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.”
what the writer here is really stating is that these riots are being pushed by the cia for regine change to put in place a regime friendlier to the us political interests in the aisa arena.
Americans tried to destroy Vietnam with spraying chemicals and killing innocent Vietnam farmers. They violated all human rights in the Vietnam war. Now USA want to preach Vietnam about human rights. Vietnam has developed without any American help and will never forget the atrocities of Americans.
Also to let its intention of an imminent invasion known as things have not been going well for the US after the long break from its modus vivendi (Invasion and mass murder). This time the target is going to be right in front of China to provoke Xi to fire the first shot and the long awaited apocalypse will follow
Well said, sir….sigh..looks like they just loves u.s. orange juice, y..????????????tq ..have a nice day sir
From Vietnam to North Korea from Sinapore, to Saint Petersberg to Europe is a good trade route to match up with China’s 21st-Century Maritime Silk Route Economic Belt.
USA and DPP in Taiwan are the same, both of them are detached from reality, and constantly claim credit where credit is not due. All Asians know their prosperity has nothing to do with the USA but depends on China. However the Americans have been laying and making fake news, it seems the Americans do believe that laying and making fake news are their birth right, whatever the Americans said it should be taken as given truth.
By the way, what happens to Myanmar(Burma), Aung San Suu Kyi meets all the Western values and is a distinguish Western democracy student with a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Shouldn’t Myanmar deserve American money and aids more than North Korea? Abandoning Aung San Suu Kyi is not going to make American wining any credibility in North Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, and other nations in SE Asia.
David Hutt is living in the past, he should know the American regardless Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump or anybody else will not utter a single word on human rights in all countries in SE Asia if they want to have any hope to pull those nations away from Chinese orbit. Besides the American themselves are not democracy, so the American is quite comfortable to go into the bed with non democratic nations like Vietnam, North Korea, etc.
I know for a fact that the American police shoots and kills thousands of unarmed black Americans every year, that the US navy buried alive 17 American sailors last year when their destroyers were rammed by cargo ships, and that the US Administration put children in cages like wild animals are put in cages. These are abuses of human rights that the author fails to point out.
Civet cat Poopers…
They’re such forgetful jokes…
No more need be said…
***Americans tried to destroy Vietnam with spraying chemicals and killing innocent Vietnam farmer****
How many 『millions of women’s and children’s, young men’s in their primes who were forced into military service both north and south have perished in the Vietnam War』 as compared to threes week border war with China? Yet, the Vuetnamese had systematically been indoctrinated to believe that China is numero uno…
The thanks we get for standing steadfast with them throughout their struggle for national salvation.
Civet cat pooppers is Just that: bunch of poops. They even smell like it….
It seems the affect of China in Vietnam is huge, the US can’t step in anymore. poor vietnamese
It’s a fact the PLA crushes students in Tianamen Sq, had E Turkmenistan undr lock down and gaoled more people than the rst of the world combined.
Not forgetting those in looney bins, they are considered mad because they dont beleive in the CCP
Flora de la Sinensis Maybe because they remember Chinas domination before the imperialist age…… get out to SE Asia, find China & Chinese are hated everywhere.
They also seem to prefer bigger US weapons to your small Chinese ones.
Meesta Cross Invasion and mass murder, just like in Tibet and E Turkmenistan ?
…it seems joe that in your logic everybody is not democratic countries and china is? ha..ha..ha…guess you need to see a shrink or better still for you to be in a mental asylum. you are a mental case obviously
Good update report on the Asia-Russia and Asia EU rail routes. Ref: The Journal of Commerce, June 25, 2018 pp. 38-39
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