Rights woes loom over Triet talks

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Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet is scheduled to meet with President Bush at the White House today to discuss trade in a visit overshadowed by the booming Southeast Asian country’s poor human rights record.

Mr. Triet’s six-day trip, which concludes tomorrow, has focused on strengthening economic ties with the United States, where Vietnamese businesses sold $8.6 billion worth of goods last year. He has called for more U.S. investment in his country and said his government is working to make Vietnam an easier place to do business.

“We will do our best to help you,” Mr. Triet told a group of business leaders at a lunch organized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington yesterday. “We are striving to create a friendly business environment.”

A delegation of more than 200 Vietnamese business executives accompanied their president on his trip in order to meet with American counterparts in the airline, energy, telecommunications, information-technology and financial-services sectors in New York and Washington, according to the Vietnamese Embassy.

“The trip’s outcomes will complete the full normalization of relations between Vietnam and the United States and usher in a new stage of cooperation between the two countries,” Vietnamese Ambassador to the U.S. Nguyen Tam Chien recently said in an interview with his country’s state-run media.

Although the leaders are meeting to discuss economic issues, Mr. Bush is expected to express his “deep concern” to Mr. Triet about a series of arrests this year of human rights advocates and opponents of Vietnam’s communist government, including of a Catholic priest who has been sentenced to eight years in prison for leading an underground pro-democracy group.

During an hourlong private meeting with U.S. lawmakers, Vietnam’s president faced a torrent of criticism on the communist state’s human rights record.

Angry legislators warned that ties between the two countries will stagnate until Vietnam’s dismal rights record improves.

They repeatedly took Mr. Triet to task for claims by rights groups that Vietnam has recently ramped up repression of political activists and religious leaders, according to U.S. lawmakers at the meeting.

“Human rights was overwhelmingly the dominant issue. From start to finish, that was the theme,” said Rep. Ed Royce, California Republican. “We’ve got to see a stop to this conduct if this relationship is going to improve.”

Vietnamese-Americans who oppose Mr. Triet’s government are planning to hold a rally in front of the White House when the two presidents meet, said Diem Do, who heads the reformist political party Viet Tan. Because all political parties except the ruling Communist Party are banned in Vietnam, Viet Tan operates primarily from the United States.

In response to U.S. pressure, Vietnamese authorities have released three dissidents ahead of Mr. Triet’s visit. One of them, Le Quoc Quan, is a lawyer who was arrested in March when he returned to Vietnam after completing a five-month fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington.

“The fact remains they never should have been detained in the first place,” said Sophie Richardson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. She called Vietnam “one of the most problematic regimes we deal with in terms of human rights” and described the spate of arrests as the worst crackdown in the country in 20 years.

Mr. Triet is the first Vietnamese leader to visit the United States since the Vietnam War ended in 1975.

Although the country is falling behind on social and political reform, Vietnamese leaders have been modernizing their country’s economy for many years and opening it up to international trade, helping to boost development and cut poverty in the country of 85.3 million. Hanoi is a member of the World Trade Organization and participates in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ Free Trade Area.

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