Today, Vietnam’s President Nguyen Minh Triet will visit the United States. This is the first time a head of state from Vietnam has visited the U.S. since before the end of the war in Vietnam in 1975.
President Triet is making the trip to reciprocate President Bush’s state visit to the communist-run country last November. While attending the Asia-Pacific summit in Hanoi, Mr. Bush told Mr. Triet to feel welcome to visit the U.S.
The two presidents are expected to sign a trade agreement in the White House today.
Vietnam is wooing the U.S. and the world with a breathtaking economy. And U.S. and international dollars are flowing into Vietnam. Intel Corp. started construction of a $1 billion semiconductor plant in southern Vietnam in April — just one example of huge U.S. investments in Vietnam.
Microsoft and Vietnam recently signed an intellectual property rights (IPRs) agreement — a breakthrough against pirating IPRs in Asia. Before Vietnam and Microsoft signed the licensing agreement, the software piracy rate in Vietnam was about 90 percent, one of the highest in the world, according to the U.S.-based Business Software Alliance, a piracy watchdog group. A version of Microsoft Windows can be bought on the streets of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City for as little as 50 cents.
Vietnam also has been forthright about reporting on the bird flu, something China has refused to do. And Vietnam has bent over backwards to help resolve U.S. and other allied POW and MIA cases.
Mr. Triet is expected to be greeted by protesters in the U.S. who support Vietnam’s dissident community and human rights activists. Despite plenty of good economic and other news from Vietnam, the country has an abysmal human rights record.
The protesters President Triet will probably see in Washington walk a tricky path. Ironically, although Mr. Triet will be free in the U.S. and undoubtedly well protected and cared for, Vietnamese Americans who engage in human rights advocacy face a strangely coercive dilemma. Many fear for their safety if they return to Vietnam to visit friends and family. Vietnam’s communist government frequently scoops up purported trouble makers and jails them without charges — often for stretches more than a year.
This has a very personal twist for me as my Vietnamese-born wife, now an American citizen, wants to show me the place of her birth. Many Vietnamese Americans naturally still call Vietnam “home,” even though they abhor the communist government and its human rights abuses.
But many Vietnamese Americans are shrewd business people who also see money making opportunities in Vietnam. They know if they speak out too loudly about human rights abuses in Vietnam, they will be subjected to the abuse when they visit “home.”
So many Vietnamese Americans are unable to speak out as much as they would like. This makes organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch extremely important.
On May 23, Amnesty International issued a blunt rebuke to Vietnam in its annual report, saying Vietnam had stepped up arrests or harassment of dissidents, religious adherents and members of some ethnic groups, while tightening media and Internet restrictions.
Much of this activity ramped up after President Bush visited Vietnam in November during the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference. Before APEC, communist Vietnam released many prisoners as an olive branch to Washington. After APEC, the communist government returned to its human rights abuses, even increasing the intensity of the repression.
On June 10, President Triet, with much fanfare in Hanoi, released “dissident journalist” Nguyen Vu Binh, a 39-year-old so-called “cyber-dissident.” His crime? Posting pro-democracy articles on the Internet.
“Nguyen Vu Binh is the communist gift to Bush for this next summit,” an aging veteran of Vietnam’s former democratic government told me. Scores of Vietnamese Americans have said to me, “Tell Mr. Bush and Dr. [Condoleezza] Rice not to take the bait again.”
OK, but we also have to be reasonable and rational. Many believe engagement with Vietnam and economic investment is the highway to an improvement in human rights and democracy in Vietnam.
The conflict between profits and speaking out on human rights in Vietnam goes to the core of Mr. Bush’s opportunity to openly and directly approach the issue with Mr. Triet. While U.S. investment, business and tourism dollars are flowing into Vietnam, forcefully linking that investment to reforming human rights in Vietnam is most appropriate.
Just as some are already calling next summer’s Olympics in China the “genocide games” because of China’s intransigence on the genocide in Darfur, the leadership in Vietnam can be encouraged to institute reforms now more proactively.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave us all a lesson in straight talk June 8 when he spoke to China’s President Hu Jintao directly about China’s “problems with the lack of democracy.”
Two days later, leaders in Sweden again directly confronted Mr. Hu on Darfur.
While in Prague earlier this month, Mr. Bush called for the “immediate and unconditional release” of many dissidents in countries such as Belarus, Myanmar, Cuba and Vietnam. Late in May, President Bush hosted at the White House four of the most prominent critics of communist Vietnam.
Now Mr. Bush has his opportunity to become “the human rights president” when he hosts Mr. Triet from Vietnam at the White House.
John E. Carey is the former president of International Defense Consultants, Inc. and is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.
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