US raises human rights – but how far will Obama go ?

Mai Khoi and other activists want help from President Obama during his upcoming visit to Vietnam

Mai Khoi and other activists want help from President Obama during his upcoming visit to Vietnam

The United States has challenged Vietnam over a recent crackdown on dissidents in advance of President Obama’s visit to the country next week.

US Officials said they held “open and candid” discussions in Washington with their Vietnamese counterparts about the recent increase in detentions and jail terms for bloggers and other government critics.

Vietnamese activists are anxious to meet President Obama during his visit to Vietnam, although doubts remain about how much emphasis he will put on human rights.

The Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, Tom Malinowski, said he hoped the recent detentions would be addressed and other long-standing cases would be resolved.

End to harassment

Seven Vietnamese activists were sentenced to prison terms in March alone, following a long period when the authorities refrained from pursuing high profile political cases.

The United States called for the release of political prisoners and for an end to the harassment of human rights campaigners and democracy advocates.

It has already expressed concern about the detention of the human rights lawyer, Nguyen Van Dai, who was arrested last December on charges of using propaganda against the state, but has yet to be tried.

“The promotion of human rights remains a crucial part of US foreign policy and is a key aspect of our ongoing dialogue within the U.S.-Vietnam comprehensive partnership,” said the state department spokesman, John Kirby.

But beleaguered activists are still waiting to see how far the US is prepared to go to support them.

The singer and civil society campaigner, Mai Khoi, released a video in English calling directly for President Obama’s help in promoting a more pluralistic society.

“President Obama, I want to meet you when you come to Vietnam in May,” she said in the slickly produced video released on the internet.

“I want to talk about how the United States can better help Vietnam to reform its legal system. As an independent candidate for the National Assembly election I want to talk about how we can improve our law on elections.”

Mai Khoi was one of 98 would-be independent candidates who were rejected during a Communist party controlled vetting process. They were denied permission to put forward their names for the legislative elections in May.

The only two self-nominated candidates who were accepted had the prior approval of the authorities, according to activists.

Mai Khoi said that she and other rejected candidates wanted US help to promote government transparency and accountability and to protect the freedom of artistic expression.

Exile not an option

Some civil society groups are concerned that any prisoners released in advance of the visit could be sent into exile in the United States.

The well known blogger, Ta Phong Tan, was effectively expelled from the country on her release from jail last year. Some fear it’s a formula that will be tried again by the Communist authorities to get rid of their persistent critics.

President Obama will be urged not to consent to further deals but to press for the freedom of democracy advocates to operate in their own country.

In the final months of his second administration, President Obama has been notably blunt in his public statements on two recent visits to Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom.

He stunned observers in London by setting aside diplomatic protocol and directly intervening in the country’s contentious debate on membership of the European Union.

It is far from clear, however, that he will be so outspoken in challenging the newly reshuffled Communist leadership in Vietnam.

Obama’s legacy

The Deputy Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, said there had been progress in Vietnam’s human rights practices during a recent visit.

The US administration is also keen to talk up the success of the completed negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Vietnam’s agreement, on paper at least, to allow free trade unions.

An important pillar of President Obama’s foreign policy legacy is his much trumpeted “Pivot to Asia”.

Closer cooperation with Vietnam is a key element in Washington’s strategy to strengthen its position in the western Pacific, and to send a message to China that it is in the region to stay.

US officials are aware that too great an emphasis on political reform and human rights could inhibit a further increase in trust and cooperation between the former enemies.