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Vietnamese PM makes historic visit to Washington

From Wolf Blitzer
CNN

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A generation ago there was war. A decade ago the two former enemies established diplomatic relations.

Now Vietnam's prime minister has made history with a first-ever visit to the White House. And despite some lingering protests, President Bush has promised a reciprocal visit of his own.

Shortly after they met, I sat down with Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai for an exclusive interview.

The prime minister says he was very pleased by what he heard from Bush, especially his support for Vietnam's admission into the World Trade Organization.

"He expressed his strong support of Vietnam's accession to the WTO. I think that is because it's in both the U.S. and Vietnamese interests, and it is in the interest of the American business community," Khai said.

Despite the bitterness of the war, he says it's time for both Americans and Vietnamese to move on.

"The war ended more than 30 years ago, and we believe it is now time for us to look toward the future," he said.

But, he said it's not time yet for a Vietnamese leader to pay a visit to the Vietnam War memorial in Washington.

"I don't believe it would be appropriate at this time. I will save that for another visit," the prime minister said.

He said he would first like Bush -- next year during his visit to Vietnam -- to make a similar gesture to the Vietnamese people, who he says suffered a lot more than the American people did.

"I believe that the two sides will continue to discuss that matter, but I would like to tell you that the sacrifices that the Vietnamese people had to suffer are much greater than what America suffered," Khai said.

He also made a point of thanking all the anti-Vietnam war protesters in the United States, who he says helped end the war.

"I can recall that hundreds of thousands of Americans took to the street in support of Vietnam during the war," he said.

Asked about the possibility that Vietnam might move away from Communist Party rule, the prime minister said, "We have been shifting our economy from a centrally planned economy to a market economy."

Trade between the United States and Vietnam has jumped over the past five years from $1.5 billion to $6.4 billion.

But even as we spoke, demonstrators were outside the hotel protesting what they charge are human rights abuses in Vietnam.

One of those protesters, a Vietnamese-American from Georgia, was quoted as saying, "This guy has no right to be here. He is a liar. He claims there is freedom in Vietnam but there is no freedom."

Khai responded to those comments by saying, "The population of Vietnam is 83 million. We have 1.3 million Vietnamese living in America. I don't know who this gentleman would represent."

And the prime minister made a point of his support for closer U.S.-Vietnamese relations. He said he wears both the U.S. and Vietnamese flags on his lapel "because we have been able to put aside the past and look towards the future."

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