Vietnam's Phony War on Terror

Sometimes being Orwellian is too much even for Communists. So it is with news that Hanoi has changed the charges against a U.S. citizen it arrested in April. Nguyen Quoc Quan is no longer accused of "terrorism" for his pro-democracy activism, but rather with plain old-fashioned "attempting to overthrow the government."

Mr. Quan, a naturalized American and father of two, was detained in April when he landed in Saigon intent on discussing peaceful ways to advance democracy. He was arrested on similar grounds in November 2007 and spent six months in jail before being released and deported.

Hanoi has branded Viet Tan, the political party to which Mr. Quan belongs, as a terrorist group. But Viet Tan appears nowhere on any international terrorism watch list. It's a peaceful advocacy organization. The last time Mr. Quan was arrested—also on "terrorism" charges—he and his friends were caught smuggling in a book on nonviolent resistance.

Associated Press/ Vietnam News Agency
Vietnamese-American pro-democracy activist Nguyen Quoc Quan.

Hanoi's decision to scrap its terrorism ploy does not augur well for Mr. Quan's imminent release. The subversion law under which it is now charging him has also proved an effective tool to stifle dissent.

But this is at least a positive development in other respects. It shows that the U.S. is making Hanoi squirm over the case. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned Mr. Quan's case in meetings with her Vietnamese counterpart last month, and Members of Congress have raised vocal objections to his detention. New U.S. Ambassador David Shear continues to raise a range of rights issues.

Washington's willingness to press Hanoi on Mr. Quan and other cases matters at a time when the regime is eager to build closer military ties with the U.S. to offset Beijing's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea. It's also helpful for Washington to push back on attempts by unsavory regimes—China included—to redefine "terrorism" to suit their own repressive ends. A war on terror is meaningless if it catches peaceful advocacy groups such as Viet Tan.

Hanoi's newfound honesty offers limited comfort to Mr. Quan and his family. Vietnam's increasingly multifaceted relationship with the U.S. can't improve further as long as he sits in jail.


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