Speaking in the heart of the nation's largest Vietnamese American community, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Vietnam warmed up the crowd by saying that he would push for human rights as he took a critical look at Vietnam's Communist regime.
But, he warned, substantial changes in the country would not happen overnight.
Michael Michalak's message of patience to 300 people in a town hall meeting in Westminster on Sunday runs contrary to the sentiment of some Vietnamese Americans who want the U.S. government to increase pressure on the Vietnamese government before engaging in more trade.
Michalak said his priorities -- boosting Vietnam's economy by encouraging foreign investment and strengthening the education system -- would be the key to human rights and political reform in Vietnam.
"There are some things in an open society that are needed to attract large amounts of investment in Vietnam," Michalak said. "The Vietnamese government will be forced to be more transparent."
The ambassador said he believed that the Vietnamese government had been more open to dialogue in recent years, but that more could be done on increasing labor rights and religious freedom.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana), who organized the meeting at Coastline Community College's Le-Jao Center, said human rights abuses in Vietnam had not changed since the country joined the World Trade Organization this year.
Many in the crowd asked Michalak to focus on political reform and human rights abuses while he pushed for economic development. Some urged him to help free political dissidents detained in Vietnam, such as religious leader Father Nguyen Van Ly and lawyer Le Quoc Quan, who was arrested in Vietnam after finishing a National Endowment for Democracy fellowship in Washington, D.C. Both were found guilty of being national security threats.
Others agreed with Michalak's strategy of increasing trade to bring higher quality of life to Vietnam.
"Human rights will follow when people have a better life, and that comes from a better economy," said Peter Duong, president of Westminster-based Vietnamese Federation of Labor in Overseas.
Michalak, who was appointed in August, told the audience that overseas Vietnamese will play an important role in building Vietnam.
"Working with the Vietnamese American community will be an important source of ideas," he said.