Thursday, October 15, 2009

Freedom of Speech in Vietnam and at Home

After reading in today's NY Times that the US embassy in Hanoi condemned the arrest and conviction of non-violent peace activists, i thought i would write the ambassador to intervene on my behalf here in the United States.

Oct 15th, 2009

Dear Ambassador Michael W. Michalak,

It was with great interest that i read in today’s New York Times that the United States, through your embassy in Hanoi, condemned the arrests and convictions of nine non-violent democracy activists, as well as the violent expulsion of Buddhist monks from the Bat Nha monastery.

As a practitioner of Zen Buddhism and a follower of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings on peace and non-violent activism i was encouraged to see this principled denunciation of human rights violations by the government of Vietnam. Here in the United States, freedom of speech and the ability to gather non-violently to express our views and to ask for redress of grievances is not only a cornerstone of our democracy, but is protected by our Constitution. i agree with you completely and unconditionally, that “no individual should be arrested or jailed for exercising the right of free speech”, although i was unaware that the “right of free speech” was considered a human right and even communist governments were expected to allow their citizens to peaceably assemble and that their speech was protected by international human rights commitments and the rule of law. This is fantastic news.

Of course, i was not in least surprised by the statement released by Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry, saying in effect, that the U.S. was “interfering in the internal affairs of Vietnam”. This seems to be the common response of Communist regimes worldwide. Nonetheless, i applaud your efforts.

While it may be an uphill battle to convince a Communist regime of the right to free speech, i have a request that may bear fruit much more quickly. As a non-violent peace activist here in the United States, i have been arrested and convicted of various false charges at least 6 times since early 2002, as i peaceably assembled in protest of the occupation of Iraq and the torture of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. As i faced charges in various D.C. courts, prosecutors and judges summarily dismissed my claims of “the protected right of free speech”. You may be unaware of this, but our own government is doing everything possible to suppress my rights as well as the rights of other non-violent peace activists here at home. As you stated in your condemnation to the Vietnamese authorities, “The activists were simply expressing their views peacefully and posed no threat to Vietnam’s national security.” The same could be said of us. As you are obviously aware, a democracy without free speech and the right to peacefully assemble begins to resemble any one of the many unsavory governments around the world.

i implore you to send a letter to the White House and any and all jurisdictions that may benefit from your words, which are a strong reminder to United States authorities of our commitment to human rights, the rule of law, and democracy.


Johnny Barber

(Original press release from the embassy in Hanoi: )