Documents on Democracy

Issue Date July 2016
Volume 27
Issue 3
Page Numbers 186-88
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On April 30, Thich Quang Do, Supreme Patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, published a letter to U.S. president Barack Obama on the eve of his first visit to Vietnam. A leading human-rights advocate, Thich Quang Do spent nearly three decades in prison and is still under house arrest. Excerpts from the letter appear below:

I sincerely urge you to use your trip to speak out for the thousands of Vietnamese, young and old, men and women, farmers and workers, academics, journalists, bloggers and followers of all religious denominations who are suffering imprisonment, house arrest, assaults and harassments because of their engagement for religious freedom, democracy and the respect of human rights.

In recent years, Vietnam has opened its economy and become an increasingly active player in the Asia-Pacific region and on the global stage. But the government has made no attempt to open the political system, nor establish the institutions necessary to safeguard its citizens’ rights. Forty-one years after the end of the Vietnam War, we still have no free press, no democratic opposition parties and no independent civil society. Vietnam is a young country, and our dynamic young generation is using social media and the Internet to intercommunicate and learn new ideas. Yet this thirst for connectivity has led many into prison, condemned under archaic laws couched in Cold War rhetoric such as “spreading anti-State propaganda,” “undermining national solidarity,” or “abusing democratic freedoms to threaten the interests of the state.” Economic globalization has brought new challenges for our workers, many of whom endure sweatshop conditions and inadequate pay, yet have no free trade unions to voice their grievances and defend their rights.

As your visit approaches, human rights abuses are escalating in Vietnam. Promises of reform at the Communist Party’s XII Congress in January were not upheld, and a hardline leadership has now taken the [End Page 186] helm. The former Minister of Public Security is now the President, and the climate of repression is palpable. In March 2016, in the space of just two weeks, seven human rights activists were sentenced to a total of 22 years in prison simply for the legitimate exercise of their right to freedom of expression and assembly. New restrictive legislation has been adopted, such as the amended Press Law, the Law on Access to Information and Circular 13 on demonstrations outside court buildings, and a Law on Associations and a Law on Belief and Religion will come before the National Assembly this year, both of which are inconsistent with Vietnam’s obligations as a state party to the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. . . .

Vietnamese people welcome the strengthened relationship between the United States and Vietnam, and we believe it will help put our government on the path to reform. At the same time, we are convinced that this relationship is only sustainable if it is founded on the mutual respect of democratic freedoms and internationally-recognized human rights.

One of these rights—indeed the mother of all human rights—is the right to freedom of religion or belief. Vietnam is home to a wide diversity of religions, but it is in majority a Buddhist country. Over the past 2,000 years, Lord Buddha’s teachings of tolerance and compassion have shaped the culture and identity of the Vietnamese people, and inspired them with a spirit of liberty, social justice and independence that characterizes them today. It is precisely this culture of freedom and independence that the Vietnamese government is determined to stifle and suppress.

In your speech to the people of Cuba in March 2016, you said: “I believe in democracy—that citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear, to organize, to criticize their government, and to protest peacefully; that the rule of law should not include arbitrary detentions of people who exercise those rights. I believe that every person should have the freedom to practice their faith peacefully and publicly. And, yes, I believe voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections.”

We Vietnamese share these beliefs, and we will continue our peaceful struggle to realize them, whatever price we must pay. I urge you to stand by us, and speak out for human rights in your visit to Vietnam. By so doing, you will make this a truly historic occasion, one we will remember as a turning point in the movement for freedom and democracy in Vietnam.


On April 14, following the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, prominent Latin American political leaders and activists, including former Costa Rican presidents Oscar Arias [End Page 187] and Laura Chinchilla, issued a declaration calling for political andsocial opening in Cuba. Excerpts appear below:

We celebrate the growing process of normalization in Cuban-American relations and the willingness of other democratic governments to increase their interaction with the authorities in Havana. We see in this process an opportunity to encourage greater inclusion of Cuba in the world and improve the living conditions of its citizens.

At the same time, we condemn the ongoing systematic violation of human rights in the island; the persistence of a political model centered on the control by a single party; open repression against those who deviate from the official line; and continuing discrimination of Cubans against foreigners, in areas ranging from economic rights to freedom of access to communications and information.

It is time for an act of reciprocity with the democratic world, but above all, as an inescapable duty to their own people, the regime led by President Raul Castro should start a genuine process of political and social opening and listen to change initiatives of its citizens, while reactivating the timid economic changes announced with enthusiasm, but paralyzed amid rigidity, fear and bureaucracy. . . .

It is time to start to open the way, by recognizing at least the following guarantees for all Cubans:

  • Freedom of expression, understood as the right to seek, receive and send information, opinions and other content by any means without limitations, censorship or later repressions.
  • Freedom of association, assembly and demonstration.
  • Freedom of movement inside and outside the country.
  • The right to petition the . . . public authorities.
  • The right to elect and to be elected, in an atmosphere of plurality, for all public offices.
  • The right of not being arbitrarily arrested and detained, to have fair trials before independent courts and to have effective defense mechanisms.
  • The right not to be discriminated against in education, employment or social areas because of political or religious beliefs, or for any other reason.
  • The elimination of ideological control over education. . . .

None of these very basic rights, which are part of everyday life in the vast majority of our countries, can be exercised in Cuba. Even worse, those who dare to claim them are the subject of open repression and systematic marginalization. . . .

Although the world and particularly the United States, has increasingly opened towards Cuba, the regime has not opened to its own people, which, with some exceptions of privilege, remains mired in insecurity, controls, lack of opportunities and political and social asphyxiation. We must dismantle this closure; and the political, economic and social embargo against the Cuban regime must be eliminated. . . . [End Page 188]

In proclaiming these concerns, we express our desire that Cubans can build, in peace and freedom, a new democratic, peaceful and inclusive order.


Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party won the January 16 presidential election in Taiwan and was sworn in as president on May 20, becoming the island’s first female leader. Below are excerpts from her inaugural address:

Just moments ago, in the Presidential Office building, Dr. Chen Chien-jen and I were officially sworn in as the 14th President and Vice President of the Republic of China. We must express our gratitude to this land for nurturing us and to the people for placing their trust in us. Most importantly, we deeply appreciate the democratic institutions of this country, which have allowed us to accomplish Taiwan’s third transition of political power through a peaceful electoral process. We also overcame many uncertainties throughout a four months-long transition period that concluded peacefully today.

Once again, the people of Taiwan have shown the world through our actions that we, as a free and democratic people, are committed to the defense of our freedom and democracy as a way of life. Each and every one of us participated in this journey. My dear fellow Taiwanese, we did it. . . .

For the new democratic system to move forward, we must first find a way to face the past together. I will establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission inside the Presidential Office, to address the historical past in the most sincere and cautious manner. The goal of transitional justice is to pursue true social reconciliation, so that all Taiwanese can take to heart the mistakes of that era. . . .

Taiwan has been a model citizen in global civil society. Since our democratization, we have persisted in upholding the universal values of peace, freedom, democracy and human rights. It is with this spirit that we join the alliance of shared values and concerns for global issues. We will continue to deepen our relationships with friendly democracies including the United States, Japan and Europe to advance multifaceted cooperation on the basis of shared values. . . .

Democracy is a process. In every era, those who work in politics must recognize clearly the responsibilities they shoulder. Democracy can move forward, but it can also fall backwards. Standing here today, I want to say to everyone: for us, falling backwards is not an option. . . .

To build a “united democracy” that is not hijacked by ideology; to build an “efficient democracy” that responds to the problems of society and economy; to build a “pragmatic democracy” that takes care of the people—this is the significance of the new era. [End Page 189]

Copyright © 2016 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press