- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 25, 2000

Three decades ago, Vietnamese freedom fighters risked their lives to help the United States. Now, despite the Clinton administration's pledges to help refugees from that country, and despite President Clinton's protestations about a new era of relations in U.S.-Vietnamese relations, it is contributing to their woes. Some of those refugees who have resisted the "voluntary" repatriation effort paid for by the United States have been returned, against their will. Others wanting to come to the United States are caught in an endless cycle of the U.S. administration's bureaucracy, and are never able to escape Vietnam. Rather than addressing these challenges on his three-day visit to their homeland, President Clinton's most-covered event included doling out bicycle helmets to Vietnamese children. Apparently the well-being of those trying to flee communism who have been shoved aside by the administration was not as picture friendly.

As recently as the early '90s, Vietnamese suspected of sharing American values or fighting the communist regime were still stuck in re-education camps or in prison. Others who tried to leave were blocked by communist officials. In a statement on the Clinton administration's record on Vietnamese refugees, Rep. Chris Smith highlights the problem with the administration treating a Vietnamese resettlement program as a "Cold War relic."

Rather than making it easier for the refugees to leave, the Clinton administration helped to shut down the Orderly Departure Program, the Reagan-Bush era project that helped bring hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese to the United States. Instead, the administration threw its support behind an international effort to repatriate the refugees back to Vietnam, a program called the Comprehensive Plan of Action. This program, of which the United States was the primary donor, helped send approximately 113,000 Vietnamese refugees living in countries like Thailand and Indonesia back to their homeland.

The repatriations eventually involved beatings and tear gas in some cases, and refugees were dragged onto ships and planes to deport them against their will. A State Department official said the forcible deportations from these countries were limited, and that the tear gas was only used because of rioting in a Hong Kong refugee camp protesting the repatriations. And it was the British who were responsible for carrying the refugees onto the planes and funding those efforts, the official said in an interview.

Regardless of how the United States wants to justify it, when the initial "voluntary" repatriation project didn't solve the refugee controversy, it voted in 1994 to use "other internationally accepted means," which translated to forceful deportation.

Meanwhile, the acceptance rate of Vietnamese refugees who had worked for the U.S. government before 1975 decreased from almost 100 percent to 3 percent. In the past year, a review of the denied cases has now found only 940 eligible cases according to the State Department. Those refugees will still have to wait until February to be interviewed and to finish more paperwork.

The Montagnard tribal people many of whom survived re-education camps and served with U.S. forces on the front lines against Viet Cong have not been so lucky. Rather than helping to resettle these allies who suffered the most in aiding the United States, the administration rejected around 2,000 of these applications, according to Lutheran Family Services, which is providing research to the State Department on the refugees. One year ago, the administration agreed to review these cases. But the State Department did not keep track of its rejections, and has gotten bogged down in establishing a procedure to review those applications. Right now, it only has three cases, and said it wanted to wait until after Mr. Clinton's visit to Vietnam to review them.

How convenient. Rather than coming to Vietnam with a message of freedom for those who fought with the U.S. against communism, Mr. Clinton came bearing quite different news. Twenty-five years after the war has ended, the United States was still afraid of the Vietnamese government. Freedom fighters, beware.

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