May 24, 2016 11:58:54 am
After knocking down one of the last vestiges of Cold War antagonism with a former war enemy, President Barack Obama on Tuesday took his push for closer ties directly to the Vietnamese people, meeting with activists and entrepreneurs and arguing that better human rights would boost the communist country’s economy, stability and regional power.
In a speech at the National Convention Center, Obama sought to ease fears that Washington wanted to dictate terms to Vietnam on improving rights. He has faced calls by activists to more strongly address what’s seen as an abysmal treatment of government critics.
Nations are more successful when people can freely express their thoughts, assemble without harassment and access the internet and social media, he said.
“Upholding these rights is not a threat to stability but actually reinforces stability and is the foundation of progress,” Obama said. “Vietnam will do it differently than the United States … But there are these basic principles that I think we all have to try to work on and improve.”
Obama earlier spoke with 10 activists Tuesday, including advocates for the disabled, sexual minorities, a pastor and advocates for freedom of speech, press and the Internet, but he said that several others were prevented from coming.
“Vietnam has made remarkable strides in many ways,” Obama said, but “there are still areas of significant concern.”
His comments came a day after he announced the lifting of a five-decade-old arms sales embargo that’s meant to help forge a new economic and security relationship with this young, fast-growing Southeast Asian nation.
Obama must balance a desire for a stronger relationship with efforts to hold its communist leadership to account over what activists say is the widespread abuse of dissidents.
From Hanoi, Obama was to fly Tuesday to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. He planned a visit to the Jade Pagoda, considered one of the most beautiful pagodas in southern Vietnam and a repository of religious documents that includes more than 300 statues and other relics.
Shifting from the historical to the modern, Obama also planned to visit the Dreamplex business complex in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, a space for startup entrepreneurs that fits with Obama’s message about the potential benefits of closer ties to Vietnam’s growing economy and its burgeoning middle class.
Obama also planned to meet with entrepreneurs, letting him talk up the benefits of what he says will be enhanced trade under a 12-nation trans-Pacific trade deal that is stalled in Congress and opposed by the leading US presidential candidates.
During a Monday news conference with Vietnam’s president, Obama traced the arc of the US-Vietnamese relationship through cooperation, conflict, “painful separation” and a long reconciliation. “If you consider where we have been and where we are now, the transformation in the relations between our two countries is remarkable,” Obama said.
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