President Obama greets audiences after his speech to the Vietnamese people at the National Convention Center in Hanoi. (Kham/Pool Photo via AP)

Obama urges Vietnam for ‘more progress’ on human rights

President Obama said several Vietnamese civil society members were prevented from meeting him in Hanoi on May 24.”Although there has been some modest progress…there are still folks that find it very difficult to assemble and organize peacefully,” in Vietnam, he said. ( )

HANOI — President Obama hailed the warming relations between the United States and Vietnam on Tuesday, calling their evolution from bitter wartime foes to growing partners a lesson for a world wracked by modern global conflicts.

“At a time when many conflicts seem intractable — never seem to end — it shows how hearts can change and a different future is possible when we refuses to be prisoners of the past,” Obama told a crowd of 2,300 during a speech at the Hanoi Convention Center. “We’ve shown how peace is better than war.”

For a U.S. commander-in-chief who has struggled to wind down the United States’ involvement in lengthy combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama’s remarks took on a hopeful, but to some degree, wistful tone. He didn’t mention those two wars directly, but his focus on this trip, which also will include a historic visit to Hiroshima, Japan, on Friday, has taken on symbolic meaning as he focuses on final reconciliation with two former U.S. enemies.

The president’s address on his first trip to this Southeast Asian nation was aimed at marking what aides have framed as a new milestone in the bilateral relations. A day earlier, Obama announced that the United States would fully lift an arms sales embargo to Vietnam that had been in place for half a century. The two nations also are partners in an expansive 12-nation free trade pact.
Obama opened his remarks by noting that although his two predecessors — Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — also visited Vietnam, he is the first to have come of age after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, when he was 14.

He lamented the Cold War that drove Vietnam apart and set the nation on a course for the conflict that divided it between geopolitical powers.

“Cold war rivalries and fears of communism pulled us into conflict,” Obama said. “Like other conflicts throughout human history, we learned once more a bitter truth. War, no matter what our intentions, may be bring suffering instead of tragedy.”

The president paid homage to the more than 3 million Vietnamese and 58,000 American troops who perished during the fighting, but he praised the willingness of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who both served in the war, to move beyond the conflict towards reconciliation.

“In the past two decades, Vietnam has made enormous progress and today, the world can see the progress you have made,” he said, noting the skyscrapers in big cities, growing middle class and technological changes that have connected the people to Facebook and other social media channels.

Yet even as he hailed the progress, Obama also gently pushed Vietnam to improve its record on human rights and free speech. Just before entering the convention center, the president, along with several top aides, met with a half dozen civil society advocates. He noted during that meeting that several others had been invited but were not permitted to attend, though he did not elaborate about why they were barred.

In addressing the issue, Obama told the crowd at the convention center that the United States continues to struggle with its own ideals.

“We still deal with our shortcomings: Too much money in politics, rising inequality, racial bias in criminal justice, women not paid as much as men,” Obama said. “We still have problems and are not immune to criticism. I promise you — I hear it every day.”

But he said the United States’s willingness to examine itself made the nation stronger. “That scrutiny, that openness to debate, confronting our imperfections, allowing everyone to have say, allows us to grow stronger and more prosperous and more just,” he said.

“I stand before you today very confident in our future. Your destiny is in your hands,” Obama concluded. “As you pursue your moment, I want you to know the United States will be right there with you as your partner and your friend.”