A senior U.S. diplomat says Vietnam must make "demonstrable progress" on human rights in the coming months, if it wants to deepen its relationship with the United States, a former wartime foe.
In an exclusive interview with VOA, acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Scott Busby said he stressed the importance of human rights to Vietnamese officials on a trip to Vietnam last week.
Busby visited the country from October 29 to November 2, traveling to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to meet representatives of the government and Vietnamese civil society groups.
US calls for action
In an interview Wednesday, Busby said the United States needs Vietnam to show signs of progress on human rights in the "near term."
"Such signs would include releasing some people who have been detained or imprisoned for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression; signing, ratifying and implementing the convention against torture, lifting any and all restrictions on the Internet, enhancing the state of religious freedom, and allowing civil society to operate freely," said Busby.
Busby said he also "strongly encouraged" Vietnam to begin working with four international rights investigators appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.
The Vietnamese government's Washington embassy did not provide a comment on the talks with Busby when contacted by VOA.
Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang recently said his government has made "sustained efforts to protect and promote human rights." He made the comment in a landmark meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House on July 25.
The meeting earned Sang the honor of being only the second Vietnamese President to hold talks with a U.S. president in Washington since the former enemies normalized relations in 1995.
Sang said Vietnam and the United States still have differences on human rights and held "straightforward, open discussions" on the matter.
Some U.S. lawmakers and rights groups accuse the Vietnamese government of intensifying repression of political dissidents and religious figures in recent years.
Focusing on arrests
Busby said arrests and harassment of Vietnamese social activists were a "primary topic" of his meetings with government officials.
"They did share some information about who was arrested and who was in custody and why they were in custody. I would say, as a general matter, the government officials characterized all of their actions as efforts to enforce their laws and to protect their national security," he said.
He said protecting the work of Vietnamese civil society groups is a high priority for Washington.
"We are stressing to the government the importance of the activities that civil society is engaged in, whether it is religious practice, exercising rights to free speech, working on human rights issues, or organizing humanitarian activities. We have clearly indicated the esteem in which we hold these activities. We do provide some programmatic support to civil society as well, although I can't get into the details," said Busby.
Engaging Vietnamese activists
Busby said he met with a "wide array" of civil society members and was impressed by what he called their "energy, optimism and courage" in the face of government restrictions.
Busby said those constraints affected how he conducted his meetings.
"One does have to tread carefully. The government is not allowing civil society to do all that it wants to. And indeed there were some individuals who were not able to meet with me because of those restrictions. We did not inform the government of whom we were meeting with. We went ahead and tried to meet with whoever was willing to meet with us," he said.
One Vietnamese blogger who met the U.S. official in Ho Chi Minh City on Friday is Pham Chi Dung. Speaking to VOA by phone, Pham said he tried to help Busby understand what he and other activists want to achieve.
Rights movement's aims
"The main goal of civil society in Vietnam is to help resolve social, economic and political issues. 'Civil society' helps to voice people's concerns regarding the nation's sovereignty, basic human rights, land rights of farmers and legitimate rights of workers, as well as [their concerns about] corruption," said Pham.
Pham said those who want to help Vietnamese activists should be careful about the kind of assistance they provide.
"Vietnam's civil society does not want financial support from the United States or any foreign country, but rather moral support for civil society-related activities such as establishing civic culture or civic forums both online and offline. If we get support financially, we will be accused of receiving money from foreign countries with the aim of overthrowing the government," he said.
Pham said he told Busby that Burma is the best regional model for Vietnam to follow in terms of democratic development. A Burmese civilian government took office in 2011, ending decades of military rule and initiating political reforms that have won growing support from the West.
Busby said he discussed Burma as one model of a transition from an authoritarian to a free society.
"I don't remember discussing it as the best [model], because there are other examples like Indonesia that I think could be drawn on. We did talk about the positive developments in Burma and what might be learned from how that could be applied to Vietnam," he said.
Busby said Vietnamese officials also promised to receive a visit from one of the U.N. investigators whom he encouraged them to co-ordinate with: the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights Farida Shaheed of Pakistan.
The other three investigators include Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression Frank La Rue of Guatemala, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association Maina Kiai of Kenya, and Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers Gabriela Knaul of Brazil.
Vietnam is seeking a seat on the 47-member Human Rights Council in a U.N. General Assembly vote to be held on November 12.
The U.S. diplomat said the Vietnamese government told him it would like U.S. support for its candidacy. But, he said Washington does not divulge how it is going to vote on such matters ahead of time.
Additional agenda items
On other issues, Busby said Vietnam "reaffirmed its commitment" to joining the U.N. convention against torture.
Busby also asked officials and activists about the government's August decree restricting Internet access. He said he learned that the measure is "still in the process of being implemented" and was not aware of any cases to which it has been applied so far.
In the area of religious freedom, the diplomat said he urged Vietnam to speed up the registration process for churches throughout the country.
Busby said he hopes to return to Vietnam next year.
Busby spoke about his visit with Pham Chi Dung only after the Vietnamese blogger had talked about the meeting in an earlier interview with VOA. Busby wouldn’t provide details about the meetings he held with other activists in Vietnam.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Vietnamese service. Tra Mi contributed from Washington.