President Barack Obama, left, and Vietnamese President Tran
Dai Quang shake hands at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi,
Vietnam, Monday, May 23, 2016. The president is on a
weeklong trip to Asia as part of his effort to pay more
attention to the region and boost economic and security
HANOI, Vietnam — Eager to banish
lingering shadows of the Vietnam War, President Barack Obama
lifted the U.S. embargo on selling arms to America's former enemy
Monday and made the case for a more trusting and prosperous
relationship going forward. Activists said the president was being
too quick to gloss over serious human rights abuses in his push to
establish warmer ties.
After spending his first day in
Vietnam shuttling among meetings with different government
leaders, Obama will spend the next two days speaking directly to
the Vietnamese people and meeting with civil society groups and
young entrepreneurs. It's all part of his effort to
"upgrade" the U.S. relationship with an emerging
economic power in Southeast Asia and a nation that the U.S. also
hopes can serve as a counterweight to Chinese aggression in the
Tracing the arc of the
U.S.-Vietnamese relationship through cooperation, conflict,
"painful separation" and a long reconciliation, Obama
marveled during a news conference with the Vietnamese president
that "if you consider where we have been and where we are
now, the transformation in the relations between our two countries
President Tran Dai Quang said later
at a lavish state luncheon that he was grateful for the American
people's efforts to put an end to "an unhappy chapter in the
two countries' history," referring to the 1965-1975 U.S. war
with Vietnam's communists, who now run the country.
The conflict killed 57,000 American
military personnel and as many as 2 million Vietnamese military
Quang added, though, that "the
wounds of the war have not been fully healed in both
Still, Quang said, both sides are
determined to have a more cooperative relationship.
That mindset was evident in the
friendly crowds that lined the streets as Obama's motorcade
zigzagged around Hanoi on Monday. And when Obama emerged from a
tiny Vietnamese restaurant after a $6 dinner with CNN personality
Anthony Bourdain, the president shook hands with members of the
squealing crowd and waved as if he really didn't want to get back
in the limousine.
Obama was to address the Vietnamese
people on Tuesday morning. A White House official said the
president would use his address to stress the importance of having
a "constructive dialogue" even when the two nations
disagree — including on human rights.
But that is unlikely to mollify
activists, who said the president had given up his best leverage
for pressing Vietnam to improve its rights record by lifting the
Duy Hoang, U.S.-based spokesman for
Viet Tan, a pro-democracy party that is banned inside Vietnam,
said that until Vietnam makes progress on human rights, the U.S.
should not sell it military gear that could be used against the
"The U.S. should also
reiterate the message that closer security cooperation is to
bolster Vietnam's external security and that the proper role of
the Vietnamese military is to protect the nation, not the current
political regime," Hoang said by e-mail.
Veterans were split. Bernard
Edelman, deputy director of government affairs for the Vietnam
Veterans of America, cited the good cooperation surrounding
efforts to account for troops still missing in action.
"The war's over," he
said, noting his group hasn't taken an official position.
But Steve Rylant of Loveland,
Colorado, who served at Ubon Air Base in Thailand during the
Vietnam war, said he was "offended."
Asked if there would come a better
time for lifting the embargo, Rylant said, "For me, there's
never a time. ... It's just really difficult for us to try and
agree to any kind of a thing like this with Vietnam, I
Obama said there had been
"modest progress on some of the areas that we've identified
as a concern." He added that the 12-nation trans-Pacific
trade deal that he's pushing could help prompt Vietnam to
implement a series of labor reforms "that could end up being
For Vietnam, lifting the arms
embargo was a psychological boost. The United States partially
lifted the ban in 2014, but Vietnam pushed for full access as it
tries to deal with China's land reclamation and military
construction in nearby seas.
It was unclear whether striking the
ban would quickly result in an increase in arms sales. Obama said
that each deal would be reviewed case by case, and evaluated based
on the equipment's potential use. But he said he no longer
believed a ban based on "ideological" differences was
necessary. He added that the U.S. would "continue to speak
out on behalf of human rights we believe are universal."
Vietnam holds about 100 political
prisoners and there have been more detentions this year, some in
the past week. In March, seven bloggers and activists were
sentenced for "abusing democratic freedoms" and
"spreading anti-state propaganda." Hanoi says that only
lawbreakers are punished.