Mr. Trọng Goes to Washington

Published on May 11, 2015 in Episode 3

This year marks two decades since the normalization of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Việt Nam. For the first time ever, the Vietnamese Communist Party is sending its General Secretary, Nguyễn Phú Trọng, to Washington DC, to meet with senior White House officials. Secretary of State John Kerry extended the invitation earlier this year, though no date has yet been announced for this meeting.

We discuss the implications of this high-level visit with Điềm Đỗ, Chairman of the pro-democracy party Việt Tân. As leader of an unsanctioned opposition party, Đỗ and a Vietnamese delegation met with President George W. Bush in 2007 to discuss human rights in Việt Nam. Loa’s Duyên Bùi has this “On the Record”. 

Điềm Đỗ, Chairman of the pro-democracy party Việt Tân

Điềm Đỗ, Chairman of the pro-democracy party Việt Tân

Duyên Bùi: Nguyễn Phú Trọng is expected to come to the U.S. in the next few months. What is the purpose of his trip from Việt Nam’s perspective? And what is the U.S. hoping to achieve?

Điềm Đỗ: Regarding Mr. Nguyễn Phú Trọng’s visit, the Vietnamese side has been pushing for this meeting for quite some time before the U.S. finally agreed. This visit is an opportunity for Mr. Nguyễn Phú Trọng to probably do three things. First, is to lobby for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and for more trade and economic exchange since Việt Nam’s economy has been struggling over the last few years. The second things is to discuss security issues, especially China’s activities in the East Sea (South China Sea). Now, although Mr. Nguyễn Phú Trọng is known to be closer to China among Vietnamese Communist leaders, but this discussion is a must do for him to avoid criticism at home. And the third reason is to score some publicity points for himself and his faction in the months leading to the 12th Communist Party Congress in 2016. From the U.S. side, this visit is a part of a continuing effort to build closer relationship with Việt Nam out of security concerns over China’s aggression in Southeast Asia.

Duyên Bùi: Speaking of party politics, As General Secretary, Nguyễn Phú Trọng is the leader of the Vietnamese Communist Party, not the country of Việt Nam. Why is he representing Việt Nam in this upcoming visit?

Điềm Đỗ: Well, in the communist political system, they place the Communist Party at the top of the power structure. Even the Vietnamese Constitution is used to guarantee the Communist Party this supreme position over the state and the government. So with that in mind, the most powerful man in Việt Nam is supposedly the General Secretary of the Communist Party. And so for practical purpose, the U.S. may want to meet with Mr. Nguyễn Phú Trọng. However, the Vietnamese people did not elect him, and he holds no position in the Vietnamese government; and thus he has no rights or legitimacy to represent Việt Nam. In fact, without a democratic political system, the communist government is not the legitimate representative for the Vietnamese people, and this is a position that we have always expressed to the rest of the world.

Duyên Bùi: Trọng does seem to be trying to gain greater legitimacy, as seen through a visit this past April with China’s President Xi Jinping. Some, however, speculate that this meeting was scheduled at the last minute once it was confirmed that the General Secretary would be visiting the U.S. So is Việt Nam trying to hedge its bets?

Điềm Đỗ: Well actually the Vietnamese side had been requesting a visit to China for quite some time before it finally took place in April. However the timing of the visit reflects the Vietnamese communists subordination to China and always trying to please Chinese leadership. So in a way you can say that they hedge their position prior to Nguyễn Phú Trọng’s to the U.S. Now, however, based on news reports from both sides released after the visit to China, Việt Nam did not really gain anything. To the contrary, China kept the Vietnamese Communist leadership in line with China’s position on many issues and reaffirmed their control over Vietnamese leadership. So given this I seriously doubt that Nguyễn Phú Trọng’s visit to the U.S. will produce any meaningful results, especially on the most important concern for the Vietnamese people and that is how to deal with China’s aggression in the East Sea.    

Duyên Bùi: The territorial dispute and national security seems like a key issue in Việt Nam right now. The Minister of Public Security Trần Đại Quang was actually sent in March of this year to set up meetings with senior U.S. officials. However, this ministry oversees the security police, which is known for its brutality. Usually the State Department would meet with its counterpart in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, right? What can we infer from this move?

Điềm Đỗ: We have to keep in mind that the Communist political system is very peculiar. In their system the Communist Party’s interest takes priority and therefore the Minister of Public Security holds much more power and influence than the Minister of Foreign Affairs since it is the position in charge of protecting the regime.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs is often regarded as a junior position in the Communist Party system. And that position has no real influence over the Party’s decisions. In addition, Mr. Nguyễn Phú Trọng is trying hard to pull Mr. Trần Đại Quang into his camp, and that’s why Trần Đại Quang was sent to pave the way for Nguyễn Phú Trọng’s visit to the U.S. And prior to that, Trần Đại Quang also accompanied Nguyễn Phú Trọng to China. However, given Việt Nam’s very poor human rights record, Mr. Trần Đại Quang’s visit to the U.S. was kept very low key to avoid any public reaction. However, I believe that in many of his meetings, human rights violations were actually raised repeatedly.

Duyên Bùi: In bilateral talks with the Vietnamese government, the United States has often conditioned trade on improved human rights. What kind of discussions on human rights can we expect, and how substantial will they be?

Điềm Đỗ: I believe that as with all previous visits to the U.S. by Vietnamese communist leaders human rights concern will be raised. And there are many serious issues requiring attention. I would say that the top three includes: Number one is the crackdown against peaceful political dissidents, democracy, and human rights activists. The second concern is freedom of expression including internet freedom and persecution against bloggers, writers, and journalists who voice their opinions. And the third, most serious, issue would be the use of the legal system in Việt Nam to suppress human rights and political dissent. How substantial will the talk this time, we will just have to wait to see how it turns out.  

Duyên Bùi: But just a few weeks ago, on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, President Obama met with independent journalist Điếu Cày. Would you say President Obama is setting a message ahead of Trọng’s visit?

Điềm Đỗ: Many people would venture to guess that it is an attempt for President Obama to send a message. It would be very appropriate because Vietnam has one of the worst human rights record, in the 2015 Press Freedom Index ranking by Reporter without Borders. Việ Nam ranked 175th out of 180 countries, which is a very poor showing. I think the fact that President Obama met with a Vietnamese, a well-known Vietnamese blogger, who spent years in prison, I think the timing was just perfect and I think the message is pretty clear, that human rights concern will continue to be a main sticking point between the US and Việt Nam.

Duyên Bùi: Are there any last points you would like to share with the listeners of Loa?

Điềm Đỗ: I just want to say that you know, Nguyễn Phú Trọng’s visit to the U.S. is a perfect opportunity for us to raise human rights concern to the U.S. government. However, we must keep in mind that this should be a continuing effort, an ongoing effort. We should not wait until there is an important visit to raise our concern. This must be done constantly. And the key things that everyone can do are to: Number one is to raise our concern with elected officials in the U.S. legislatures as well as various government agencies. And to present them with a clear list of demands for improvement, so that they can communicate to the Vietnamese side, such as the immediate release of all political prisoners, and also requiring Việt Nam to abolish draconian articles in the penal code. And secondly we must continue to raise public awareness about human rights violation, corruption, and the lack of freedom in Việt Nam by distributing news to the media and other forums. So in short, you know to pressure for human rights in Việt Nam is a constant and continuing effort. And I hope that everybody will be willing to pitch in and do our part to keep the pressure up on the Vietnamese government.

Duyên Bùi: Thank you very much Mr. Đỗ.  

Điềm Đỗ: Thank you very much for having me.