For decades, successive American administrations have overlooked human rights abuses and political repression in pursuit of wider objectives with former battlefield adversary Vietnam.
The Barack Obama administration loosened trade rules and lifted a weapons embargo so Washington could develop closer ties with Hanoi, while gaining no promises on political reform in return.
Donald Trump, since becoming US president in early 2017, has barely mentioned human rights, including when he visited Vietnam in November last year. Domestic politics were seldom referred to during visits by other leading American officials.
The same goes for the recent visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, part of his Asian tour that included trips to North Korea and Japan. It marked Pompeo’s first visit to Southeast Asia since becoming America’s top diplomat in May.
At a meeting of business leaders in Hanoi on Sunday, Pompeo described the country’s economic growth of recent years as a “miracle” and claimed Vietnam could serve as a good example of how North Korea can develop, should the ongoing denuclearization talks progress as Washington hopes.
“In light of the once-unimaginable prosperity and partnership we have with Vietnam today, I have a message for Chairman Kim Jong-un: President Trump believes your country can replicate this path,” Pompeo stated on Sunday, referring to the North Korean leader.
The message to Pyongyang was clear: a communist nation and former foe can become a key American ally. Vietnam is now arguably America’s closest partner in Southeast Asia.
But the message to the Vietnamese, both the ruling Communist Party and pro-democracy activists, was equally unambivalent: the American government is willing to overlook Vietnam’s human rights abuses even more so now for the sake of its talks with North Korea.
Indeed, if Vietnam is “a model for aspiring nations,” as Pompeo said on Sunday, then it would be better to focus on Vietnam’s more positive aspects, like its economy, and not its negative points, like political repression.
“When the leaders in Hanoi go to bed at night, the notion of conflict with America is the last thing on their minds. Instead, they rest with a certainty that America has no interest in reopening the old wounds of the past,” Pompeo said in his speech.
All of this comes amid a massive crackdown on dissent launched by the Vietnamese government beginning last year. Human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists have been arrested en masse in recent months, with an estimated 130 political prisoners in detention. The figure continues to rise each week.
Last month, nationwide protests enveloped Vietnam as demonstrators opposed the creation of three new special economic zones which many viewed as akin to selling Vietnamese sovereignty to China, its northern neighbor.
Many also protested against a new cybersecurity law, enacted days after the protests, that will severely restrict free speech online and could lead to even more people being imprisoned for critiquing the one-party state.
In that context, Pompeo’s failure to mention human rights and democracy has caused a stir on social media.
A Facebook post from the account of US Ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink, posted on early Monday morning, reportedly contends that Pompeo said when in Hanoi: “The United States will continue to work for a strong, prosperous and independent Vietnam – one that engages in fair and reciprocal trade, contributes to international security, and respects human rights and the rule of law.”
When this passage was translated into Vietnamese on the post it didn’t include the words “human rights,” say sources.
Moreover, the official transcript of Pompeo’s speech, published on the State Department’s website, cuts out large portions of this passage, including the mention of human rights.
It remains unclear whether Pompeo actually did make a comment on human rights or not. The US Embassy in Hanoi did not reply to Asia Times’ queries on the transcript.
While social media may have been abuzz with the apparent controversy, not all were bothered about what Pompeo said or didn’t say.
“I don’t care much about his words… I care about how the Vietnamese people recognize their own rights and how to fight for these rights,” said Nguyen Chi Tuyen, a prominent human rights defender who goes by the online name “Anh Chi.”
Pompeo also didn’t publicly mention the ongoing case of William Nguyen, a 32-year-old American citizen who was arrested during last month’s protests and remains in jail. Video footage shows him being beaten by police and plainclothes thugs.
He later appeared on state television to express “regret” over his actions, though some analysts think this apology might have been coerced.
There is speculation that Pompeo privately discussed this issue when he met Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong over the weekend, though at present there is no indication that Nguyen will be released from jail or allowed to return to America.
There is also speculation that the case was discussed when Deputy Prime Minister Vuong Dinh Hue visited Washington in late June, where he met with Pompeo and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, as well as Deputy National Security Advisor Mira Ricardel.
At a meeting with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Hue reportedly asked for a new dialogue mechanism to improve communication with Vietnam’s Finance Ministry.
Some analysts see double standards when it comes to how Washington now approaches democracy-building in Southeast Asia. In March the USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier, arrived in Danang for a visit that was meant to symbolize improved defense relations between America and Vietnam.
Around the same time, however, Washington was busy imposing sanctions on neighboring Cambodia after its government dissolved the country’s largest opposition party months earlier.
Washington has intensified its sanctions against the Cambodian government ahead of a general election this month, but has shown an even greater willingness to overlook the repressive actions of Vietnam’s Communist Party.
For some analysts, the double standard is geopolitically driven. Cambodia is deeply intertwined with China, its largest benefactor, and there’s little indication that relations with America will improve under the Hun Sen government.
Vietnam, however, remains committed – for now – to opposing China’s expansionist ambitions in the South China Sea, parts of which are claimed by Hanoi. For Washington, Vietnam is a key ally in combatting the geopolitical rise of China and, as a result, its domestic actions can be overlooked.
While military relations were more clearly explored when US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis visited Vietnam in January, Pompeo also extolled the fact that “our two militaries are looking at ways to improve our security cooperation even further.”
But Pompeo’s visit to Hanoi made clear that Vietnam serves an additional geopolitical role. If Washington wants to hold up Vietnam as an exemplar of how North Korea could one day develop, it makes sense for American officials not to criticize Hanoi’s abuse of human rights supporters or its blatant attack on what’s left of the public sphere.
Pompeo said that Vietnam’s Communist Party realized that it “could reform, it could open up and build relationships, without threatening the country’s sovereignty, its independence, and its form of government.”
Because much of Pompeo’s speech was clearly meant for North Korean ears, his claim that America doesn’t threaten Vietnam’s form of government – meaning a one-party system dictated by a Communist Party – might have been intended to placate Pyongyang’s fears that the US secretly plans for regime change in North Korea.
That said, it was also understood by some pro-democracy activists in Vietnam that Washington has no problem with the country’s one-party system and little intention to support those who are fighting for multi-party democracy.
“Secretary Pompeo’s exhortation to North Korea to follow the example of Vietnam conveniently ignores that Hanoi’s single-party dictatorship is arguably among the most rights-repressing states in Southeast Asia,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia Director for Human Rights Watch.
“The Trump Administration is shredding human rights both at home and abroad, and nowhere is that clearer than in Vietnam, which has gotten a free pass to imprison dissidents, threaten Internet freedom and harass Vietnamese human rights defenders overseas.”