- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 24, 2016

President Obama called on Vietnam’s communist leaders to allow greater freedoms for their people Tuesday, even as some Vietnamese dissidents were prevented from meeting with him on his second full day in the country.

In a speech to an audience of about 2,000 at the National Convention Center in Hanoi, Mr. Obama said governments are stronger when they allow freedom of speech and free access to social media, which authorities are blocking even during the president’s landmark three-day visit.

“Upholding these rights is not a threat to stability but actually reinforces stability and is the foundation of progress,” Mr. Obama said. “Vietnam will do it differently than the United States does. … But there are these basic principles that I think we all have to try to work on and improve.”

But earlier, in a meeting with 10 activists at a hotel, the president acknowledged that some dissidents who had been invited by the White House were not able to attend the meeting. A White House aide blamed the Vietnamese government for preventing two dissidents from attending the meeting, and human rights groups said police are preventing some activists from leaving their homes during Mr. Obama’s visit.

“I should note that there were several other activists who were invited that were prevented from coming for various reasons,” Mr. Obama said, adding that “there are still areas of significant concern” on human rights in Vietnam.

One prominent intellectual, Nguyen Quang A, told Reuters that about 10 policemen had come to his house around dawn and put him in a car that was driven out of the capital until Mr. Obama was about to leave. An outspoken lawyer, Ha Huy Son, said he was also stopped from joining the meeting that the president held with six other civil society leaders. Human Rights Watch said a journalist who was also invited had been arrested on Monday.

“It’s my hope the government of Vietnam comes to recognize what we recognize and so many countries around the world have come to recognize: that it’s very hard to prosper in this modern economy when you haven’t fully unleashed the potential of your people, and your people’s potential in part derives from their ability to express themselves and express new ideas to try to right wrongs that are taking place in the society,” the president said.

On Monday, Mr. Obama announced he is lifting the last restrictions from a 50-year-old embargo on U.S. arms sales to Vietnam, a legacy of the brutal war the two nations fought in the 1960s. Critics of both parties in Congress and human rights groups slammed the decision, saying the administration is giving up a key piece of leverage for compelling Hanoi to improve its human rights record.

The Vietnamese government did release one political prisoner this week, according to the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which said dissident Father Nguyen Van Ly was granted early release near the end of an eight-year sentence. The group said Mr. Obama deserves credit for speaking out about repression in Vietnam.

“Even during President Obama’s visit to Vietnam, six more peaceful activist were arrested, and dozens more prevented from leaving their homes,” said Marion Smith, the group’s executive director. “It was right for President Obama to acknowledge this directly in his remarks to Vietnam’s communist leaders. The Communist Party lacks democratic legitimacy and commits serious and enduring violations of its people’s human rights and dignity. These are facts that American leaders must keep before them as they continue to engage with the Vietnamese regime.”

In his speech, Mr. Obama also addressed freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, where China has been turning rocky outcrops into islands with runways and harbors in an aggressive assertion of sovereignty against Vietnam and other, smaller East Asian nations.

“Big nations should not bully small ones. Disputes should be resolved peacefully,” he said, without citing China by name. China’s Global Times, run by the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, slammed the U.S. decision to lift the arms embargo, saying it showed a willingness to relax standards on human rights for the sake of containing China.

The White House “is taking advantage of Vietnam to stir up more troubles in the South China Sea,” it said.

After Hanoi, Mr. Obama traveled to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, to visit the Jade Pagoda and meet with entrepreneurs. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese turned out on the streets to greet him, many chanting, “Obama, Obama.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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