Eager to banish lingering shadows of the Vietnam War, President Barack Obama lifted the U.S. embargo on selling arms to America’s former enemy Monday and made the case for a more trusting and prosperous relationship going forward. Activists said the president was being too quick to gloss over serious human rights abuses in his push to establish warmer ties.
After spending his first day in Vietnam shuttling among meetings with different government leaders, Obama will spend the next two days speaking directly to the Vietnamese people and meeting with civil society groups and young entrepreneurs. It’s all part of his effort to “upgrade” the U.S. relationship with an emerging economic power in Southeast Asia and a nation that the U.S. also hopes can serve as a counterweight to Chinese aggression in the region.
Tracing the arc of the U.S.-Vietnamese relationship through cooperation, conflict, “painful separation” and a long reconciliation, Obama marveled during a news conference with the Vietnamese president that “if you consider where we have been and where we are now, the transformation in the relations between our two countries is remarkable.”
President Tran Dai Quang said later at a lavish state luncheon that he was grateful for the American people’s efforts to put an end to “an unhappy chapter in the two countries’ history,” referring to the 1965-1975 U.S. war with Vietnam’s communists, who now run the country.
The conflict killed 57,000 American military personnel and as many as 2 million Vietnamese military and civilians.
Quang added, though, that “the wounds of the war have not been fully healed in both countries.”
Still, Quang said, both sides are determined to have a more cooperative relationship.
That mindset was evident in the friendly crowds that lined the streets as Obama’s motorcade zigzagged around Hanoi on Monday. And when Obama emerged from a tiny Vietnamese restaurant after a $6 dinner with CNN personality Anthony Bourdain, the president shook hands with members of the squealing crowd and waved as if he really didn’t want to get back in the limousine.
Obama was to address the Vietnamese people on Tuesday morning. A White House official said the president would use his address to stress the importance of having a “constructive dialogue” even when the two nations disagree – including on human rights.
But that is unlikely to mollify activists, who said the president had given up his best leverage for pressing Vietnam to improve its rights record by lifting the arms embargo.
Duy Hoang, U.S.-based spokesman for Viet Tan, a pro-democracy party that is banned inside Vietnam, said that until Vietnam makes progress on human rights, the U.S. should not sell it military gear that could be used against the population.
“The U.S. should also reiterate the message that closer security cooperation is to bolster Vietnam’s external security and that the proper role of the Vietnamese military is to protect the nation, not the current political regime,” Hoang said by e-mail.
Veterans were split. Bernard Edelman, deputy director of government affairs for the Vietnam Veterans of America, cited the good cooperation surrounding efforts to account for troops still missing in action.
“The war’s over,” he said, noting his group hasn’t taken an official position.
But Steve Rylant of Loveland, Colorado, who served at Ubon Air Base in Thailand during the Vietnam war, said he was “offended.”
Asked if there would come a better time for lifting the embargo, Rylant said, “For me, there’s never a time. … It’s just really difficult for us to try and agree to any kind of a thing like this with Vietnam, I guess.”
Obama said there had been “modest progress on some of the areas that we’ve identified as a concern.” He added that the 12-nation trans-Pacific trade deal that he’s pushing could help prompt Vietnam to implement a series of labor reforms “that could end up being extraordinarily significant.”
For Vietnam, lifting the arms embargo was a psychological boost. The United States partially lifted the ban in 2014, but Vietnam pushed for full access as it tries to deal with China’s land reclamation and military construction in nearby seas.
It was unclear whether striking the ban would quickly result in an increase in arms sales. Obama said that each deal would be reviewed case by case, and evaluated based on the equipment’s potential use. But he said he no longer believed a ban based on “ideological” differences was necessary. He added that the U.S. would “continue to speak out on behalf of human rights we believe are universal.”
Vietnam holds about 100 political prisoners and there have been more detentions this year, some in the past week. In March, seven bloggers and activists were sentenced for “abusing democratic freedoms” and “spreading anti-state propaganda.” Hanoi says that only lawbreakers are punished.