U.S. sets its sights on Vietnam once again

Earlier this summer, on July 19, the House of Representatives passed HR 1587, the “Vietnam Human Rights Act,” by 322 votes to 45.

The bill seeks to limit non-humanitarian assistance to Vietnam, to provide extra funding for the president to support opposition groups “to promote human rights in Vietnam,” and to overcome Vietnamese jamming of Radio Free Asia, the “independent” radio station funded entirely by the U.S. government. It also seeks to encourage a refugee crisis by providing incentives for Vietnamese citizens to emigrate to the U.S., using tactics similar to those employed against Cuba.

The bill, which was introduced by Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), has the stated aim of promoting “the development of freedom and democracy in Vietnam.” It will have to be passed by the U.S. Senate to become law. In 2001, a similar bill was passed by the House of Representatives but never came before the Senate and, while a similar outcome is expected this year, the situation is less predictable because of the November elections.

The Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted with anger to the vote, condemning the “rude interference into the internal affairs of Vietnam, which offends the dignity and trust of the Vietnamese people.” Several members of Congress have criticized the act as hypocritical and damaging to relations between the two countries.

These attempts at interference have come about, not coincidentally, after a period of unprecedented growth in the Vietnamese economy. Gross domestic product has grown by an average of 7.4 per cent a year in the last decade — 7.2 per cent in 2003 — and inflation, which was out of control in the mid-1980s, is now down to roughly 3 percent. Not even the East Asia crash of the late ’90s or the more recent SARS and bird-flu outbreaks could halt the progress of the economy.

The basis for this solid growth has been a high level of investment, both from the state and from foreign companies, and a diversification of exports, which has shielded the economy from fluctuations in the world market.

While some on the left have criticized Vietnam’s policy of “doi moi” (renovation) as an example of “selling out” to capitalism, the state has retained control over key sectors of the economy and the country’s rapid industrialization has an unmistakable socialist character. Indeed, as a May 6 report in The Economist complained, “The government appears addicted to public enterprise. It continues to provide state-owned firms with loans and land.”

The article also noted that the government’s policies had led to impressive achievements in health, education and poverty reduction, that all land and almost all of the banks are state-owned and that government measures prevent the emergence of large private companies. It bemoaned the government’s “zeal” for investing in publicly owned industry rather than private firms.

Relatively speaking, HR 1587’s limits on U.S. non-humanitarian assistance will have little impact. The amount of U.S. assistance to Vietnam is dwarfed by the amount of bilateral trade, which rose from $1.2 billion in 2000 to nearly $6 billion in 2003. What’s more, the U.S. has never fully accepted its responsibility for cleaning up the land mines and poisonous dioxin with which the region was carpet-bombed during the Vietnam War.

However, the bill might threaten the Vietnam-U.S. trade pact signed in 2001. It also instructs the U.S. executive directors at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to oppose any loans and assistance to Vietnam. It isn’t clear whether it would hinder Vietnam’s entry into the World Trade Organization, which is expected to take place next year.

The bill spells out a number of demands that Vietnam must meet in order for the restrictions on aid to be lifted. They include the right of a criminal defendant “to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law,” to be tried “without undue delay” and the right “to be free from torture and other forms of cruel or unusual punishment.”

Critics note the hypocrisy of such demands, given the well-documented behavior of U.S. officials at Guantanamo Bay and in the colonial prisons of Iraq.

In the eyes of many, the Vietnam Human Rights Act is a blueprint for U.S. aggression against Vietnam and for the destabilization of the whole of Southeast Asia.

– Excerpted from Morning Star