Nguyen Cao Ky hits back at critics of his visit

Former South Vietnamese vice president Nguyen Cao Ky�who is currently on a reconciliation visit home for the first time in three decades�has said he is willing to help the Vietnamese government, formerly his bitter enemies, in the work of building his country's prosperity, RFA's Vietnamese service reports.

"I have already said that some day, if the situation is right, that I have a chance to return to help the country�especially in the field of economics, to help the people prosper and the country to get stronger. If I can, I will," Ky told RFA correspondent Do Hieu.

"I will go to the North, go to the East, visit the coastal areas, to observe, to see to what stage the country's economy has developed, what its future is. And truly, if government officials need my help, I'm ready to work with them," Ky said, adding that it was still early days, however.

Ky, 73, returned to Vietnam on Jan. 14 for the first time in 29 years, saying he wanted to put the past behind him. He escaped his native country in the closing days of the Vietnam War, which killed three million Vietnamese and more than 50,000 Americans. He will remain in Vietnam for several weeks, for the lunar new year holiday.

A former fighter pilot who sported sunglasses and purple scarves, Ky became prime minister on the back of a military coup in 1965 and served as vice-president from 1967-71. He now lives in southern California. Before his departure, Ky told RFA that Vietnamese ambassador to France Nguyen Dinh Bin had proposed the homecoming trip in July 2003.

His trip has been widely slammed by dissidents and Vietnamese living in exile overseas as a sell-out to the Communist regime in Hanoi. But Ky told RFA that he received a warm welcome in Vietnam itself.

"The old and the young, the people who met me, told me that they recognized me. They were happy to see me and welcomed me," Ky said. "Everybody told me that their lives are better than before and I think everyone seemed very happy and they didn't seem discontented."

Ky, whose swashbuckling image once earned him the nickname "Cowboy" among his own people, hit out angrily at reports that his invitation by Hanoi was a public relations exercise intended to show a more humanitarian side to the Communist regime. "With my return, I only hope to bring peace and unity for the great nation. Whosoever agrees or does not agree, that's his problem, but please don't distort the reason for my trip."

"Some said I begged to return, some said the government invited me to come back... If I begged to return, it is only for the country... And if the government invites me, it's because it is in the interest of the country," he said, slamming such suggestions as "nonsense reports."

He said he had not had chance to meet with any Vietnamese government officials yet on the subject of how best to help the country's economy. When asked about his April 1975 speech calling on South Vietnamese troops to stay and fight, made just before he boarded a helicopter to flee the country himself, Ky sidestepped the question.

"Stop, first, let forget about this past, this old story. Why talk about the tragedy that happened forty, fifty years ago," he said. "If a person keeps looking to and living in the past, he will not be able to do something for himself and for the country." #####


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