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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]


  1. Trade
  2. US trade with Vietnam increases with normal trade relations. Statistics for January 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.

  3. Human Rights
  4. 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 at http://www.ffrd.org/indochina/laos/bombies.html. For more about "Bombies," please see www.itvs.org/bombies.

  5. Foreign Assistance
  6. 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.

  7. Diplomacy
  8. 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.