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From Our Correspondent: After the Visit
An exiled Vietnamese dissident assesses the impact of Clinton's tour
By ALEJANDRO REYES

November 22, 2000
Web posted at 9:30 p.m. Hong Kong time, 9:30 a.m. EDT


Without any doubt, Vietnamese had never seen anything like it. When Bill Clinton went walkabout during his three-day stay in Vietnam last week, throngs of cheering citizens greeted him. They never see their own reclusive officials up close and personal, so the sight of Clinton - the first U.S. president to visit the country since 1969 - was a special thrill. Outside Hanoi's Temple of Literature, they chanted "Hey, Bill!" and tried to touch this most charismatic of world leaders. Clinton several times said that he wanted to underscore to Americans back home that "Vietnam is a country, not a war." As a young man, he had opposed U.S. military involvement in Vietnam and avoided the draft, but now he was finally there, just two months before leaving office.

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Will the landmark tour have a lasting impact? To discuss the Clinton visit, I rang up Doan Viet Hoat, Vietnam's most prominent exiled dissident. The 57-year-old U.S.-trained educator spent a total of 20 years in prison - served in two stints - until he was released in 1998 and allowed to leave for America. He now lives in a Washington, D.C., suburb and holds a fellowship at Catholic University.

Hoat says he met Clinton in September, when the two were at a human-rights award ceremony in Washington. They spent about 10 minutes talking about Vietnam. While the president did not seem particularly well informed about the situation in the country, Hoat recalls that "he was very self-confident." He say he suggested that the president try to meet with young Vietnamese during his trip. Clinton followed that advice and addressed students at Hanoi's National University. But Hoat alleges that the Vietnamese translation of the president's speech altered the meaning of some of what he said. He is also disappointed that Clinton did not publicly mention the cases of jailed dissidents nor take the time to meet some prominent opposition figures.

Clinton has been a good president for Vietnam. Relations were normalized during his watch and in July both sides signed a landmark trade deal that could pave the way for Hanoi to gain membership in the World Trade Organization. Vietnam joined ASEAN and APEC during Clinton's presidency. "The first stage in U.S.-Vietnam relations has ended with President Clinton's visit and with the trade agreement," says Hoat. "The U.S. has made an effort to return to Vietnam after the War. It has done that. Now the next stage in relations begins."

Hoat hopes this means Washington will not shy away from discussions on political issues, human rights and economic reform. The Asian economic crisis hit Vietnam hard at a time when it was already seeing a decline in capital inflows. Many investors have pulled out, fed up by bureaucratic snarls and the slow pace of reform. For Hoat, the problem is at the top. The way he sees it, Vietnam's progress is stalled because the leadership is divided into two camps - the more outward-looking reformers such as Prime Minister Phan Van Khai and the conservative, older generation, including Communist Party chief Le Kha Phieu.

While the new-thinking leaders may outnumber the hardliners, the liberals are not yet powerful enough to call the shots. That may change. At next year's Party Congress, Vietnam watchers are expecting more young cadres to step to the fore. Hoat says: "On the one hand, everybody - even the Communist Party - knows Vietnam has to change, but the leaders know that if they change too fast they will lose their monopoly on power. That's the dilemma of Vietnam. If we don't find a way to convince the leadership to change, then we won't be able to solve the stalemate." And if the stalemate continues, Hoat argues that "this will lead to instability because people, even in the rural areas, are frustrated."

In the short run, he adds, the conservatives may use the Clinton visit to shore up their position by pointing to the public response to the president. "They will say this was dangerous so there may be a backlash against the reformers," says Hoat. "But in the long run, the progressives will benefit." Vietnamese people, he reckons, will have been so impressed by Clinton's openness that many will demand the same of their own leaders. Dissidents, Hoat believes, will be bolder and more vocal. Already, veteran government foe Nguyen Dan Que has openly set up a political discussion group on the Internet.

Clinton's successor faces a tricky situation in dealing with Hanoi in coming years, Hoat reckons. Vietnam and China, also once bitter adversaries, are cozying up to each other. And Moscow is getting into the act too. Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to visit Vietnam next year. "This is a sensitive period," warns Hoat. "If the U.S. is too hard on Hanoi, it could push Vietnam closer to China and Russia. But if Washington is too soft, then the Communist leadership may take advantage." Vietnam still has many determined enemies in Congress, and with Bill Clinton bowing out in January, Hanoi will be losing an accommodating president.

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