President Obama stressed the importance of human rights, including freedom of speech and assembly, during his meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart – but even as he spoke, police agents were swooping on prominent dissidents to prevent them from meeting the president.
The indepedent blogger and reporter for Vietnam Right Now, Trang Doan Pham, went missing with a friend just after 10 am on the morning of President Obama’s arrival.
She has not been heard from since and is believed to have been detained by police.
She is one of a number of civil society activists thought to have been invited to meet President Obama to explain the regular threats, harassment and violence suffered by pro-democracy campaigners.
The veteran reformist and former entrepreneur, Dr Nguyen Quang A, reported that plainclothes agents had gathered outside his house to prevent him leaving for the meeting scheduled for Tuesday.
“There continues to be areas where our two governments disagree, including on democracy and human rights,” said President Obama.
“I made it clear that the U.S. does not seek to impose our form of government on Vietnam or any nation…at the same time we will continue to speak out on behalf of human rights that we believe are universal, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly”.
Human Rights Watch, and other rights monitors, however are dismayed that President Obama agreed to lift the ban on weapons sales to Vietnam without receiving any apparent concessions from the Communist leaders.
Human rights looks increasingly like a dialogue of the deaf, as both sides focus, with an eye on China’s growing ambitions in the region, on strengthening economic and strategic cooperation.
President Tran Dai Quang replied to his visitor’s comments by saying that Vietnam fully respected human rights, as shown in its 2013 constitution, and the fact that it was elected to serve on the UN Human Rights Council.
As police chief last year, Mr Quang had boasted of his success in crushing independent political activity and rounding up large numbers of government critics.
Repression on the rise
The Vietnamese authorities appear confident of securing the concessions they want from the US administration without giving any significant ground on human rights and political pluralism
Repression has been on the rise in Vietnam in recent months, with indepedent bloggers and other government critics sentenced to long prison terms, beaten in the streets, and in some case arbitrarily detained without trial.
Demonstrations over an environemntal disaster have also been suppressed, and independent candidates prevented from taking part in last Sunday’s elections for the National Assembly – a carefully managed display that was supposed to highlight the Communist authorities’ new found embrace of democratic values.
Vietnam’s nascent and hard pressed civil society sector has little protection from the full weight of a lavishly resourced and all-seeing apparatus of repression.
Support and encouragement from the United States was one of the few factors inhibiting an ever more brutal crackdown on independent political activity.
There will be growing alarm in dissident circles as the US focuses on the strategic gains of friendship with Hanoi, and downplays its political and philosophical differences with the Communist elite that runs the country.