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Michael Michalak, New Ambassador to Vietnam

By Jackie Bong-Wright

Warm Reception

“I am asking for the support of the Vietnamese-American community in working with me to broaden economic and human rights development in Vietnam. I will also focus on the important aspect of education, and I will try, during my three year-term in Hanoi, to double the number of Vietnamese students receiving scholarships to come to the U.S. to study.” Thus spoke newly-appointed U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Michael Michalak at a reception hosted by Dr. and Mrs. Nguyen Quoc Quan on August 10, where some 200 guests, mostly from the area’s Vietnamese community, had come to meet him.
Michalak said that the role played by the Vietnamese-Americans in the U.S., whom he called “Ambassadors of Vietnam,” presented an impetus for the U.S. and Vietnam to improve their bi-lateral relations. The diplomat’s positive demeanor and smiling face seemed to offer a new chance for the Vietnamese-American community across the nation to have a voice in the development of relations between the two countries. Many Vietnamese here believe the U.S. government has persistently ignored them.
A career Foreign Service Officer with extensive experience in Asia, Michalak, pronounced Mi-ha-loc, was from July 2005 the Senior U.S. Official to APEC. He was a key figure in organizing with Vietnam last year’s APEC Summit, which heads of state, including President Bush, attended in Hanoi. In his over 30 years of service with the U.S. Department of State, he has worked in Sydney, Islamabad, Beijing, and Tokyo as well as Washington.
Among the invitees at the event were Ambassador Mike Kozak and Patricia Davis of the National Security Council; Brett Blackshaw, Vietnam Desk Officer at the Department of State; former Senator Leslie Byrne; Bui Diem, former Ambassador of Vietnam to the U.S.; many prominent Vietnamese leaders in the Washington area, and a dozen media representatives.

Facing hard tasks ahead

The guests who arrived hoping to hear from the new Ambassador himself were not disappointed. Michalak made remarks, then answered questions as one guest after another trooped up to the outdoor microphone.
Asked how he could deliver on promises on which his three predecessors had failed, the Ambassador replied that he would persist in a dialogue with the Hanoi regime on human rights, and would stress that advances in human rights would lead to economic gains for Vietnam as well.
The Vietnam market, he said, represents a great opportunity for U.S. companies. Vietnam had a GDP of $61 billion in 2006, and a young, dynamic, and industrious population of 84 million. Vietnam was now a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Since the U.S.-Vietnam bilateral trade agreement was signed in 2001, trade had increased from $1.2 billion to $9.6 billion. The U.S. is Vietnam’s top export market and, according to Agence France Press, “its fourth largest foreign investor, and Vietnam expects to attract at least 15 billion dollars this year.” Vietnam’s economy is growing at over 8 percent a year, second only to China.
But problems in the areas of transparency, rule of law, trading/distribution rights and intellectual-property rights protection have hampered U.S. business with Vietnam. And the outgoing U.S. Envoy, Michael Marine, said in early August that the lack of progress on human rights in the Communist country was the biggest disappointment of his three-year tenure. “I wish I could say it’s improving, but I can’t,” he said at his final media briefing in Hanoi.
“To the extent that we are able to understand the Vietnamese legal system, there are laws on the books that allow the authorities to move against people for expressing their opinions, for organizing in any way and for calling for political change. Those are fundamental human rights that I strongly believe are universal and should be enjoyed by the people of Vietnam.”
Asked whether he would travel to all of Vietnam’s 59 provinces and meet with the people to understand their problems, Michalak said that he wanted to meet Vietnamese everywhere. Another guest hoped the new envoy would follow up on the month-long land protest that had occurred in front of the National Assembly building in Saigon. Farmers pressed for compensation for land seized for industrial uses by corrupt officials.
Cuong Nguyen, with the Helsinki Human Rights Committee, asked whether the new Ambassador would raise with the Communist regime cases of the imprisoned pro-democracy leaders, including journalists, lawyers, and writers whose only guilt was translating messages concerning human rights or talking about a multi-party system and of Catholic priest Nguyen Van Ly, who was mistreated in open court in Hanoi a few months previously. In his reply, Amb. Michalak said that he would do whatever he could to promote human rights in Vietnam.
A Christian hill-tribe montagnard from North Carolina who had spent ten years in jail and had undergone torture said that his son was now in prison and his wife and family were being persecuted back home. He asked whether the Ambassador would negotiate for the release of his son and help his family reunite with him in the U.S. The Ambassador promised that he would try his best to look into the matter.
Another guest, Bob Senser, former Foreign Service Officer, asked why literature, books, CDs, and news articles from Vietnam could be exported freely to the U.S., but Vietnam forbade the same kinds of American exports into Vietnam. The Ambassador agreed that free trade demanded free exchanges of this kind.
Asked about human trafficking and the official export of over half-a-million laborers by the government of Vietnam, the Ambassador said that this was a growing concern that the President and the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Office were trying their best to combat.
Knowing that there wouldn’t be enough time for everyone to ask questions, some organizations slipped envelopes with questions and recommendations to the Ambassador before he departed. The National Congress of Vietnamese-Americans wrote, “The Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) is a dictatorship that has lasted sixty-two years, even longer than the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It is one of the purest one-party states on earth – less democratic than Cambodia … or even Burma. We share the conviction that the more involvement that the United States has in Vietnam … the more leverage the U.S. should have in talking to Hanoi about human rights and other civic freedoms that are universally shared by the civilized world.”
The evening closed on an optimistic note, with the Vietnamese community wishing the Ambassador a fruitful journey and significant progress during his Vietnam tour.