Clinton criticizes Vietnam on human rights
on first day of visit, U.s. official urges pursuit of reforms
HANOI, Vietnam — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chided Vietnam on Thursday for intolerance of dissent and infringement of Internet freedom, even as she celebrated its 15 years of normalized relations with the United States.
Clinton said she raised the issues of jailed democracy activists, attacks on religious groups and curbs on socialnetworking websites during a meeting with Vietnam’s deputy prime minister, Pham Gia Khiem.
The United States will prod Vietnam’s government “to pursue reforms and protect basic rights and freedoms,” she said at a news conference, as Khiem stood expressionless beside her.
“Vietnam, with its extraordinary, dynamic population, is on the path to becoming a great nation, with an unlimited potential,” she said. “That is among the reasons we expressed concern.”
Khiem replied that human rights policies were rooted in unique cultural and historical circumstances. He cited what he said was President Barack Obama’s observation that countries should be allowed to choose their own paths and that human rights shouldn’t be imposed from outside.
The timing of Clinton’s remarks, at the start of a two-day stop that includes an Asian regional security meeting, suggested that she wanted to make her point and move on.
She also emphasized Thursday that the United States would increase cooperation on trade and investment, and would do more to help people suffering lingering effects from Agent Orange, a chemical spray the U.S. military used as a defoliant during the Vietnam War.
Still, Clinton’s criticism offered a vivid contrast to her visits to China, where she has avoided publicly raising human rights issues with Chinese officials. It also came on the same day that Defense Secretary Robert Gates was announcing in Jakarta that the United States would resume military contacts with Indonesia’s special forces, an elite military unit long criticized for abuses, arguing that it had reformed.
These divergent moves reflect the uneven landscape the Obama administration confronts in the region, including not only rising China and recalcitrant North Korea but also a military dictatorship in Myanmar and a Vietnamese government that is showing signs of retreating from its reformist path.
Although human rights conditions are indisputably better in Vietnam now than at the end of the war, analysts say there has been backsliding in recent years. In January, the government convicted three prominent democracy activists. Last week, 19 members of Congress sent Clinton a letter, urging her to press Vietnam about these cases and censorship of websites such as Facebook.
Clinton also spoke of how the United States and Vietnam had overcome the bitterness of war, and then the “profound differences” that divide a communist state from a democracy.
“The United States will continue to urge Vietnam to strengthen its commitment to human rights and give its people a greater say over the direction of their lives,” she said. “But our relationship is not fixed upon our differences. We have learned to see each other not as former enemies but as friends.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is greeted Thursday as she arrives at Hanoi Noi Bai International Airport in Vietnam.