Kerry stand upsets some Vietnamese
By Quynh-Giang Tran, Globe Correspondent, 8/14/2002

Organizers say that more than 200 Vietnamese expatriates and their supporters from around the country will gather at Senator John Kerry's office starting Sunday to protest his efforts to prevent US aid from being tied to Vietnam's human rights record.

The Vietnam Human Rights Act, a bill passed in the House of Representatives last September by a vote of 410 to 1, would restrict nonhumanitarian aid such as economic and agricultural development unless President Bush and the US Department of State certifies that Vietnam is making progress on human rights.

Kerry and Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, have used parliamentary maneuvers to prevent the full Senate from considering the measure. The pair, veterans of the Vietnam War and visitors since then, say the bill undermines the US government's ability to promote economic reforms. Kerry said that ongoing relations with Vietnam will promote greater political freedom.

''John McCain and I ... fear it may hinder rather than advance the cause of human rights in Vietnam,'' Kerry said in a letter. ''We are concerned that denying aid to Vietnam would actually slow human-rights improvements.''

But Vietnamese expatriates, including several elderly Boston-area protesters vowing to fast up to 48 hours, as well as some US veterans groups, say they are baffled by Kerry's refusal to allow a vote in the Senate. The weeklong protest starting in Dorchester, an area with a large Vietnamese population, will feature leaders of Vietnamese Buddhist, Catholic, and Cao Dao religious groups and Vietnamese-Americans from California, Arizona, and Pennsylvania, as well as local political leaders and veterans.

''The weight that Kerry has on this makes other senators defer to him,'' said John Petersen, assistant director of the American Legion's national security and foreign relations division. Petersen said he believes that Kerry supports reestablishing ties with Vietnam.

The bill's strongest supporter - Senator Bob Smith, a New Hampshire Republican who also has visited Vietnam - says that Vietnam should not get any of the $1.3 billion in US aid it received last year.

Critics say Vietnam's human rights violations include its block on transmission of Radio Free Asia, a private journalistic organization with US government funding.

''We should expect Vietnam to improve its record on human rights if we are trying to trade with them,'' Smith said. ''Why doesn't the Senate do what the House did and pass the Vietnam Human Rights Act?''

In addition, Smith, who chaired the Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs with Kerry, staunchly believes that the issue of American POWs in Vietnam must be resolved before relations change.

Discussion of the bill has dominated Vietnamese-language radio and newspapers around the country over the past year, prompting almost 30 demonstrations, including ones in California; Tampa; Washington, D.C.; Austin, Texas; Seattle; and Lincoln, Neb.

''Senator Kerry has good connection with the Hanoi government,'' said Hien thi Ngo, chairwoman of the Committee for Religious Freedom in Vietnam, based in Washington, D.C., who will attend the protest. ''He wants their trust and they don't want this bill.''

One criticism of the bill is that it hurts the people of Vietnam, a population of 80 million that ranks their nation as the world's 13th-most populous, though it is still among the poorest in the world.

But the protesters disagree. ''We have many friends and family in Vietnam,'' said Nam Pham, a vice president at Citizens Bank in Boston. ''Nonhumanitarian aid doesn't affect the local population.''

The bill would also establish an intergovernmental monitoring commission similar to one in China to report human rights violations and release political and religious prisoners.

For expatriates such as Ngo, a 55-year-old real estate agent in Bethesda Md., the bill represents recognition that the government controls religious and political freedoms in Vietnam. ''As I sat in the House [during the vote], I cried with joy. Every vote was `Yes, yes','' Ngo said. ''But Kerry refuses to let it pass to vote.''

This story ran on page A4 of the Boston Globe on 8/14/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.