President George W. Bush and other leaders gathering in Vietnam this week must urge political reform and avoid handing Hanoi’s government a propaganda coup, exile activists said on Thursday November 16.
Bush, the second U.S. president to visit post-war Vietnam, was due to fly into Hanoi on Friday for the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
Vietnam exiles who have set up political parties among the 1.2 million U.S. residents of Vietnamese descent said they were apprehensive that the APEC summit and recent gestures by Washington would bolster the government but not advance political liberalization in the one-party state.
“It appears that the Vietnamese government is gaining a lot while giving up very little,” said Diem Do, chairman of the Vietnam Reform Party, a California-based group with chapters in Europe and Asia and supporters within Vietnam.
Do, 43 and born in Vietnam, said the U.S. State Department’s decision to remove Vietnam from its list of “countries of particular concern” for repressing religious freedom was premature.
He said he had “mixed feelings” because the APEC coming-out party for Vietnam has seen dissidents in Hanoi picked up by police or locked down in their homes.
“What happened in the last few days is a preview of what might happen after APEC is over, after they get what they want,” warned Do, whose party and other Vietnamese-American groups lobbied Bush to raise human rights during his trip.
Younger Vietnamese Americans, too young to remember the war, increasingly support engagement to accelerate economic development, said Hai Ton, 26, president of the Union of North American Vietnamese Student Associations.
The group of young professionals and students believes the reform of religious and civil rights policies that helped Hanoi get off the U.S. blacklist need “broader implementation on an accelerated time frame,” he said.
Vietnamese elders take a harder line.
Staunch Hanoi foe Chanh Huu Nguyen, 57, said his advice to Bush was: “Be careful if he stands in front of Ho Chi Minh’s picture, because the communists will use President Bush’s picture” to boost their image among Vietnamese youth.
Nguyen’s controversial party Government of Free Vietnam is accused by Hanoi of attempting to bomb Vietnamese embassies in Thailand and the Philippines and other violent plots.
Seven affiliates of the group were jailed by Hanoi last week on charges of plotting “terrorism” against the government, although one U.S. citizen among them has since been deported.
Nguyen, speaking by telephone from “Little Saigon” in Garden Grove, California, rejected the charges and said seeks a peaceful replacement of communist rule with democracy.
Nguyen’s group was “very upset” at the U.S. decision to take Hanoi off the religion blacklist but “very happy” that U.S. legislation aimed at normalizing U.S.-Vietnam trade ties has failed so far to win approval from the U.S. Congress.
“People in free countries think economics will bring freedom and political change to Vietnam, but you can ask a million Vietnamese people and they will say ‘No’,” he said.