STATE DEPARTMENT —
Vietnam is taking the lead regionally on human rights related to LGBTI people, the U.S. State Department's special envoy on such matters said, just days before President Barack Obama is expected to focus on human rights during his first visit to the Southeast Asian nation.
“Vietnam is taking very constructive steps forward through engagement from government to civil society and with the media, and through very transparent discussions on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people," Randy Berry told VOA.
Berry, the State Department’s first-ever special envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons, added that Vietnam was “stepping to the fore of this issue” by trying to discuss a topic that neighboring countries still consider taboo.
Berry said Vietnam has revised its civil code to make it easier for transgender persons to alter their legal identity.
WATCH: Randy Berry on why protecting LGBTI rights is important
The efforts of U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius, a career diplomat who is gay, have tremendous potential to “change the hearts and minds” in a country with a nascent LGBTI rights movement, Berry added.
Osius and his husband arrived in Vietnam with their toddler son shortly before Hanoi abolished its ban on same-sex marriage. Later, they adopted an infant girl.
The Vietnamese government "continued to demonstrate an increased tolerance and respect for rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons,” according to the State Department’s annual human rights report that was issued earlier this year.
Obama will “address forthrightly” differences between the two former adversaries and continue to emphasize U.S. support for universal values, including inclusive governance, strong civil societies, fair labor practices and respect for human rights, according to senior U.S. officials.
“Real progress on protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, including through legal reform, is crucial to ensuring" that the U.S.-Vietnam relationship "achieves its full potential,” Daniel Kritenbrink, Asian director of the White House's National Security Council, said in a briefing to preview Obama’s Vietnam visit.
Washington is also urging Hanoi to release all political prisoners and cease its harassment of civil society activists.
Washington has expressed deep concerns about the case of Nguyen Van Dai, a human rights lawyer who was arrested in mid-December 2015 when he was preparing to meet European Union delegates on human rights issues.
Another high-profile case is the trial of blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh (also known as Anh Ba Sam), who was sentenced to five years in prison in March for what authorities called “abusing rights to freedom and democracy to infringe upon the interests of the state.”
Neighboring Cambodia on Wednesday welcomed the meeting of old enemies, but government spokesman Phay Siphan said that while the visit could “help with reconciliation of [the U.S.-Vietnamese] relationship,” the possible easing of the arms embargo was being greeted with caution.
"Cambodia is a country that prefers building peace, so we don’t support [changes to the embargo],” he said.
Cambodia is a close ally of China in the region, particularly on matters regarding territorially disputed waters of the South China Sea.
The U.S. embargo was imposed against Vietnam in 1984, following the deadly war that left millions dead. Vietnam has asked that it be lifted.
Scores of protesters were arrested when environmental rallies were broken up early this week in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in the wake of mass fish deaths as Vietnam is making preparations for Obama’s visit.
Professor Nguyen Manh Hung, an expert on U.S.-Vietnamese relations from George Mason University, said the millions of dead fish that have washed up over 200 kilometers of central Vietnamese coastline are posing the biggest test so far for the new government, which took office in April.
“The trip comes at an uneasy time for the authorities as they have to deal with the mystery disaster and dissatisfaction over the environment while trying to maintain order and prepare for the visit,” Hung said, adding that the Trans-Pacific Partnership and South China Sea also would be high on Obama’s agenda in Vietnam.
Trung Nguyen with VOA's Khmer service contributed to this report, which was produced in collaboration with VOA's Vietnamese service.