KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — U.S. President Barack Obama has just wound up a visit to Vietnam that saw two former antagonists, who for two decades have been growing trade partners, draw even closer with the dropping of a U.S arms embargo against the communist ruled country.
“He himself said the welcome of Vietnamese people has touched his heart. [He was] very moved and very thankful,” said Vietnam’s new Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, in an interview with foreign media given on Wednesday. Obama was greeted by thousands of well-wishers on the streets of Hanoi, the capital, and Ho Chi Minh City, the biggest city and economic hub of the country, which was previously known as Saigon.
However, the visit was marred by signals that Vietnam, a one-party state, remains unwilling to cede ground on freedom of speech, with several noted advocates of democratic reforms prevented from meeting with Obama as scheduled and with the government staging a sham election to the country’s communist-run parliament on the day of Obama’s arrival.
One positive note prefaced Obama’s arrival in Vietnam last Sunday, with the release from jail of one of the country’s most determined dissidents, Father Nguyen Van Ly. The Catholic priest was first imprisoned by the communist regime in 1977, two years after the end of the Vietnam War, and had spent much of the intervening 38 years in jail or under house arrest.
Father Ly had been one of Vietnam’s most outspoken critics of one-party rule and the restrictions on freedom of speech that rule entailed, but was freed close to the end of his current sentence as an apparent good-will gesture in advance of Obama’s visit to Vietnam. He had fallen ill in prison and had gone on hunger strike several times over the years during his long detentions.
While Catholics are allowed freedom of worship in Vietnam, tensions between the Church and state have lingered since the end of the Vietnam War, with Catholics often perceived by the northern Vietnam-dominated communists as aligned with or sympathetic to the losing southern Vietnamese.
In recent years, as Vietnam has become more prosperous — in tandem with the communist government allowing the development of an increasingly dynamic, albeit crony-dominated economy — clergy and parishioners have clashed with authorities over land rights around churches and land grabs in villages, and more recently have taken part in protests over government mishandling of water pollution.
Paul Nguyen Thai Hop, Bishop of Vinh in the center of Vietnam, wrote in a May 13 open letter that “we cannot remain indifferent to the disaster of environmental pollution which not only is destroying the sea areas in Central Vietnam but also causes a long-term disaster to the whole nation.”
On May 7, Father Joseph Nguyen Van The from Bac Ninh Diocese in northern Vietnam was beaten by masked assailants while on his way to say Mass. Father Van The had spoken out against mining interests in the region, and the attack was a reprise of a common tactic deployed in recent times by state security and bodyguards linked to commercial interests, with several dissidents beaten up in the weeks leading up to January’s five-year communist party congress, when the party chose a new leadership for Vietnam for the next half decade.
But Vietnam’s GDP per capita has more than doubled in the past 10 years, as the country’s rulers mixed political autocracy wit economic liberalism, while the poverty rate has plummeted from 60% to 14% since 1993. Vietnam hosts major factories for companies such as Intel and Samsung, and the young, urban population is well connected to the outside world via smartphones and ubiquitous social media.
The president ended his visit to Vietnam with a lively “town hall” style meeting with young Vietnamese, the high point of which was the president encouraging a 26-year-old female rapper to perform, during which Obama spoke up on the importance of civil liberties.
U.S. politicians who served in Vietnam, such as Secretary of State John Kerry, former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey were pleased with Obama’s visit, suggesting in a New York Times commentary that it was a watershed and reminding that “twenty years ago, there were fewer than 60,000 American visitors to Vietnam annually. Today, there are nearly half a million.”
“Twenty years ago, the U.S.’ bilateral trade in goods with Vietnam was only US$450 million,” they added. “Today, it is 100 times that. Twenty years ago, there were fewer than 1,000 Vietnamese students in the US. Today, there are nearly 19,000.”
However other American lawmakers, both Democrat and Republican, were not impressed, saying that by ending the arms embargo, Obama had ceded a crucial bargaining chip with the Vietnam government, without getting much by way of civil reform in return.
Rep. Adam Lowenthal, D-Calif., said in a statement that “I am very disappointed that we lost yet another opportunity to elicit any kind of commitment from the Vietnamese government on improving the human rights of the Vietnamese people.”
Added Lowenthal, “By any measure, Vietnam has made no recent progress toward respecting the rights of its own citizens. Just before President Obama’s trip, the government suppressed protests over an environmental disaster in four central Vietnamese provinces and then conducted highly-staged elections which excluded any candidate not approved by the Communist Party.”
But the visit and the end of the arms embargo will help the U.S. and Vietnam forge a closer military relationship, with both countries concerned about the growing military strength and assertiveness of China.
Vietnam and China have had an uneasy relationship since the end of the Vietnam War, with armed conflict erupting briefly between the two nations in 1979 and a major deterioration seen in recent years as China lays claim to almost all of the South China Sea — where Vietnam has claims of its own.
The U.S. regards the sea, through which around 30% of world trade passes, as an international waterway, while other countries, including U.S. ally the Philippines, have also clashed with China over territorial rights. China regards any U.S. presence on the South China Sea as an interference, and the two sides have come dangerously close to military clashes on several occasions, most recently last week when a Chinese jet allegedly flew too close to a U.S. surveillance plane.
Simon Roughneen has reported from Vietnam several times,
most recently in January 2016. He filed this report from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.