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Marshall heading to Vietnam again

19 February 2005

Macon Telegraph

U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall ships out this morning for Vietnam, a country he hasn't visited since he fought there as a soldier nearly 35 years ago.

Marshall is part of a three-member congressional delegation that will talk with Vietnamese and Laotian government officials about lingering issues related to prisoners of war and American military personnel missing in action.

"We want to try to get the Laotian government and the Vietnamese government to be as cooperative with us as the Cambodian government has been," Marshall said.

When the United States pulled out of Vietnam in 1973, more than 2,500 Americans were unaccounted for. Over time, 741 sets of identified remains have been returned from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and China, leaving 1,842 still missing, according to a Jan. 26 report by the Congressional Research Service. The United States is still trying to find them and bring them home.

"The United States likes to have members of Congress regularly go to Southeast Asia just as evidence to the Vietnamese government that this issue remains important to us," Marshall said. "The Vietnamese are doing well but not as well as we would like. ... We want unfettered access to archival information and do not want some time limit placed on that access. We're having a difficult time in Vietnam getting access to the central highlands area for actual inspections."

The Macon Democrat said that later in the week he plans to travel by motorbike to an area south of Danang where he served as an Airborne-Ranger reconnaissance platoon sergeant.

"I'll go out in my area of operations and probably have quite a few memories return," he said.

Marshall also plans to work with an effort called Project Smile, which provides corrective surgery for Vietnamese children born with cleft palates. Marshall said an unusually high number of such children are born in Vietnam.


US puts religious rights in Vietnam under close scrutiny

Fri Feb 18,10:18 AM ET


HANOI (AFP) - An impending US decision on whether or not to punish Vietnam for its poor record on religious freedom has put the communist country under mounting pressure that could already have yielded significant changes. The US State Department last year classified Vietnam as a "country of particular concern" for violating religious freedoms and Washington must decide by March 15 if Hanoi is to face sanctions. In recent weeks, Hanoi has made a number of goodwill gestures that some analysts see as an attempt to please the United States. Just before the first day of the Lunar New Year, Hanoi released several dissidents including Catholic priest Tadeus Nguyen Van Ly, who had been detained since 2001. At the same time, the government made a gesture in favour of Protestants in the country's troubled central highlands. An instruction signed by Prime Minister Phan Van Khai in early February called on officials to "ensure that each citizen's freedom of religious and belief practise is observed (and) outlaw attempts to force people to follow a religion or to deny their religion".

The instruction also signals that religions so far not officially registered could be recognised in the future.

It also gives Protestants the possibility of holding religious ceremonies on their premises provided they have no contact with the rebel United Front for the Struggle of the Oppressed Races (FULRO).

The officially dissolved FULRO movement fought on the side of the Americans during the Vietnam War and against the communist state until the beginning of the 1990s, with the objective of creating an independent state.

"The Protestants who undertake purely religious activities are authorized to organize their masses at home or in suitable and registered places," an official from the Commission for Religious Affairs told AFP. Khai's instruction was "aimed at separating the leaders from the Protestants operating for FULRO and others," he said, on condition of anonymity. Taken literally, it means the followers of religions without any political ambitions could be allowed to practice their faith. If implemented, it would be a major reform in a country accused by human rights organisations of persecuting Protestants, bulldozing churches and organising sessions for the forced renunciation of faith.

The message to Washington is clear. "There is a clear will to launch a political message taking into account the date of March 15," said one foreign observer. "The question of the forced renunciation of faith, in particular, was one of the requests by the Americans.

"Now, we have to wait and see if the substance of these nice words is implemented." If applied to the letter, the directive could help alleviate some of the tension in the central highlands.

Thousands of members of ethnic and religious minorities, primarily Protestants, held demonstrations in April 2004. They followed earlier protests in February 2001. They protested against the confiscation of ancestral lands for the benefit of large coffee producers from the majority ethnic kinh group. And they demanded freedom of worship and an end to religious persecution. On both occasions the demonstrations were severely repressed, leading several hundred people to flee to Cambodia. Foreign diplomats warn that even if the central government is serious about bringing change, the reality at the provincial level is less clear.

"The instructions of the government are not always applied at the bottom of the scale," said the observer. "And many things are prone to interpretation". This view was echoed by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an American consultative body which campaigned for sanctions against Hanoi.

"The new instructions are an attempt by the government of Vietnam to address some of the concerns that, for the first time last fall, placed Vietnam on the State Department's countries of particular concern list," said USCIRF chairman Preeta D. Bansal. But the text, it observed, remained "vague and open to interpretation by local government officials and public security forces."

"Many of last year's most serious religious freedom abuses could still have occurred under these guidelines. We need to wait and see what concrete actions accompany the new instructions."


Vietnamese clash over art

18 February 2005

The Seattle Times

Three Vietnamese artists, whose paintings are on exhibit at a Seattle gallery, have come under fire from the local refugee community over their government's communist regime. In many Vietnamese-American communities, touring pop singers and artists from Vietnam often face protests because of their country's communist regime. But a University of Washington professor thought Seattle would be an exception when he brought three artists from Hanoi last week to showcase their work.

Instead, some Vietnamese community leaders yesterday announced they would protest the "Viet Nam Now" exhibit at the Billy King Showroom, 95 Union St., near Pike Place Market. It opened last Saturday and is scheduled to run through March 14.

Earlier, an Asian social-service agency declined to endorse the show, fearing a backlash from the local refugee community.

And the artists, whose abstract and impressionistic paintings depict life in Vietnam, were glared at and disparaged by diners when they lunched in the Chinatown International District earlier this week.

"If they protest, they protest. What can you do?" said assistant professor Jonathan Warren, who is sponsoring the artists. "But maybe this will prompt a discussion into why there are hard feelings and these political divisions."

For many Vietnamese refugees here, communism remains a highly charged issue, much like the antipathy Miami's Cuban exiles harbor toward Fidel Castro's regime. Their animosity is also fueled by Vietnam's poor human-rights record and restrictions on free speech.

Refugees think the touring artists support communists because the Vietnamese government approved their trip to the United States. The artists say their work is apolitical.

"Some Vietnamese in this country were imprisoned up to 14 years after the fall of Saigon," said Jeffrey Brody, a professor at California State University, Fullerton, and an expert on Vietnamese- American issues. "They are angry at the government that defeated them in battle and that has a stranglehold on the country."

In California, home to the world's largest Vietnamese population outside Vietnam, shows featuring singers and artists from Hanoi have been protested and boycotted. Refugees who have attended have been called traitors, spit on and even punched.

Similar protests, though without violence, occurred in Olympia in 2002, when students at South Puget Sound Community College hung the flag of Vietnam as part of a larger international display to honor foreign students. Hundreds protested, and the school was barraged with angry e-mails, some equating displaying the communist flag with flying the Confederate battle flag. There are an estimated 50,000 Vietnamese Americans in Washington.

Tuan Vu, a Vietnamese community leader in Olympia, expects refugees, especially war veterans, to protest the Seattle exhibit. However, some refugees fear protests would draw more publicity to the exhibit; others fear protests could become violent.

Trong Tang, of Seattle, president of the Vietnamese American Community of Washington State, a coalition of 24 Vietnamese business, social and community groups, called Vietnam's communist officials hypocrites for encouraging some artists to express their views while imprisoning many religious leaders, writers and other artists who have views with which the government disagrees.

The Seattle exhibit is the brainchild of Warren, director of Latin American Studies at the UW, who became a fan of Vietnamese contemporary art while researching a book in Hanoi in the past two years. He decided to curate the exhibit, with lectures on culture and the arts at Benaroya Hall and the Seattle Art Museum.

He said he approached a social-service agency in the Chinatown International District to help him promote the project, even offering to donate some of the proceeds from sales of paintings. But the agency, which he would not name, declined, fearing protesters might firebomb its office. In California, the homes and businesses of people accused of supporting the communist regime have been threatened.

The show features the work of five Hanoi artists, three of whom made the trip to Seattle: expressionists Cu Cong Nguyen and Hoa Dang and abstractionist Hai Pham.

When they ate at a Vietnamese pho noodle restaurant earlier this week, their presence offended some patrons, who saw them "as having been responsible for their exile and losing their land and property in Vietnam," Warren said. "It was not an engaging or warm embrace. They [the artists] were surprised to encounter such hard feelings."

The artists declined to discuss the incident.

Dang, one of Hanoi's leading artists, was picketed during a solo exhibition in Boston in 1994. He told those protesters that he had no political agenda and that his art was not government propaganda.

His seven paintings on display in Seattle are self-portraits that reflect his search for the meaning of life, he said in Vietnamese earlier this week. "I am not a politician. I do not work for the government. I am an artist, an abstract painter."

Vietnamese entertainers and artists who tour the United States must first get approval from the Vietnam government. Some refugees think that seal of approval implies the artists must be loyal to the communist regime or have agreed to promote communism through their work.

Among those who hold such sentiments are former soldiers who fought to save South Vietnam from communism or those who were imprisoned and forced to memorize communist doctrine.

"If the artists were not pro-communists, the government would have never allowed them to come to the United States," said Vu, a former soldier.

The 64-year-old Olympia man has persuaded a dozen cities, including Olympia and Puyallup, to either ban the communist flag at international events or to fly the flag of the defunct South Vietnam government instead. He said his ill will comes from having heard that many fellow countrymen were tortured. He refuses to meet the three touring artists.

Warren, of the UW, said protesting the art exhibit would be misguided because the paintings are about the desire for greater autonomy and self-expression -- the same goals protesters seek for their homeland.