06/20/2005, 00.00
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Vietnamese Prime minister on US trip

For the first time in 30 years, a leader of Hanoi has set foot in America. The objective of the visit is economic, strategic and military cooperation. Vietnamese exiles and humanitarian organisations are calling for more respect for human rights and freedom of worship. 

Seattle (AsiaNews/agencies) – It is the first time in 30 years that a leader of Hanoi visits the United States. Phan Van Khai, Vietnamese Prime Minister, landed this morning in Seattle. His most important political appointment is a meeting with President George Bush (Tuesday 21), however also slated on the agenda are meetings to increase economic and military cooperation. Meanwhile, international organisations are putting pressure so that dialogue between Washington and Hanoi will focus also on human rights and freedom of worship.

Trade between Hanoi and Washington has increased from 1.5 billion US dollars (USD) in 2001 to more than seven billion USD in 2004: the most commonly exported Vietnamese products are fish, shrimps, furniture and coffee. "The US is an important commercial partner for Vietnam," said Phan Van Khai. "We hope American firms draw mutual benefits from this relationship and do better business with us." During his visit, Phan will have meetings with many US businessmen including Bill Gates, the founder of  Microsoft.

The visit has military and strategic implications too: it seems like a joint endeavour between Hanoi and Washington to counterbalance Chinese influence in the Asian region, even if American diplomacy has stated several times that it does "not want to move against Peking". Another high-ranking US representative said: "Vietnamese are very cautious about this new military relationship and we don't want to push them to do anything." He added: "The only thing we want is to ensure they evolve, but this is a long-term program." Leaders in the American military sector are hesitant about the idea of drafting a precise agenda of meetings and prefer to wait on specific requests from Hanoi.

One of the most suitable options to create military collaboration may be to include Vietnam within the Imet (International military education and training) program, which American leaders define as "the best way to build relations with foreign military groups". According to the policy articulated by the program, officials of foreign armies must attend US military schools and institutions to learn as much as possible from the American army, its doctrine and its values.

The American army anyhow has specified that it "does not want to set up permanent US bases in Vietnam". All the same, Washington is "interested" in a future agreement with whoever could have access to military stations of the Bay of Cam Ranh. During the war with Vietnam, the bay was the American "deep-sea port", where the US Navy kept its largest installations to build and repair warships.

Human rights and freedom of worship

Outside the hotel where the prime minister is staying,  a crowd made up mostly of Vietnamese exiles gathered to protest against the Hanoi government's repression of human rights.

International organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW) asked President Bush to "press the Hanoi government to improve the dark human rights situation in Vietnam". According to HRW, "thanks to Vietnam's insertion in the 2004 list of countries of particular concern, Hanoi has released a good number of political prisoners: now it must do more".

The Hanoi government is well-known for its strategy of isolating Vietnam's prominent authors and former Communist Party members, fierce critics of the regime's corruption. The government has cut their telephone lines, put soldiers on guard outside dissidents' homes, or placed them under house arrest. Hundreds of dissidents have been imprisoned under the charge of committing "criminal acts" just because they publicly called for democratic reform or because they used the Internet as a means to disseminate proposals for real religious and civil freedoms.

The government tenaciously persecutes religious groups and controls every aspect of community life. Among the primary targets of Hanoi are Montagnard Christian minorities in central-north regions of the country; Mennonites, Cao Dai followers, Hoa Hao Buddhists and members of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. Even the Catholic Church is subject to tough controls in episcopal appointments, pastoral programmes, the running of seminaries (candidates, teachers, publications) and so forth.



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