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Last week, Vietnam's communist leader made a historic U.S. trip. Khai Van Phan signed a pact with Microsoft's Bill Gates, rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, hobnobbed with Harvard and M.I.T. officials, appeared statesman-like in media interviews, dined with congressional Republicans and walked into the Oval Office as a "friend."
But thanks to Orange County's Little Saigon and President George W. Bush, Phan didn't have to answer for Vietnam's troubling human rights record even today. Little Saigon's leaders made themselves irrelevant. They told Phan and his 200-person entourage to stay away from Westminster and Garden Grove, the largest concentration of Vietnamese outside Vietnam.
Let's thank Westminster Mayor Margie L. Rice, a politician so slow she waited 54 years to switch her party registration last year from Democrat to Republican. Before Phan's trip, Rice demonstrated why part-time local officials are discouraged from practicing international relations. She told the U.S. State Department and Chien Tam Nguyen, Vietnam's U.S. ambassador, that Vietnam's leader wasn't welcome in Little Saigon. Rice said Westminster—which passed a "no communist" visitation ordinance in 2004—is a freedom-loving city and fretted that a meeting between Phan and his Vietnamese-American critics might stretch the city's police overtime budget.
Yes, Marge, save a couple thousand bucks rather than champion the first face-to-face dialogue with the one man who can single-handedly improve conditions in Vietnam.
But Rice isn't the only person determined to win cheap political mileage. Little Saigon is loaded with politicians, writers, businessmen, activists and ex-South Vietnamese military who'd be lost if Vietnam actually cleaned up its human rights act. These are people whose livelihoods seem dependent on an endless war.
Take Ky Ngo, a local protest organizer. He said he'd rather throw eggs at Phan than talk to him. Garden Grove City Council member Janet Nguyen and freshman state Assemblyman Van Tran used the media to underscore their hostility to any Phan powwow. Lac Tan Nguyen, vice president of the Vietnamese Communities of Southern California, insisted it was imperative that "[Phan] know he's not welcomed here."
Note to Nguyen, Nguyen, Ngo and Tran: Gather your pals and repeat a couple dozen times, "Phan's not welcomed and he knowshe is not welcomed!"
Little Saigon's leaders say they hold nothing higher than human dignity, nonviolence and the future of Vietnam. Days before Vietnam's prime minister arrived in the U.S., protesters in Little Saigon demonstrated they're lost in the distant past. As they paraded near Bolsa Avenue, they screamed in hatred of Ho Chi Minh, who died more than 13,000 days ago. They waved miniature flags of a nonexistent South Vietnam, dead 30 years. They told horrible, true stories about the war, re-education camps, property confiscation, sea escapes and communist atrocities. They also rightly demanded more religious, social and political freedom in Vietnam.
But nobody important was listening. The reform-minded Phan had been flipped the bird. Vietnamese-American leaders expressed no interest in opening a dialogue. Never mind that the prime minister established a reputation for working with critics beginning in the mid-1990s when he personally fielded calls from dozens of foreign businessmen worried about his government's commitment to market economics. To his credit, Phan responded, and Vietnam has made impressive economic strides.
If Bush cared about Little Saigon's concerns, it didn't show. In fact, the president signaled that the status quo was okay. Through the State Department, the administration issued a statement that the U.S. is "pleased" with the communist country's "progress." It went unmentioned that Phan ordered a totalitarian-style crackdown in May on "social evils" caused by Internet use as well as karaoke and dance establishments. Not a word was said about a Human Rights Watch report that claims hundreds have been imprisoned in Vietnam for expressing democratic thoughts.
Now that's karma in action: after disrespecting John Kerry's Vietnam War combat duty and celebrating Bush, who ducked into a stateside reserve unit rather than fight Minh's red menace, Little Saigon's 2004 candidate betrayed them, again.
* * *
There were clues years ago that Bush would screw Vietnamese-Americans. In 2000, candidate Bush visited Little Saigon, a stop that drew 2,000 people in a mall parking lot. He said nothing about Vietnam or its human rights conditions, a slight all other politicians would have regretted. Little Saigon's leaders are often Republicans before anything else, though, so they kept their mouths shut.
But imagine Bush visiting Little Havana in Miami and not slamming Fidel Castro. Wouldn't happen. Indeed, Bush has let the powerful Cuban-American voting bloc dictate U.S.-Cuban policy. He established a U.S. Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, a taxpayer-funded body that demands "regime change" before an end of diplomatic hostilities.
At a 2004 White House event, Bush outlined the top priorities of U.S. policy on Cuba: "to protect dissidents and promote human rights." During a speech in Miami last year, the president told a Cuban-American audience, "We will continue to press hard and ensure that the gift of freedom finally reaches the men and women of Cuba! We will not rest. We will keep the pressure on until the Cuban people enjoy the same freedoms in Havana they receive here in America."
Bush isn't nearly as solicitous of Vietnamese-Americans. During Phan's June 21 Oval Office meeting (arranged at Bush's invitation, by the way), the Republican president failed to ask Vietnam's top communist for a single meaningful human rights concession. Instead, both men did the bidding of international conglomerates seeking cheap labor markets. If, like in Vietnam, companies can pay workers no benefits and the equivalent of $2 for 10 hours of grueling work, somebody's getting super rich: American corporate executives and Vietnam's communist bosses.
Phan dreams of bigger paydays. He wants his country to enter the World Trade Organization. Bush said fine, "partner." They shook hands and smiled at each other. The State Department even okayed a cute Vietnam-USA friendship logo. The image displays Vietnam's communist flag hanging beside Old Glory. More than 58,000 dead American soldiers, 19 years old on average, are rolling over in their graves.
Not surprisingly, Phan left for Hanoi victorious and likely relieved. Before he began his trip, he must have worried that Little Saigon's leaders would prove to be worthy adversaries on human rights reform. Perhaps these Americanized VietKieu(overseas Vietnamese) might have even insisted on face-to-face discussions, God forbid. Instead, they'd proved inconsequential. They are once again the losers.