WASHINGTON (AFP) — They rub shoulders with US President George W. Bush and lawmakers in Washington but are shunned as "terrorists" by Vietnam's communist leadership -- members of US-based Viet Tan are stepping up their campaign for democratic reforms in their motherland.
Short for Vietnam Reform party, Viet Tan has built up a vast membership of Western educated Vietnamese spanning the globe and is fuelling an underground dissident network inside Vietnam.
Now, the group is boldly testing the limits of the authorities in Hanoi by secretly sending members to the tightly governed Southeast Asian state, taking the pro-democracy campaign right to the home ground.
Three of its members -- two Americans and a French -- were caught last month by the Vietnamese authorities together with three other Viet Tan associates -- a Thai and two locals -- in Ho Chi Minh City as they were preparing to distribute pro-democracy pamphlets.
One of the arrested Americans, a mathematician developing a machine to translate English to Vietnamese, was accused of entering Vietnam on a fake Cambodian passport.
All were branded "terrorists" in the state media and the arrests triggered protests from France and the United States, where lawmakers criticized Vietnam for what they call political and religious repression.
Hanoi has released one of the two Americans and the French citizen Nguyen Thi Thanh Van, a journalist with Radio New Horizon, whose nightly broadcast spreads Viet Tan's message to counter Vietnam' state-controlled media.
To highlight its growing influence in Vietnam, Viet Tan's chairman, Do Hoang Diem, said farmers who participated in land protests that journalist Van featured in her broadcasts came to the jail were she was detained to offer flowers.
"Viet Tan holds that the Vietnamese people must solve the problems of Vietnam," he told AFP.
"Change, therefore, must come through the power of the people in the way of grassroots, peaceful means," said Diem, 44, who met Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney at the White House earlier this year to seek action against Hanoi for cracking down on dissent.
Most of the leadership of Viet Tan were just teenagers or younger when the Vietnam war ended. Viet Tan's members in Vietnam include intellectuals, university students, and workers.
Diem as a 12 year old was among hundreds of thousands of "boat people" who fled to the United States in the late 1970s after the war fearing communist rule.
A masters graduate in management from the University of Houston, Diem quit as a senior health care executive to work full time in Viet Tan, whose name is a contraction of "Viet Nam" and "Canh Tan," which means wide-ranging reform and modernization.
"To support civil society in Vietnam, Viet Tan focuses on empowering the Vietnamese people through independent associations and a de facto free media," said Duy Hoang, 36, who also quit as an investment banker to concentrate as Viet Tan central committee member.
When its members were caught last month by Vietnamese authorities preparing pro-democracy leaflets, Viet Tan rallied 300 Vietnamese-Americans to stage protests in front of the Vietnamese embassy in Washington and organized press conferences with lawmakers to highlight their plight.
The lawmakers wrote letters of protest to the Vietnamese leaders and sought intervention by the Bush administration, which swiftly lodged a protest with Hanoi.
Republican lawmaker Ed Royce said he raised the issue with Vietnamese envoy in Washington Le Cong Phung but was told that Hanoi regarded Viet Tan as a "terrorist organization that had long advocated armed activities against the government."
Viet Tan said that while some of its members carried arms for self defense during its founding days in the 1980s, it has never pursued an armed struggle.
"Our activities for many years now have been promoting democracy by purely peaceful, non-violent means," Duy Hoang said.
Viet Tan members arrested in Ho Chi Minh City "didn't come armed with guns and ammo but leaflets and pamphlets touting democracy," Royce said.
Angered by what it sees as a breach of promise by Hanoi to embrace reforms when it joined the World Trade Organization a year ago, the US House of Representatives has passed binding legislation that will tie US foreign aid to Vietnam to its human rights record.
Viet Tan is now knocking on the doors of the Senate to do the same.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »