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Christopher Extols Freedom to Viet Students

August 07, 1995|JIM MANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HANOI — Secretary of State Warren Christopher delivered a strongly worded speech on freedom and democracy to a group of Vietnamese students Sunday, telling them that their country "should move beyond just opening its doors."

In a clear statement of American values aimed not just at Vietnam but at all of Asia, Christopher praised the spread of freely elected governments around the world. He also spoke repeatedly of the importance of free markets and the rule of law.

"The key to success in this rapidly changing world is the freedom to own, to buy and to sell, the freedom to participate in the decisions that affect our lives," he said.

It was the furthest any U.S. official has gone in suggesting that the United States would like to bring political change to Vietnam. Over the past two days, Vietnamese leaders suggested that Washington and Hanoi focus mostly on economic issues, and they warned the United States not to intrude on Vietnamese sovereignty.

Christopher also called for speedier economic reform of Vietnam's Communist economic system. "Command economies cannot bring prosperity to their people," he asserted. "Experience teaches they cannot be dismantled piecemeal. I would ask you to look at economic reform as a passage over a ravine. You cannot do it by taking little steps."

Christopher spoke at Hanoi's International Relations Center as he finished a two-day visit here designed to formally establish diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam. At talks with Vietnamese leaders earlier in the day, Christopher said of the U.S. decision to establish relations: "Better late than never."

During Christopher's meeting with Communist Party General Secretary Do Muoi, the party leader seemed to make a special appeal to Vietnamese Americans to give more support to Vietnam now that diplomatic relations have been established. "I know there are a million Vietnamese Americans living in the United States," Muoi said. "I hope that they won't forget their country."

Christopher also stressed the importance of Vietnamese Americans in his address to the university students.

"The 1 million people of Vietnamese origin who now live in the United States can also be a bridge for reconciliation and cooperation between our two countries," he said.

"Just south of my home city of Los Angeles, there is a place called Little Saigon, where Buddhist temples and neighborhood groceries selling rau muong coexist with the freeways and shopping malls of Southern California."

But the main themes of his speech were those of free markets and democracy. "Today in the Western Hemisphere . . . every nation but one has a freely elected government and a market economy," Christopher said.

Within Asia, he added, "the reality of Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Thailand tells us that the rule of law and accountable government are the bedrock of stability and prosperity. The reality of Burma and North Korea tells us that repression entrenches poverty."

Christopher's speech got a mixed reception from the audience of students and Foreign Ministry officials. As he began speaking about freedom and democracy, some of those in the back of the hall murmured or laughed nervously.

"We already have freedom, but we hope we will have more freedom," one young woman said afterward, in words repeated by others in the audience.

"This is a big problem between America and Vietnam: human rights," said Linh Minh Duc, an 18-year-old university student. "We don't want another country to say what we should do. But we want to know the ideas of another country about human rights."

After his speech, Christopher volunteered to take some questions from the students, and one asked him to explain why President Clinton decided last month to normalize relations with Vietnam.

"I think the President was looking ahead--not to next year, not even to the year 2000, but looking ahead to the next century, when Vietnam will be a major and powerful country," he said.

Late in the day, Christopher held a final round of talks with Premier Vo Van Kiet, who was the underground Communist Party secretary for Saigon--now Ho Chi Minh City--at a time when thousands of Americans were based in the city, some of them trying to catch him and wipe out his party network.

During the Vietnam War, Kiet's wife and children were killed in an American B-52 raid.

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