Vietnamese dissident a reluctant tourist
during Obama visit
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[May 25, 2016]
By Martin Petty
HANOI (Reuters) - Vietnamese dissident
Nguyen Quang A spent much of Tuesday as a tourist with plainclothes cops
- eating fish noodle soup, visiting a temple and a fortune teller –
returning home just as President Barack Obama took off from Hanoi aboard
Air Force One.
"It was a compulsory tour," joked Quang A, 69, a well-known critic
of the Communist Party who is famous for creative stunts of his own
to make Vietnam's leaders pay more than lip-service to political
Quang A, a former IT entrepreneur, was one of more than 100
Vietnamese who tried to run as independents for last weekend's
election to the parliament, which is tightly controlled by the
Communist Party. Almost all failed to get on the ballot.
Dissent was once the domain of a tiny number in Vietnam who met
behind closed doors or found themselves behind bars. It is not as
rare these days. Before Obama's visit, a spate of protests erupted
over a mass fish kill along the central coast.
However, the media is censored and the most outspoken critics of the
party's monopoly on power face harassment, arrest and jail for
Quang had an inkling he wouldn't make it to his appointment with
Obama, as he put on his best suit and posed for a selfie. Before
walking out of the door of his Hanoi home on Tuesday morning, he
uploaded the image on Facebook and typed in a message: "May be
intercepted, arrested. Advising so people know."
It took only a few minutes before 10 plainclothes police bundled him
into a car and drove him away.
They weren't giving him a free ride to Obama's hotel, where the U.S.
delegation had set up a meeting with activists and civil society
leaders to discuss Vietnam's deep-rooted resistance to guaranteeing
human rights and political freedom.
"That was just a cheap trick by those who have no understanding,"
Quang said of being forced to be a tourist. "I don't judge these
security officials. I judge their bosses, their minds are just so
At least two other dissidents were blocked on Tuesday from seeing
Obama, who only a day earlier had announced the scrapping of an arms
embargo on Vietnam, dubbing it a necessary step in a new alliance
between two countries with shared concerns about China's military
Washington had for years told the communist-ruled state for years
that a rollback of the ban on sales of lethal weapons would depend
on its commitment to free speech and stopping the harassment, arrest
and jailing of its detractors.
"There are still areas of significant concern in terms of freedom of
speech, freedom of assembly, accountability," Obama said,
acknowledging some activists were stopped from seeing him.
Vietnam's foreign ministry did not respond to Reuters queries about
Photos taken before and during Obama's civil society meeting seen by
Reuters showed the initial U-shaped seating arrangement had changed
substantially, with tables and chairs removed to account for the
[to top of second column]
Nguyen Quang A watches TV at his home in Hanoi, Vietnam, April 19,
Outspoken lawyer, Ha Huy Son, said he was also stopped from going,
as was a journalist, according to Human Rights Watch. Its deputy
Asia director, Phil Robertson, said by lifting the arms ban, "Obama
just gave Vietnam a reward that they don't deserve." Dissidents
reacted with dismay that Washington's pursuit of its Asia
"rebalance" through security and trade partnerships looked like it
was frittering away its last bargaining chips with Vietnam.
WEAPONS OVER RIGHTS?
The country is among the 12 that joined Obama's signature
Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord, which had no human rights
provisions for Vietnam beyond establishment of independent labor
"The Communist Party wants not only lethal weapon and TPP but also
the maintenance of its totalitarianism," said blogger Huynh Ngoc
Chenh. "They will pretend to improve human rights a little bit, as
usual, but actually nothing has changed."
On his Facebook page, activist Luu Van Minh said: "Hope that Obama
comes to Vietnam to improve human rights? I don't think so.
Interests of U.S. weapon firms are the main thing."
The removal of the last big hurdle between Vietnam and the United
States drew mixed responses from U.S. legislators.
Some spoke of a squandering of the only U.S. leverage for pushing
Vietnam on free speech and assembly and releasing political
Others lawmakers said ending the ban was the right move for
strategic reasons but called for subsequent weapons deals to be
scrutinized with human rights in mind.
In justifying the removal, Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national
security adviser, said engagement was the best approach in getting
Vietnam to make more concessions.
Asked how the Obama administration had conveyed its displeasure to
Vietnam about his meeting, Rhodes said it would be "following up",
to check on the status of those not present.
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Ho Chi Minh City and
Patricia Zengerle in Washington. Editing by John Chalmers and Bill
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