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Bush urges Vietnam leader to improve rights record

President Triet, whose visit has sparked protests, says dialogue is needed and that the two have agreed to disagree.

June 23, 2007|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — With protesters chanting outside, President Bush welcomed Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet at the White House on Friday, urging him to make more progress on human rights if he wants his country's trade relationship with the United States to develop.

The meeting was the highest- level visit by a Vietnamese official since the end of the Vietnam War more than three decades ago.

"I explained my strong belief that societies are enriched when people are allowed to express themselves freely or worship freely," Bush said in the Oval Office after the meeting, Triet sitting by his side.

Triet said they had a "direct and open exchange of views" on the issue, and that they agreed to disagree.

"Our approach is that we would increase our dialogue in order to have a better understanding of each other," Triet said through an interpreter. "And we are also determined not to let those differences afflict our overall, larger interest."

After the hourlong discussion in the Oval Office, a lunch of gazpacho and sea bass was served in the White House residence.

A coalition of Vietnamese American community groups has protested the visit. On Pennsylvania Avenue, within earshot of the West Wing, about 1,000 demonstrators waved the former flag of South Vietnam and chanted "Freedom -- for Vietnam! Human Rights -- for Vietnam!"

Protesters said they wished Bush had demanded more of Triet before inviting him to the White House.

"It's just a little bit too early," said Neil Nguyen, 47, of Santa Ana, who was carrying a guitar and said he had traveled to Washington with three friends from a Little Saigon artists group. "He should have put more pressure, more conditions, more demands on the regime to release all the political prisoners before inviting him here."

Triet later flew to California, for a visit to Dana Point, where several hundred protesters gathered.

The Vietnamese leader is eager to promote stronger economic ties with the United States, as Vietnam tries to increase its pace of development and gain political leverage against its far more powerful neighbor, China.

Triet visited the New York Stock Exchange before arriving in Washington on Thursday. There he met with congressional leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).

Diem Do of San Jose, chairman of the anti-communist Vietnam Freedom Party, was among Vietnamese American leaders who met with Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Pelosi before Triet's visit to express the views of the Vietnamese community.

"We wanted to assure that the right message, the right issues are addressed, and that is human rights and democracy," Do said.

U.S. officials say that Vietnam had made significant progress in easing controls on dissidents and lifting restrictions on religion before Bush made his visit to Hanoi in November. They acknowledged that, since then, there had been some downturn in the country's rights record but said that officials believed it was better to continue to engage the government.

"It was one of the first issues that he brought up ... human rights and religious freedom," Deputy White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said of Bush. "The president hopes that the Vietnamese president will take those words to heart and that we'll see some behavior changes in Vietnam."

In addition to trade and human rights, the two leaders discussed ongoing cooperation in efforts to ascertain the fate of U.S. servicemen still missing since the Vietnam War, as well as the lingering effects on the Vietnamese population of Agent Orange, a defoliant used by the U.S. military during the war.

Many Vietnamese Americans are survivors or descendants of those who fled Vietnam when the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government collapsed in 1975 and the Soviet-backed communists took over.

As Triet closed his remarks in the Oval Office, he suggested that he wanted to set history aside and extend his "warmest greetings" to Vietnamese in the United States.

"Vietnamese Americans are part and parcel of the Vietnamese nation. And it is my desire to see them succeed, and hope they will continue to serve as a bridge of friendship between our two countries," he said.

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maura.reynolds@latimes.com

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