from abroad, as well as the diffusion of their works within the country. (Vietnam News Briefs, Feb. 15).

Second Stock Exchange to open

A second stock exchange will open in Vietnam, this one in Hanoi on March 8, the Hanoi Securities Trading Center (HSTC). It will begin by offering shares of state owned companies to private investors. Its director Tran Van Dzung said the center would start receiving orders from investors today. Total trading value on Vietnam’s stock market last year was $1.3 billion, however, according to Agence France Presse, the stock market has failed to take off in a significant way, with "with just 27 companies listed after starting with five." (Asian Banker Journal, Feb. 15, Agence France Presse Feb. 16).

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Aviation official sacked

A senior aviation official was fired for abuse of power on Tuesday. The official was Nguyen Lai, 47, general director of the Central Aviation Airport Authority. He was accused of illegal use of $1.5 million of state funds to buy land. (Agence France Presse, Feb. 14).

Bird flu subsides

There were no new bird flu cases reported during the Tet new year observances. A Vietnamese agricultural official said the situation is now bettter than in the days leading up to Tet. Seven of the country's 34 provinces and cities that had reported the disease had not registered any new cases in poultry for 21 days, he said, adding that there are no new human cases. More than 1.5 million birds have been killed so far this year to prevent the spread of bird flu. (Agence France Presse, Feb. 14).

Party chief interviewed

Economic development must be the central task of the Vietnamese Communist Party, said its Secretary General Nong Duc Manh in an interview with Nhan Dan. He praised the country's economic growth, about 7.2% a year, but noted related problems, including environmental destruction, serious traffic accidents, social evils, lax observation of law and order in the State apparatus, and corruption and wastefulness. (Nhan Dan, Feb. 11).

Thich Quang Do issues Tet appeal

In an open letter for the lunar new year (Tet), Ven. Thich Quang Do urged intellectuals to take a leading role in furthering the cause of democracy in Vietnam, stating the country cannot develop properly without democracy and pluralism. He told Communist Party leaders they should have nothing to fear in cooperating with this process, as Communist parties have successfully made the transition in East European countries and now peacefully compete with other parties. Ven. Quang Do, head of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, had in 2001 launched an "Appeal for Democracy in Vietnam," and was consequently sentenced to two years administrative detention. (Que Me, Feb. 11).

Friday, February 11, 2005

Vice president welcomes overseas Vietnamese

Vietnam's Vice President Truong My Hoa met with overseas Vietnamese in Hanoi Feb. 4, praising their contributions to the homeland. The meeting was sponsored by the Foreign Ministry's Committee for overseas Vietnamese, the Vietnam Fatherland Front, and the Hanoi People's Committee. There are an estimated 2.7 million Vietnamese living and studying in 90 countries and territories. Remittances to Vietnam from overseas Vietnamese last year amounted to $3.2 billion, an increase of $600 million over the previous year. (Nhan Dan online, Feb. 5).

100 million by 2050

At the present growth rate of 1.32%, Vietnam's population is projected to rise from 82 million today to 100 million in 2050, with one million new people a year, while its land cultivation is decreasing. The government will step up campaigns over the next two years for population socialization, reproductive healthcare and poverty reduction. The average life expectancy has now reached over 71. (Voice of Vietnam Feb. 11).

Opium use among rich and elderly in Vietnam

Opium use in Vietnam is an indulgence of the rich and elderly, reports Agence France Presse. Younger Vietnamese prefer ecstasy, heroin, amphetamines and other synthetic drugs. It said that although Vietnam has some of the world's toughest drug laws , its anti-drug campaigns have "made little dent" on the open sale of opium in Hanoi's streets. The destruction of poppy crops in northwestern Vietnam has forced addicts to become dependent on foreign sources, more than 90% of opium and other drugs coming into Vietnam through the Golden Triangle of Laos, Burma and Thailand. (Agence France Presse, Feb. 11).

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Thich Thien Minh interviewed

Venerable Thich Thien Minh (secular name Huyen Van Ba), age 51, described harsh prison conditions and other aspects of his life in a telephone interview with the Paris-based International Buddhist Information Bureau on Feb. 6. Released in the Tet amnesty Feb. 2, along with Nguyen Dinh Huy from Z30A Reeducation camp, Ven. Minh had been detained since 1979 for his protests of religious repression and his support for the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. At Z30A camp are some other well known prisoners of conscience, including two priests with the Congregation of the Mother Co-redemptrix now detained for 18 years: Fr. Pham Minh Tri -- who has suffered dementia for the last ten years -- and Fr. Nguyen Duc Vinh. He also mentioned Ngo Quang Vinh, an 87-year-old Hoa Hao believer in very poor health. "There are so many elderly political prisoners in Z30A camp, 70-80 year-old men who came into the camp as strong, healthy youths with heads of shining black hair. Now their hair has turned white, their bodies are bent, yet they are still detained," he said.

Prison conditions have improved somewhat in recent years but still remain very draconian:
"For example, prisoners’ families are forbidden to bring more than 5 kilos of food parcels when they visit the camp, anything in excess is confiscated. This was the new quota fixed by the Chief Warden of Z30A re-education camp, Mr. Nguyen Trung Binh. Each prisoner may receive 5 kilos per visit, no more, and their families must not give them more than 300,000 dongs per month (approx. US$20). Considering the high food prices in the canteen, the camp’s exclusive monopoly on all purchases and the exorbitant interests rates they charge, prison life is excruciatingly harsh, especially for poor prisoners whose families cannot afford to visit them often."

He said he plans to visit Ven. Thich Quang Do in Ho Chi Minh city before going to Bac Lieu, where he is required to stay with a relative, but he has asked that he either be allowed to return to his old pagoda,
"build a new one, or let me reside temporarily in some other monastery so that I can practice Buddhism in peace." Public security officials told him upon his release that he must confine himself to practicing Buddhism and not criticize the government.

He hopes to have an operation to remove a throat tumor which he said is quite painful. He thanked the IBIB and other human rights groups for their important work for his release.

(Que Me/IBIB interview, Feb. 6)

Nguyen Dinh Huy, Nguyen Dan Que closely monitored

The recently released dissidents Nguyen Dinh Huy and Nguyen Dan Que are closely monitored by police, says Reporters Without Borders. Huy even has two policemen living inside his home in Ho Chi Minh City. Nguyen Dan Que's home is also closely watched. When he went out of his home recently, police immediately called his wife to ask why he left home and told her he should inform them in the future before he goes out. The organization has called upon Vietnamese authorities to restore full freedom to the released dissidents. (Reporters without Borders press release, Feb. 9; see also Feb. 1 entry below).

USCIRF urges action on Vietnam

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) urged specific action be taken on Vietnam, Saudi Arabia and Eritrea, in a letter from its chair Preeta Bansal to Sec. of State Condoleeza Rice. Vietnam has been designated by the U.S. as a "country of particular concern" for its violations of religious freedom, and under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA), Sec. Rice is required to take specific policy actions by March 15. Bansal urged that the State Dept. identify those Vietnamese agencies and officials responsible for particularly severe violations of religious freedom and "vigorously enforce section 604 of IRFA with respect to Vietnam, rendering inadmissable for entry into the United States any Vietnamese government official who was responsible for or directly carried out such violations." She also requested the State Dept. to dedicate at least $1 million for the next two fiscal years, to directly promote religious freedom and other human rights in Vietnam. (USCIRF press release Feb. 7).

Sunday, February 06, 2005

New directive for Protestant Christians in Highlands

Prime Minister Pham Van Khai issued a directive on Friday (Feb. 3) stating that Vietnam will now allow Protestant "house churches" in the Central Highlands to operate if they renounce FULRO (United Front for Liberation of Oppressed Races), an organization of Montagnards which fought alongside American troops during the war years:

"If the religious followers there have pure religious needs, commit to abiding by the law, do not work for the reactionary FULRO, and have no connection to Dega Protestantism, the local governments will create conditions for them to carry out normal religious activities at home or at suitable places in their villages,'' said the decree.

The ruling also calls for "public denunciation of those disguised Protestants whose activities go against the nation and sow division among the people as well as their illegal activities. Illegal missionaries should be strictly punished in accordance with the law," said Voice of Vietnam. It added:

"The Prime Minister also signed a decision to recognise a new regulation and leadership of the Vietnam Protestant Church (northern region)’s Executive Council (the 2004-08 tenure). The regulation was adopted, and the leadership elected at the 32nd Congress of the Church's General Council in Hanoi on Dec. 1-2, 2004. The new regulation has 76 articles in 10 chapters, ruling the goals, guidelines and institutional structure of the Church. The new council comprises 13 clerics with Father Phung Quang Huyen as Chairman."

(Associated Press, Feb. 5; Voice of Vietnam, Feb. 5; VNA Feb. 4, Christian Today, Feb. 5).

Appeal delayed for Mennonite prisoners

A Ho Chi Minh City court announced Jan. 27 the indefinite postponement of appeals for Rev. Nguyen Hong Quang and evangelist Pham Ngoc Thanh of the Vietnamese Mennonite Church. The two are among six Mennonites who were detained in a series of arrests that began on March 2 of last year and brought to a half-day trial in Ho Chi Minh City on Nov. 12. Rev. Quang, who served as Secretary General of the Vietnamese Mennonite Church and was active in the Vietnamese Evangelical Fellowship, was sentenced to three years, while Thanh was sentenced to two years. Nguyen Thach Nhan and Nguyen Hieu Nghia, also among the six Mennonites, were released early last month. They were reportedly badly beaten by prison guards and fellow inmates, one left partially paralyzed and the other with a potentially life-threatening condition. The two other detained Mennonites are Nguyen Van Phuong and Le Thi Hong Lien. Phong, who was sentenced to one year, has been denied an appeal. Lien's appeal cannot proceed because she suffered a nervous breakdown. Amnesty International has adopted Lien as an Urgent Action case, and reports that she has been severely mistreated. (Christian Today, Feb. 4; Amnesty International Urgent Action notice on Le Thi Hong Lien, Jan. 7).

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Dissidents among 8,325 prisoners released

Vietnam announced Jan. 31 it would grant amnesty prior to Tet to "8,325 inmates and 103 convicted felons whose sentences have been temporarily suspended." Among those released are "six persons who committed crimes detrimental to national security." These six included four prominent and long term prisoners of conscience for whom Amnesty International and other human rights groups have long campaigned:

- Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, age 62, a medical doctor and former director of Cho-Ray Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, who has spent 20 of the last 26 years in prison for criticizing the government's human rights record. He was most recently arrested in 2003 for criticizing the lack of freedom of information in Vietnam, in a statement widely distributed abroad.

- Nguyen Dinh Huy, age 72, a former English and history professor, who founded a pro-democracy group, the Movement to Unite the People and Build Democracy, and was arrested in 1993 when he attempted to organize a conference on democracy, which he thought had the approval of the Communist Party leadership. Huy, who had previously spent 17 years in re-education camps, was sentenced 15 years.

- Thich Thien Minh (secular name Huynh Van Ba), age 50, a Buddhist monk affiliated with the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, who was arrested and imprisoned in 1979 after he protested the government takeover and subsequent destruction of his pagoda. He was accused of "attempting to overthrow" the government and sentenced to life imprisonment. He received a second life term in 1986 for an alleged escape attempt. He has been subjected to solitary confinement, with his hands and feet shackled for three years.

- Rev. Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly, age 59, a Catholic priest who was sentenced in October of 2001 to fifteen years imprisonment followed by five years house arrest for committing "state sabotage" when he sent a letter to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom criticizing the lack of religious freedom in the country. His sentence was subsequently reduced to ten then five years in 2003. Amnesty International USA had made Fr. Ly into a "special focus case," with its activists sending more than 94,000 appeals for his release. Fr. Ly had previously been jailed for one year in the late 1970s and sentenced to ten years in 1983 for his dissenting views.

The identity of the other two released prisoners accused of violating national security is unclear, but among others released in this amnesty are: Truong Van Duc, a leader of the Hoa Hao Buddhist sect; Nguyen Dinh Long, a pro-democracy advocate; Pham Minh Canh, jailed for criticizing the government; and Nguyen Long Sy, who was accused to trying to overthrow the regime.

Also released were 33 foreign nationals; 161 prisoners who had committed "economic crimes", including 90 accused of corruption, and 13 prisoners associated with the Nam Cam crime gang. The Nam Cam prisoners released were described as "former state personnel whose families had rendered meritorious services to the state and some of them were even bestowed with state medals." These included former Deputy Minister of Public Security Bui Quoc Huy, Hanoi's former chief prosecutor Nguyen Thap Nhat, and former chief of the Ho Chi Minh City police's Crime Division Duong Minh Ngoc.

Vietnam news sources report that of the released inmates, 4,896 were ordered to pay fines or civil compensations by the court, which total VND65.5 billion ($ 4.2 million). A foreign diplomat said the released had to assure authorities that they would keep a low profile. "It is clear that these people will be closely watched," he said.

According to Vietnam News Briefs (which summarizes Vietnamese press articles): "For last year's amnesty, 8,623 prisoners were set free on National Day, September 2. Almost two thirds of the released them now have stable jobs and only 31 or 0.36% committed crimes that landed them back in jail. Since 1993, after the Ordinance on Sentence Serving was issued, there have been five amnesties, including this year's (1993, 1995, 2000, 2002 and 2004-2005). By February this year, 57,538 convicts will have been set free."

The response by foreign governments and human rights groups to this amnesty was positive but also critical. An EU diplomat described the releases of the dissidents as a "welcome gesture," but added the hope to see "all the prisoners named on our list released." U.S. senator Sam Brownback from Kansas welcomed the release but said that continued repression in Vietnam will remain "a big bump on the road" in U.S.-Vietnam relations until the situation improves. Amnesty International also welcomed the release but expressed its hope to see other prisoners of conscience released, including Pham Hong Son, Nguyen Vu Binh and Nguyen Khac Toan, who were part of a loosely-connected group of intellectuals and former communist party members arrested for their dissent. AI and other human rights groups also expressed their concern that the released prisoners be allowed full citizenship rights, including the right of freedom of expression.

(VNA/Nhan Dan, Feb. 1; VNExpress web site, Hanoi, in Vietnamese 31 Jan 05, BBC Monitoring International Reports; Young People Feb 1 p1, Youth Feb 1 p1, The People Feb 1 p1, Pioneer Feb 1 p1, The Law Feb 1 p1, Labor Feb 1 p1, Vietnam Economic Times Feb 1 p1, VNS Feb 1 p1, Capital Security Feb 1 p8, Vietnam News Briefs, Feb. 1; Agence France Presse, Jan. 28, Feb. 1; Amnesty International USA press release Jan. 31; Amnesty International press release Jan. 31; Vietnam Committee on Human Rights/Que Me press release Jan. 31; Catholic News online [no date]; Xinhua Jan. 31; Associated Press Jan. 31).

Resolution on socio-economic goals issued

A new government resolution has been promulgated to achieve socio-economic and revenue goals for 2005. Among the goals are improving the business environment, accelerated economic growth and faster equitisation of State Owned Enterprises.

The Ministries of Finance and of Natural Resources and Environment are to develop instructions by the end of March for the implementation of government directives on the Land Law and completion of land surveys. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment is also charged with the task of reclaiming land "that is being used ineffectively."

The Ministry of Planning and Investment (MPI) is to amend enterprise and investment laws to make them applicable to both foreign and domestic businesses and review and amend regulations on the service market.

The Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs is to change existing employment regulations "in order to provide more rights for employers in their recruitment."

The resolution also calls on provincial people's committees to simplify admninistrative procedures for investment projects, and abolish pricing differences between foreign and domestic investors.

The government has targeted economic growth rate this year at 8.5%, and plans to attract $19 billion in total social investment. (VNA Jan. 26).

Vietnam to manufacture small satellites

Vietnam plans to manufacture small satellites after 2010, chiefly to monitor natural resources and the environment for disaster prevention. The Vietnam Science and Technology Institute has submitted a plan to make two such satellites, each weighing around 100 kg. with a lifespan of five years. Total cost for the production of the first satellite is estimated at $20 million. Vietnam had also planned to launch its first communication satellite this year, at an estimated cost of $270 millin, but that has been delayed because it has not yet concluded negotiations with relvant countries over its orbit location, namely the U.S., France, Japan and Russia. (Xinhua Jan. 26).

Villagers riot in land dispute

Hundreds of villagers in Lai Yen commune of Ha Tay province burned down a local government building Tuesday (Jan. 25), in a dispute over land compensation. The crowd of mostly women and children used petrol to burn down the People's Commune building, along with the documents it stored. The villagers also threatened to kidnap commune officials if they were not better compensated for the land they had given up for the building of an industrial zone.

In a separate incident over another land dispute, a farmer burned himself to death last Saturday in a village in Ha Nam province, about 60 km. south of Hanoi. The body of 46-year-old Duong Minh was found in a graveyard of Bach Xa village, Hoang Dong commune, of the province, two days after he and other villagers were called to the police station and asked to pay $10 each for attempting last November to block the construction of an industrial park. In 2003, local authorities had appropriated 838,000 square meters of cultivation land in the area for the construction of an industrial park. The farmers who lost their land were compensated at $1.08 per square meter, which they felt was much too little. (Deutsche Presse Agentur, Jan. 28).