President Obama is under growing pressure to insist on real improvements in human rights during his visit to Vietnam which begins on May 23.
Top American newspapers have added their voices to those of influential congressmen who are demanding the release of political prisoners.
The Washington Post and the New York Times have both written hard hitting editorials, arguing that the US should not agree to lift a ban on arms sales to Vietnam without significant commitments on human rights.
Elements of the embargo were relaxed in 2014 and Vietnam has made clear it sees the final scrapping of the ban as a priority.
“Mr. Obama should not feel obliged to give Vietnam’s authoritarian government what it wants — a complete lifting of the embargo on arms shipments imposed during the war, unless it takes credible steps toward addressing serious human rights abuses,” said the New York Times.
“Given Hanoi’s authoritarian ways..this is not the time to lift the ban completely. The Communist Party controls all institutions in Vietnam, permits no free elections, holds over 100 political prisoners and has yet to meet its obligations under the new trade agreement to allow labor unions,” said the editorial.
Dismal record on human rights
Some elements of the US administration have made clear that they favour lifting the ban, including the Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter.
They see closer defence ties with Vietnam as a crucial element in US strategy to meet the growing challenge from China in the western Pacific.
President Obama also sees the rebalancing of US power towards East Asia as a key part of his legacy. He will want to put the seal on rapidly improving relations with Vietnam.
However, the US political establishment remains divided on whether this is the right time to lift the arms ban.
“Mr. Obama must pay attention to Vietnam’s dismal record on human rights,” said the Washington Post editorial.
“Although Vietnam has enjoyed rapid economic growth in recent years, it remains a one-party state that denies freedom to its people and rules by force,” it continued.
Restricts basic rights
Both newspapers welcomed closer economic and security relations with Vietnam, and the inclusion of Vietnam in the recently negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, but they highlighted the country’s continuing intolerance of dissent.
“The lifting of the arms ban appears reasonable, but Mr. Obama should insist on real improvements on human rights before proceeding…. The ruling Communist Party holds a monopoly on power and restricts basic rights such as freedoms of speech, opinion, press, association and religion, often through physical intimidation and harassment. The nation’s penal code also criminalizes the exercise of many basic rights,” said the Post.
It highlighted the lengthy prison terms recently handed out to independent bloggers, and the government’s refusal to allow independent candidates to stand in upcoming elections for the national assembly.
President Obama’s visit comes at a time of rising tension in Vietnam, with the authorities cracking down hard on demonstrations called to demand action over the mass death of fish off the coast of four central provinces.
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said it was “concerned about the increasing levels of violence perpetrated against Vietnamese protesters expressing their anger over the mysterious mass deaths of fish along the country’s central coast.”
It called on the Vietnamese government to respect the right of freedom of assembly in line with its international human rights obligations.
President Obama will not be able to ignore the government’s crackdown on dissent, or the likely interest of the accompanying American press in the issue, during his three day visit to Vietnam.