Guest Commentary

Senator Thanh Hai Ngo

The Truth About Vietnam

I was at an embassy function recently and listened to speeches on what we must do with North Korea. There was talk of goodwill and engagement and warm, empty gestures. It upset me.

Canadians share a kind of naïvety about this world; we shrink from frank discussion of human rights for fear of hurting people’s feelings, and prefer sanitized talk about trade rather than prison camps.

For me, this is a bitter pill. I know how communists work. My family fled Vietnam in 1975 and has never returned.

We lived in Saigon; my father worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I followed in his footsteps and worked in the department. I was young then, fresh from school after graduating from the Sorbonne in Paris. My parents did not belong to any political party.

When my country fell in ‘75 I was working as a press attaché at the Vietnamese embassy in Bangkok. To return home would have brought instant arrest; communists hated diplomats second only to South Vietnamese army officers. I was stateless, but managed to find my way to Canada.

I knew friends and colleagues who could not escape. They were not tortured right away. First they were instructed to report to a certain office; then they were sent to “re-education” camps to “retool” their thinking; then they were imprisoned, in chains.

Some survived; a few escaped. One colleague was tortured so badly he can barely walk to this day. Others hid in the villages and tried to erase their past. I lost contact with many of my friends after 1975.

Vietnam, China, North Korea: all have labour camps. All abuse human rights and rule of law. Perhaps these realities are too raw for Canadians. Instead, we presume common interests and points of goodwill that do not really exist. These are not normal societies as you and I know them; normal gestures are pointless.

Governments promote trade with communist countries, but there is no evidence this diminishes the power of police states or has ever closed a single prison camp.  They fill their pockets with dollars, and we fill our marketplace with goods made by cheap labour – 50¢ an hour compared to ten or twenty dollars in Canada.

Trade is important, but my interest is freedom.  If we are going to do business with these countries, we have the opportunity to protest the conditions of their people. I know it’s delicate – I am a former diplomat – but it can be done effectively.

When I was in the company of diplomats at that embassy function in Ottawa, I told them what I’ve now told you. We cannot be bullied by North Korea. We cannot be cajoled into giving them aid that will be confiscated by the Party, or hectored into treating them as a functioning society.

Human rights must be a cornerstone of diplomacy, and Canada should never remain silent when others lose their freedoms.

(Editor’s note: the author is a Conservative senator from Ontario and sponsor of Bill S-219 An Act Respecting A National Day Of Commemoration to observe the anniversary of the 1975 collapse of South Vietnam each April 30. Senator Ngo’s commentary was originally published June 28, 2015)

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