President Obama Delivers Remarks at the National Convention Center Hà Nội
As Obama Presses Vietnam on Rights, Activists Are Barred From Meeting
By GARDINER HARRIS and JANE PERLEZMAY 24, 2016
Excerpts From Obama’s Speech in Vietnam
President Obama addressed the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, the South China Sea and human rights in a speech in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Tuesday.
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS on Publish Date May 24, 2016. Photo by Doug Mills/The New York Times.
HANOI, Vietnam — President Obama won enthusiastic applause here on Tuesday with a supportive reference to Vietnam’s disputes with China, saying in a speech that “big nations should not bully smaller ones.” But several activists who had been scheduled to meet with him before the speech were prevented from doing so, underscoring the gulf with Hanoi on human rights.
The White House had requested the meeting as a signal to Vietnam’s Communist government that the United States cares about human rights here. Mr. Obama spent more than his allotted time with the six Vietnamese civil society leaders who did attend the meeting at the United States Embassy, but he said that several others had been prevented from coming.
“Vietnam has made remarkable strides, the economy is growing quickly, the Internet is booming, and there’s a growing confidence here,” Mr. Obama said when a group of reporters were briefly allowed into the meeting. “But as I indicated yesterday, there’s still areas of significant concerns in terms of areas of free speech, freedom of assembly, accountability with respect to government.”
The activists kept from the meeting included a prominent blogger and journalist, Pham Doan Trang, who had flown to the Vietnamese capital from Ho Chi Minh City on Monday but had not been heard from since landing in Hanoi, according to Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.
Another activist, Nguyen Quang A, 69, a businessman, wrote on Facebook on Monday night that the police had surrounded his house in Hanoi and that he could not leave. Efforts to reach Mr. Quang A by telephone on Tuesday morning were unsuccessful. Mr. Quang A said in an interview last week that an official at the American Embassy had invited him to meet Mr. Obama.
The audience at the convention center in Hanoi on Tuesday. About 2,300 Vietnamese cheered loudly when Mr. Obama appeared about 15 minutes later than originally scheduled. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times
Ha Huy Son, a lawyer who specializes in defending dissidents in court, was also prevented from attending. “Security people have been guarding me at my home for the last two days,” the lawyer told Agence France-Presse, saying he had been told he could go anywhere but to the embassy.
The use of security forces to keep the activists from an event that the Vietnamese government had agreed to suggested that the government may have been divided over the meeting. It is unusual for a government, even one with a poor record on human rights, to allow a gathering with activists to proceed with an American president and then prevent some from attending.
Soon after meeting with the activists, Mr. Obama spoke in a cavernous hall at the National Convention Center here, among the only large venues in Hanoi for such a speech. Seated in the hall’s red velvet seats were about 2,300 well-dressed Vietnamese, who cheered loudly when Mr. Obama appeared, about 15 minutes later than scheduled.
Mr. Obama has received a warm reception in Vietnam, largely because of the hunger that Vietnamese have for a powerful ally against China, which has claimed much of the seas just off Vietnam’s 2,000-mile coastline. And despite a history in which the United States tried violently to impose its will on this nation, Mr. Obama said that no other country should try such a strategy.
“Vietnam is an independent and sovereign nation, and no other nation can impose its will on you,” Mr. Obama said, drawing loud applause.
Obama Meets Vietnamese Activists
President Obama Meets with Members of Civil Society
President Obama expressed concern over the limits on civil liberties in Vietnam in a meeting with activists in Hanoi, the capital, on Tuesday. Some activists were prevented from attending the meeting.
But the auditorium, filled with an audience almost certainly vetted by the government, was notably silent when he urged the country to improve its human rights practices. He said that the United States was far from perfect, citing problems like “too much money in our politics,” racial bias in the criminal justice system and gender inequality.
He said that the United States was not trying to impose its form of government on Vietnam but that some values were universal. And he noted that the rights to free speech, assembly and a free press were enshrined in Vietnam’s Constitution.
“So really it’s about all of us, each country, trying to consistently apply these principles,” Mr. Obama said. “Making sure those of us in government are being true to those ideals.”
Human Rights Watch estimates that about 110 political dissidents are serving prison sentences in Vietnam. In March, Nguyen Huu Vinh, 60, a blogger, was sentenced to five years in jail for writing posts that were deemed to be against the government. In the weeks before Mr. Obama’s arrival, the security police detained demonstrators protesting immense fish kills on the central coast, where tons of fish have washed up on shores close to a steel plant owned by a company in Taiwan. Some of the protesters have been beaten.
Human rights advocates were bitterly disappointed on Monday when Mr. Obama announced that he would lift a decades-old arms embargo against Vietnam, despite receiving no promises from the government that it would release dissidents from prison or otherwise bolster its respect for human rights.
The administration appears to have decided that the strategic benefits of joining with Vietnam militarily outweigh such concerns. Mr. Obama has also often said that more intensive engagement with countries like Cuba, Myanmar and Vietnam tends to lead to more improvements on human rights than disengagement does.
In his speech, Mr. Obama lamented that war had driven the United States and Vietnam apart despite a common history of fighting colonialism. He pointed out that Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s independence leader, had evoked the American Declaration of Independence when he established Vietnam’s own independence from French colonial rule.
“In another time, the profession of these shared ideals and our common story of throwing off colonialism might have brought us together soon,” Mr. Obama said. Instead, he said, Cold War rivalries drove the two nations to war.
But he said their reconciliation in the years since had been largely driven by veterans of that war, pointing to Secretary of State John Kerry, seated in the audience, as one example.
He said the United States had learned that scorning veterans of the war was inappropriate even if one disagreed with its prosecution. He said that lesson could inspire the improved relations between the two countries, in which the pain and sacrifice of the war could be acknowledged while also moving into a new and better phase.
After his speech, Mr. Obama met for a second time in two days with the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. In the middle of a downpour, Mr. Obama and Mr. Bourdain, who ate together at a Hanoi restaurant on Monday, spoke for around 20 minutes at a rustic streetside cafe in the Me Tri neighborhood of the capital, surrounded by scores of onlookers cheerfully getting soaked for a glimpse. Mr. Obama briefly waded into the crowd, shaking hands and saying “thank you.”
Follow Gardiner Harris @GardinerHarris and Jane Perlez @JanePerlez on Twitter.
Gardiner Harris reported from Hanoi, and Jane Perlez from Beijing.