Vietnam: How Far Should U.S Push Rights Issue?

July 25, 1993|By MARK MATTHEWS

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- President Clinton appears to have dropped back from another campaign position in the move to normalize relations with the government of Vietnam.

As a candidate last October, Mr. Clinton promised his administration would "strongly support the aspirations of the Vietnamese people for human rights, and for freedom and democracy in Vietnam."

"Unlike President Bush, it is my firm belief that the issue of human rights should be part of the discussion when addressing the issue of normalization with Vietnam," he wrote to Quan Quoc Nguyen, an Annandale, Va., internist whose brother is among the most prominent of Vietnamese political prisoners.

But in his 2 1/2 -page statement July 2 removing a barrier to new International Monetary Fund financing for Vietnam, the issue got only a passing mention. In the penultimate paragraph, Mr. Clinton said a team he is dispatching "will also raise with the Vietnamese continuing human rights concerns and press for progress in the areas of basic freedoms, democracy and economic reform."

Improved human rights was not among the four areas of "tangible progress" he demanded before advancing relations further. The four areas all dealt with Vietnamese cooperation in resolving outstanding POW and MIA issues.

The president's statement is the latest indication of how human rights has been submerged in the debate over normalization of relations with Vietnam. The issue is overwhelmed by powerful political pressures coming from two directions: families searching for evidence of soldiers missing or held prisoner after the war and American businesses eager to grab emerging opportunities as Vietnam opens its state-controlled economy to foreign investment.

Mr. Clinton's muted stance raises the additional irony that his administration has said it wants to make human rights and progress toward democracy a pillar of its foreign policy. His policy also contrasts with the administration's tougher human rights stand toward two other communist dictatorships: China and Cuba.

Critics say the subordination of human rights obscures an American obligation with respect to Vietnam and passes up an opportunity to exert leverage that would ease the plight of the Vietnamese people.

By most accounts, the Hanoi regime has relaxed its grip on the population since the immediate aftermath of the war, when it dispatched hundreds of thousands of officials and others connected with the former South Vietnamese government to "re-education" camps. Estimates of those who died range as high as 65,000.

But conditions remain grim in the one- The State Department's human rights report cites "severe restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association."

party state. The State Department's latest annual human rights report cites "severe restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association, on worker rights, and on the right of citizens to change their government."

Beatings and ill treatment "are still a feature of police investigations," the report says. Vietnam continues arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. Intellectuals, clergy, journalists and some foreigners have been arrested and detained in security crackdowns.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been resettled over the years into New Economic Zones, in part to isolate people the government distrusts. Family members of former South Vietnamese government and military officials and people affiliated with anti-communist organizations and religious sects "have been systematically discriminated against," the State Department says.

Stephen Denney, editor of Vietnam Journal, a newsletter on Vietnamese human rights, says an article in the government-controlled press acknowledged the arrest between 1989 and the end of 1991 of more than 15,000 people attempting to flee southern Vietnam.

In a report this month, Amnesty International cited the arrest of two Buddhist monks, apparently for possession of documents criticizing the government's treatment of Buddhist monks and nuns.

Another group, Human Rights Watch, says in its latest report that despite positive developments, "the government continued to arrest, detain and sentence individuals for nonviolent dissent, to hold prisoners in conditions that threatened their health and safety, to censor writers and to repressively control religious institutions."

Among people facing harshest treatment are those seeking to form opposition political parties or demanding political reforms.

One of them is Dr. Nguyen's brother, Nguyen Dan Que, 50.

Imprisoned without trial from 1978 to 1988, he was arrested again in 1990 for signing a petition calling on the Communist Party to "respect the human, civil and property rights of the people" and to adopt a pluralistic political system. Without being represented by a lawyer or allowed to speak in his own defense, he was sentenced to 20 years in jail and 5 years' house arrest for "subversion."

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