Vietnam War Over, Battle still On
By Jackie Bong-Wright
Thousands of Demonstrators Greet Vietnam’s President
As an Asian man entered the White House June 22, shouts of “VietCong Go Home,” “Free Father Ly,” and “Human Rights for Vietnam,” welcomed the first president of Communist Vietnam ever to visit a U.S. president. In past weeks, the Vietnamese Community of the Washington area mobilized over a thousand demonstrators to protest against President Nguyen Minh Triet. They waved South Vietnam’s yellow flag, in itself a protest against Vietnam’s current Communist red flag.
Lai The Hung flew over last week from France to support the showdown with President Triet and his 100-strong Vietnamese government and business delegation. The Communist contingent got a full-fledged exhibit of “Made in USA” democracy. Hung held high the photo of Father Ly, a Catholic priest, being muzzled in a Vietnamese court recently by security police.
Nguyen Van Tang came from Ontario with his friends from the Vietnam Veterans Association, arriving by bus after an all-night drive. Other demonstrators, including an 87-year old woman, waited in the hot sun for two hours, the woman sporting a sign bearing Triet’s black skeleton defaced with a stop sign. A younger woman in a wheelchair held a photo of Triet, with the words “Triet Liar.”
To ease the tension here before Triet’s visit, President Bush, Vice President Cheney and high-ranking officials at the White House and National Security Council had invited in Vietnamese leaders to get their assessment on the situation in Vietnam. Dr. Nguyen Quoc Quan, Do Hoang Diem, Le Minh Nguyen and Do Thanh Cong were the first to set foot in the Oval Office. Then came Tran Thai Van (R-Calif) and Hubert Vo (D-Texas), elected state delegates, and Dina Nguyen, Garden Grove City Council member, with another group of activists. After a private meeting with the Vice President, Dr. Nguyen Xuan Ngai of San Jose said, “In the past, the U.S. government turned its back on repression, but we are confident that President Bush will bring up these (human rights) issues.”
In fact, in the Oval Office, President Bush echoed the crowds by pressing Triet to address human rights abuses and open up Vietnam’s one-party system. He also urged the Communist head of state to permit opposition and end crackdowns on religious minorities. Triet replied at press conferences and interviews: “We are determined not to let those differences affect our overall, larger interest.”
Dismissing all criticism, Triet went on to assert, “Everyone in prison in Vietnam is a criminal. Vietnam’s human rights record does not need to be fixed. Vietnam has its own legal framework, and those who violate the law will be handled.” Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif) called Triet’s response “very evasive.”
The State Department’s latest human rights report was also critical of Vietnam, “Individuals were arbitrarily detained for political activities. Persons were denied the right to fair and expeditious trials. The government limited citizens’ privacy rights and freedom of speech, press, assembly, movement, and association. The government maintained its prohibition of independent human rights organizations.”
In May, Amnesty International reported over 30 cases of arrests since Bush’s attendance at an APEC meeting in the fall of 2006 in Hanoi. Among them were three prominent Vietnamese dissidents, including Father Ly, sentenced to eight years in jail, and pro-democracy activist lawyers Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan, both given five years for “conducting propaganda” against the state.
Reporters Without Borders asked Bush to intervene to free nine journalists and “cyber-dissidents” detained in prison.
Attacks On Many Fronts
Thousands of demonstrators confronted Triet wherever he went. Local Vietnamese papers reported 4-5 thousand protestors in New York, Washington, and California, many wearing T-shirts showing Father Ly muzzled in court by a plain-clothed policeman.
Nguyen Thanh Binh, chair of the Vietnamese Community in Massachusetts, said, “130 of us demonstrated in New York yesterday, and we all came straight here by bus. Our adrenaline is still high after seeing hundreds of other demonstrators from Georgia, Texas, Chicago, Ohio, and as far away as California.”
Rong Nay, head of the Degar Montagnards from North Carolina, a tribal minority whose leaders have been persecuted and imprisoned in Vietnam, has for years protested Communist oppression. His group banners proclaimed, “Stop killing Montagnard Christians, ” and “Return our land to our people.”
John Molloy of Pennsylvania, Chair of the National Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans Coalition, was also in the crowd. He said his Coalition comprised 94 organizations and over 300,000 members nationwide. He said he didn’t want the 58,000 Americans who lost their lives fighting for democracy in Vietnam to have died in vain.
Triet’s first U.S. stop was the Asia Society in New York on June 20. Duc Tran and his friend Jerry Kiley, a Vietnam War veteran, attended a welcoming luncheon there as paid guests. With records as active protestors, both were on Secret Service lists but nonetheless made it through security. Although seated farthest from Triet, Kiley managed to approach the honor guest table and yell, “Free Father Ly, free the Vietnamese people, and free the live American POWs you are still holding.” The two were removed, questioned and escorted out without being arrested.
Both men were seen the next night at a vigil on Capitol Hill “to pray for the 83 million Vietnamese who have been repressed under Communist rule for the past 32 years in Vietnam,” they said. Tireless, they were also present early the following morning at the White House, holding signs. Kiley gained notoriety in 2005 when he threw red wine at Vietnam’ prime minister Phan Van Khai at a dinner in Washington.
Bush’s directness the following day at the White House didn’t seem to change Triet’s political stand. Unyielding, he tried to keep the focus on trade. It reached almost $10 billion last year after a 2001 bilateral trade agreement was signed. The U.S. exported $1 billion in goods to Vietnam and imported $8.4 billion, a ten-fold increase since Bush took office. The U.S. is Vietnam’s biggest market, and Vietnam is the fastest growing economy in Asia after China.
At the end of last year, the U.S. removed Vietnam from the State Department’s list of Countries of Particular Concern, and approved Vietnam’s entry into the World Trade Organization. Both countries have just signed a Trade Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA). Vietnam’s purchase from the U.S. include a $1 billion contract with Boeing aircraft for planes that are to fly non-stop between Vietnam and the U.S.
New agreements have also been reached in nuclear energy and the sale of non-lethal American military equipment. Joint ventures between Chevron and Vietnam Petrochemical and between Microsoft and the Vietnamese Bank of Agriculture are being negotiated. Bush for his part discussed continuing efforts to find the remains of U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam, and told Triet that Congress had recently passed a bill to help Vietnam with the side-effects of Agent Orange, a dioxin sprayed by U.S. forces in the 1970s to defoliate jungles.
During an hour-long private Congressional meeting, however, senior U.S. lawmakers gave Triet an earful. They complained of sweeping crackdowns on emerging pro-democracy movements that resulted in waves of arrests and detentions of political dissidents, civil right activists, labor union organizers, writers, and journalists.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) had already resigned as Chair of the U.S.-Vietnam Caucus to oppose human rights abuses. He said, “They’re being told that the biggest single obstacle to further progress in the relationship, and especially in the economic relationship, is the crackdown on human rights.” Added Rep. Ed Royce, “We’ve got to see a stop to this conduct if this relationship is going to improve. The release of two dissidents last week was window dressing to paper over harassment of political opponents.”
For his part, Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose) urged the State Department to “adopt the re-designation of Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern for its continued oppression of religious freedom and political repression, as recommended by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.” Rep. Loretta Sanchez, accompanied by several Vietnamese leaders, met with Nancy Pelosi to tell her of their concerns about Vietnam’s human rights violations.
Prior to Triet’s visit, on April 19, the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a resolution condemning repression in Vietnam and demanded the release of prisoners of conscience. The bill was introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R- NJ), who said, “Father Ly’s sham trial proves once again that the regime in Hanoi is not committed to the human rights reforms they promised as a precondition for normalized trade relations.”
House Democrat Zoe Lofgren of San Jose said she declined to participate in the meeting with Triet “because, as far as I can determine, he’s a liar and a thug.” She has introduced a resolution in the House condemning human rights abuses and removing normal trade relations unless Vietnam releases political and religious leaders.
Before returning to Vietnam, Triet was exposed to more protests at Dana Point, a beach resort in California, and California is home to over 200,000 Vietnamese immigrants. Nearly 4,000 anti-Communist protestors from San Jose, San Diego, and Orange County showered the unwanted guest with nationalistic songs blaring through loud speakers mounted on trucks.
Posters, too, expressed the protestors’ deep resentment. “Ho Chi Minh = Killer.” “Triet Go Home.” “Down With Communism.” “Shame on You, Triet.” Triet found little agreement that Vietnamese here considered his visit a “bridge of friendship and reconciliation towards their homeland.”
Fully 70% of U.S. news reports on Triet’s trip highlighted the human rights issue, overlooking the new trade and investment pact between the two countries, according to John E. Carey, a free-lance writer. “The bilateral relationship could be in for rocky times ahead, particularly if Bush is serious about prioritizing democracy and human rights on a par with economic matters in his government’s official dealings with Vietnam’s Communist rulers.”