LET us not over-react to last week’s key news event in Southeast Asia.
Yes, it is true that the outrage expressed by regional leaders was astonishing and signified the forcefulness of their character, but even so, we should all try to remain calm.
Worse things happen, although at the moment it is hard to think what they might be.
First, however, we should heed the voices from on high.
And few come higher than that respected and highly educated believer in human rights and freedom of expression, Dr Surin Pitsuwan, the secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
As befits the stature of his post, Surin did not hesitate to deliver one of his most eloquent statements.
Equally trenchant were ASEAN’s other renowned defenders of liberty and democracy, such as President Benigno Aquino of the Philippines, Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Even Singapore’s always articulate arbiters, like Foreign Minister George Yeo and erudite academics like Kishore Mahbubani, Simon Tay and K Kesavapany echoed the same message.
So, too, did eminent figures in the international sphere like Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, and Navanethem Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
When they all heard the shocking news last Monday that Cu Huy Ha Vu, a prominent Vietnamese legal activist, had been given seven years in jail for advocating peaceful multi-party democracy, they all rose up in unison.
And expressed total silence. The silence of the lambs.
It is these eminent persons and the sheer unmitigating hypocrisy that they represent that disgusts us the most – certainly far more than the thuggish behaviour of our neighbour’s ruling tyrants in Hanoi.
Just consider the decision of the court president, Nguyen Huu Chinh, who was clearly acting under orders from the party’s more senior backroom troglodytes.
He handed down the draconian seven-year prison term simply because the mild-mannered Vu had criticised Hanoi’s political leadership and advocated replacing its one-party regime with a multiparty system.
Vietnam’s ASEAN partners were, as usual, cravenly mute in the face of this monstrously offensive injustice, but at least a few Western diplomats and NGOs registered their disgust.
In the United States, a State Department spokesman said: “Vu’s conviction runs counter to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and raises serious questions about Vietnam’s commitment to rule of law and reform.”
He added: “No individual should be imprisoned for exercising the right to free speech.”
Actually, this is the official position of ASEAN – and thus of Vietnam itself.
Indeed, Vietnam’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga asserted that citizens of her country did enjoy full rights to freedom and democracy.
As for Vu’s stiff jail sentence, Nga said: “Vietnam handles violations in accordance with Vietnamese and international law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
This would be an appropriate and impressive response, if it were true.
Unfortunately, it is a lie.
Article 19 of the ICCPR, of which Vietnam is a signatory, mandates that: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression.”
That freedom is defined as “the right to hold opinions without interference.”
Like thousands of his compatriots, Vu would merely like to exercise this freedom – as he is now, technically, encouraged to do under the ASEAN Charter, which, again, Vietnam has ratified.
Yet when he and Le Cong Dinh, Thich Quang Do, Pham Minh Hoang and other lawyers, academics, journalists and plain folks, try to do that, they find they have bought a one-way ticket to perdition.
Still, as they shuffle off to their cold cells, they will be reassured to hear the silence of the lambs ringing in their ears.
Congratulations, Surin. Congratulations, Abhisit. Congratulations, Aquino and all the rest of you. Baa, baa, baa.