For the first time since the government of South Vietnam fell, a Vietnamese president visited the White House. Invited by President Bush during his trip to Saigon last November, President Nguyen Minh Triet touted the recent economic progress his country has made, and pushed for further cooperation between our two countries.
While Vietnam has made economic reforms, this is only part of the story. Political dissidents are routinely silenced, and religious freedom is systematically suppressed. Mr. Bush was obligated to press these issues during Mr. Triet's visit.
Since early this year, human-rights abuses in Vietnam have intensified. Human Rights Watch characterized the ongoing situation in Vietnam as "one of the worst crackdowns on peaceful dissidents in 20 years." In the last three months, Vietnamese officials have renewed their harassment of religious leaders, political dissidents and student activists. Yet you wouldn't know it from the rhetoric of President Triet, who recently described our differences on human rights and democracy as "small" in comparison to our common interests.
Perhaps Mr. Triet should be reminded of the example of Le Quoc Quan, who was arrested on March 8, only four days after returning home to Vietnam from a National Endowment for Democracy fellowship in Washington. His arrest was no expression of common values.
Religious persecution in Vietnam is widespread. Vietnamese police recently arrested several Catholic democracy advocates and dissidents, including the Rev. Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly. Father Ly, a peaceful dissident, was arrested for "conducting propaganda activities to harm the security of state."
Buddhist monks are continually detained and interrogated for belonging to the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. When I traveled to Vietnam, I had the opportunity to meet with the Venerable Thich Quang Do while he was under house arrest, along with other Buddhist leaders, and can attest to their suffering persecution. Mennonite and Protestant pastors are still subjected to ongoing political pressure from the Vietnamese communist government.
As expected, Vietnam released some prisoners of conscience before President Triet's visit. Some will point to them as a sign that Vietnam is making strides toward a more politically liberal society. These efforts should not be misconstrued as anything more than political posturing. The Vietnamese community the country over will certainly not be taken in by window dressing.
Mr. Triet recently characterized his visit to the U.S. as a chance to strengthen "the friendship and multifaceted cooperation" between our two countries. Indeed, the U.S. and Vietnam have undertaken significant measures toward a normalized relationship; but the status quo in Vietnam remains unacceptable. If we are to bolster our friendship with Vietnam, as Mr. Triet wishes, Vietnam must embrace political pluralism in all of its forms. Silencing dissidents and suppressing religious freedoms are not the ways toward a close partnership.
Discussions of trade between Presidents Bush and Triet are warranted. From 2001 to 2005, it more than quintupled, rising from $1.4 billion to over $7.6 billion. While greater trade and investment doesn't guarantee greater political freedom, it helps. I'm confident that American businesses in Vietnam will speed reform, but we need more.
By publicly pressing President Triet on human-rights abuses during his visit, President Bush sent an electrifying message to the Vietnamese that our future relations will be greatly affected by Vietnam's treatment of its people. Political dissidents would hear Mr. Bush's remarks via Radio Free Asia, which I have long backed, and a public condemnation of human-rights abuses would bring a much needed morale boost to political dissenters fighting for freedom. President Bush had the opportunity to offer just that.
Ed Royce, California Republican, is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade Committee.
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