Vietnam’s brazen move to prevent key dissidents from meeting President Obama has struck a sour note in a visit that is otherwise being touted by both sides as a historic turning point.
President Obama noted that several activists had been blocked from attending a meeting he had arranged with government critics in Hanoi on Tuesday.
One of Vietnam’s most respected opposition figures, Dr Nguyen Quang A, was bundled into a car by about a dozen security agents, and driven out of the capital for the duration of the meeting.
The blogger and Vietnam Right Now contributor, Pham Doan Trang, was held up by police for 24 hours while attempting to return by road from Ho Chi Minh City after a leg operation.
The lawyer, Ha Huy Son, was also prevented from attending.
Mr. Obama noted that “there are still areas of significant concern” on human rights in Vietnam.
But the episode highlighted the powerlessness, even of a US president, in the face of Vietnam’s implacable internal security apparatus.
President Obama has sought to play down human rights concerns on his visit, and stress the growing economic and security partnership with a former enemy.
But White House officials appeared stung by such blatant interference in the president’s schedule.
“There are still areas of significant concern in terms of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and accountability with respect to government,” said President Obama in the closest he has come to direct criticism of the authoritarian government.
The Deputy National Security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said the meeting with dissidents was clearly a “source of considerable discomfort” for the Vietnamese government. He said the US would follow up to ensure that those activists involved were free and not being punished.
Activists, however, will now feel more vulnerable than ever. The US has already chosen to lift the remaining arms embargo on Vietnam – the key demand of the Vietnamese government – without securing any concessions on human rights.
They fear that Washington now has even less leverage, and less inclination to use what influence it still has, as it focuses on developing Vietnam as a partner to contain China’s growing ambitions in the region.
“It’s my hope the government of Vietnam comes 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 in a speech after his ill fated meeting with dissidents.
Observers say mild lectures on the benefits of freedom will not cut much ice with a government that sees human rights advocacy as unwarranted interference in its internal affairs.
Far from opening up the system, the Communist party hierarchy is focused on suppressing dissent and consolidating its monopoly on power.