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Top Communist Vietnamese Leader to Make Historic U.S. Visit  

Pham Nam Thu fled Vietnam just before North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates of what was then the presidential palace of South Vietnam's capital, Saigon. Today, he's a banker in the eastern US state of Massachusetts and belongs to a group called the Vietnam Restoration Party.

It's one of scores of tiny Vietnamese-American organizations that fervently oppose the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam. He and others -- including American Vietnam War veterans -- plan to hold protests when President Bush sits down with Prime Minister Khai [Tuesday, June 21] at the White House. “We are disappointed because this meeting will send a negative message to the people who are struggling for democracy in Vietnam. It is in contrast to the policy that President Bush has promoted to bring democracy to every corner of the Earth. Vietnam remains one of the worst dictatorships in Asia.”

Mr. Thu says the visit validates the Vietnamese government -- a regime that is often criticized

Vietnamese-Americans hope the visit will lead to better human rights for their bretheren back home
by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for what they call an abysmal human rights record.

But China's human rights record was also atrocious in the late 1970s argues Jerome Cohen, a New York University law professor specializing in East Asia. At that time, the US government decided to normalize relations with China, helping pave the way for reforms. “In China, however great the defects still are with respect to political freedom and the rule of law, the situation overall in human rights is much better than it was 27 years ago, largely because China has become part of the world community. US-China relations have surged. And in many have ways, people lead better lives and have many more choices and opportunities.”

Professor Cohen says improved relations between the United States and Vietnam can lead to improved human rights in Vietnam. He adds that the US government also wants to strengthen ties with Vietnam to counter China's growing influence.

Van Tran, the first Vietnamese-American Assemblyman in the California state legislature, agrees. But he adds that the chances are better if the Bush administration implements, what he calls, a rigorous 'carrot and stick' approach [i.e., promising to reward or punish depending on future behavior]. “The United States can use its economic leverage to get real concrete and substantive concessions on the areas of human rights and democracy. The 'carrot' in this case is the huge economic potential and market that the United States can offer to Vietnam. The aid, currently, is a relative trickle compared to what the United States can do.”

Mr. Tran represents the largest population of Vietnamese-Americans in California. He says those in his district have mixed feelings about the Vietnamese leader's visit. But he adds that most support it, as long as President Bush asks tough questions. “The Vietnamese-American community throughout the United States is more concerned about what's going on inside Vietnam and what the US government on this occasion of its interaction with Vietnamese authorities here in the United States will do to address some of those concerns. There have been untold numbers of political and human rights dissidents who are imprisoned for speaking up for democracy in Vietnam. This visit is a golden opportunity for the United States and Vietnam to reconcile long-standing issues.”

Many analysts say the visit is the latest step in a natural thawing of relations between the former enemies. The military conflict -- called the "Vietnam War" by the United States and the "American War" by the Vietnamese -- lasted more than a decade and claimed some 1.5 million Vietnamese and nearly 60,000 American lives. Washington and Hanoi re-established diplomatic relations 10 years ago and former President Bill Clinton visited the country in 2000. In 2001, the United States established normal trade relations with Vietnam.

Chuck Hagel fought in the Vietnam War as a sergeant in the US Army and was wounded by a land mine. Later, he became an influential member of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, has a special interest in Vietnam. “I think anyone who has served in a foreign country, but particularly in a war, always, in the end after you are able to distance yourself from the horrors and suffering of war, wants to see change come to that country. And you want growth and freedom to come to the people of that country. In spite of the setbacks Vietnam has had because of that communist government, they've made progress. It is not unlike what we see in China and in other communist countries. One finds a schizophrenia there. Technically, it is an authoritarian, communist government. Yet there is a free market system in many ways. The two are incompatible. And the one that will go is the communist government.”

US-Vietnam relations generally are improving, but there are flashes of tension. In 2002, for example, the Vietnamese government reacted defensively to any suggestion that its human rights record could be improved, saying the United States was inciting unrest within Vietnam. Human Rights Watch says Vietnam's track record on respecting religious freedom, especially that of minority Christians, continues to deteriorate. The Vietnamese government contends it is upholding its constitution, which guarantees religious freedom.

Currently, the United States is engaging in talks with Vietnam over its designation as one of the worst violators of religious rights in the world. Many analysts and Vietnamese-Americans are asking whether the time Prime Minister Khai spends with President Bush will make a difference on such issues. The visit, though expected to stir haunting war memories and controversy, may help bring the people of Vietnam and the United States together in a way few could have imagined three decades ago.