- The Washington Times - Monday, May 23, 2016

Human rights groups and U.S. lawmakers criticized President Obama on Monday for lifting the 50-year-old ban on arms sales to Vietnam, saying he gave up an important bargaining chip for pressuring communist Hanoi to improve its human rights record.

“In one fell swoop, President Obama has jettisoned what remained of U.S. leverage to improve human rights in Vietnam — and basically gotten nothing for it,” said Phil Robertson, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, who noted that Vietnamese authorities arrested a journalist, human rights activists and bloggers even as Mr. Obama lifted the arms embargo.

Watchdog groups said even during Mr. Obama’s visit, Hanoi has imprisoned at least six activists and has harassed many more Vietnamese trying to engage in free speech, blocking social media sites.

“Even as it faces the glare of global attention with the U.S. president’s visit, the Vietnamese authorities, shamefully, are carrying out their repressive business as usual,” said Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty International’s director for South East Asia and the Pacific.

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said he would offer an amendment to a defense bill that would sanction Vietnamese people who are complicit in repression.

“It’s important to remember, even as President Obama is traveling to Vietnam, that Vietnam is a brutal communist regime that continues to disregard basic human rights,” Mr. Cornyn said on the Senate floor. “Our two countries will never achieve the kind of close relationship that I know many in Vietnam and many in the United States aspire to until Vietnam releases all political prisoners, demonstrates basic respect for human rights and embraces self-government ideals that we, again, take for granted here in America.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce, California Republican, said Mr. Obama should have used Vietnam’s desire for closer military ties with the U.S. to compel Hanoi to shape up its “very bad human rights record.”

“That’s now leverage lost,” Mr. Royce said. “The Obama administration’s ‘pivot to Asia’ should be about security ties, but also standing up for brave Vietnamese believers in democracy when they are under assault in Vietnam.”

Rep. Loretta Sanchez, California Democrat and co-chairwoman of the Congressional Caucus on Vietnam, said of Mr. Obama’s move, “Now what incentive is left for the Vietnamese government to meaningfully enact human rights reforms and respect the civil rights of the Vietnamese people?”

In lifting the embargo on his first visit to Vietnam, Mr. Obama said resuming arms sales “will ensure that Vietnam has access to the equipment it needs to defend itself and removes a lingering vestige of the Cold War.”

“We’re going to continue to engage in the case-by-case evaluations of these sales,” the president said, adding that Hanoi has made “modest progress” on human rights abuses raised by the administration.

Rights groups disagree. Amnesty International said Vietnamese authorities “have pressed ahead with their assault on the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly by arresting six peaceful activists and orchestrating a campaign of intimidation and harassment against dozens more.”

In addition to the arrests of six demonstrators, Amnesty said, dozens of activists have complained on social media that uniformed and plainclothes police are stopping them from leaving their homes.

“Amnesty International has spoken to several activists in different cities around the country who are subjected to surveillance and intimidation,” the group said. “Several activists have been physically attacked in the last week.”

“Vietnamese authorities must allow journalists do their job and individuals to express themselves freely,” said Mr. Djamin.

Security analysts say the U.S. move on arms sales is a signal to China. Beijing is expanding militarily into the South China Sea, which borders Vietnam.

The president said his decision “was not based on China,” although he added that he wants to help Vietnam “improve their maritime security posture.”

“My decision to lift the ban really was more reflective of the changing nature of the relationship,” Mr. Obama said Monday in a joint press conference with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang. “Given all the work we do together across the spectrum of economic, trade, security and humanitarian efforts, that it was appropriate for us not to have a blanket across-the-board ban.”

Two years ago, the Obama administration eased the arms embargo to allow Vietnam to buy maritime surveillance and other security systems. Now Hanoi will be able to buy a full range of weapons and military equipment, such as U.S. drones, radar and coastal patrol boats.

Mr. Obama portrayed his decision as another step in moving beyond the Vietnam War. More than 58,200 U.S. service members were killed in the conflict, which ended in 1975.

“Today, Vietnam and America show the world that hearts can change and peace is possible,” Mr. Obama said in toasting his hosts at the presidential palace in Hanoi. “And we thank Secretary [of State John F.] Kerry and all our veterans here today, both Vietnamese and American, who had the courage not only to fight but, more importantly, had the courage to make peace. I think oftentimes our veterans can show us the way.”

U.S. officials said a yearslong effort to remove the dioxin Agent Orange from Danang Airport in Vietnam is nearly complete, and the U.S. will also help in the cleanup at Bien Hoa Air Base.

Mr. Obama took time out from meetings with Vietnamese officials on his first full day in Hanoi to have dinner in a restaurant with CNN personality Anthony Bourdain, who was taping an episode of “Parts Unknown.” Mr. Bourdain picked up the $6 tab for dinner at a restaurant called Bun cha Huong Lien. Bun cha is a traditional dish of grilled pork in a broth or dipping sauce, with rice noodles and fresh herbs.

The president was to address the Vietnamese people Tuesday morning.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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