President Bush is attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in Hanoi, Vietnam. This is an historic trip that recognizes Vietnam’s entry into the world economic community of nations. Mr. Bush is joining China’s President Hu Jintao and as many as 21 other heads of state.
Last week Vietnam finally joined the World Trade Organization after many unsuccessful attempts. Vietnam has Asia’s second-fastest growing economy and WTO entry is anticipated to further spark the economy, as it did when China entered in 2001.
But the U.S. Congress rejected legislation to grant Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) to the one-time U.S. enemy, partially spoiling the serenity of Mr. Bush’s week.
The growth of Vietnam’s gross domestic product this year is projected to be 8.2 percent, the second-fastest in Asia behind China and virtually tied with that of India. The stock market in Ho Chi Minh City is up a whopping 70 percent.
On July 4, we wrote in these pages about the new hopes for progress, openness and respect for human rights in Vietnam. A new government led by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung had just taken power. The new prime minister vowed to continue economic reforms and to tackle the country’s pervasive corruption.
Already there have been manifest signs of progress in Vietnam.
For 14 long months, the communist government of Vietnam held in jail without charges U.S. citizen Cuc Foshee and others. They were finally charged on Nov. 2 and went to trial. They were convicted of plotting to use radio systems to encourage the overthrow of the government of Vietnam. They were all sentenced to remain in jail until December.
But thankfully, the government of Vietnam granted Mrs. Foshee and the others clemency and all came home to teary family reunions in the United States on Nov. 13.
That same day, the United States of America dropped Vietnam from its list of nations that severely violate religious freedom — a decision described by a State Department official as one of its “most significant announcements” of the year.
Religious freedom is on the rise in Vietnam. Last week we met Catholic Bishop Nguyen Van De. He was appointed last month by Pope Benedict XVI. This was the second consecutive major appointment of a Catholic Church official in Vietnam without government review and approval since 1975. Bishop Ngo Quang Kiet of the archdiocese of Hanoi was also appointed without the interference of the communist government.
Bishop Nguyen Van De is the auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Bui Chu, Nam Dinh, Vietnam (formerly North Vietnam). He is the assistant to Bishop Hoang Van Tiem.
Our Catholic pastor told us that when he was a student, Nguyen Van De had to teach him “under the table.” From 1975 until just these last few years, religious education was forbidden in Vietnam. In Bui Chu five years ago there were only 33 priests. Now there are 150. Next year Bishops Tiem and De will ordain 65 new priests. Cardinal Pham Minh Man wrote: “Everywhere the Vietnamese Catholics fill up all the churches, the seminaries and convents are full of vocation to the priesthood and religious life.”
Buddhists and others also report more religious tolerance and freedom.
Vietnam’s government has shown a true humanitarian side that offers great promise for future improvements.
But there is still trouble in Vietnam, and there is no denying that. Our “Bac” or uncle spoke to us about the situation in Vietnam only upon the condition he remain anonymous. People in Vietnam still fear and distrust their government.
We applaud President Bush on his trip to Vietnam. This is a major moment of healing and rapprochement between the United States and Vietnam.
Honglien Do spent time as a guest of the communist government of Vietnam in “detention.” John E. Carey is the former president of International Defense Consultants Inc. and a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.