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Washington Updates: 2001-2002

WASHINGTON INDOCHINA UPDATE #12

DECEMBER 2002

 December could be a springboard for movement on a number of issues, ranging from a tribunal for Khmer Rouge crimes to an agreement between Laos and Thailand on the Nam Theun II dam.

 Human Rights and Political Development
Khmer Rouge Tribunal: Back to the Table in the New Year?

On November 20, the Third Committee of the United Nations passed a unanimous resolution giving UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan a mandate to resume negotiations with the Cambodian government on a war crimes tribunal for Khmer Rouge leaders.The resolution was co-sponsored by Japan and France, and supported by the US and Cambodia.Australia, an original sponsor of the resolution, withdrew its sponsorship at the last moment, maintaining that the final draft was weaker than previous versions, but it voted for the resolution nevertheless.China, which had previously been reported as opposing a tribunal, voted in favor of the resolution. The resolution will go before the General Assembly later this month, and is expected to pass.The UN shut down negotiations in early 2002, because it was dissatisfied with the Khmer Rouge Tribunal Act moving through the Cambodian legislature.In the four-year history of talks between the UN and Cambodia on a tribunal, differences had solidified around two issues: the model of joint prosecution, which gives Cambodian jurists a one-member edge over international ones, addressed by the requirement of a “supermajority” vote on important issues; and the prosecution of Khmer Rouge suspects who had received prior amnesties as part of the carrot and stick strategy that led to the KR’s collapse.

Earlier in the month, debate on the resolution was complicated by an offer by South African President Thabo Mbeki to share that country’s experience with Cambodia on a truth and reconciliation commission.Cambodia has sent a fact-finding mission to South Africa to study the commission model, and there are varied opinions about its applicability.

Amnesty International and other human rights groups and activists opposed the resolution, arguing that international standards of justice can not be met in a tribunal conducted under Cambodian jurisdiction.However, Khmer Rouge expert Craig Etcheson was quoted in the Online Asia Times as saying that calling off the tribunal “…would have the result that the Khmer Rouge leadership would die quiet, peaceful deaths in their beds, having successfully defended their impunity…”

Cambodian Elections: Choosing Sides

The international and Cambodian press have reported accusations by FUNCINPEC President Prince Norodom Ranariddh that the US-based International Republican Institute is attempting to hinder, and even dismantle, his party in advance of 2003 national elections.Ranariddh charges that IRI staff are attempting to persuade FUNCINPEC officials to defect to the Sam Rainsy Party, whose election he believes IRI is promoting.IRI denies that it has taken a partisan approach to the elections.In recent weeks, however, this assertion of neutrality has been put in doubt by the growing appearance of a triangle of the SRP, the Senate Appropriations Committee, and IRI.In early December the SRP bestowed its Freedom Award on Senator Mitch McConnell, Chairman of the Appropriations Committee.In February 2002, McConnell published an op ed in the Boston Globe calling for the US to shift its Cambodia policy from a nonpartisan approach to pro-active support of Rainsy in the 2003 elections.The SRP award will be accepted on McConnell’s behalf by his chief of staff, Paul Grove.Prior to joining the Appropriations Committee staff, Grove was Asia Director for IRI.

Religious Freedom in Vietnam: Washington Cools While the Vatican Warms

US and Vietnamese officials met in Washington in November to discuss religious freedom issues, a chronic sources of disagreement in the bilateral relationship.US Ambassador for Religious Freedom John Hanford and Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Lorne Craner led the American team, which will make a recommendation to the Secretary of State on whether Vietnam should be designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC), for government policy toward religion.The talks were not reassuring to Hanoi on that count.Sources report that the US was more critical of Hanoi than usual in the talks, with particular focus on the status of Protestant churches in the Central Highlands, where religious issues are entangled with land use policy.The Secretary’s decision on a designation for both Vietnam and Laos is expected in January.

In late November, Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Vu Khoan visited the Vatican, becoming the first senior Vietnamese official to do so in fifteen years.Vu’s visit followed October talks between Vietnamese and Vatican officials on the selection of Vietnamese Catholic clerical leaders, and the November announcement by the Vatican of the appointment of two new Vietnamese bishops.Since the mid-1990’s, Vietnam and the Vatican have moved closer on the issue of clerical appointments, in contrast to China, which insists on appointing bishops without Vatican input or approval.

Economic Development

Nam Theun II:Inching Toward Agreement

The Thai press reported in early December that the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand will seal the agreement with Laos at the end of this month to build the Nam Theun II Dam.A memorandum of understanding between the parties was signed in 1996, but Thailand was forced to shelve the project in the wake of the 1997-98 economic crisis.From the $1.3 billion start-up figure, Laos expects to receive $4.6 million in revenue with the signing.In anticipation of the agreement, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank launched separate missions in late November to assess the social and environmental aspects of developing the dam.A guarantee endorsement from the Bank is critical to funding.However, a number of details remain to be resolved before formal agreement between EGAT and the Lao government is reached.One is a date at which the dam will be fully operational.This month Laos revised its 2006 target date and now estimates the dam will not be functional until 2008.

Trade
Cambodia Aims for WTO Entry in 2003

In mid-November the WTO Accession Working Party and the Cambodian government announced their intention to complete arrangements for Cambodia to enter the World Trade Organization as early as September 2003, when the WTO Ministerial will be held in Mexico.If successful, this would make Cambodia the first least-developed country to join the WTO.A final report on Cambodia’s eligibility is expected from the Working Group by April, although it anticipated that the country would be granted a transition period to enable it to bring its economy up to entrance standards.In the meantime, the US and Australia are pressing Phnom Penh to escalate the legislative process to harmonize Cambodia’s laws with WTO regulations and establish a system of commercial courts.

2003 Economic Freedom Index Gives Cambodia High Marks

Cambodia’s imminent entry into the WTO, despite its least-developed country status, is better understood when its economic system is measured against that of several other countries in the region. In late November, the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal released its annual index of economic freedom, measuring the openness of the economies of 153 countries. Judged to have a “mostly free” economic system, Cambodia ranked 36th, ahead of Japan, France, Thailand, South Korea and the Philippines, and ranked 4th of all Asian countries.Cambodia’s scores showed a steady progression in economic freedom since 1997.The economies of Vietnam and Laos were both placed in the “not free” category, ranking 136th and 153rd respectively, although Vietnam’s scores have demonstrated annual improvement since 2000.Economies are scored by a formula taking into consideration foreign investment codes, tariffs, bank regulations, monetary policy and black markets.

Vietnamese Catfish: Interim but Ominous Ruling

As part of its investigation of allegations that Vietnam is “dumping” catfish onto the American market, in early November the US Commerce Department ruled that Vietnam has a “non-market” economy, a contention that the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers denies.Approximately one-third of Vietnamese catfish exports go to the United States, and comprise roughly 20% of the US catfish market.An initial ruling on the dumping charges from the Commerce Department is expected in January 2003, and a final decision by June.

Among businesses that supported Vietnam’s status as a market economy were American Standard, Cargill, CitiGroup, New York Life International and Unilever.For additional information see http://ia.ita.doc.gov/download/vietnam-nme-status/vietnam-market-status-determination.pdf

Laos BTA: Preparing for an Administration Move?

The US Trade Representative is reportedly preparing to send a request to Congress in January for passage of the US-Laotian Bilateral Trade Agreement.The USTR has been on the verge of sending a letter up for several months, but has apparently felt that it lacked an appropriate legislative vehicle and an opportune moment.The moment may have been provided by the Bush administration’s new US-ASEAN Economic Initiative, which aims to help Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia integrate further into the international economy by preparing for WTO entry.A BTA, and concomitant Normal Trade Relations for Laos, would presumably be a first step in this process.The issue of avehicle – specifically, whether passage will be sought through a stand-alone bill, or attached to other legislation – must still be resolved.Congressional debate on BTA for Laos is likely to focus on human rights, at the urging of some hardline Lao-American groups.Possibly in anticipation, four Senators – Feingold, Boxer, Kohl and Feinstein – sent a letter to Lao Ambassador to the US Phanthong Phommahaxay in early November raising several human rights issues.(It should be noted that numerous countries with at least as serious human rights issues have normal trade relations with the US.)

A broad group of Lao-Americans, non-governmental and business organizations is circulating a draft letter to US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick urging that the request for BTA legislation go forward as soon as possible.For further information on this effort, contact washington@ffrd.org.

Officialdom
Ray Confirmation

In late November Congress confirmed the nomination of Charles A. Ray to be US Ambassador to Cambodia.A former military officer and foreign service veteran, Ray’s last post in Asia was as Consul-General in Ho Chi Minh City.Ambassador Ray expects to take up his duties in Phnom Penh in late December.

Peace Corps in Cambodia?

On November 14, eight members of the House Committee on Ways and Means – Congressmen Charles Rangel, George Miller, Lane Evans, Sam Farr, Tom Lantos, James Leach, Jim McDermott, and Earl Blumenauer – sent a letter to Peace Corps Director Gaddhi Vasquez in support of a Peace Corps program in Cambodia.Responding to an invitation from Phnom Penh to host a Peace Corps program, the Congressmen acknowledged that establishing a program is a lengthy process, the first step of which is a security assessment.However, they stated that the security situation in Cambodia has “greatly improved” since the mid-1990’s, as evidenced by the quantum leap in tourism in Cambodia over the past three years.

Note:Cambodia and the US signed a Peace Corps agreement in 1994, but the US refused to implement it after the Khmer Rouge radio threatened volunteers would be targeted.

  Visa Obstacles

US exchange organizations with programs involving Vietnamese participants have noticed a pattern of delay or denial of visas for Vietnamese traveling to the US on diplomatic or official visas.This causes disruption, and delays often amount to denials if it causes applicants to miss scheduled events.Vietnamese traveling on unofficial passports are reportedly not subject to these problems.Some organizations have theorized that this trend may be an attempt by Washington to pressure Hanoi to agree to accept non-US citizens of Vietnamese origin who have completed prison sentences for felonies committed in the US.They cite threats of denials of visas for Cambodians until Phnom Penh signed an agreement to repatriate Khmer deported from the US for felony sentences. The State Department acknowledges delays and other obstacles, but it insists that they are not linked to the issue of repatriation of Vietnamese imprisoned in the US.The Department instead attributes the trend to its review of US procedures for visa issuance in all countries in the wake of September 11, 2001.Although there is evidence to support this explanation on a worldwide basis, it does not explain the apparent discrepancy between treatment of official and non-official Vietnamese visa applicants.

Whatever the reason for delays, US inviters must allow two or three months for visa approvals, should provide a clear sponsorship letter noting any schedule constraints, and may wish to advise applicants to utilize non-official passports except in the case of government-to-government programs.

Community bulletin board

The Asia Society is organizing an important regional conference in Hanoi March 5-7 that is worth taking into consideration for travel schedules.The conference is business focused, "Opening Markets and Continuing Growth".However, NGOs and educational institutions are welcome and are eligible for a special registration rate.For further information visit http://www.asiasociety.org/policy_business/save_date_vietnam.html

WASHINGTON INDOCHINA UPDATE #11

NOVEMBER, 2002

A number of bills and an ambassadorial confirmation await the return of a post-election, “lame duck” Congress this month.In the meantime, activity has been brisk in several sectors of U.S.-Indochina relations, ranging from religious freedom to over-the-horizon free trade proposals.

Human Rights and Political Development

Religious Freedom: A One-Two Punch from the West

Over the past three months Vietnam, and to a lesser extent Laos, have come under criticism from the European Union and the United States on religious freedom issues.In September an EU parliamentary delegation, in Hanoi for a meeting with Southeast Asian lawmakers, attempted to meet with three religious figures currently under detention.Unable to do so, Harmut Nassauer, the delegation chair, announced his intention to seek a suspension of EU aid to Vietnam.However, no action has been taken in the current EU budget cycle.

Shortly thereafter, the State Department and the quasi-non-governmental U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released their annual reviews of religious freedom in the world.As it did last year, the USCIRF recommended that the U.S. Government declare Vietnam and Laos “countries of particular concern (CPC),” the most severe rating.In their 2002 reports, the State Department criticized Vietnam and Laos, although acknowledging some progress in both countries.Despite the USCIRF recommendations, neither country is likely to be given the CPC label when the Secretary of State releases rankings on religious freedom in several weeks.As yet, neither the Commission nor State has moved to reduce the daylight between the two institutions on Vietnam and Laos.

Analysts in Asia offer two observations on Western criticism of the Vietnamese religious environment.First, the State Department reports often underestimate the number of followers of the country’s religions, painting an inaccurate picture of everyday religious life.Second, Western critics tend to conflate religion and politics.Broad political restrictions are often interpreted as religious persecution if they involve individuals with specific religious affiliation.

 Cambodian 2003 Elections: Warning Shots Across the Bow

USAID is devoting a portion of its FY2003 budget to training and other support for the 2003 national elections in Cambodia.Earlier in the year, the Senate Appropriations Committee placed a hold on the funds, returning proposals to USAID because activities proposed did not show sufficient effort to counter the “structural advantages” of the government.In political terms, this signaled an intention to move toward partisan support of the opposition in the elections.In February, Senator Mitch McConnell, Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, left little doubt when he published an op ed in the Boston Globe maintaining that U.S. policy should be to secure victory for the Sam Rainsy Party, and charging that theState Department was appeasing the government in Phnom Penh.

Whether or not it was related to McConnell’s broadside, the State Department levied two criticisms of the government this fall.In October the Department issued a public warning about political violence in the run-up to elections.More veiled was Cambodia’s omission from the ministerial meeting of the Community of Democracies, to be held in Seoul this month.A US initiative, the Community invited 118 countries asparticipants, assumed to be democracies in form and function.An additional 21 countries, judged to have made credible if incomplete democratic progress, were allowed to observe. Although Cambodia is approaching its fourth election since the Paris Peace Agreement and has developed an active civil society and assertive press, it was excluded from both categories.Some full participants (such as East Timor) have very new, untested political systems while others (such as Nepal) have suffered recent backsliding in democracy.In the observer group, some countries (such as Afghanistan) have yet to have their first national elections, while others (Algeria, Egypt) have had static, semi-authoritarian systems for decades.Very few, if any, of the observer countries have civil societies as vigorous as Cambodia’s.

Khmer Rouge Tribunal: The “Other” Resolution

Australia and Japan have prepared and will propose a resolution for the United Nations General Assembly that would require the U.N. to resume negotiations with Cambodia over a tribunal for the Khmer Rouge.The resolution is scheduled to be introduced and voted upon this month.It aims to override the U.N. Secretariat’s decision earlier this year to shut down the negotiation process.Cambodia reportedly helped draft the resolution but declined to co-sponsor it.If the tribunal goes forward, it will be one of the few accountability exercises under a “supermajority” formula, mixing international and indigenous jurists.

Economic Development

Laos: Thumbs Up from the IMF, Waiting for Nam Theun II

After completing a mid-term review of Laos’ performance under a three-year Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility program, the International Monetary Fund approved a $6 million draw for the country in concessional funds for low-income countries.The Fund cited incipient progress in structural reforms and noted that macroeconomic stability has been sustained despite a recent rise in inflation.Nevertheless, the new IMF draw is sorely needed: with foreign investment still down in the wake of the 1997-98 regional economic crisis, Laos has needed to rely increasingly upon foreign assistance and loans.

This economic vise prompted Laos in October to decide to proceed with the Nam Theun II hydroelectric power project.Scheduled to begin operation in 2008, the project has suffered delays due to hitches in negotiation with the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, the future consumer, which has still to sign an agreement.Concurrently, the parties are attempting to assemble a basket of loans and obtain a risk-management guarantee from the World Bank.They estimate that a funding base won’t be assured until late 2003 at the earliest.As yet, the Bank has made no final commitments.

   Trade

“Laddering” to a Free Trade Agreement

At the APEC Summit in Mexico City, President Bush announced the Enterprise for ASEAN Initiative, designed to build a network of free trade agreements between Southeast Asian countries and the United States.At best a commitment in principle, the announcement was intended to offer additional incentives for US allies in counter-terrorism, and to pre-empt announcements of similar partnerships with ASEAN by the Asian regional powers – China, Japan, India – at the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh earlier this month.In order to be eligible for FTA’s, ASEAN countries must climb a ladder of trade agreements, first gaining entry into the World Trade Organization, and then completing Trade and Investment Agreements (TIPA’s) with the US.In that regard, the US pledged to help Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos get a foothold on the first rung by helping them become WTO members.No clear policy plan has emerged in that regard.

For Hanoi, the offer is well timed.Vietnam’s stalking horse for WTO entry has been China, and officials in Hanoi had assumed that they would be able to follow in Beijing’s path to accession at some distance behind, learning from the larger nation’s experience.However, as China accelerates its reforms to meet WTO obligations, Vietnam – like other ASEAN countries – is aware that Western investment and trade could be quickly siphoned off from Southeast Asia to China.The internal debate on WTO entry is only beginning in Vietnam.

 A Boost for Laos BTA?
Laos will likely be among the last ASEAN countries to climb the US trade ladder.However, the rising tide of enthusiasm for free trade agreements in the region is likely to raise all boats.The immediate prospect for Laos may be a pick-up in momentum in the US to pass the Bilateral Trade Agreement.American officials are quietly preparing for a push in early 2003, most likely beginning with Congressional hearings.Opposing BTA continues to be a rallying point for some hardline Laotian-American groups, whose activities this fall were organized around a meeting of the U.S. Congressional Forum on Laos on October 1.The Forum fosters a catch-all of complaints against the present government of Laos, all of which they maintain can be remedied by denying BTA to Laos.One factor in the BTA debate will be the results of the mid-term Congressional elections, particularly in those constituencies with significant Laotian-American populations.  Vietnam BTA Anniversary: Growing Trade, Growing Protectionism?

At a dinner organized by the Fund for Reconciliation and Development in September,

Vietnamese Minister of Foreign Affairs Nguyen Dy Nien offered an early assessment of the economic impact of his country’s Bilateral Trade Agreement with the United States.A scant year since the agreement went into effect, two-way trade has grown by fifty percent, with the most significant expansion in the aqua-product, garment and textile sectors.(A complete transcript of his remarks can be found at http://www.ffrd.org/dinner/vn.htm.)

But to the bafflement of Vietnamese, the first year of legal prohibitions on protectionism saw a rise in just that on the U.S. side.The American fishing industry continues to press its case on catfish imports, accusing Vietnam of dumping and, more fundamentally, of lacking a sufficient market economy to support trade.Previous objections maintained that Vietnamese misapplied the label of “catfish” to their products, and that the fish were inherently toxic: with no apparent sense of the irony, Arkansas Congressman Marion Berry alleged that Vietnamese catfish had been contaminated by Agent Orange.In October a Department of Commerce team visited Vietnam, and a determination on the anti-dumping issue is expected in February.

In the meantime, parallel charges of dumping shrimp have been made against Vietnam, as well as several other countries, including China, Thailand and Indonesia.In October Texas Representative Ron Paul introduced the Shrimp Importation Financing Fairness Act.Based on the assumption, as yet unsupported, that domestic environmental restrictions prevent the American shrimp industry from competing against these countries, the bill would require the elimination of OPIC and Export-Import Bank funds to them. It also calls for a reduction in the U.S. contribution to the International Monetary Fund in proportion to the amount assumed to be lost by American fishermen.The legislation is not expected to pass.However, it remains to be seen whether the U.S. seafood industry will file an anti-dumping suit against foreign shrimp imports.

   Legacy Issues

Agent Orange: More Dialogue, and a Legislative Request

To continue dialogue on the effects of Agent Orange and other herbicides used by the United States during the Vietnam War, Yale University hosted a conference of approximately 200 Vietnamese, Laotian and American government officials, physicians, scientists, veterans, academics, activists and non-governmental representatives September 13-15.The event was sponsored by the Schools of Nursing and Forestry & Environmental Studies, in association with the Vietnam Veterans Association.Discussion centered on the possibilities for joint research and the cultural and practical aspects of doing research in Vietnam.The conference presented an opportunity for Vietnamese and Laotian researchers to develop ties with their American counterparts.It also promoted dialogue between Vietnamese participants and American veterans on priorities for funds.Although there was no consensus on this issue, the conference served to emphasize that joint research on Agent Orange can benefit both Vietnamese and Americans.When agreement was first reached between the US and Vietnam on research, Americans tended to view it primarily as a concession to Vietnam.

Following the conference a ten-member delegation of Vietnamese and Laotians visited New York City and Washington, D.C.Oxfam America and the American Friends Service Committee funded the group, and the program was coordinated by the Fund for Reconciliation and Development.The delegation met with Congressional staff, veterans groups, the National Academy of Sciences, the Federal Resources Center, the State Department, the UN Environmental Program, and the New York University School of Medicine. Delegation members made public presentations at Rockefeller University in New York and Georgetown University in Washington.

On October 3, three members of the US House of Representatives who served during the Vietnam War -- Congressmen Shuster, Murrtha and Andrews -- sent a letter to Vietnamese President Tran Duc Luong and the Vietnam Red Cross requesting permission to build an international medical and research center for Agent Orange victims in Vietnam.Beyond creating a permanent institution to redress problems of Agent Orange, such a collaborative project could move cooperation between the US and Vietnam beyond joint research to include assistance for AO’s victims.

Veterans Delegation to Vietnam

In September former U.S. Ambassador to Hanoi Douglas “Pete” Peterson returned to Vietnam with a veterans delegation sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.A former Air Force pilot during the Vietnam War, Peterson was accompanied by his co-pilot, Col. Bernard F. Talley, also held as a prisoner of war.The delegation focused on VVMF’s Project RENEW, a two-year pilot program in Quang Tri Province to promote mine awareness and victims assistance in the province’s Trieu Phong District, where some of the fiercest fighting of the Vietnam War took place.The Fund has planned a series of events to commemorate the 20th anniversary of The Wall this Veteran’s Day.Further information is available at www.vvmf.org.

DOD DAS to Laos

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Jerry Rawlings visited Laos October 21-24, to underscore the ongoing US-Laotian partnership on POW/MIA recovery.The government of Laos reaffirmed its support for continued cooperation in this area.Rawlings expressed gratitude for Laotian efforts and indicated that successful cooperation could serve as a springboard for expanded US-Laotian relations.

Debt-to-Development:Vietnam Education Foundation Board

The first Board of Directors has been selected for the Vietnam Education Foundation, the scientific and technical exchange program funded through repayment of US loans to Vietnam made prior to 1975.The 13-member board, drawn from Congress, the executive branch and the private sector, includes Senators Chuck Hagel and John Kerry and Congressmen George Miller and Christopher Smith.Hagel, Kerry and Miller have had significant involvement in US-Vietnamese relations.Smith, a prominent member of the House human rights caucus, has taken conservative positions on religious freedom and family planning, particularly in China.Executive branch members include Thomas Farrell, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Academic Programs; Albert Keidel, Acting Director for East Asia at the Department of the Treasury; and Joseph Esposito, Senior Advisor to the Deputy Secretary of Education.Private sector members are Herbert Allison of the Alliance for Lifelong Learning; Robert Bryant, Duke University; Frank Jao of Bridgecreek; Chung W. Kim of the Korean Institute for Advanced Study; and Marilyn Pattillo of the University of Texas at Austin.

Lon Nol Debt Revived

In an oddly parallel move, the US has requested repayment from Cambodia of nearly $300 million in PL-480 commodity loans made to the Lon Nol government in the early 1970’s.The Ministry of Finance and Economy is reviewing loan documents presented to Cambodia at the end of last year; the Cambodian government lost all pre-1975 records when the Khmer Rouge systematically destroyed official documents after seizing Phnom Penh.The two governments have been in quiet consultation and expect to hold a high-level meeting on repayment in the near future.Both sides anticipate that the loans will be renegotiated to a lower amount.Although they do not deny the obligation, Cambodian officials cite two difficulties in repayment.Even a reduced level would be difficult for the government to cover at this point in Cambodia’s economic development.In addition, Attorney General Dr. Kao Bunbong points out that the Cambodian National Assembly retroactively declared the Lon Nol government to have been illegal; repayment of the loan could imply recognition of the regime.

Officialdom  Ray Confirmation at the Half-Way Mark

On October 1 Ambassador-Designate to Cambodia Charles A. Ray testified at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.A career foreign service officer and former army officer, Ray served as the first post-war US Consul-General in Ho Chi Minh City.In his remarks, Ray pledged to encourage reform of Cambodian adoption law and to work with the Cambodian government on a full accounting for POW/MIA’s.He also cited humanitarian resettlement of Montagnard refugees, the repatriation of Cambodian nationals deported from the US by the INS, and cooperation on the war on terrorism as front-burner issues in US-Cambodian relations.The administration is hoping for Ray’s confirmation in early November and a departure to Phnom Penh before the end of the month.However, this schedule will depend upon the legislative leadership’s ability to mobilize the “lame duck” Congress in short order.

Washington Indochina Update #10
August 2002

Alert: The Fund for Reconciliation and Development will hold its annual dinner honoring the Foreign Ministers and Ambassadors of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam on Tuesday, September 17, in New York. To reserve space, please contact FRD at (212) 760-9903 or info@ffrd.org.

I.                   Trade

Congress approves extension of NTR for Vietnam. The House of Representatives voted 338-91 on July 23 in favor of extending the Jackson-Vanik trade waiver, and hence Vietnam’s annually-renewable normal trade status, by voting down the disapproval resolution (H.J.Res.101) that had been introduced in June. A full hour of debate preceded the vote, which makes interesting reading; for an e-mail copy, write to washington@ffrd.org. Divisions on this issue follow few predictable party lines, as 62 Republicans joined 27 Democrats and 2 independents voting against the waiver issued by President Bush.

Vietnam welcomed the vote as “a step in the right direction,” but asked the US to discard the Jackson-Vanik provisions and make NTR status permanent, as the annual review “is not in line with the spirit of the Bilateral Trade Agreement and does not benefit the two countries.” Most members of Congress favor continuing the review process, however, as it gives them a voice in policy-making and a way to make their views known.

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Fast-track trade authority approved; Trade Representative to move forward. By a three-vote margin, the House passed Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) on July 27, giving President Bush “fast-track” power to negotiate new trade agreements. According to the Washington Post, US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick plans to use the new status to finalize bilateral agreements currently under negotiation with Chile and Singapore. “Around the world, this is seen as a real shot in the arm” for trade negotiations, he said. No mention was made of Laos (which does not fall under TPA in any case, as the agreement was negotiated in 1997). However, passage of TPA removes a key procedural obstacle towards Congressional consideration of the Laos bilateral trade agreement, as USTR was hesitant to move forward with other items on the President’s trade policy agenda until fast-track authority had been granted.

II.Human Rights

Environmental conference in Sweden issues declaration. The Environmental Conference on Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam convened in Stockholm on July 26-28 to “address the present and continuing impact of war on the lives, livelihoods and environment of the peoples of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.” Participants from Vietnam, Laos, the US and Europe examined the impacts of herbicides such as Agent Orange, landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) on ecosystems, public health, economic and social impacts, and ethical, legal and policy issues. In his opening remarks, Prof. Nguyen Trong Nhan of the Vietnam Red Cross said, “The dark past can only be overcome if the US government develops sufficient courage to begin resolving the serious consequences of the war.”

The conference declaration calls for “a new large-scale effort” to resolve the consequences of war “in a spirit of restorative justice” and appeals for increased assistance from the world community, particularly the US. The declaration is available on the FRD website, www.ffrd.org. FRD Executive Director John McAuliff served on the conference steering committee and attended along with Deputy Director Susan Hammond.Oxfam America and the American Friends Service Committee were also represented.

Yale conference on Agent Orange to be held in September. The Yale University School of Nursing will sponsor a symposium on Ecological and Health Effects of the Vietnam War from Sept. 13-15. This symposium will “assess the chemical, biological and physical agents utilized in military operations during the US-Vietnam conflict from an environmental health perspective” and “facilitate dialogue about the need for further research,” among other objectives. For more information, contact Dr. Linda Schwartz at (203) 785-5414, or see www.nursing.yale.edu/news/vwsymposium.html.


House hearing on “Freedom of Expression in Vietnam.”On July 23, the same day that the Jackson-Vanik waiver was passed, the Congressional Human Rights Caucus held a hearing on “Freedom of Expression in Vietnam and the Vietnamese Government’s Response,” chaired by Reps. Loretta Sanchez and Zoe Lofgren (both D-CA). Sanchez described the aim of the hearing as “to come up with strategies and pressure the government of Vietnam to improve human rights... What do we need to do to try to change Vietnam?” No sense of historical irony appeared to accompany this question.

Testimony from the hearing included a predictably one-sided selection of Vietnamese-American activists and more careful statements from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. For a full accounting, see www.house.gov/lantos/caucus/briefs.htm.

Report on prison conditions in Laos.An Amnesty International report released on July 26 alleges pervasive ill-treatment and the frequent use of torture in Lao prisons. Although independent human rights groups are not allowed to collect information inside Laos, the London-based group was able to conduct interviews with former prisoners and their families, including several foreigners.

The Lao PDR ambassador to Thailand, Hiem Phommachanh, responded that the report was biased and that most sources were anonymous. “It is impossible to hear good things from those foreigners who have broken Lao laws,” he said, and stressed that the Lao Constitution and penal code recognize basic human rights and prohibit torture.

According to Amnesty, torture and mistreatment of prisoners exist in 111 countries worldwide, including the US (which has the highest per capita rate of imprisonment in the world). Lest opponents of US-Laos relations use Amnesty’s criticism as ammunition, it is worth pointing out that the US recently led opposition to a new protocol on the Convention on Torture in the UN Economic and Social Council, since it would allow international inspectors into US prisons. Joanna Wechsler of Human Rights Watch commented on the UN convention, “It's really hard to understand why the US is working against human rights and against so many of its allies.” The US is a party to the original convention on torture, as is Cambodia; Laos and Vietnam are not.

III.             Foreign Assistance

Vietnam requests US assistance on Agent Orange. As more data on the lingering effects of herbicides used in the Vietnam War become known, the Vietnamese government is stepping up its efforts to focus attention on the humanitarian aspects of dioxin contamination. Few high-level meetings in recent months have taken place without the issue of Agent Orange being raised, including (since-retired) Vice President Nguyen Thi Binh’s visit to the US and Ambassador Raymond Burghardt’s consultations with Vietnamese leaders. Following the Stockholm environmental conference, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Phan Thuy Thanh encouraged the US to “be fully aware of its responsibilities and fulfill its spiritual and moral obligations.” Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung also brought up the Agent Orange issue during the recent visit of a leading State Department official responsible for MIA issues (see below).

Contrary to claims in some news reports, Vietnam has not made any specific claims for compensation or “damages,” but rather expects increased humanitarian assistance to accompany the cooperation on scientific research agreed to in Hanoi this past March. However, a group of Agent Orange victims in Vietnam is considering suing the US Government for compensation, much as American victims of toxic contamination have done.

Landmine survivors bill advances in Senate.The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed S. 1777, the International Disability and Victims of Landmines, Civil Strife and Warfare Assistance Act, with a favorable report on July 30. The measure, sponsored by Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), now awaits a floor vote. A companion House bill, H.R. 3169, was cleared for a House vote last November.

The bill establishes new programs to help “individuals with disabilities, including victims of land mines and other victims of civil strife and warfare”in a number of US Government departments, from USAID to Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services. It also creates an interagency task force on disability assistance and demining. For more information, see www.banminesusa.org.

IV.              Diplomacy

Sec. Powell visits Southeast Asia.In conjunction with the ASEAN Regional Forum in Brunei, Secretary of State Colin Powell visited eight South and Southeast Asian countries in late July and early August, with most of his destinations chosen on the basis of links with the war on terrorism. Noticeably absent from the secretary’s itinerary were Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, although Powell did visit Vietnam last year for the ASEAN meetings held there.

ASEAN adopts declaration on terrorism.Following the Brunei summit, the ten ASEAN members, including Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, signed a joint statement with the US pledging to “prevent, disrupt and combat international terrorism.” The nations promised to work together on sharing information, joint training, and undetermined future projects.

Objections had been made to an earlier draft of the declaration by Indonesia, which feared a greater US military presence in the region, and Vietnam, citing the principle of non-interference in internal affairs. Changes were made in the final version to satisfy these concerns. Powell assured ASEAN delegates that the purpose of the statement was political, not military, and hoped for “a more intimate relationship” between the US and Southeast Asia.

Vietnam and US agree to further cooperation on MIAs.During a week-long visit to Vietnam, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jerry Jennings signed an agreement with Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung on August 2 to expand joint research and MIA recovery efforts. In what Jennings called “a new era in openness,” Vietnam will engage in “a re-organized effort with more direction from the top of the government” to find missing records pertaining to US MIAs. He reaffirmed that accounting for missing Americans remains “the central guiding principle in [the US’s] Vietnam policy.”

Regarding the estimated 300,000 Vietnamese still missing from the war, Jennings said the US was assisting with DNA analysis training and opening up wartime archives. DPM Dung offered his “utmost dedication” towards settling the “humanitarian effort” of MIA recovery, and drew links to other war legacy issues as well. Since MIA cooperation began in 1986, remains of 673 Americans have been found, with 1,441 still unaccounted for in Vietnam, 400 in Laos and 58 in Cambodia. With an annual budget of $20 million plus $13 million in transportation costs for search and recovery teams, the Joint Task Force/Full Accounting program has spent approximately $835,000 per successful recovery.

Sec. Gen. Annan, ASEAN leaders comment on Khmer Rouge tribunal. In a response to last month’s offer from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to restart negotiations on the stalled tribunal for former Khmer Rouge leaders, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan replied that a mandate from either the Security Council or General Assembly would be required for talks to resume. According to Cambodian foreign minister Hor Namhong, Annan gave no details on when this might take place.

In the Joint Communique of the ASEAN ministerial meeting held in Brunei on July 29-30, the region’s foreign ministers expressed their support for “the continued efforts of the Royal Government of Cambodia to bring the senior leaders of Democratic Kampuchea and those who were most responsible for the crimes and serious violations…to trial in accordance with international standards of justice, fairness and due process of law.” The ministers added that the Cambodian government and the UN needed to cooperate and appealed to the international community for assistance. A meeting on the tribunal, chaired by Japan and the US, was reportedly held on the sidelines of the Brunei summit.

Ambassadorial nominee to Cambodia awaits confirmation. Charles Ray, nominated as the next US Ambassador to Cambodia in early June, has yet to receive a hearing from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Senate is currently on recess until September 3 and carries an ongoing backlog of nominations. Once the hearing is held, Ray is not expected to face any obstacles to confirmation.

Former US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann retired from his post in May. The embassy in Phnom Penh is currently led by Deputy Chief of Mission Alexander Arvizu; a gap of several months between ambassadors is not considered unusual.

Cambodian parliamentarian advocates retaking Mekong Delta by force. Thach Sang, a FUNCINPEC member of Cambodia’s National Assembly, told the Cambodia Daily on July 30 that Vietnam should grant self-governance to the 900,000 ethnic Khmer living in the Mekong Delta region, referred to as “Kampuchea Krom” by Khmer nationalists. “But if the movement continues and Kampuchea Krom is not handed self-governance, the front will become an armed movement,” he threatened. Sang, a US permanent resident who lives in Massachusetts (but represents Kompong Speu province in the National Assembly), is the self-styled leader of the Kampuchea Krom National Liberation Front or KKNLF.

An apparently more mainstream US-based group, the Khmers-Kampuchea Krom Federation, calls on Vietnam to respect the rights of indigenous peoples and “decolonize” the Mekong Delta (see www.khmerkrom.org). Khmer irredentists claim that Vietnamese encroachment on Khmer lands in the 18th century was illegally recognized by the French colonial administration as a permanent part of Vietnam. Several thousand people reportedly gathered at a June protest in Phnom Penh marking the anniversary of the French action. (A rough American equivalent would be to argue that the Louisiana Purchase was unlawfully sold to the US by Napoleon and should be returned to its original Native American owners.)

According to news reports, unnamed military sources say the KKNLF poses no serious danger to Vietnam. However, Thach Sang is under investigation by both Cambodian and US authorities for threatening to use force against a foreign government.

Cambodian-American deportees adjust to return. Despite protests and fears to the contrary, the first six convicted felons deported from the US to Cambodia in June appear to be encountering no major difficulties. The six, part of more than 1,000 Cambodian citizens who have completed sentences in US prisons, were returned under a March bilateral agreement. A key person helping them overcome many practical problems (on a volunteer basis) is long-time NGO worker Bill Herod (e-mailbill@everyday.com.kh).

The US carries out similar deportations with most countries in the world (Laos, Vietnam and Cuba are among the remaining exceptions who refuse to accept deportees from the US). The Cambodian cases have been controversial in part because many came to the US as refugee children, do not speak fluent Khmer and are unprepared for Cambodian life. In a July 28 Boston Globe article, former ambassador Wiedemann said that Cambodia agreed to take them back only after the State Department threatened to withhold visas from Cambodians seeking to enter the US. The deportations have led to protests in Cambodian-American communities across the country, some of which stir up Khmer Rouge-era fears and exaggerated claims of human rights violations.

Washington Indochina Update #9
July 2002
I.                   Trade

Catfish anti-dumping case tests US-Vietnam trade relations. Changing the legal name of Vietnamese basa and tra “catfish” proved to be not enough for US catfish producers, as imports continued to rise. In a June 28 petition to the quasi-governmental International Trade Commission (ITC), the industry association Catfish Farmers of America call for punitive tariffs to be placed on Vietnamese fish that they claim are being unfairly sold at below market value.

Vietnamese exporters deny the charges, saying that Vietnam is “not rich enough to practice dumping…We only sell in markets where we can make a profit.” Vietnamese trade minister Vu Khoan called the petition a plot to undermine fair trade.

The ITC will hold hearings on the complaint on July 19 and release its opinion to the Department of Commerce a month later. The Commission must determine if fish imports are in fact sold at less than fair prices and whether “an industry in the United States is materially injured” as a result. An adverse ruling could put the fast-growing trade between the US and Vietnam on ice. Meanwhile, US international trade policy is increasingly following a pattern of enforced “free trade” for others, but protection for domestic interests.

Proponents, opponents of trade with Laos exchange views.Following the success of the “National Laotian-American Symposium on US-Laos Relations” in May, momentum has built for Congressional consideration of the bilateral trade agreement between the two countries. In a June 14 meeting, officials of the US Trade Representative office expressed enthusiasm for moving ahead with submission of the agreement, signed in 1997.

Opponents of US relations with Laos reacted with predictable dismay. A June 20 Washington Post story quoted lobbyist Philip Smith stating that normal trade relations were “premature” since Laos had not yet solved all of its human rights problems. Smith also lashed out at US Ambassador Douglas Hartwick, who responded that passage of the trade agreement had been on President Bush’s trade agenda long before his confirmation as ambassador.

In a June 28 letter to the Post, Andrew Wells-Dang noted “the emerging coalition of Lao and Hmong Americans, nongovernmental organizations, religious groups, businesses and US veterans that support positive change in US-Lao relations” and called opponents’ obstructionism old news. In a letter to American NGOs working in Laos, FRD Executive Director John McAuliff wrote, “We believe there are the votes in Congress for ratification of the agreement but that it is not a certainty given the low priority it is likely to have for many Representatives and Senators.” FRD is happy to answer questions, provide addresses and fax numbers, and arrange meetings in Congress on US-Laos relations; please contact washington@ffrd.org.

Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister visits US.Nguyen Manh Cam led a high-level delegation of 30 Vietnamese government and business leaders to promote trade with the US during a June 16-26 visit to Texas, Washington DC, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New York. The delegation met with more than 60 US businesses, encouraging more investment in Vietnam. In Washington, Cam met with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, trade officials and members of Congress, as well as signed a memorandum of understanding on bilateral technical assistance.

According to the Vietnam News Agency, Cam also “told US officials and congressmen that the US should be responsible for helping Vietnam overcome the consequences of toxic chemicals sprayed by the US military during the war in Vietnam. The US was requested to implement humanitarian programs to assist victims exposed to toxic chemicals and deformed children whose parents had been exposed…and to decontaminate heavily affected areas.”

President Bush re-issues Jackson-Vanik waiver on Vietnam.On June 3, President Bush announced (Presidential Determination No. 02-22) that continuing Vietnam’s Jackson-Vanik waiver would “substantially promote the objectives” of US law. The determination certifies that Vietnam remains in compliance with provisions regarding the freedom of emigration from countries with non-market economies, and hence eligible for annual renewal of normal trade relations (NTR).

As he has done each year since the waiver was first granted in 1998, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) introduced a resolution expressing Congressional disapproval (H.J.Res.101) on June 25. In recent years, Rohrabacher’s bill has been dismissed in the House by a 4-to-1 margin, and this time around is not expected to be different.

Due to the particularities of the 1974 trade law that includes Jackson-Vanik provisions, neither Cambodia (which received permanent NTR in 1996) nor Laos is bound by the act.

ILO reports “signs of improvement” in Cambodian garment industry.The International Labor Organization released its “Third Synthesis Report on the Working Conditions Situation in Cambodia's Garment Sector” on July 1. In a review of conditions in 30 factories producing for foreign export, the ILO found no evidence of child labor, forced labor, orsexual harassment, and improvements in payment of wages, overtime and freedom of association. Unlike in previous reports, specific factories are mentioned in the report along with steps they took (or did not take) to comply with ILO core labor standards and Cambodian labor laws.

The ILO-managed project is part of a monitoring system developed in conjunction with the 1999 US-Cambodian bilateral textile agreement. An advisory committee representing the Cambodian government, Garment Manufacturers' Association and trade unions endorsed the ILO report’s conclusions.

Additional views on textiles and labor in Vietnam.A June Congressional Research Service report, “The US-Vietnam Textile Agreement Debate: Trade Patterns, Interests, and Labor Rights,” offers detailed analysis of Vietnam’s textile exports to the US and Congressional politics surrounding the proposed bilateral textile agreement. The author, Nicole Sayres, argues that “labor rights supporters point to improvements in Cambodia’s labor system as evidence of the success of the model. However, others have questioned the effectiveness of the incentive and the applicability of the model to Vietnam. Some observers contend that trade policy and labor issues should not be linked and, therefore, there should be no labor provision…The United States potentially has significant leverage on the issue because it could unilaterally impose quotas on the non-WTO country at any time.”

For a copy of the report or further information, contact the author at nsayres@crs.loc.gov.

II.Human Rights

UN considers Vietnam’s report on ICCPR. A special United Nations committee is meeting in Geneva to evaluate the periodic reports of five state parties, including Vietnam, to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). A Vietnamese representative will introduce the report, Vietnam’s first since 1990, and answer questions from the 18-member committee. International human rights organizations will also present their views to the committee.

Vietnam criticized over restrictions on media. Two press freedom organizations, the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists and the French Reporters Sans Frontieres, issued reports in early July alleging a crackdown on the media and free expression in Vietnam. CPJ cited detention of two dissident journalists, limitations on satellite and Internet use, and instructions to curtail reporting on government corruption; RSF gave a broader overview of the media in Vietnam, reserving its harshest criticism for Communist Party leader Nong Duc Manh.

Such frontal attacks are bound to go over badly in Vietnam, and both the government and various media organs responded with vociferous and defensive reactions. The website of the Voice of Vietnam, for instance, accused CPJ of “lending a hand to the hostile forces against Vietnam…the organization did not understand or chose to ignore the current development of [the] Vietnamese press.” VOV cited the 1999 press law passed by the National Assembly, high-quality investigative reporting on corruption, and nationwide screenings of National Assembly sessions as examples of improvements in press freedom.

Neither the international critics nor Vietnamese respondents mentioned several salient facts about the media in Vietnam: first that in a highly literate society, what reporters write really matters; second that although all media is affiliated with a government or party organization in some way, there is a significant degree of difference among them; and third, ironically enough, more divergent opinions often appear in Vietnamese-language publications than in English or French. Certain topics are still off-limits, but if critics were actually to read or listen to Vietnamese media on a daily basis, they might be surprised.

International Criminal Court established.Despite increasingly hard line opposition from the Bush Administration, the treaty creating an International Criminal Court entered into force on July 1. The Court’s authority is not retroactive, but as one commentator (former Clinton administration official Eric Schwartz) noted, its existence is “a living monument to the millions of victims of killings and torture over the past several decades, from Cambodia to Congo, who never obtained justice.” Cambodia became one of 76 countries to ratify the ICC treaty in April. Vietnam, which has not yet signed the treaty, has joined a chorus of international protests over US actions to “unsign” the treaty and restrict peacekeeping operations.

III.             Foreign Assistance

Cambodian Consultative Group pledges $600 million in aid.During the June 17-21 Consultative Group meeting in Phnom Penh, international donors agreed to contribute $600 million over the next year, well over the $484 million the Cambodian government had asked for and more than half the country’s annual budget. According to the Voice of America, the US contribution is reported to be $45 million, including $3 million from the Centers for Disease Control and $2.5 million for demining operations.

Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh called the result “a reward for the government’s efforts in earlier reforms.” A World Bank statement praised Cambodia’s return to political and economic stability, while citing gaps in environmental protection and civil service reform.

A thorough 77-page NGO statement to the CG, covering issues ranging from legal reform to landmines, is available atwww.ngoforum.org.kh/Woking_Group_Issues/Civilsociety/final_ngo_2002.htm. The NGO Statement is a collaborative effort among the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia (CCC), the NGO Forum on Cambodia, and the MEDiCAM association of NGOs working in health, together with contributions from twenty-two sectoral or issue-basedworking groups.

Nam Theun II dam workshop held in Laos.A Lao government-organized seminar, “Nam Theun II—Window to the Future,” was organized on July 3, with over 200 participants from embassies, international organizations, and NGOs. According to news reports, Finance Minister Soukan Mahalath said the government was committed to building the dam on schedule and to use income from electricity sales for poverty reduction. The Lao government is seeking a $100 million loan for the project, but World Bank official Jayasankar Shivakumar told the Bangkok Nation that the Bank was deferring a decision on a risk guarantee until the dam “receives wider support among the international donor community and from social and environmental groups.”

IV.              Diplomacy

Another chance for compromise on Khmer Rouge tribunal?Following consultations with the UN in June, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced on July 2 that his government was willing to amend a genocide law in order to reach a compromise with the UN. Hun Sen said that talks with the UN were “moving forward…we are working in a good atmosphere, and it is developing very well.”

Burghardt supports constructive cooperation with Vietnam.US Ambassador to Vietnam Raymond Burghardt told a July 4 gathering in Hanoi that he was pleased with progress in US-Vietnamese relations, particularly on the economic front. “My goal over the next three years is to broaden and intensify the relationship and further normalize it across the board,” he added.

Burghardt joined five other US ambassadors to ASEAN nations in New York and Washington for a dialogue on economic cooperation in mid-June.

Laotian defense minister visits MIA recovery site.Gen. Douangchay Phichit, Deputy Foreign Minister Phongsavath Boupha, and other Laotian officials visited a Joint Task Force-Full Accounting team in Savannakhet province on July 7. US and Lao search and recovery teams have worked on 89 sites since 1985, resulting in the identification of 160 MIAs out of a total of 560 Americans lost over Laos. US Ambassador to Laos Douglas Hartwick told Agence France Presse that the visit showed Lao government cooperation and “its humanitarian empathy with Americans who lost loved ones.”

“Free Vietnam” leader extradited to Thailand. Vo Van Duc, the Garden Grove, CA-based suspect in the June 2001 attempted bombing of the Vietnamese embassy in Bangkok, agreed in June to be extradited to Thailand in return for the dropping of US charges against him for conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction. Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry has requested that Duc also be tried in Vietnam on terrorism charges. The arrest of Duc has cast more attention on the actions of the “Government of Free Vietnam” group, of which Duc is acknowledged as a leader, that seeks to overthrow the Vietnamese government.

Washington Indochina Update # 8

June 2002

I. Trade
"Laotian-American Symposium" held in Congress. In the first such event of its kind ever held in Congress, Laotian-Americans from around the US gathered in Washington on May 22-24 calling for open dialogue on US-Laos relations and supporting normal trade relations between the two countries. Symposium coordinator Sary Tatpaporn described the event's goal as "to explore opportunities to heal the wounds and to build better understanding, relationships and partnership between the Laotian people and the American people for the 21st century."
At a May 23 briefing hosted by Reps. George Miller (D-CA) and Betty McCollum (D-MN), US Ambassador to Laos Douglas Hartwick said, "I believe strongly that it is in the vital interests of the United States to have a relationship with Laos that enables us to influence the pace and direction of change…Slowly and tentatively, we can see a country struggling to correct its problems. It is in America's interest to encourage this effort."
The full text of statements by Amb. Hartwick, Symposium participants, and the ensuing discussion will soon be available online at http://www.laotianlink.com. The Symposium was co-sponsored by six non-governmental organizations, including FRD.
Trade Promotion Authority passes Senate. By a bipartisan majority of 66-30, the Senate passed the "fast-track" trade bill (H.R. 3009) on May 23 with the addition of Trade Adjustment Assistance programs for workers who lose their jobs to international competition. President Bush termed the vote "an important signal to our trading partners that we are committed to free and open trade." The bill now goes to a conference committee, likely followed by a second House vote. However, passage of TPA in both houses now opens the door for additional trade legislation in the remaining months of the 2001-2 Congressional session.
Vietnam joins chorus of protest against farm bill. With less commitment to the principles of "free and open trade," President Bush also signed a protectionist farm bill (H.R. 2646) on May 13. Among the miscellaneous provisions of the bill is language making the labeling ban on Vietnamese basa catfish a permanent US law. Vietnam's trade minister, Vu Khoan, asked the US to "cancel" the regulation in a May 17 letter complaining of "barriers to the two countries' trading exchange" created by the bill. In Hanoi, deputy foreign minister and former ambassador to the US, Le Van Bang, told US Ambassador Raymond Burghardt that the catfish provision "is not in keeping with the spirit of the BTA" ratified by the US and Vietnam last year.
Vietnamese trade ministry delegation visits US. In an attempt to resolve the catfish dispute, among other objectives, a Vietnamese trade delegation led by Deputy Minister Luong Van Tu met with American counterparts in Washington from May 19-21 and New York on May 22. According to the Vietnam News Agency, this was the first official trade delegation since the Bilateral Trade Agreement came into effect in December. Other topics of discussion for the delegation included intellectual property rights, business visas, and textiles. Vietnamese press reported that the US agreed not to apply quotas to Vietnamese garment and textile exports during an unspecified "transitional period" of BTA implementation.
Policy brief on textiles and labor rights available. In a new Foreign Policy in Focus report, "Linking Textiles to Labor Standards: Prospects for Cambodia and Vietnam," FRD Washington representative Andrew Wells-Dang examines the politics and economics of the groundbreaking 1999 US-Cambodian textile agreement, its effect on labor conditions, and negotiations on a similar agreement with Vietnam. The report is online at http://www.fpif.org/papers/txt-labor.html.
II. Human Rights
Stockholm conference on "Environmental Consequences of the Vietnam War." From July 26-28, international donors, NGOs and Vietnamese officials will gather in Sweden for discussions concerning "the long-term environmental consequences of the Vietnam War in terms of their interrelated effects on ecosystems, public health and economic activity in the region." For more information, see www.nnn.se/vietnam/environ.htm or contact conference coordinator Al Burke at editor@nnn.se.
Amnesty International issues annual report on human rights. Amnesty's annual report, released on May 28, focuses on violations of human rights linked to the global campaign against terrorism. It also includes useful two-page summaries of human rights conditions in all countries of the world, with an emphasis on compliance with international norms and treaties, prisoners of conscience and the use of the death penalty. For a list of Asia-Pacific country summaries, see http://web.amnesty.org/web/ar2002.nsf/asa?OpenView.
The Cambodian report notes that Cambodia has abolished the death penalty, ratified a UN protocol on women's rights, and granted a royal audience to an August 2001 Amnesty delegation. However, Amnesty criticizes Cambodia's alleged failure to protect Vietnamese ethnic minority asylum seekers, delays in the Khmer Rouge tribunal process, and political violence. The less balanced report on Vietnam cites "renewed repression" and a "prevailing climate of political infighting and public dissent," a strange formulation in light of Vietnam's consensus-based political system. Amnesty erroneously terms normal trade relations with the US "trade privileges" and claims that Vietnam implemented "new regulations limiting the use of the Internet" in 2001, perhaps unaware of the thousands of Internet cafes operating freely in Saigon, Hanoi and other cities.
Cambodia moved from "Tier II" to "Tier III" on State Department trafficking list. The State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons released its 2002 report on June 5. The report classifies countries judged to have significant trafficking problems into three tiers based on the government's perceived level of compliance with the "minimum standards" set out in 2002 legislation. Countries in Tier III, or noncompliance, face mandatory sanctions on non-trade, non-humanitarian assistance beginning with next year's report. For the full report, see http://www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2002/.
Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand have all been classified as Tier II countries in past years' reports. In the 2002 report, however, the State Department found that Cambodia's "efforts disappointingly lagged over the last year…The Government of Cambodia does not fully comply with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so." The Cambodian government responded with disappointment, with Prime Minister Hun Sen telling the Cabinet that the problem "is not completely our fault."
In contrast, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand are judged to be making "significant efforts" through public awareness campaigns, development programs, and partnering with NGOs, among other areas. Given that the report also cites Cambodian participation in exactly these activities, it is not clear on what basis Cambodia's status was downgraded. A May 29 Washington Post editorial favoring "naming and shaming offending countries" called for harsh action against India, Cambodia and Thailand, in particular. Of these three, only Cambodia was moved from Tier II to Tier III. Unrealistic and politically-motivated conditions on foreign assistance, similar to those that would come into effect in 2003 under the trafficking act, already apply to Cambodia in US law.
Vietnam greets Bob Kerrey's "crimes" with calls for reconciliation. In a new memoir, former US senator Bob Kerrey offered a different version of the alleged 1969 massacre at Thanh Phong village (Ben Tre province) than he gave when the story became public last year. According to the Associated Press, Kerrey now admits that he was aware women and children had gathered in the village before his Navy team began shooting. In a response, Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs termed Kerrey's actions "crimes," but added: "In our view, what Mr. Kerrey and those Americans who were involved in the Vietnam War should do is to take action to make concrete and practical contributions to healing the war wounds in Vietnam which they themselves caused."
Commission on Religious Freedom comments on Vietnam, Laos. In its May 2002 annual report, the quasi-independent US Commission on International Religious Freedom (http://www.uscirf.org) tones down its criticism of Vietnam and Laos, despite noting continued religious freedom issues in both countries and emphasizing its support for the "Vietnam Human Rights Act" (HR 2833). Unlike in previous years, the Commission has not issued any special reports on Vietnam or Laos, and no longer calls for either country to be added to the State Department's list of "countries of particular concern," although Vietnam is still cited for "grave violations." While having hosted a USCIRF delegation in February led by Commissioner Firuz Kazemzadeh, the Vietnamese government continues to criticize the Commission as well, claiming that it "brutally interferes into [other countries'] internal affairs."
Ethnic minority refugees arrive in US. The first groups of refugees from Vietnam's Central Highlands who fled across the Cambodian border last year have begun to arrive in the US. Under a March resettlement agreement, the US accepted 900 migrants and their families. The first group of 50 arrived in North Carolina on June 4, where the vast majority of highlanders is expected to follow with the encouragement of local advocates.
III. Foreign Assistance
Debate continues over Nam Theun II dam. With the World Bank in the process of making a decision on financing the controversial Nam Theun II dam project in Laos, both supporters and opponents of the scheme have been making their cases in Washington. The Congressional Human Rights Caucus (http://www.house.gov/lantos/caucus/caucuswebpage.htm) held a hearing on May 22 to discuss social and environmental effects of the proposed dam. In connection with the Laotian-American Symposium the following day, Tony Culley-Foster of the Nam Theun Consortium, Prof. Lee Talbot of George Mason University, and Aviva Imhof of the International Rivers Network spoke in a lunchtime discussion about economic development and the environment. Statements from both the caucus and the symposium will be posted online at www.laotianlink.com.
Consultative Group to meet in Phnom Penh. The annual meeting of international donors to Cambodia will begin the week of June 17 in Phnom Penh. With foreign assistance crucial to Cambodia's economy and development plans, the government is seeking $1.45 billion in aid over the next three years. Donors will consider whether to link aid to human rights issues, legal reform and the national elections scheduled for July or August 2003. Non-governmental organizations typically issue their own statement about Cambodia's development needs during the Consultative Group meeting.
US Department of Labor sponsors disability project in Vietnam. The Vietnamese-American NGO, Vietnam Assistance for the Handicapped (VNAH), is the latest partner in a bilateral aid program funded by the US Labor Department with the support of the corresponding Vietnamese ministry. Under a memorandum of understanding signed in 2000, DoL is funding six projects in Vietnam ranging from industrial relations, HIV-AIDS prevention, and elimination of child labor. The most recent project, begun on May 19, seeks to establish a legal and policy framework for employment of people with disabilities.
IV. Diplomacy
UN official visits Cambodia, continues Khmer Rouge tribunal discussions. The UN Special Representative on Human Rights in Cambodia, Peter Leuprecht, traveled to Phnom Penh for a week of consultations beginning on June 3 and said he was "not yet giving up hope" for UN participation in a Khmer Rouge tribunal. Leuprecht, who virtually alone among UN officials expressed regret at the Secretary General's February decision to pull out of tribunal negotiations with the Cambodian government, said that he was willing to consider a fully Cambodian tribunal with the participation of foreign judges as "a second-best option." He added, however, that "A purely domestic trial would probably not have the necessary credibility, mainly because of the state in which the judiciary is in this country."
In May, both Prime Minister Hun Sen and National Assembly speaker Prince Ranariddh called for the UN to return to the table. Hun Sen questioned out loud whether the UN might be playing "political tricks to protect the Khmer Rouge." Despite Leuprecht's visit, tribunal specialist Craig Etcheson doubts that the UN will ever return to talks and characterizes international action as "a delicate diplomatic minuet aiming to grope toward Plan B" in which Leuprecht plays little role.
Charles Ray nominated as next ambassador to Cambodia. Following the departure of Kent Wiedemann, who will complete his three-year term in July, President Bush has nominated career Foreign Service officer Charles Ray to serve as the next US Ambassador to Cambodia. Ray is a Vietnam veteran and former consul general in Ho Chi Minh City (1998-2001) and Shenyang, China.
Laos cited for cooperation on terrorism. A State Department report on "Patterns of Global Terrorism" (http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/pgtrpt/2001/), released on May 21, notes that "East Asian nations were universal in their condemnation of the attacks, with most providing substantial direct support to the war on terrorism and making significant progress in building indigenous counterterrorism capabilities." Regarding Laos, the report notes cooperation in searching for and freezing "terrorist assets" and concluded that "Public and Government commentary on the US-led war on terrorism has been overwhelmingly supportive."
Neither Cambodia nor Vietnam drew specific mention in the report. The only terrorist incident connected with the Indochina countries cited by the State Department in 2001 was the June 19 attempted bombing at the Vietnamese Embassy in Bangkok. An extremist overseas Vietnamese group was reported to be behind this attack.

Washington Indochina Update # 7

May 2002

 [Program alert: Join the "National Laotian-American Symposium on US-Lao Relations," co-sponsored by the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, May 22-24 in Washington. Speakers at a May 23 Congressional briefing will include US Ambassador Douglas Hartwick. For further information, contact washington@ffrd.org]

  • Trade

US trade with Vietnam increases with normal trade relations. Statistics forJanuary and February 2002 released by the Census Bureau (http://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/balance/c5520.html) indicate that Vietnamese exports to the US increased by 75% compared to the same period a year ago. The increase was especially strong in clothing and textiles, which rose 95%. Vietnamese imports of US products increased 22.4%. Deputy US Trade Representative Jon Huntsman told the Associated Press on May 7 that he credits the bilateral trade agreement for the sense of "renewed confidence" and "optimism" about the Vietnamese economy.

Increased trade with the US came despite a 8.6% drop in Vietnamese exports overall in the first four months of 2002, which trade officials blamed on low market prices for basic commodities and lingering effects of the global economic slowdown.

The return of the basa catfish. Who really won the catfish wars? Despite an act of Congress banning Vietnamese basa catfish from being labeled as "catfish," Vietnam’s seafood exports to the US continue to rise, totaling $70 million in the first quarter of 2002, a 35% increase from last year. According to USTR’s Huntsman, basa accounted for $30 million in sales, compared with $22 million in all of 2001. Fish prices have risen as much as one-third.

Vietnamese imports now make up as much as 20% of the US catfish market, and US catfish farmers concede that while the regulation may be followed by importers, it is nearly impossible to enforce in retail stores and restaurants. Despite this, the protectionist farm bill recently passed by the Senate makes the labeling provision temporarily passed into law last fall into a permanent provision.

US producers are also pressing for tougher measures, claiming that Vietnam is exporting lower-quality fish at below market prices. In an effort to support domestic producers, the US Government recently purchased $6 million worth of US catfish for use in school cafeteria lunches. And the Mississippi-based Catfish Farmers of America has hired lawyers to pursue anti-dumping petitions with the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Commerce. But if basa is legally not catfish, how can the producers make a case?

Oxfam International report on fair trade. In "Rigged Rules and Double Standards," published in mid-April, Oxfam authors Kevin Watkins and Penny Fowler detail how rich countries, especially the US and European Union, discriminate against poor developing countries and tilt the global playing field in favor of the "haves." Rather than an endorsement of corporate globalization, as both the business press and certain economic justice critics tried to characterize the report, Oxfam provides detailed analysis of trade issues affecting people around the world, including case studies of Cambodia and Vietnam. See www.maketradefair.com.

Bush administration grants normal trade status to Afghanistan; Laos still waiting. On May 3,President Bush sent a message to Congress restoring normal trade relations (NTR) for Afghanistan, which had been suspended since 1986. According to the specific provisions of the law that suspended NTR, no Congressional action is required to approve the restoration. Meanwhile, neither the Administration nor Congress has taken action in support of NTR for Laos, leaving Laos, Yugoslavia, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Iraq and Libya as the only countries without normal trade status. If, as Bush’s statement reads, "increased trade with the United States…could contribute to economic growth and assist Afghanistan in rebuilding its economy," why is this treatment denied to a country that the US bombed 30 years earlier?

The timing of the announcement is reminiscent of a similar Boeing sale to China during President Clinton’s 1996 visit to China. In spite of expressed support for the value of free trade, the first corporation to benefit directly from normal trading relations is, ironically, a near-monopoly.

  • Human Rights

Vietnam sends religious delegation to US. Eight senior Buddhist, Catholic and Protestant leaders, as well as a parallel delegation from the government Committee for Religious Affairs, visited Washington and New York from May 8-16. Key members of the two groups included Thich Hien Phap, secretary general of the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha; Dominican Fr. Dinh Chau Tran; Rev. Pham Xuan Thieu, chairman of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South); and Le Quang Vinh, chairman of the National Committee for Religious Affairs. The visit of the religious leaders was hosted by the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society, while government delegates came on the invitation of the Vietnamese ambassador to the US, Nguyen Tam Chien.

The delegation met with American religious organizations and with US Government officials in the State Department, White House, House of Representatives and Senate. with an interest in international religious affairs. In a briefing at the Vietnamese embassy on May 15, Le Quang Vinh said that the purpose of the delegation was to engage in "open dialogue" on religious issues in Vietnam and to oppose inaccurate statements in the "Viet Nam Human Rights Act passed by the House last September. According to Vinh, "Vietnam is now creating a more favorable legal framework for religion. The Vietnamese government is not interfering in religious affairs, only when people attempt to use religion for political purposes." Through its registration process, however, the state reserves the right to assess which groups are engaging in "pure religion" and which are not.

Human Rights Watch report on Central Highlands. "Repression of Montagnards: Conflicts over Land and Religion in Vietnam’s Central Highlands" was released on April 23 (see http://hrw.org/reports/2002/vietnam/). Similar to the WriteNet report referenced in the March Washington Update, this report attempts to give a background and accounting of unrest in the highlands, including the mass demonstrations in February 2001, but reaches somewhat different conclusions. HRW accepts, for instance, that "much of the impetus for the demonstrations may have come from abroad," but then asserts hypothetically that since the "conflicts over religious practices and land" in the highlands had become "explosive," unrest would have happened anyway, "even without external support and encouragement." The report dismisses for lack of evidence some of the more extreme allegations made by Montagnard advocates in the US (such as forced sterilization). However, much of HRW’s evidence for abuses it says did occur comes from anonymous interviews with asylum seekers in Cambodia who fled the Central Highlands after the demonstrations. This testimony may or may not be reliable; a more complete picture is difficult to obtain, since independent researchers are not allowed in Vietnam itself.

Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Phan Thuy Thanh stated on April 24 that the Human Rights Watch report is "full of slanders, fabrications and distortions" and "completely counter to reality." While critics charge there has been an almost total news blackout from the highlands since the demonstrations began, Thanh argued that "many foreign guests, diplomats and journalists" had visited the region and cited "important accomplishments in economic, cultural and social development" there since 1975.

"Bombies" film shown in Congress. With the sponsorship of Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and Lane Evans (D-IL), the Fund for Reconciliation and Development and Mennonite Central Committee organized a May 3 film showing and discussion of the documentary film, "Bombies," produced by the Independent Television Service (ITVS). Post-film discussion ranged from the need to ban cluster bombs in future conflicts to the humanitarian imperative to assist victims of unexploded ordnance in Laos and other countries. Speakers called on the US to increase mine clearance and development aid to Laos as well as pass the US-Laos Bilateral Trade Agreement. A message from the filmmaker and statements by three speakers can be found online athttp://www.ffrd.org/indochina/laos/bombies.html. For more about "Bombies," please see www.itvs.org/bombies.

  • Foreign Assistance

Nguyen Thi Binh comments on Agent Orange. Vietnam’s Vice President and former Foreign Minister of the Provisional Revolutionary Government, Mme. Nguyen Thi Binh, spoke to a reception hosted by the Fund for Reconciliation and Development and Institute for International Education in New York on May 7. Mme. Binh was in the US with a delegation of child rights and education officials to attend the United Nations Special Session on Children. Her wide-ranging and frank remarks to the audience emphasized the importance of education in Vietnam’s development. "With economic and diplomatic normalization taken care of," she said through an interpreter, "we should pay more attention to humanitarian aspects, especially herbicides such as Agent Orange."

Mme. Binh commended the steps taken towards joint US-Vietnamese scientific research on Agent Orange as a result of the March conference in Hanoi on the subject. At the same time, she emphasized that with 150,000 Vietnamese "severely affected" by dioxin, a separate program to assist victims is essential.

Meeting on cooperation on MIA recovery. Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and a Vietnamese counterpart, the Vietnam War Veterans Association, met in Hanoi on April 19 to discuss the search for servicemen from both sides still listed as missing in action. According to the Vietnam News Agency, Lieutenant Genenal Vu Xuan Vinh assured the visiting US delegation that the Vietnamese would continue to search for information and assist in recovering remains of American MIAs. Raymond Sisk of VFW expressed his gratitude for Vietnamese cooperation and pledged to become more involved in the search for Vietnamese MIAs. The veterans also discussed human rights issues, obstacles in bilateral relations, and assistance for Agent Orange victims.

  • Diplomacy

Khmer Rouge tribunal analysis available. At an April 22 public forum on "Prospects for Justice for the Khmer Rouge," co-sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, Cambodia scholar Craig Etcheson presented background on the search for genocide justice, details on the failed negotiations between the Cambodian government and the United Nations, and proposals for where advocates for a tribunal might go next. Etcheson’s conclusion that "a show trial is better than no trial at all" prompted questions and debate from participants, which can be found online along with Etcheson’s paper at http://www.sais-jhu.edu/depts/asia/index_events.htm#brownbag

Calls for reform of Cambodian election procedures. US Ambassador to Cambodia Kent Wiedemann told a conference in Phnom Penh on April 24 that Cambodia’s electoral process should be improved before national elections scheduled for August 2003. Wiedemann criticized the performance of the National Election Commission (NEC) in particular for a lack of neutrality.

A new Human Rights Watch report on the February commune elections in Cambodia echoes these recommendations, among others, and calls on international donors to "insist on a minimum set of reforms and conditions for the electoral process" (see http://www.hrw.org/reports/2002/cambo0402/). Cambodian officials reply that building the democratic process takes time and note the progress since 1993 and 1998 elections, despite a shortage of resources.

Vietnamese delegations in US. In addition to the religious delegation mentioned above and Vice President Nguyen Thi Binh’s visit to the US, other official Vietnamese groups having recently traveled or soon to be traveling here include a National Assembly delegation (April 18-28), Voice of Vietnam (May 13-25), Ministry of Trade (beginning May 18), and Ministry of Justice (June 1-8). There must be something about late spring in Washington.

Cambodia and Vietnam observe US military exercises in Thailand. For the first time, the US military has invited Cambodian and Vietnamese military delegations to observe the annual Cobra Gold joint exercises in Thailand. A total of 18 nations will observe this year’s exercises, double last year’s number, while the number of US troops participating has risen nearly three times to 13,200. 7,700 Thai troops and 70 Singaporeans will also participate in the exercises, held from May 14-28. Pentagon officials, notably Admiral Dennis Blair of the Pacific Command, support involvement of Cambodian and Vietnamese observers in joint exercises as a way of strengthening military-to-military ties.

US and Cambodia sign repatriation agreement. Cambodian and US officials confirmed on May 3 that they had signed an agreement in March allowing for the deportation of citizens to their home country who commit a felony in the other country. (For example if a Cambodian immigrant to the US who has not become an American citizen is found guilty of a felony, the US can choose to deport him to Cambodia rather than imprisoning him here.) This agreement is not an extradition treaty, which the US does not have with Cambodia (or Laos or Vietnam), hence would not cover people wanted for crimes committed in their home country.

Advocates for Southeast Asian immigrants are concerned that the repatriations, which might affect "hundreds" of Cambodians in the US, constitute a violation of civil rights and could lead to discrimination against returnees in Cambodia, where some of the deportees might not have lived for decades. According to the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), the US Government is currently negotiating similar repatriation agreements with Laos and Vietnam. An official at the US Embassy in Phnom Penh said that the Cambodian agreement was part of strengthened immigration regulations implemented by the US Government since September 11.

PBS documentary on Vietnam. "Vietnam Passage: Journeys from War to Peace" chronicles the stories of six Vietnamese whose lives took divergent directions both during and after the war. This one-hour documentary will premiere on PBS stations between May 23 and June 16 The program was directed and produced by Sandy Northrop and is hosted by Los Angeles Times reporter - and former South East Asia correspondent - David Lamb.

Washington Indochina Update #6

April 2002

  • Trade

US Trade Representative meets with ASEAN ministers. In April 4-5 Bangkok consultations between the US and Southeast Asian economics ministers, US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick expressed support for increased trade ties with the region. Both US and ASEAN representatives emphasized their desire to bring Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam into the World Trade Organization (WTO), noting that all other ASEAN states are already WTO members. WTO accession negotiations are typically a long and complex process, however, and Cambodia and Laos in particular are perceived to be far from meeting the organization’s requirements. However, Zoellick’s statement implies support for normalizing trade with Laos and further developing economic relations with Cambodia and Vietnam as well.

Zoellick co-chaired the meeting with Vietnam’s trade minister, Vu Khoan, who told a press conference that "the talks ended in great success…we agreed that ASEAN and the US are very important to each other economically." ASEAN, viewed as a whole, is the fourth-largest US trading partner, with a volume of $120 billion in 2001, triple that of a decade ago. The US is ASEAN’s largest export market.

US business group proposes free trade area with ASEAN. The US-ASEAN Business Council called on USTR in a February press release to "take initial steps toward the creation of a US-ASEAN Free Trade Area (FTA)." Underlying the council’s call is a sense that US business interests are losing ground to international competitors in the region, particularly China. Plans for a China-ASEAN FTA, expected to take up to ten years to complete, were first developed in a Brunei summit meeting last November.

Speaking after the Bangkok consultations, Zoellick responded that plans for a US-ASEAN FTA are "premature," since "Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos are in a very early stage of development" and not yet ready for full integration. Instead, Zoellick said, the US favors a "step-by-step approach," using bilateral agreements to "customize its relations with each country."

ASEAN is in the process of forming its own free trade zone, called AFTA, but many of the association’s more developed members are pursuing bilateral trade agreements with developed countries rather than integrate more closely with poorer neighbors such as Laos and Cambodia.

The timing of the announcement is reminiscent of a similar Boeing sale to China during President Clinton’s 1996 visit to China. In spite of expressed support for the value of free trade, the first corporation to benefit directly from normal trading relations is, ironically, a near-monopoly.

  • Human Rights

US offers asylum to Vietnamese highlanders. After negotiations broke down between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Cambodia and Vietnam over repatriation of 900 ethnic minority asylum seekers from Vietnam’s Central Highlands, the US stepped in on March 26 with an offer of resettlement. The Cambodian government accepted the plan on March 31 on the conditions that it be allowed to close camps in Mondulkiri and Rattanakiri provinces and seal its border with Vietnam.

The 905 Ede, Jarai and Mnong tribespeople remaining in the camps will be given the choice to return to Vietnam or apply for asylum in the United States. 170 of the original group have already returned to their original homes, including 15 repatriated under the short-lived UNHCR program. Refugee advocates in North Carolina expect nearly all of the highlanders to settle there with established "Montagnard" communities, remnants of the CIA-backed FULRO guerrillas from the Vietnam War. Most of the asylum seekers are men, and if they apply to bring their families as well, the influx could as much as double the current 3,000 or so highlanders in North Carolina.

Vietnam had protested US involvement in the controversy but backed off quietly once the deal was announced. An April 1 Foreign Ministry statement said simply that the issue should be decided on a humanitarian, not a political basis, but blamed "some ill-intentioned people" for the breakdown of the UNHCR-brokered agreement.

The UN and mainstream human rights organizations responded to the US asylum offer by criticizing Cambodia for threatening to close its border to future migrants. A Human Rights Watch statement stated that Vietnam needed to solve underlying issues in the highlands in order for the crisis to subside, and until that point Cambodia was obligated to keep its borders open. Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong replied that Cambodia (like Vietnam) considers the highlanders to be illegal immigrants, not refugees.

Vietnam gives self-evaluation to UN Human Rights Commission. In a speech to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) in Geneva, Vietnam’s Assistant Foreign Minister and European Union ambassador, Ton Nu Thi Ninh, presented what she termed "a broad brush picture of Viet Nam’s efforts and achievements with respect to democracy and human rights." Mme. Ninh noted Vietnam’s ratification of international conventions on labor rights, children’s rights and terrorism, "coupled with a commitment to ‘internalize’ the essence of those international legal instruments into our domestic laws." She admitted, however, that "law enforcement remains a crucial area."

Mme. Ninh summarized Vietnam’s philosophy of human rights "to at the same time fight abuses and violations and [to] build the enabling conditions for the effective exercise of human rights. In this perspective, Viet Nam scores well on ‘building’—especially in the sphere of economic, social and cultural rights—and less well on ‘fighting.’" Among the positive accomplishments she mentioned were poverty reduction, literacy and health indicators, as well as the inclusion of women (26%) and ethnic minorities (10%) in the National Assembly. Vietnam has been a member of the UNCHR since 2001.

Pressure builds on Vietnam human rights bill. On hold since September 2001, the "Viet Nam Human Rights Act" (H.R. 2833) continues to sit in the Senate awaiting legislative action. Vietnamese-American supporters of the bill, seeking to bring the bill to the floor, are targeting Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) for blocking a vote. (Ironically, the bill’s Senate sponsors, Jesse Helms (R-NC) and Robert Smith (R-NH), are well known for placing holds on Indochina-related legislation themselves.) It was Helms and Smith who sought to bypass the Foreign Relations Committee, where the bill might otherwise have been marked up or voted down by a Democratic majority.

Americans working in or with Vietnam continue to oppose the bill, viewing it as counterproductive. The Vietnam News Agency quoted Ambassador Raymond Burghardt as expressing opposition to the bill in a March 15 meeting, a point the US Embassy later denied; however, Burghardt made similar statements in a November meeting with NGOs in New York.

US, UN offer conflicting views on Khmer Rouge tribunal. In ongoing efforts to revive the process to establish a tribunal for former Khmer Rouge leaders, US Ambassador to Cambodia Kent Wiedemann and other ambassadors met in Phnom Penh on March 11. "The common position is that the UN tribunal is the best possible alternative for bringing about justice for the Khmer Rouge and the only truly credible way of doing that," Wiedemann told the Phnom Penh Post. However, he criticized UN Secretary General Kofi Annan for being "inflexible" on negotiations.

Annan said in a March 13 press conference that "about a dozen" ambassadors had come to see him, urging the UN to reconsider its position on the tribunal. The Secretary General told them that they first needed to convince Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to "change his position and attitude…send a clear message that he is interested in a credible court, a credible tribunal which [will meet] international standards." The Cambodian government responded that the UN had "misunderstood" the relationship between its Khmer Rouge trial law and the memorandum of understanding drafted by the UN.

International Criminal Court established. With the ratifications of more than 60 countries, including Cambodia, the July 1998 Rome Statute establishing an International Criminal Court entered into force on April 11. The United Nations describes the court as "the first permanent international criminal tribunal ever established to bring to justice individuals for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity."

The court is expected to be formally opened on July 1. Vietnam and Laos have not signed the Rome treaty; the US signed in December 2000, but President Bush is threatening to "unsign" out of fear that American citizens could be prosecuted by the court.

  • Foreign Assistance

US funding for World Food Program in Cambodia. Ambassador Kent Wiedemann
presented more than 26,000 tons of rice and vegetable oil, worth over $17 million, to Foreign Minister Hor Namhong on April 1. The donation constitutes approximately two-thirds of the food aid to be provided to Cambodia this year through the United Nations World Food Program (WFP). In spite of its low contributions to foreign assistance on GDP terms, the US remains the largest single donor to the WFP, accounting for approximately 64 percent of global contributions to the program in 2001.

  • Diplomacy

New Laotian Ambassador arrives in Washington. Phanthong Phommahaxay began service as the Lao PDR’s ambassador in Washington on April 9, just prior to the Lao New Year celebrations.

Amb. Phanthong replaces Vang Ratthanavong, who had served in Washington for three years and will return to a high-level posting in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Vientiane.

Amb. Burghardt meets with Vietnamese leader. Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung received US Ambassador Raymond Burghardt in Hanoi on March 15 to discuss the state of US-Vietnam relations. While differing on plans to repatriate asylum seekers to the Central Highlands, Dung and Burghardt expressed common cause on implementation of the US-Vietnam bilateral trade agreement and increased cooperation in other areas. International media coverage of the meeting focused on disagreements between the US Embassy and Vietnam News Agency over what Burghardt actually said, possibly under the impression that his comments to Dung were off the record.

Cambodian opposition leader in US. Following a surprisingly good showing in February commune elections, opposition parliamentarian Sam Rainsy is visiting Washington and other cities in April as part of what his supporters term an "annual tour of the US." In an April 10 press conference, Rainsy asked the US government to "hold Cambodia to international standards" in the areas of genocide justice, elections, and corruption. He praised the UN pullout from Khmer Rouge tribunal negotiations and attacked the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) for "carefully engineering" their election victory. Although Rainsy publicly accepted the election results in Cambodia, his Washington speech expressed support for the criticisms of the election voiced by his main US backers, the International Republican Institute.

Rainsy opposes foreign assistance to Cambodia unless it is conditioned to political change. For instance, he skewered the WFP food aid reported above since it was presented to the "CPP foreign minister" Hor Namhong. "No doubt this food will be selectively distributed as gifts from the CPP—perhaps days before parliamentary elections next July," Rainsy added. These caustic comments may play well among some circles in Washington, but are unlikely to gain much domestic support for the party Rainsy named after himself. (Many of Rainsy’s biggest fans in Washington would be among the most outraged if Democratic Senators traveled to foreign capitals to denounce the Bush Administration and urged those countries to try to impose their policies on Washington.)

Sen. McConnell denounces "lack of justice" in Cambodia. In language remarkably similar to Sam Rainsy’s, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) lambasted Cambodia’s "corrupt and ineffective" leadership in a March 20 speech. McConnell’s speech (and Rainsy’s visit to the US) was timed to mark the fifth anniversary of a deadly grenade attack on a Rainsy-led rally in Phnom Penh in 1997. Without explicitly blaming then-"Second Prime Minister" Hun Sen for the attack, McConnell condemned the Cambodian government for "failing to protect its citizens and to investigate and bring to justice the perpetrators of this terrorist crime." The Senator has expressed similarly direct views on Cambodia in several Boston Globe opinion pieces printed over the last year.

Vietnam criticizes US "unilateralism". Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry, after initial support for the post-September 11 counter-terrorist coalition, has increasingly voiced discomfort with US policies in the Middle East. Spokesperson Phan Thuy Thanh said on April 4 that Vietnam "deplores" plans for "an unwarranted US attack on Iraq…in violation of the UN charter." Assistant Foreign Minister Ton Nu Thi Ninh, in her speech to the UN Human Rights Commission, said that the counter-terrorist campaign resembled "a posse-like coalition, wherein one leads and the others are supposed to follow out of blanket solidarity, not quite certain where the sheriff is taking them and what actions he is going to ask from them." In the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Bush administration’s "manicheistic vision of the world and certain tendencies towards reductive thought…open the gate to worse misunderstandings," Ninh said. While opposing terrorism and suicide bombings, Vietnam has been a long-time supporter of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation and the Iraqi campaign to lift UN sanctions.

Cam Ranh base to be redeveloped for civilian use. Vietnamese defense minister Pham Van Tra confirmed in a March 21 interview that the Cam Ranh naval base will never again be leased to a foreign country following the Russian withdrawal later this year. US Admiral Dennis Blair had inquired over possible US use of the base when he visited Hanoi in February. Gen. Tra told the weekly Thoi Bao Kinh Te (Economic Times) that Vietnam would retain control of the facility but that military use would be "combined to a certain extent with economic development for commercial purposes."

Bush certifies Vietnamese compliance on MIA recovery. On March 30, the White House issued Presidential Determination No. 2002-11, affirming that "Vietnam is fully cooperating in good faith with the United States in the following four areas related to achieving the fullest possible accounting for Americans unaccounted for as a result of the Vietnam War: 1) resolving discrepancy cases, live sightings, and field activities; 2) recovering and repatriating American remains; 3) accelerating efforts to provide documents that will help lead to the
fullest possible accounting of prisoners of war and missing in action (POW/MIAs); and 4)
providing further assistance in implementing trilateral investigations with Laos." In making this now-routine confirmation, President Bush also called on the Vietnamese to increase their cooperation with the US on "discrepancy cases." According to the Pentagon, 1,932 Americans are still missing in action from Indochina. On the Vietnamese side, sources estimate that 300,000 remains have never been recovered.

Washington Indochina Update # 5

March 2002

February and March are among the busiest times of the year for delegations and conferences involving Cambodia, Laos, and/or Vietnam and the US. Recent highlights have included a joint conference on Agent Orange in Hanoi, a religious freedom commission visit to Vietnam and Laos, and a Vietnamese labor delegation to the US, as well as regular diplomatic exchanges. The Fund for Reconciliation and Development has held public events in Washington as well, regarding Cambodian commune elections, US-Lao bilateral cooperation, and unexploded ordnance or "bombies" in Laos.

  • Trade

Cambodia fastest-growing of all US trade partners. A study by Ed Gresser of the Washington-based Progressive Policy Institute, after reviewing trade data, shows that US trade with Cambodia has risen nearly 200-fold since Cambodia received normal trade relations (NTR) in 1996. Cambodian exports to the US, predominately garments, seafood and precious gems, have increased from less than $6 million in 1996 to nearly $1 billion. Gresser notes that "success in trade has gone together with a serious effort, though one with some flaws, to develop modern labor policies…[T]rade policy, if carefully conceived and based on incentives for improved policies rather than on sanctions, can make a useful contribution."

Gresser’s data also shows US imports from Laos, which does not have NTR, declining from $16 million in 1996 to $4 million last year. At an average effective tariff rate of 45%, Lao exports to the US face the highest duty of any US trading partner by nearly three times. Vietnam’s exports to the US already exceeded $1 billion in 2001 before NTR came into effect. Trade analysts expect the volume of trade in both directions to as much as double in 2002.

US trade delegation visits Vietnam. A delegation from the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) visited Vietnam from February 20-28, led by Elena Bryan, USTR director for Indochina and India. The US delegation, including the director in charge of garments and textiles, discussed implementation of the Bilateral Trade Agreement (BTA) and plans for a new agreement covering textile and garment exports.

Vietnamese labor delegation visits Washington, New York. A group of Vietnamese labor leaders, including First Vice Minister Nguyen Luong Trao of the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA), came to the US from March 2-13, meeting with US labor groups and members of Congress. Topics of discussion included Vietnamese labor relations, US investment assistance and the effects of the BTA. The visit was hosted by the US-Vietnam Trade Council.

Possibilities for normalizing trade with Laos. The Fund for Reconciliation & Development and the Mennonite Central Committee held a public forum on March 4 to discuss the state of US-Lao relations, with a particular focus on trade. Speakers included representatives of Laotian-American groups, business cooperatives, US nonprofit organizations, and the State Department. Some members of the group also met with Congressional staff the following day. Despite some remaining obstacles, panelists at the forum expressed optimism about chances for improvement in US-Lao cooperation and Congressional passage of the BTA, which was signed in December 1998. A summary transcript of the event will be posted soon on FRD’s website (www.ffrd.org).

  • Human Rights

US involvement in Cambodia-Vietnam repatriation process. Since the tripartite agreement between Cambodia, Vietnam and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) over repatriation of asylum-seekers from Vietnam’s Central Highlands in late January, the US has continued to monitor the process carefully. (Despite some language to the contrary, none of the nearly 1,000 people in camps in northeast Cambodia has been designated a refugee.) The State Department expressed dissatisfaction with an alleged April 30 return deadline agreed to by the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments without UNHCR consent. In return, Vietnam criticized what it saw as attempts to complicate and delay the return process.

In a February 22 statement, a State Department spokesperson said that "We expect the governments of Vietnam and Cambodia to adhere to the letter and spirit of the January 21 trilateral agreement to resolve the [asylum-seekers] problem in compliance with international conventions and humanitarian imperatives." US Ambassador to Cambodia Kent Wiedemann offered to resettle some of the asylum-seekers in the US "if the UNHCR makes the judgement that some [people] should not be returned for safety reasons." This suggestion brought more complaints of interference from the Vietnamese government, but at present all sides have agreed to continue negotiations.

Report on Central Highlands available. A balanced and detailed report on the situation in the Central Highlands, entitled "Vietnam: Indigenous Minority Groups in the Central Highlands," is available on the UNHCR website (http://www.unhcr.ch/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/rsd). Search under "Vietnam" and list reports by date; the report is the second on the list.

State Department releases human rights reports. The yearly Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, prepared by the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, were released on March 4. (See http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2001.) The reports focus on civil and political rights, and do not generally assess social and economic rights. However, the topics included in the report have expanded in recent years to include gender equality, human trafficking and labor issues. By comparing this year’s report with those of previous years on the same country, one may reach a sense of the relative changes in a country’s human rights situation over time.

The reports systematically exclude discussion of human rights which the US Government frequently violates or which are controversial in the US, such as use of the death penalty or denial of basic health coverage to poor people. Also unmentioned are the connections between US foreign and military policy and human rights problems in other countries. The Guardian (Britain) noted that this year’s reports "tone down criticism of countries vital to [the] war on terror," with "some evidence of censorship."

Countries with different economic systems or a history of conflict with the US often come in for particularly harsh criticism, while US allies (such as Indonesia or the Philippines) are generally treated with somewhat more leniency. There is no human rights report for the US, although independent human rights organizations do produce such reports.

In particular, the judgments passed on a country’s overall human rights record seem arbitrary, and not necessarily connected with the details of individual incidents described in the body of the report. Why, for instance, is Vietnam’s record said to have "worsened" while others have not, and without any particular explanation? Why are landmines included as a human rights issue in Cambodia and Thailand, but not in Laos or Vietnam (where most casualties come from US-origin mines and bombs)?

A detailed comparison of treatment of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam with several neighboring countries is available by request from washington@ffrd.org.

Vietnam criticizes State Department human rights report. Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the human rights report "grossly distorted the reality in Viet Nam as it made a series of slanderous accusations with false evidence…By issuing this report, the US is interfering with Viet Nam's internal affairs. Viet Nam strongly condemns and rejects the report." The official Vietnamese press (and unofficial Vietnamese internet chatrooms) tended to view the report as symptomatic of a unilateral US foreign policy and noted US human rights problems as counter-arguments.

There was no official Cambodian or Lao response to the report.

Religious freedom commission returns from trip to Vietnam and Laos. A delegation from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), including one commissioner and staff members, visited Vietnam and Laos over the last two weeks of February. During the visit, the delegation met with government officials and religious leaders in both countries. No public statement has been made by USCIRF about the trip, either beforehand or afterwards, and the commissioners are reportedly weighing recommendations and next steps to take.

The fact that the trip took place at all is remarkable, given the politicization of religious freedom issues in Laos, Vietnam and the US and the harsh rhetoric that the Commission has exchanged with Vietnam as recently as mid-February, when a Vietnamese spokesperson labeled USCIRF testimony to Congress "totally unacceptable."

  • Foreign Assistance

US and Vietnam agree on joint Agent Orange research. Following the March 3-6 Agent Orange conference in Hanoi, the US and Vietnam signed an agreement in principle on March 10 to conduct future joint research into the consequences of exposure to herbicides sprayed by the US during the Vietnam War. A $400,000 pilot project began during the Hanoi conference. US Ambassador Raymond Burghardt called the agreement a step forward in relations. "Americans and Vietnamese working together in pursuit of a common interest can achieve a great deal,"' Burghardt told the Associated Press.

The agreement does not include humanitarian assistance for any Vietnamese affected by Agent Orange, a group estimated at anywhere from 30,000 to one million people. While most exposure occurred decades ago, recent studies point to "hotspots," many near former military bases, where present-day residents are still threatened by dioxin in their water and food supplies.

For background on Agent Orange in Vietnam, as well as Cambodia and Laos, see articles in the March issue of FRD’s newsletter, Interchange (online athttp://www.ffrd.org/interchange/index.html).

Project on Agent Orange in Laos underway. The Laos Agent Orange Survey (Project LAOS), a joint initiative of scientists and researchers including FRD, began operations early this year with the objectives of determining the extent of wartime spraying of Agent Orange and other herbicides by the US in the Lao PDR and of assessing the long-term environmental and health consequences of associated dioxin contamination. Herbicide use in Laos and Cambodia was officially denied by the US Government for decades, and no research has yet been conducted on the subject. Project LAOS also recently assisted four Laotian representatives to attend the Agent Orange conference in Hanoi. For further information, contact Roger Rumpf, Project LAOS coordinator, at rojacmir@earthlink.net.

US to increase disaster relief assistance to Vietnam. The Saigon Times reported on March 1 that the US Agency for International Development (AID) has added $1.4 million to a program on preventing natural calamities and their consequences in Vietnam. According to AID, Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) programs on disaster response and mitigation in Vietnam totaled $2.49 million in fiscal year 2001.

OFDA funding in Cambodia and Laos has been minimal ($156,000 to Laos and $25,000 to Cambodia since 1998).

President's 2003 budget request includes aid to Cambodia, Laos, other areas. The proposed FY 2003 foreign operations budget, sent to Congress on February 4, includes $17 million for Cambodia "to bolster grassroots NGOs, strengthen the National Assembly, ensure fair communal elections, and begin addressing long-term education and health needs." $2 million in funding for health and economic assistance for Laos is maintained from 2002. The budget for demining programs is set to increase, and Agent Orange research funding is expected to at least stay constant from present levels.

On March 14, President Bush announced that he would seek a $5 billion increase in the foreign assistance budget, beginning in 2004. It is not yet known whether Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam would be eligible for any of the funds in this new "Millennium Challenge Initiative."

  • Diplomacy

Khmer Rouge tribunal negotiations continue. The UN Special Representative to Cambodia, Peter Leuprecht, said on March 8 that he hoped the United Nations would continue to be involved in efforts to bring leaders of Cambodia’s genocidal Khmer Rouge to justice. The UN has come under pressure from member states, including the European Union, Australia and the US, to reconsider its February 7 decision to abandon talks with the Cambodian government. Leuprecht said that "very few countries support this decision" and "personally, I am not willing to give up." Cambodian experts, such as Youk Chhang of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, also continue to support a tribunal with UN involvement.

The State Department welcomed Cambodia’s statement that "the door remains open" for an agreement with the UN. A source at the State Department added, "We still hope that agreement can be reached on a credible tribunal mechanism, and we are consulting with other UN member states about this." The US stance has, however, come under criticism from conservatives in Congress. Sens. Jesse Helms (R-NC) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) sent a February 12 letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan supporting the UN decision to back out of the tribunal, which they termed a "sham" and "a fatally flawed procedure." The UN withdrawal was also supported by human rights groups in the US.

Cambodian adoption cases moving towards resolution. Following the suspension of adoptions from Cambodia in December, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and State Department announced March 4 that 200 cases that were in process when the suspension occurred will be resolved by April. However, an additional 200 cases are considered "too premature to qualify." INS Cambodia task force chief Phyllis Coven said, "The Cambodian government openly concedes that there is baby trafficking going on," and stated that resumption of new adoption cases will be delayed for at least a year. Meanwhile, eight Vietnamese adoption cases that were halted by the INS still remain to be resolved.

Washington Indochina Update # 4

February 2002

As President Bush’s State of the Union address made clear, the war on terrorism continues to dominate foreign policy discussions in Washington. Congress reconvened for the 2002 session on January 23, but many events affecting US ties with Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam occurred outside Washington over the past month.

  • Trade

Renegotiation of Cambodian textile agreement. The United States and Cambodia announced on January 7 that they had reached agreement on a three-year extension of the Bilateral Textile Agreement governing garment and shoe import quotas to the US. Quotas will be increased 15% over previous levels, with a majority of the increase coming as an incentive for improvements in labor conditions. Both the US and International Labor Organization found in late 2001 that working conditions in Cambodia’s booming garment sector are in "substantial compliance" with international standards. The final quota increase result reflects a compromise between US and Cambodian negotiating positions.

Cambodia exported an estimated $1 billion in apparel and textiles to the US in 2001. The textile agreement, first negotiated in 1999, includes unprecedented linkages between quota levels and Cambodia’s progress towards full recognition of core labor rights.

Plans for textile agreement with Vietnam. Following completion of the US-Vietnam trade agreement, the next item on the bilateral trade agenda is a textile accord. Tariffs on Vietnamese textiles, garments and shoes are now lowered along with all other imports, but are still covered by quotas under the Multi-Fiber Agreement (MFA) until its expiration in 2005.

As the textile agreement negotiations are concluded, issues of labor and environmental standards will likely come into the forefront, along with the possible extension of terms similar to the Cambodian agreement. With the perceived success of the Cambodian terms, Congressional leaders such as Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) have indicated their support for the concept. An AFL-CIO official who is knowledgeable about the region concurs, presuming the concept can be accepted by the Vietnamese, since the system would use "positive incentives" rather than sanctions to promote greater labor freedom in Vietnam.

  • Human Rights

Resolution on Laos introduced in House. A resolution "expressing the sense of Congress regarding democratic reform and the protection of human rights in Laos" (H.Con.Res. 318) was introduced on February 7 by Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI), with the co-sponsorship of Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Mark Green (R-WI) and Patrick Kennedy (D-RI). The measure, which is not worded particularly strongly, calls on the Lao government to respect the rights of its citizens to vote and demonstrate in advance of the National Assembly elections scheduled for February 24, and demands "unrestricted access by international human rights and election monitors."

Religious Freedom Commission receives permission for Vietnam, Lao visits. The semi-official US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has been granted long-awaited permission to conduct a "fact-finding mission" to Vietnam, according to Commission staff. An invitation to Laos was formalized last fall, but the Commission delayed the visit until Vietnam followed suit. Exposure to realities in both countries, however brief or superficial, may lead USCIRF to soften its often harsh political rhetoric in previous reports.

The visit will include at least one of the nine bipartisan commissioners and may take place as soon as March. Exact plans are still underway; the Commission welcomes suggestions for meetings and activities in Vietnam and Laos. Please send any specific ideas to washington@ffrd.org or directly to the commission atjtai@uscirf.org.

Sanchez calls for Nobel Prize for Vietnamese dissidents. Maverick Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) announced on January 24 that she is circulating a Dear Colleague letter in the House supporting the nominations of two Vietnamese religious dissidents for the Nobel Peace Prize. The two figures, Buddhist monk Thich Quang Do and Catholic Fr. Nguyen Van Ly, are currently under house arrest and in prison, respectively. Sanchez represents Orange County and its large Vietnamese American community. She caused a stir by leaving President Clinton’s Vietnam delegation in November 2000 to meet secretly with Quang Do. Vietnam considers both men to be linked with international forces hostile to the government.

Human Rights Watch criticizes Vietnam’s policies. In a Januaryreport, Human Rights Watch concluded that Vietnam’s human rights record "took several major steps backwards" in 2001, particularly in the areas of ethnic minority and religious rights. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson in Hanoi called HRW’s statements "groundless and untruthful."

Repatriation Accord On January 21, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) agreed on a repatriation plan with the Vietnamese and Cambodian governments for hundreds of ethnic highlanders who have fled across the border since unrest in February 2001. In a joint letter, HRW and Amnesty International expressed concern that UNHCR, while allowed to visit returnees in Vietnam, would not have unlimited freedom of motion there. HRW plans to release a full report on the Central Highlands in late March. Other observers believe the agreement provides necessary safeguards and that is needed to prevent a new Hong Kong type magnet for illegal migration.

Attempts to apply "terrorist" label to Vietnam. The conservative Washington Times published two recent op-ed commentaries regarding human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam, one by an advisor to a "Montagnard" organization in North Carolina, the second by nationally-syndicated columnist Nat Hentoff. Claiming repression of unregistered religious groups and ethnic minority demonstrators, both authors equated Vietnamese actions with "communist terrorism" and "state terrorism" respectively. (Much of Hentoff’s information was quoted from a January 7 Christianity Today article that, however, made no mention of terrorism.) Seen together, the commentaries suggest a coordinated effort by opponents of US-Vietnam relations to link Vietnam to the ongoing war on terrorism and "axis of evil"—a view that is supported by an official at the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington.

While Vietnam has continued to harass and, in some cases, imprison those it holds responsible for unrest in the Central Highlands and other regions, there is no evidence of any action that approaches "terrorism," by any definition. (The label might be more accurately applied to US-based groups that illegally fund acts of violence in Southeast Asia, such as the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, Lao Veterans of America, or "Government of Free Vietnam.")

Congressional hearing on religious freedom in China and Vietnam. In a hastily scheduled February 13 hearing, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), chair of the International Operations and Human Rights Subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee sought to expose what she views as "Communist entrenchment and religious persecution" in advance of President Bush’s trip to China, Japan and Korea. (Ros-Lehtinen is a Cuban-American who represents Little Havana in Miami and is known for her very hard line against any moderation of US policy towards the Cuban government.)

Michael Young, the chief commissioner of the USCIRF, focused his testimony primarily on China. While claiming that "religious freedom conditions in Vietnam have deteriorated" and praising the "Viet Nam Human Rights Act" passed by the House last fall that provoked strong Vietnamese and NGO opposition, he did not call for any further sanctions against Vietnam.

Witnesses Vo Van Ai, an overseas spokesperson of the Unified Buddhist Church (UBCV), and Dan Duy-Tu Hoang of the Vietnamese-American Public Affairs Committee were less circumspect in their remarks. Ai offered a one-sided and accusatory picture of religion in Vietnam, centered on the UBCV as "a major target of religious persecution," and repeating charges of "terrorism of totalitarian regimes against their own people." (In reality, the UBCV represents only a small fraction of Vietnam’s 50 million Buddhists; most of its following is overseas.) Hoang claimed that "the government monopolizes all religious activity in Vietnam." As is unfortunately usual in such hearings, no dissenting voices were invited to testify.

  • Diplomacy

US responses to Cambodian commune elections. Cambodia’s first-ever commune elections, held on February 3, resulted in a strong victory for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). US observers, including Human Rights Watch and the International Republican Institute (IRI), agreed that election day itself went smoothly, but expressed concern about a climate of violence and intimidation that preceded the elections. IRI’s President George Folsom told a press conference in Phnom Penh that despite these problems, this election was an improvement over national elections in 1993 and 1998.

FRD Executive Director John McAuliff was in Cambodia during the elections along with Deputy Director Susan Hammond. McAuliff returned to a fishing village where he observed the 1998 election and noted that there was much less tension this time. He gave the election high marks as another important step forward in the ability of political groups to work together that were bitter enemies in the civil war of the 1980’s which flared up again in 1997.

On February 11, the Fund for Reconciliation and Development organized an off-the-record briefing on the Cambodian elections in Washington, co-sponsored by Johns Hopkins University-SAIS and the Asia Society. Presenters included representatives from the Royal Embassy of Cambodia, US State Department, IRI, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and FRD.

Protests against UN withdrawal from Khmer Rouge tribunal. The February 7 decision by the United Nations Legal Affairs Department to end its involvement in preparations for a trial of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders was met with shock and disappointment in Washington. US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann said he saw "no real basis" for the decision: "they could have discussed [more] with the Cambodians." Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen also called for the UN to reconsider.

UN Undersecretary for Legal Affairs Hans Corell, who has spearheaded the UN’s involvement, responded that "the organization cannot be bound by a national law," in this case Cambodia’s tribunal law passed in August 2001. Tribunal specialist Craig Etcheson notes that the gaps between the UN and Cambodia have been growing for some time and that US support for the trial had grown more muted since the Bush Administration gained power.

US Ambassador to Laos visits Washington. In his first trip to the US since becoming Ambassador to Laos in July 2001, Douglas Hartwick met with Administration, Congress, business and NGO contacts in Washington from February 5-14. At an Asia Society lecture on February 12, Hartwick expressed his support for improved US-Lao ties: "Our present relationship does not reflect all the common interests our countries have." In what he later termed his "embassy motto," he defined his role as "looking to create opportunities for American interests...building the future as we take account of the past."

Among the policy areas where the ambassador believes greater cooperation is possible are counter-narcotics, recovery of MIA remains, UXO removal, and trade status. "The US needs to do a lot more" on building a relationship of trust, he explained, in spite of the Lao government’s perceived shortcomings. The bilateral trade agreement is "desperately needed…When Congressmen say they won’t have trade until we find [missing Hmong resistance fighters] Ly and Vang, I think that’s wrong-headed. It’s an anomaly from the past that can’t continue."

Amb. Hartwick also plans to reach out to the Lao- and Hmong-American communities, which have "too long been dominated by one single voice." With 500,000 Lao and Hmong in the US compared with 5 million people in Laos, he emphasized that Americans of Lao descent have a particular role to play in building relations and opening the Lao economy and society.

Admiral Blair visits Vietnam. Adm. Dennis Blair, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command (CINCPAC), visited Hanoi on February 1-2 to discuss expanded military relations with Washington. According to news reports, Blair said that US-Vietnamese military cooperation was "moving in a positive direction" over the past year, with cooperation on recovery of MIA remains, demining, and counterterrorism efforts. He also expressed interest in US naval visits to Cam Ranh Bay, the facility in south-central Vietnam that has been leased by Russia for the past 20 years.

Agent Orange conference to be held in Hanoi. The United States-Vietnam Scientific Conference on Human Health and Environmental Effects of Agent Orange/Dioxins will be held in Hanoi from March 3-6. The conference, the first of its kind in Vietnam, is part of an ongoing cooperative research program between the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the Vietnamese Committee 33 under the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (MoSTE). Participants will include both government and non-governmental representatives from both countries. Efforts are underway to invite Cambodian and Lao experts as well.

For more conference information, see www.niehs.nih.gov/external/usvcrp/conf2002/backgoal.htm.

Adoption controversies in Cambodia and Vietnam. Following allegations of fraud and baby selling in the adoption of orphans, Immigration and Naturalization Services Commissioner James Ziglar announced the immediate suspension of all adoption petitions in Cambodia and Vietnam beginning on December 21, 2001. In the case of Cambodia, all immigrant visa processing has been transferred indefinitely to Bangkok. According to the INS, the Vietnamese suspension is temporary pending review; a team of INS officials traveled to Vietnam in late January to examine the procedures for orphan petitions. A BBC report on January 9 indicated that Vietnam planned to amend its adoption laws in response to the dispute.

In the meantime, eight American families in Vietnam and seven in Cambodia are currently being held in limbo by the INS as they have completed legal adoption procedures for their children under local law but are being denied visas for their children to enter the US. A nonprofit organization that facilitates adoptions, International Mission of Hope, has come under criticism from officials in both Vietnam and the US.

INS operations in Vietnam and Cambodia have been riddled with allegations of fraud and corruption in the past, particularly during the Amerasian repatriation program of the early 1990’s. Before taking up his post in Hanoi, US Ambassador to Vietnam Raymond Burghardt agreed to investigate complaints of immigration abuses there. According to the State Department, adoption of infants from Vietnam has increased from two in 1995 to more than 600 in 2001.

Washington Indochina Update # 3

January 2002

[Program alert: eye-witness reports from observers of Cambodia’s February 3d communal elections will be offered at a meeting in Washington on February 11th. For further information, contact washington@ffrd.org]

Before adjourning for the holidays, Congress rushed to complete work on the final series of bills, appropriations and confirmations for the 2001 session. In US relations with Indochina, the past year will largely be remembered for the approval and entry into force of the bilateral trade agreement with Vietnam, but other issues regarding Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam also made the news in December.

  • Trade

Vietnamese delegation concludes visit to the US. The delegation’s December 9-14 tour of Washington, New York and San Francisco formally inaugurated the US-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement. Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung expressed satisfaction with the trip, saying that it improved the overall state of US-Vietnam relations. Coming directly before the holiday season and conclusion of the Congressional session, the delegation’s visit remained at a low profile in Washington, but the mood at a December 10 banquet held by the Embassy of Vietnam and US-Vietnam Trade Council was decidedly festive, with warm applause for the efforts of outgoing ambassadors Pete Peterson and Le Van Bang.

In a speech at Johns Hopkins University-SAIS, DPM Dung said, "Today in the United States, Vietnam is no longer thought of and talked about just as painful memories of a war, but as a country, a people and a culture. This is a positive change in the mindset of the American people… I am totally in agreement with what President George W. Bush told Ambassador Nguyen Tam Chien when he presented his credentials: ‘all differences between our two countries should be solved through dialogue and enhanced mutual understanding.’ In that spirit, I believe that Vietnam-US relations will continue to see new steps forward in the future." However, Dung also expresseds concern over remaining issues of disagreement such as Agent Orange, the Vietnam Human Rights Act, and the catfish trade dispute.

Trade Minister Vu Khoan told the Vietnam News Agency following the visit that "there is a great interest from the US business community in the Vietnamese market… Many US leading companies, which are also world leading companies, met us and requested specific projects in investment in Vietnam. Many Vietnamese businesses also reached specific contracts and agreements with US partners."

Repeal of catfish ban fails in Senate. The trade dispute between the US and Vietnam over imports of basa catfish deepened in December, as last-ditch efforts by Sens. Phil Gramm (R-TX), John McCain (R-AZ) and John Kerry (D-MA) to remove a forced name change for the fish stalled with the filibuster of a farm reform bill (S.1731). As a result, the amendment to the 2002 Agricultural Appropriations Bill (H.R. 2330) inserted by members of the Mississippi and Arkansas Congressional delegations stands. The amendment (Sec. 755) reads: "None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act to the Food and Drug Administration shall be used to allow admission of fish or fish products labeled wholly or in part as `catfish' unless the products are taxonomically from the familyIctaluridae."

Greg Rushford, publisher of the Rushford Report, terms the catfish amendment "the usual sneak attack: no previous hearings, no public debate." The change contradicts Food and Drug Administration terminology, which says that Vietnamese basa fish in the Pangasiidae family may also be labeled as "freshwater catfishes." According to the Associated Press (December 26, 2001), the US imported an estimated 16 million pounds of catfish fillet in 2001, the majority coming from Vietnam.

Dispute over Cambodia’s garment quota. Negotiations on the renewal of Cambodia’s textile and apparel agreement with the US ended in controversy on December 4, with the US offering only a 9 percent quota increase instead of the 28 percent demanded proposed by Cambodia. A second round of negotiations is set to conclude in January. Cambodia’s commerce minister, Cham Prasidh, told the Phnom Penh Post that Cambodia deserved the increase for accepting the linkage of the textile agreement to labor standards. A similar agreement is currently being considered for Vietnam.

Vietnam purchases Boeing aircraft. During the Vietnamese delegation’s visit to Washington on December 10, Vietnam Airlines President Nguyen Xuan Hien and Boeing CEO Alan Mulally announced a deal to sellfor the purchase of four 777 aircraft, starting delivery in 2003. The planes would presumably be used to fly nonstop from Saigon to the west coast of the US, but a long-awaited aviation agreement to allow direct flights is still being held up by the US Commerce Department over market-access and competitiveness issues. In the meantime, several American carriers will reportedly begin code-sharing on flights into Vietnam in 2002.

The timing of the announcement is reminiscent of a similar Boeing sale to China during President Clinton’s 1996 visit to China. In spite of expressed support for the value of free trade, the first corporation to benefit directly from normal trading relations is, ironically, a near-monopoly.

Trade Promotion Authority passes the House. In a razor-thin 215-214 victory for President Bush, the House approved Trade Promotion Authority, commonly known as "fast-track", on December 6. Passage in the Senate is expected to be much easier; the Senate will take up the measure early in the 2002 session. TPA’s passage might improve the chances of approval for other trade agenda topics such as the US-Lao Trade Agreement.

Bush grants China normal trade status. In a December 27 proclamation, President Bush approved permanent normal trading relations with China. The move follows China’s accession to the World Trade Organization on December 11 and ends a yearly series of contentious Congressional votes on China’s Jackson-Vanik waiver.

Jackson-Vanik provisions continue to apply to Vietnam, whose normal trade status must be renewed each year. Cambodia and Laos are not affected, as neither country had a Communist government when the 1974 Trade Bill that includes the provisions was passed.

  • Foreign Assistance

Foreign Operations Appropriations bill passed through conference. After being sent to a House-Senate conference committee on November 14, the Foreign Operations bill (H.R. 2506) finally emerged on December 18 after disputes over international family planning. In general, conference results split the difference between the slightly more restrictive House language and the slightly less restrictive Senate language, with few major differences from the 2001 version.

Cambodian restrictions. The conference report keeps most of the amendments and language in the Senate version of the bill. Assistance to the Cambodian government is prohibited subject to improvements in human rights, elections, and the environment as certified by the Secretary of State. However, exceptions to the ban on assistance are provided for basic education as proposed by the House and activities conducted by the Ministry of Women and Veteran's Affairs to combat human trafficking as proposed by the Senate. These are significant openings that have not been available in recent years.

According to the report, the conference committee members (or "managers") "remain concerned with Cambodia's political, legal, and economic development, and the lack of independence of its judiciary" and "strongly condemn acts of intimidation and violence against the democratic opposition in the run-up to commune council elections." However, the phrase "democratic opposition" (implying that the two ruling coalition parties are by nature undemocratic) does not appear in the text of the bill, which merely calls for "local elections that are deemed free and fair by international and local election monitors."

As in the Senate version, assistance to any Khmer Rouge tribunal is conditioned on the President certifying to Congress that the tribunal is "impartial and credible."

Assistance to Laos. The conference agreement reduced the $5 million earmarked for children’s health and development programs in Laos in the Senate version to $2 million. In a clear nod to the extremist Lao/Hmong-American lobby, the report also noted that "the managers are extremely troubled by the repressive policies of the Government of Laos" and what the report terms "the wholesale denial of human rights to the people of Laos, particularly the Hmong."

Vietnam received no specific mention in the conference report.

Vietnam Education Foundation. Established by act of Congress in January 2001, the Vietnam Education Foundation will recycle one-half of Vietnam’s yearly debt repayments to the US into science and technology scholarships for Vietnamese students in the US. After delays in implementing the program, Congressional sources say that appointments for the Foundation’s board will be made soon, following a vetting process involving both houses of Congress and the Bush Administration.

Funding for Agent Orange research. Congressional appropriations for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in fiscal year 2002 includes funding for "Agent Orange and dioxin research in Southeast Asia." The previous year’s wording had been restricted to Vietnam only, excluding wartime dioxin contamination in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. According to Agent Orange specialist Dr. Arnold Schechter, the primary Congressional backers of this collaborative research are Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) and Rep. Lane Evans (D-IL).

At a March 3-6 conference in Hanoi being organized by NIEHS and the Vietnamese government, scientists from both countries are expected to discuss future collaborative projects relating to Agent Orange. Unfortunately, Lao and Cambodian representatives have not been invited to attend.

Approval process for Nam Theun II project underway. The controversial Nam Theun II damproject in southern Laos is currently undergoing final review by the World Bank. Bank officials say that they have not yet made a decision on the project and are aware of conflicting views on the subject. If the Bank passes approves the project, other investors and the Asian Development Bank are expected to follow suit.

Environmental groups in the US and Asia note that the project has been substantially improved since its original proposal nearly a decade ago, but they still harbor concerns about environmental impact and implementation. The Lao Government, in need of economic relief, has made approval of the project a high priority for 2002.

  • Special: US Involvement in Cambodia’s Communal Elections

While the US Government is taking no direct role in the February 3 communal elections in Cambodia, US-funded organizations are contributing to voter education and the development of political parties in substantial ways. These groups, including the International Republican Institute (IRI), National Democratic Institute (NDI) and The Asia Foundation, claim to bedescribe themselves as independent and "non-governmental,". but in reality all oftenAll receive substantial funding from the US Government and undertake programs compatible with its policy, to some extent reflecting the diversity of perspectives found within Congress and the Administration. IRI and NDI programs in Cambodia are carried out with funds appropriated to the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).; The Asia Foundation’s activities are largely funded through the US Agency for International Development (AID). Both NED and AID also provide direct funding to Cambodian NGOs on a number of non-election-related topics.

The following excerpts are taken from online materials published by IRI, NDI, and The Asia Foundation. Note IRI’s use of "democratic opposition" and self-identification with the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), compared to NDI’s association with NGOs that are generally sympathetic to FUNCINPEC, and the Asia Foundation’s neutral and overall more positive assessment.

International Republican Institute (www.iri.org):"IRI conducts a comprehensive program to strengthen Cambodia’s democratic opposition through training seminars for national and local party activists. Training topics include instruction on grassroots organization, political research, issue advocacy, and communication and message development. IRI worked closely with the SRP to provide training in a nationwide program of civic education for thousands of women activists at the sub-provincial level. Many of these women are now candidates for commune council. IRI's party training program is now focused on the February 2002 commune elections. IRI is providing training to targeted opposition activists and candidates in campaign management and election monitoring."

National Democratic Institute (www.ndi.org/worldwide/asia/cambodia/cambodia.asp): "Currently, the Cambodia People's Party (CPP) has exclusive control of the local administrative structure nationwide, and events during the 1998 election process suggest that the party will not readily relinquish its current hold on local authority. In spite of CPP's tight control of political space, civic organizations continue to operate around the country and have sought to actively engage in the political process.

"Since the 1998 elections, NDI's election monitoring partners-the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (COMFREL), the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (COFFEL) and the Neutral Impartial Committee for Free Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC)- and other Cambodian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have actively monitored the development of the local administrative and election frameworks and expect to play an important monitoring role in the upcoming commune elections.
"NDI is currently assisting COMFREL, COFFEL, NICFEC and other Cambodian NGOs as they undertake activities in preparation for the commune elections. NDI is advising Cambodian election monitoring organizations on program designs that will build upon their previous efforts of volunteer and coordinator training. The Institute is also providing technical assistance in the areas of voter registration, materials development and training."
The Asia Foundation (www.asiafoundation.org/programs/prog-asia-camb.html): "Cambodia is attempting to build on the experience of the 1998 National Assembly election to strengthen and institutionalize electoral processes which ensure fair elections. The government has passed twin laws on decentralization and commune council elections, which will provide the legal framework for democratically elected local government. With Foundation support, Cambodia's three domestic election monitoring organizations have conducted vigorous and multipronged advocacy campaigns in support of the establishment of this legal framework. The commune council elections, slated for early 2002, have the potential to bring about a fundamental shift from rule by party appointees dating back to the early 1980s to pluralistic, multiparty representation with local citizens actively involved in planning and resource allocation for their own communities."

The Washington Indochina Update is written on a monthly basis by Andrew Wells-Dang, Washington Representative of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development. Andrew can be reached at washington@ffrd.org.

Washington Indochina Update # 2:
December 2001

Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam remain invisible in the US media as Afghanistan continues to take center stage. But the quiet work of building—or, from some quarters, of turning back—closer US ties with these countries continues in Washington behind the scenes.

  • Trade

Vietnam trade delegation coming to Washington. The highest-ranking and most comprehensive Vietnamese delegation in decades will visit Washington from December 9-11 as part of a US trip including stops in New York and San Francisco. The group is led by Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and includes the Ministers of Trade (Vu Khoan) and Planning & Investment (Tran Xuan Gia), 14 other senior trade officials and diplomats, and 62 Vietnamese business leaders. The delegation will meet with US Trade Representative Bob Zoellick, Commerce Secretary Don Evans, and World Bank officials in Washington, as well as promote trade opportunities in Vietnam during the course of the tour. According to Prof. Fred Brown, no comparable official Vietnamese delegation has come to the US since Ngo Dinh Diem addressed a joint session of Congress in 1955.

Several public events were scheduled during the delegation’s visit in Washington. DPM Dung was to speak at Johns Hopkins-SAIS on December 10. Also on Dec. 10, the US-Vietnam Trade Council was to host a conference and banquet at the Willard Hotel (http://www.usvtc.org)

In New York, a luncheon and business forum will be organized on December 12 by the Asia Society, AIG, and Credit Suisse First Boston with assistance from the Fund for Reconciliation and Development. On December 14, prior to returning to Vietnam, the delegation will meet with California Governor Gray Davis and representatives of Vietnamese and US business groups in San Francisco.

Vietnam’s National Assembly approves trade agreement. On November 28, the National Assembly in Hanoi voted by 278-85, with 17 abstentions, to ratify the US-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement. Although the result was expected, debate and the opposing votes reportedly came largely from NA members who felt that the US was acting hypocritically on promotion of human rights.

Trade Minister Vu Khoan told a press conference: "With this event, the relations between the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the United States of America have come closer to full normalization. On its part, Vietnam is willing to develop an equal and mutually beneficial cooperation with the US on the basis of respect for independence, sovereignty and non-interference in each other's internal affairs."

Lao trade agreement not included in Trade Promotion Authority bill. President Bush listed the US-Lao Bilateral Trade Agreement as part of his overall trade agenda in June. The Lao agreement was signed in 1998, but no action has been taken on it since then. Key members of Congress such as Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) and Rep. Phil Crane (R-IL) planned to bundle the agreement together with other trade issues, including the controversial Trade Promotion Authority or "fast-track".

Following the September 11 attacks, however, the administration decided to focus solely on TPA, leaving the Lao agreement out. According to a State Department source, the well-organized opposition to Lao BTA among conservative Hmong-American groups also played a role in the decision. TPA is scheduled for a vote in the House on December 6, and its passage is uncertain.

ACTION: The Fund for Reconciliation and Development, in coordination with moderate Lao-American groups and US NGOs working in Laos, plans educational work on the Lao BTA again in the next Congressional session. To join in this effort, please contact Andrew Wells-Dang at frdwash@mindspring.com.

Catfish update. The debate over Vietnamese basa catfish imports to the US continued in November, as Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) added an amendment to the Agricultural Appropriations Bill limiting marketing use of the word "catfish" to one species of fish. Vietnamese Ambassador Nguyen Tam Chien sent letters to members of Congress asking them to reconsider. A compromise may yet be reached, but the dispute has ruffled fins in both Washington and Hanoi.

  • Human Rights

"Viet Nam Human Rights Act" not voted on in Senate. With the Senate’s Democratic leadership unwilling to bring the Viet Nam Human Rights Act (H.R. 2833) to a vote on the floor, the bill is effectively tabled for this legislative session. The many NGOs and individuals in the US and Vietnam who mobilized against the bill deserve credit for this result. However, supporters of sanctions against Vietnam will certainly reintroduce another version of the act next year.

After initial hesitation, the State Department and Bush administration also came out against passage of the bill. In a November 30 meeting with NGOs and businesses (see below), new US Ambassador to Vietnam Ray Burghardt termed the Human Rights Act "a lousy piece of legislation" and noted that while human rights issues have worsened Vietnam’s reputation, they are best dealt with in the context of developing a more open and transparent society, economy and legal system.

Opponents of US-Lao relations meet on Capitol Hill. On November 20-21, the so-called "US Congressional Forum on Laos" held the ninth in its series of closed-door meetings on US policy towards Laos. The Forum, which has no official ties to Congress, is coordinated by Philip Smith, Washington lobbyist for the Lao Veterans of America and former Gen. Vang Pao. Attempts by independent observers to attend the meeting were refused by Smith.

In a characteristic November 8 press release, Smith stated, "Lao and Hmong-Americans from across the United States…support freedom and democracy in Laos and around the globe. We will simply not…allow these terrorists in Afghanistan to help the brutal Pathet Lao Communist regime in Laos remain in power by military force with the sham elections that they hope to force upon the poor people of Laos next year."

For another observer’s take on the "Forum," see www.lan-xang.com/edit/20010627.html. The "Forum" lists December 12-13 as its next scheduled meeting and gives a phone contact number of (202) 543-1444.

Commission on International Religious Freedom plans visit to Laos. Members of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) have been planning a fact-finding trip to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Lao authorities have given their approval for several commissioners to visit. Given that the Commission has vigorously criticized Laotian religious policy, a face-to-face meeting should allow Lao authorities a chance to answer some of these concerns in a way that has not been possible up to now. Originally scheduled for November, the Commission’s visit has now been postponed until January 2002 at the earliest.

As an independent commission created by act of Congress in 1998, USCIRF operates separately from the State Department, although their positions are frequently confused. The delegation to Laos, therefore, carries only semi-official status. According to law, the Commission has the responsibility to "review…the facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom" and "to [make] policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress". The Commission’s statements carry no formal policy weight, but often coordinate closely with the views of certain members of Congress.

USCIRF holds hearing on Capitol Hill. On November 27, the Commission heard from a broad spectrum of witnesses regarding links between religion and terrorism. Laos and Cambodia were not mentioned at all during the hearing, and Vietnam only in passing. The former Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, Bob Seiple, delivered a well-worded critique of the Commission’s approach in his testimony:

"We need a mindset dedicated to creating 'win-win' strategies in host countries. In the past, I fear we have been far too quick to play the power card, to find ways to punish rather than to promote on the basis of religious freedom issues. Punishments may appease advocates, but they don't take us any closer to sustainable solutions...Unless a host country sees how a positive resolution of this issue will enhance their stature, there will
be no way to create momentum for positive change…More positive changes can be
affected in this region [Southeast Asia] by leveraging a multilateral approach.

"We also need to recognize that enduring solutions take time...It is certainly appropriate to have common standards. At the point of implementation, however, there are a number of variables. It would be well to look at a country's history, its culture, its system of government, the direction it is moving in its human rights...We need a mindset that applauds small steps."
State Department says Laos making "symbolic progress" on religious freedom. Citing increasing openness and understanding among Lao officials that religious issues are causing friction with the US and delaying passage of the trade agreement, a State Department official claims that Laos is "symbolically making progress" on the issue. However, the central government’s commitment will need to be followed by local cadres, which may be difficult and take time.

On the other main obstacle to US-Lao relations, the unresolved 1999 disappearances of Michael Vang and Huoa Ly, there is no new information that has been made public, although Lao authorities are reportedly re-investigating the case, and the State Department is reviewing additional follow-up measures, with no additional details available.

  • Diplomacy

Raymond Burghardt confirmed as ambassador to Vietnam. Following a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on November 6, the nomination of Ray Burghardt as Ambassador to Vietnam was confirmed by the Senate on November 15. (For further details, see Burghardt’s confirmation testimony online athttp://usembassy.state.gov/vietnam/wwwhwf011106.html.) Ambassador Burghardt will arrive in Hanoi on December 15 and plans to meet with American NGO and business leaders soon thereafter.

New York meeting with Burghardt. On November 30, the Fund for Reconciliation and Development organized a meeting in New York for representatives of US educational, development, and business organizations working in Vietnam. During the meeting, held at the Institute of International Education, Burghardt outlined his priorities as ambassador, listened to attendees’ introductions and concerns, and discussed his experience as a career Foreign Service Officer in Asia and Central America.

Excerpts from Amb. Burghardt’s introductory remarks: "Passage of the Bilateral Trade Agreement does not mean full normalization. There’s still more to do… Good relations between countries mean that governments don’t know everything that’s going on between their citizens. That’s already the case with China, and Vietnam will be that way soon…. I expect Vietnam will emerge as an important middle-rank power in Asia, and it’s in America’s interest to help make that happen."

Preparations for Cambodian communal elections in February 2002. While the war of words heats up in Cambodia amid reports of pre-election violence in a few precincts, Washington has been quiet on the issue. Neither of the institutes aligned with the major US political parties has plans to send election observers from the US; instead, they and other international organizations are funding well-organized Cambodian NGOs and observer teams. Some of these groups, like Cambodian NGOs in general, have close ties to one of the three main Cambodian parties, while others are neutral and nonpartisan.

Washington Indochina Update

November 2001

Although the September 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent US response have overshadowed all other topics in Washington this fall, there has still been plenty of movement in Congress on issues of importance to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. And despite the veneer of bipartisanship on display in Washington, the underlying divisions on US policy towards Southeast Asia have been as apparent as ever. This is the first in a monthly series of updates prepared by the Fund for Reconciliation and Development’s Washington representative, Andrew Wells-Dang.

  • Trade

Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement passes House and Senate; signed by President Bush. The House of Representatives passed the BTA (H.J. Res. 51) on September 6 by voice vote. The Senate followed suit on October 3 by a vote of 88-12. President Bush signed the agreement into law on October 16. Congratulations!

Laos Trade Agreement stalled. Although the US-Lao bilateral agreement has been completed since December 1998 and is far simpler than the Vietnam agreement, it has yet to be considered by the House or Senate. The State Department and US Trade Representative also appear to have backed off from previous support of the agreement. According to State Department officials, the unresolved Ly-Vang disappearance cases (from April 1999) and issues of religious freedom in Laos are viewed as stumbling blocks to passage of the BTA, even though similar issues have not impeded other similar agreements in the past.

Discussion of textile agreement with Vietnam. Following approval of the BTA, the next step in trade relations is seen to be a bilateral textile agreement. Backers such as Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), chair of the Finance Committee, support an agreement similar to the one made with Cambodia several years ago that included labor rights safeguards. These provisions are controversial among the business community, and Vietnamese negotiating positions are not entirely known.

When is a catfish really a catfish? Members of Congress from catfish-producing states in the Mississippi Delta area have been up in arms concerning cheap imports of basa fish from the Mekong Delta, which are often labeled "catfish." On October 3, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) introduced a bill (S. 1494) to change US law on labeling of catfish. However, this is a regulatory issue that concerns the FDA, and is not seen as an obstacle to US-Vietnam ties or implementation of the trade agreement.

  • Human Rights

"Viet Nam Human Rights Act" passes House; on hold in Senate. HR 2833, a revised version of the earlier HR 2368, was introduced in the House on September 5, put on a fast track, and passed after an hour of debate on September 6 by a 410-1 margin. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ) and backed largely by his chief aide, Joseph Rees. The bill’s 13 cosponsors include one Democrat, Rep. Tom Lantos (CA).

In the Senate, sponsors Jesse Helms (R-NC) and Bob Smith (R-NH) invoked an emergency rule to bypass the Foreign Relations Committee and try to bring the bill directly to the floor. This maneuver backfired when Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) put a hold on the bill. In Sen. Kerry’s words, "on the subject of human rights, I believe we are making progress. Sometimes the tools can be overly blunt and counterproductive… I am for having a human rights statement at the appropriate time. This is not the appropriate time. At some point in the future, we would be happy to consider [a human rights bill] under the normal legislative process."

The bill’s backers in the Senate were unable to attach it as an amendment to the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act (see below). At present, the "Human Rights Act" is still on hold, though it may well be voted on before the Senate recesses in November. Government officials have acknowledged the strong voices of American NGOs and businesses working in Vietnam who oppose the bill.

State Department releases report on international religious freedom. The October 26 report details both the general situation of religion and issues of religious freedom in countries around the world. Cambodia is judged to be a country where religious rights are "generally respected." In the Lao PDR, the situation is said to have "deteriorated in some aspects" during the past year; although the number of religious detainees decreased by half to around 20, more than 65 churches were closed. In Vietnam, "the status of respect for religious freedom did not change during the period covered by this report, but remains improved from conditions of the early 1990's." None of the three countries were judged by the State Department to be "countries of particular concern" (although, for instance, both China and Cuba were). For details, see http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2001/.

Note that the State Department report is distinct from statements of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, created by act of Congress in 1998. Compared to the State Department’s pronouncements, which attempt to be balanced, the Commission takes partisan views and generally follows the line of extreme Asian-American groups. The Commission does list Laos as a "country of concern," and vociferously opposed the Vietnam BTA and supported the "Human Rights Act."

  • Foreign Assistance

Foreign Operations bill sent to conference. The House passed its version of the 2001 Foreign Operations Appropriations Act (HR 2506) in July. This bill provides funding for the State Department, USAID, and related projects. In the Senate, the bill was the subject of a Republican filibuster and finally passed on October 24 with a number of amendments added. As the House and Senate versions differ substantially, the final language will be determined in a conference committee meeting in early November.

Limits on aid to Cambodia. The Senate version of the Foreign Operations bill (Sec. 560) conditions assistance to the Cambodian government on an assessment by the Secretary of State that Cambodia is "making significant progress" on investigation of two 1994 and 1997 grenade attacks; that the communal elections scheduled for February 2002 are judged "free and fair"; and that Cambodia’s record of environmental protection is improving. [As the International Republican Institute and its former Asia director, Lorne Craner, now undersecretary of state for human rights, have already decided that Cambodia will fail on all of these counts, the chance of the conditions being met is practically zero.] An exception is made, however, for assistance to combat human trafficking through the Cambodian Department of Women’s and Veterans Affairs.

Restriction on Funding for Cambodian Genocide Tribunal. Sens. Jesse Helms (R-NC) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) introduced an amendment (SA 1955) prohibiting "any form of assistance to any tribunal established by the Government of Cambodia" unless the President determines that "the tribunal is capable of delivering justice for crimes against humanity and genocide in an impartial and credible manner." However, Sen. McConnell also joined with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in sponsoring an amendment (SA 1945) to provide $250,000 in funding to the Documentation Center of Cambodia. Both amendments were agreed to on October 24.

A small break for Laos. Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) introduced an amendment (SA 1931) allocating $5 million in child survival and development assistance to Laos, with the proviso that this money must be channeled through nongovernmental organizations. Passed on October 24.

  • Diplomacy

Pete Peterson recognized for his service as ambassador. On the same day that the Senate passed the bilateral trade agreement, it also unanimously passed a resolution (S. Res. 167) commending Douglas P. "Pete" Peterson "for his outstanding and dedicated service to the United States as United States Ambassador to Vietnam from 1997-2001, and for his historic role in normalizing United States-Vietnam relations." The resolution was introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

Raymond Burghardt’s confirmation delayed. President Bush’s nominee to replace Peterson in Hanoi, Raymond Burghardt, has been pending a confirmation hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since late August. The events following Sept. 11 are the main reason for the delay. Burghardt is a career Foreign Service officer who also served in the Reagan Administration’s National Security Council during the Iran-contra scandal.

Competing versions of Vietnam’s response to terrorism. Opponents of closer ties with Vietnam, such as Rep. Chris Smith and Sen. Bob Smith, read press articles into the Congressional Record that claimed a lack of support in Vietnam for the US’s counterterrorism efforts. Those with more knowledge of conditions in Vietnam, such as Sens. McCain and Kerry, countered by reading statements of condolence on the floor that had been sent by Vietnamese, both officially and unofficially.

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