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Christmas Gift: U.S.-Vietnam Relations – Unlikely Partners?

By Jackie Bong-Wright

Propaganda Tour in the Christmas Month

Ambassador Ton Nu Thi Ninh, Chairwoman of the National Assembly’s Committee for External Relations, conducted an extensive propaganda tour in the U.S. November 30 to December 18. A well-wishing gift from the Vietnamese government to the American administration? Vietnamese here were alerted to her trip by Que Me (The Motherland), a Paris-based advocate for democracy and human rights in Vietnam, which spread the word over the internet. Her objective was to respond to the Bush administration, listing of Vietnam as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act. Cited were severe violations of religious freedom with specific incidents of persecution and repression of religious belief and practice.
Que Me laid the background for Amb. Ninh’s tour by giving ample examples of religious oppression since the Northern Communists took over the South nearly thirty years ago. It also noted that Ninh had declared at a conference in Vietnam, that Vietnam was “building a democracy with a one-party system … protecting the rights of a minority.” Vo Van Ai, head of Que Me, interpreted her to mean the rights of the 2,600,000 Communist cadres against the majority of 81 million Vietnamese people. He said that Vietnam sent her to sugar-coat the truth by intoxicating and duping Americans and overseas Vietnamese.
Ms. Ninh, a former Ambassador to Belgium and the EU, traveled to eight states and 12 cities, starting from the East coast. Her 36 speeches included Yale, Harvard, Vassar, Princeton, National Defense University, Cleveland State University, Notre Dame, the University of Iowa, the UCLA School of Public Affairs, and UC San Diego. She met with the Boston Globe, New York Times, the National Press Club in Washington, National Public Radio, the Washington Times and the Los Angeles Times.
She also talked to prominent think tanks, the Ford Foundation, the Asia Society and the Stanley Foundation in Iowa. She discussed issues of interest with Vietnamese American families, Vietnam’s largest contingent of the Vietnamese diaspora at 1.5 million. She said that it was an important constituency that influenced U.S.-Vietnam relations. Finally she courted the business community, promoting the Bi-lateral Trade Agreement (BTA) at the 3-year point of its implementation. Official figures show that Vietnam exported $4.5 billion to the U.S. last year, a rise of 329% from 2001. Vietnam’s imports from the U.S. also rose to $1.32 billion in 2003, up 186% from 2001. Thus, Amb. Ninh’s talks ranged from trade conflicts to human rights, educational exchange and social issues.
Ninh grew up in France and was educated at the Sorbonne and at Cambridge University. An astute spokeswoman with extensive academic, diplomatic, and legislative experience, she has represented Vietnam in international conferences on crucial issues with global implications.
In the past, Amb Ninh has not hesitated to criticize Western institutions. The Belgian publication Solidaire of May 2001 cites her as saying that multinational corporations control trade and scientific and technological transfers. She declared that capitalism and imperialism tended to exploit this “processus” and pretended to establish a “new world order.” She exhorted her Communist colleagues not to fight against globalization but against imperialism. She continued, “We should use globalization to benefit our own objectives, as we succeeded in doing in Seattle and Prague, where we used the internet to serve our side.” She urged socialist countries to develop a common front, in principle and in practice, to fight against the exploitation of imperialism.

Meet the Press in the Capital

At the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on November 12, Ambassador Ninh tried to persuade her audience of Vietnam’s efforts to improve relations during the 10 years since the U.S. stopped its embargo and the two countries normalized ties. She mentioned “irritants” regarding religious freedom and human rights. However, she saw a bridge of bonding and healing between American and Vietnamese veterans, and between Vietnamese students studying in American universities and the second generation of Vietnamese-Americans. The latter, now in their late thirties, were trying to help the less fortunate Vietnamese back home, she said.
She also saw a dramatic rise in bi-lateral trade and economic exchanges, and wanted to broaden this common ground. She wanted Vietnam to pursue negotiations and become a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and continue the dialogue with the U.S.
Finally, Ninh announced that Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange were filing suit against American chemical companies as part of this mature relationship, and insisted that the U.S. should recognize the losses the Vietnamese have suffered.
During the question period, Ninh was asked about the seven members of the Mennonite Church who were arrested and severely beaten in the central highlands of Vietnam, while their church was totally destroyed. She replied that the allegations of the State Department and Human Rights Watch were slanted or based on shortage of information. She said that these reports should be checked with the Vietnamese government first before lies were spread. She asked her own question, “What’s the position of the State Department on Agent Orange victims? What do you have to say about that?”
Replying to a question concerning the sanctions imposed on Vietnamese catfish exports to the U.S., Ninh said that the U.S. was a huge and promising market with complicated rules that Vietnamese exporters were not aware of. Vietnam’s enterprising solution was to sell instead to Europe as well as to local markets.
Asked why Vietnam had just refused a visa to Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California, Ninh said that this case was an exception, and that what Sanchez was promoting was not really a bi-lateral relationship. It was unfortunate that Sanchez catered only to constituency of Vietnamese-Americans in her area to get their votes. Ninh dared Sanchez to hold a dialogue on American soil with her instead of going to Vietnam. She said that from the track record of Sanchez’ previous visits, the Vietnamese government did not feel comfortable in welcoming her and did not think her visit would be useful.
On that note, reporter Al Kamen wrote in the Washington Post of December 13 that the United Airlines flight from California that just landed in Ho Chi Minh City was a historic event. “But another Californian, Rep. Sanchez, was not on that or any other flight to Vietnam. That’s because she’s persona non grata, unable to get a visa because she has had the effrontery to criticize the commies for blatant disregard of religious freedom and the usual violations of human rights.”
Another question was posed by Shandon Phan of Vietnamese American TV. “For the past three years since the passage of the BTA, Vietnam is exporting freely its intellectual products to the U.S. but maintains a monopoly and in effect, an absolute ban on many of these products from the U.S. Why continue to limit the free flow of information between the two people while the Vietnamese government takes full advantage of that freedom in America?”
Ninh replied that many American movies were imported to Vietnam as well as magazines like Times and Newsweek, but that there were certain limitations on foreign literature, not only from the U.S. but also from Europe.
Phan told this reporter later that “Madame Ninh’s reply was, at its best, a clever maneuver to run away from the question. So much for the Vietnamese government representative who likes to give the American media advices about being accurate, credible and straightforward,” he added.
Helen Ngo, a director of the Vietnamese Public Radio, raised the case of Father Nguyen Van Ly, a Roman Catholic priest. He was arrested and given a sentence of 15 years after testifying openly before U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. In May 2004, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the House Resolution 378 with almost unanimous vote of 424 to 1 to ask for the release of Father Ly. “Why does your government refuse to grant him freedom?”
Ninh said that she didn’t know all the details of Father Ly’s case, but said she had accompanied Senator Brownback to visit him in jail and that he was being treated more than decently. She claimed that he was not arrested on religious grounds but as a citizen who had broken the law and that his sentence had been reduced. She said that the next time around, she would come to the U.S. with a list of similar demands, but that these would go nowhere to promote the two countries’ relations.
Ms. Ngo said that the Ambassador was ducking the issue. She said that in October 2003, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that Father Ly’s imprisonment was in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Later, Ms. Ngo complained that the “time allocated was not enough for a rebuttal, therefore, Ninh came out the winner, giving people the impression that the Communist government was lenient in reducing Father Ly’s sentence. Ninh portrayed the victim as a criminal,” Ngo concluded.