In Vietnam, Obama Offers a Critique on Human Rights

By Brooks Boliek
In Vietnam, Obama Offers a Critique on Human Rights U.S. President Barack Obama (R) pays his respects with Abbot of the Jade Emperor Pagoda Thich Minh Thong (C) during a visit to the Jade Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, May 24, 2016.

U.S. President Barack Obama isn’t giving up on the human rights agenda in Vietnam, but it’s unclear if his visit will have any impact on the Southeast Asian country whose dismal record includes an estimated 100 or more political prisoners.

Obama on Tuesday met with a handful of human rights activists and admonished the government in an address that was televised nationally.

“Upholding these rights is not a threat to stability but actually reinforces stability and is the foundation of progress," Obama said in a speech from Hanoi’s National Convention Center that was attended by government officials and students from five universities.

“Vietnam will do it differently than the United States does,” he said. “But there are these basic principles that I think we all have to try to work on and improve.”

Obama told the audience that economic growth and human rights are intertwined.

“When there is freedom of expression and freedom of speech, and when people can share ideas and access the Internet and social media without restriction, that fuels the innovation economies need to thrive,” he said.

“That's where new ideas happen.  That's how a Facebook starts.  That's how some of our greatest companies began -- because somebody had a new idea.  It was different, and they were able to share it.”

Hanoi usually blocks any criticism of the state from airing on state television, and while broadcasting Obama uncut could be read as a good sign for an improving human rights climate, the government also prevented some prominent activists from joining a meeting of rights defenders with Obama.

Activists blocked

It was a point Obama emphasized after his meeting with the advocates in the JW Marriott hotel, as he revealed that some advocates were prevented from attending.

“I should note that there were several other activists who were invited who were prevented from coming for various reasons, and I think it’s an indication of the fact that, although there has been some modest progress…there are still folks who find it very difficult to assemble and organize peacefully around issues that they care deeply about.”

According to media reports, businessman and politician Nguyen Quang A; prominent blogger and journalist Pham Doan Trang; and attorney Ha Huy Son, who specializes in defending dissidents in court, were kept from the meeting by various security forces.

Human rights activists said Vietnam’s actions on Tuesday underscore their argument that the White House made a mistake when it lifted the decades-old arms embargo against Vietnam on Monday without winning concrete concessions on rights issues.

“Vietnam has demonstrated itself that it doesn’t deserve the closer ties the U.S. is offering,” John Sifton of Human Rights Watch told The New York Times. “Detaining or preventing civil society from meeting President Obama is not just an insult to the president, it’s also a human rights abuse in itself, a deprivation of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of movement.”

Warm reception

While Obama may not have won over critics, he appeared to win over the Vietnamese people. They lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the U.S. president, and he appeared to return their warmth.

Fans of the president who had gathered outside of the Bun Cha Huong Lien restaurant screamed as he left the street-side diner after a $6 meal of noodles and beer with celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. He shook hands as he made his way to the presidential limousine as flashes from cell phones lit up the night.

Obama was also cheered by more than 2,000 well-dressed Vietnamese, at the National Convention Center when he appeared, and then again when he told the audience that: “Vietnam is an independent and sovereign nation, and no other nation can impose its will on you.”

The remark appeared to be targeted at China. While Beijing and Hanoi are close politically as communist regimes, there is a great animosity among the Vietnamese toward their larger neighbor.

Vietnam and China have rival claims in the South China Sea, and the Vietnamese and the U.S. see closer cooperation there as a way to curb China’s aggressive moves in the region.

Obama’s decision to lift the arms embargo could be interpreted as a shot at China as much as it is an attempt to build a stronger relationship with Vietnam, analysts say.

Trans-Pacific Partnership push

The U.S. president also used the opportunity to push for the 12-nation trade accord known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

“Vietnam will be less dependent on any one trading partner and enjoy broader ties with more partners, including the United States, and TPP will reinforce regional cooperation,” he said. “It will help address economic inequality and will advance human rights, with higher wages and safer working conditions.”

While Obama did not win any concrete human rights promises, he continued to push the idea that Vietnam will come around on human rights as the nation gets further woven into the international community of nations.

“It will take sustained effort and true dialogue where both sides continue to change,” he said. “But considering all the history and hurdles that we've already overcome, I stand before you today very optimistic about our future together.”

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