For the first time since the end of the Viet Nam War, the US will receive the head of state for the Southeastern Asia nation on an official visit to Washington DC. President Bush will meet with Prime Minister Phan Van Khai to discuss further normalization of relations. Khai will tour several US cities on this trip, which should create plenty of tension between the Communist Party apparatchik and the Vietnamese ex-patriate community here in the US:
Khai, who is due to meet President George W. Bush at the White House on Tuesday, is expected in his landmark trip to push for closer ties with the United States and in turn face demands for progress on human rights.
Accompanying Khai on the week-long trip is Deputy Prime Minister Vu Khoan, Finance Minister Nguyen Sinh Hung and other senior officials, as well as 80 entrepreneurs.
His visit caps a series of reconciliation moves since the Vietnam War which claimed the lives of more than 58,000 US soldiers and one million Vietnamese civilians and soldiers before it ended in 1975.
Specifically, Viet Nam wants to gain entry to the WTO and take advantage of the lower barriers to trade that membership would provide. The Communists have found out in Viet Nam what all such systems eventually discover -- without profit motive, production can never meet demand. That's why Khai's entourage includes more than 80 "entrepeneurs", although such people still must work within the restrictions of a centrally-planned economy and the oppressive political regime of Hanoi.
In fact, that last issue will get plenty of attention for Khai, as Bruce Kesler of the Augusta Free Press pointed out in an e-mail to me this morning. Besides the Vietnamese who escaped the horrors of the Communist takeover of the South in 1975 in boats bound for the US, others have already demanded that Bush hold Khai accountable for Viet Nam's embarrassing human-rights record before granting further economic assistance to the Communists. Our own State Department report on Viet Nam from 2003 makes this point rather clear:
The Government's human rights record remained poor, and it continued to commit serious abuses. The Government continued to deny the right of citizens to change their government. Police sometimes beat suspects during arrests, detention, and interrogation. Several sources also reported that security forces detained, beat, and were responsible for the disappearances of persons during the year. Incidents of arbitrary detention of citizens, including detention for peaceful expression of political and religious views, continued. With some exceptions, prison conditions remained harsh, particularly in some isolated provinces, and some persons reportedly died as a result of abuse in custody. Prisons usually required inmates to work for little compensation and no wages. The judiciary was not independent, and the Government denied some citizens the right to fair and expeditious trials. The Government continued to hold a number of political prisoners. The Government restricted citizens' privacy rights, although the trend toward reduced government interference in the daily lives of most citizens continued. The Government significantly restricted freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association. The Government continued its longstanding policy of not tolerating most types of public dissent and stepped up efforts to control dissent on the Internet. ...
The Government restricted freedom of religion and operation of religious organizations other than those approved by the State. In particular, Buddhists, Hoa Hao, and Protestants active in unregistered organizations faced harassment as well as possible detention by authorities. The Government imposed some limits on freedom of movement of particular individuals whom it deemed threatening to its rule. ...
There were reports that children worked in exploitative situations. The Government recognized child labor as a problem and attempted to address it. Trafficking in women and children for the purpose of prostitution within the country and abroad continued to a serious problem, and there were reports of the trafficking of women to China and Taiwan for arranged and forced marriages.
Nothing much has changed in Vietnam in the time since the State Department wrote that damning set of allegations. Nor are they the only ones making these allegations. Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a British non-profit watchdog that reports on oppression of Christians worldwide, reports on the case of a Protestant pastor that Khai's government holds in a mental hospital despite being perfectly sane, reminiscent of the Soviet manner of dealing with dissidents:
The story, which sounds much like a 1950’s Soviet-era script, begins when the Rev. Than Van Truong of the Baptist General Conference house church organization, wrote some religious articles and sent some Bibles as gifts to Vietnam’s top officials. He was subsequently arrested for “crimes against the state”, and imprisoned without trial in May 2003. After his release, he was re-arrested for trying to leave his residence in the south to visit his ageing and ailing mother in the far north of Vietnam. Officials had refused to reply to his several requests for permission to visit his mother, which is still required in this communist country.
In September 2004, the public prosecutor of Dong Nai Province diagnosed Pastor Truong as “mentally ill and delusional”, and had him committed to the Bien Hoa Mental Hospital in Dong Nai Province. Injected with drugs, he was at first reduced to a lethargic state, but after a time medication was reduced and he improved. In March of this year, he began writing lucid petitions about his case and asking for intervention. His case became well known after visitors to Mennonite prisoner-of-conscience Ms. Le Thi Hong Lien, also committed to the mental hospital, helped bring his situation to light.
The Rev. Truong’s case was initially presented to the EU, to Canada and the US, after which some countries engaged in quiet diplomacy on his behalf. A lawyer also agreed to help him. The lawyer obtained an admission from authorities that the criminal investigation had found nothing on him and was closed. He also got an agreement from the hospital to stop giving the pastor unidentified psychotic medications. The lawyer requested the hospital to give Pastor Truong an independent medical examination, which would clear him, and then release him. After an American diplomat tried to visit Pastor Truong on May 27, hospital authorities summoned Pastor Truong to a “medical examination” the following week.
The examination took the form of an interview with some eight people, some doctors and others unknown. They questioned the Rev. Truong mostly about his religious beliefs and his credentials as a pastor, which his interviewers refused to accept. The director of the hospital, a Dr. Tho, led the interview. During an earlier interview, Dr. Tho had confirmed twice to Pastor Truong that he was in the mental hospital because he had “committed a crime [and] broken the law” even though the public prosecutor of Dong Nai had confirmed that the investigation against him had found nothing and was closed. According to Pastor Truong, Dr. Tho acted more like a public security branch officer than a doctor. In what was apparently sometimes a bizarre argument between several Marxists and a lone Christian that had nothing to do with mental health, the doctors’ perspectives dominated the discussion. They decided his firm Christians beliefs and his evangelistic attitude toward them qualified him as being delusional.
While open dialogue on normalization can still be helpful, it will be important for Bush to recognize that Khai represents everything that we have fought against for the past 65 years. Despite Dick Durbin's idiotic speech on the Senate floor, this is the true face of fascism and oppression, and the efforts of John Kerry and John McCain to create the necessary groundwork for this meeting should be called into question by anyone who finds this kind of oppression intolerable. Not only that, but Bruce Kesler's sources question whether Khai even has the power to make the kind of changes we would find necessary for further normalization. Kesler forwarded me this insight from a recent ex-pat with close ties to senior officials within Viet Nam:
The western media is most of the time wrong when thinking about Khai (or any other Prime Minister) as "reformists". By their own function, when a hi-ranking party member is working in the government and interacting with the local civil society or the international environment, they have to talk and to think pragmatic. But the real decision makers are party leaders in different party committees. They are similar to the Board Directors who never live and/or work with the society but give directives to the CEOs.
Khai is a Southerner bureaucrat and not an ideologue, as corrupted as anyone in the system, was under the leadership of Linh, then Vo Van Kiet, never is or was a rival of Kiet or Linh. Has no real power with the system that is still controlled by the North. The North-South competition is one - but not the only one - rationale of the local politicking.
In 1987, when Linh became the General Secretary of the VCP he had to live in Hanoi. He brought with him six staff members, three of them were rejected and sent back to Saigon. Instead, his personal secretary, someone like the Chief of Staff in the US, was an assigned conservative member from the North, later on the Party boss of Hanoi. Conclusion: the number one of the Party is still prisoner of the collegial system and is not free to move. How about Khai, the number three and ready to go next year? Can we seriously deal with him?
Just before this trip, Khai proposed the liberation of Pham Hong Son, to show a good gesture to the US, the request was rejected. In 1999, when the Security guys imprisoned a Vietnamese-Dutch successful businessman to confiscate his assets (the famous case of Trinh Vinh Binh), Khai sent a note to the Minister of Public Security: "Release him, he is innocent". The guy was instead tried and had a harder sentence: 11 years of imprisonment! After escaping for Vietnam likely thru bribery, Trinh Vinh Binh fought back. He is now drafting an American law firm in DC to attack the VN Government - under the international law and the bilateral trade agreement Hanoi signed with the Dutch government - for a stake of USD 100 million.
Conclusion: It is ridiculous for President Bush to meet Khai. A loss of time with no decisive consequence. As usual, our Embassy in Vietnam is not doing their job.
Or a case of two Senators doing some grandstanding to make themselves look farsighted and magnanimous at the expense of thousands of victims of oppression.