HANOI — President Obama urged Vietnam on human rights matters Tuesday while hailing its warming relations with the United States, calling the evolution from bitter wartime foes to growing partners a lesson for a world besieged by modern conflicts.
Obama himself disclosed the absence of the activists after he and several top aides, including Secretary of State John F. Kerry, met with a half dozen other civil society leaders in a gathering intended to send a message to the Vietnamese government leaders and public about the need for democratic reforms.
White House officials later said three people were unable to attend because of pressure from the government, but they did not disclose whether they were arrested or detained.
"I should note that there were several other activists who were invited that were prevented from coming for various reasons," Obama told reporters after the meeting at a hotel in Hanoi. "It’s my hope the government of Vietnam comes to recognize what we've recognized and what so many countries around the world have recognized, and that is that it’s very hard to prosper in this modern economy if you haven’t fully unleashed the potential of your people. And your people’s potential, in part, derives from their ability to express themselves and express new ideas, to try to right wrongs that are taking place in the society. And so it’s my hope that, increasingly, the Vietnamese government, seeing the enormous strides that the country is making, has more confidence that its people want to work together but also want to be able to assemble and participate in the society in ways that will be good for everybody in the long run.”
Aides said Kerry and other U.S. officials lobbied their Vietnamese counterparts Monday night — after Obama held bilateral meetings with President Tran Dai Quang, the prime minister and the Communist Party leader — to allow the participants to attend, but to no avail.
"President Obama volunteered this to the press because he wanted everyone to know," said Ben Rhodes, a national security aide to Obama. "We will follow up to make sure that all the individuals are free and not being in any way subject to punishment."
Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based advocacy group, said that those barred from the meeting were Doan Tran, a journalist who was arrested; Nguyen Quang, an economist and candidate for the National Assembly, who was prevented from leaving his home; and Ha Huy Son, a lawyer who has represented dissidents, who also was prevented from traveling to the meeting. U.S. officials did not confirm the names.
"Vietnam has demonstrated itself that it doesn't deserve the closer ties the U.S. is offering," said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "Detaining or preventing civil society from meeting President Obama is not just an insult to the president, it's also a human rights abuse in itself, a deprivation of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of movement. It's like Vietnam is putting on a demonstration for Obama of their repressive governance. One might even assume it's some sort of a test."
Kerry said Vietnam has made some progress, noting that a few dozen political prisoners were released last year. But he cautioned that fundamental democratic changes in a communist-led country will take time.
"You can be impatient, but you also have to recognize the time it takes for cultural transformation, for generational transformation, for people to be able to learn how to manage and exercise certain rights and freedom," he said. The United States "went through that ourselves. It was only in the 1960s, when I was in college, that we began the next evolution for full voting rights in America and Jim Crow [laws] wasn’t so long ago in our history. For countries that don’t begin with any of that, we have to recognize the road they are on is a roller-coaster to some degree. As long as we move in the right direction, that’s what’s important."
The conflict comes a day after the administration announced that the United States would fully lift an embargo on arms sales to Vietnam that had been in place for half a century. The two nations also are partners in an expansive 12-nation free-trade pact.
Obama has chosen to focus most of his trip on the growing bonds between the former wartime enemies, even as human rights groups in the United States have warned that he is moving too quickly to restore fully normalized relations.
“At a time when many conflicts seem intractable, seem as if they will never end, we have shown that hearts can change and that a different future is possible when we refuse to be prisoners of the past,” Obama told a crowd of 2,300 during a speech at the Hanoi Convention Center. “We’ve shown how peace can be better than war.”
For a U.S. commander in chief who has struggled to wind down the United States’ involvement in lengthy combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama’s remarks took on a hopeful, but to some degree, wistful tone. He didn’t mention those two wars directly, but his focus on this trip, which also will include a historic visit to Hiroshima, Japan, on Friday, has taken on symbolic meaning as he focuses on final reconciliation with two former U.S. enemies.
Obama opened his remarks by noting that although his two predecessors — Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — also visited Vietnam, he is the first to have come of age after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, when he was 13.
He lamented the Cold War that tore Vietnam apart and set the nation on a course for the conflict that divided it between geopolitical powers.
“Cold war rivalries and fears of communism pulled us into conflict,” Obama said. “Like other conflicts throughout human history, we learned once more a bitter truth — that war, no matter what our intentions may be, brings suffering and tragedy.”
The president paid homage to the more than 3 million Vietnamese and 58,000 American troops who perished during the fighting, and he praised the willingness of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who both served in the war, to move beyond the conflict toward reconciliation.
“Over the past two decades, Vietnam has achieved enormous progress, and today the world can see the strides that you have made,” he said, noting the skyscrapers in big cities, growing middle class and technological changes that have connected people to Facebook and other social media channels.
Yet even as he hailed the progress, Obama also gently pushed Vietnam to improve its record on human rights and free speech. In addressing the issue, Obama told the crowd at the convention center that the United States continues to struggle with its own ideals.
“We still deal with our shortcomings: Too much money in our politics, and rising economic inequality, racial bias in criminal justice, women still not being paid as much as men doing the same job,” Obama said. “We still have problems, and we're not immune from criticism, I promise you. I hear it every day.”
But he said the United States’ willingness to examine itself has made the nation stronger. “That scrutiny, that open debate, confronting our imperfections, and allowing everyone to have their say has helped us grow stronger and more prosperous and more just,” he said.
“I stand before you today very optimistic about our future together," Obama concluded. "Your destiny is in your hands. This is your moment. And as you pursue the future that you want, I want you to know that the United States of America will be right there with you as your partner and as your friend.”