The Communist government of Vietnam, already flirting with a market economy, could move toward normal relations with the United States in the next two years if it frees political prisoners and works for peace in Cambodia, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, fresh from an 11-day trip to Southeast Asia, said Monday.
“I would say that if we stick to our guns and don’t get too anxious, we might be able to, over the next two years, see a major evolution in Vietnam, because they’re ready for it,” said Rohrabacher (R-Long Beach), whose 42nd Congressional District includes northwestern Orange County.
Rohrabacher, a staunch conservative who has strongly supported anti-Communist rebels in Afghanistan and opposed the 2-year-old military government in Burma, now called Myanmar, said he believes that Vietnamese leaders are anxious to open normal trade relations with the United States.
“They know they’re being left behind,” he said in a telephone interview. “They can see the prosperity of the Pacific all around them, and they know they’re being left out.”
During the trip, which began Dec. 10, Rohrabacher visited Thailand, where he inspected camps for refugees fleeing Vietnam; Myanmar; Laos, where he discussed POW and MIA issues with Laotian officials, and Vietnam, where he met for more than an hour with Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach.
The visit was paid for by the nonprofit Congressional Human Rights Foundation, the fund-raising arm of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, of which Rohrabacher is a member. Rohrabacher, who was accompanied by his foreign policy aide, estimated that the trip cost less than $10,000.
Rohrabacher said he saw no evidence during his trip that U.S. soldiers from the Vietnam era remain as prisoners in Indochina. However, he said the U.S. government should commit itself to pursuing persistent rumors that some Americans continue to be held in remote regions of Southeast Asia.
On another subject, Rohrabacher said Vietnam already has taken dramatic steps away from the traditionally Communist, centrally controlled economy.
“I found that the Vietnamese have committed themselves to fundamental economic reform,” he said. “I challenged them to bring about political and human rights reform as well.”
The streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, bustle with fledgling entrepreneurs, Rohrabacher said.
“Everybody’s got a little shop. They’ve let supply and demand set the prices, they’ve permitted people to make a profit and they’ve permitted people to own private property. It’s a sea change for them economically.”
However, a commitment by Vietnam to help achieve peace in Cambodia remains the first hurdle in working toward normalizing relations with the United States, a State Department spokesman said last week.
The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council agreed last month on the final draft of a peace settlement to end 12 years of fighting in Cambodia. The cooperation of Vietnam, which invaded Cambodia on Christmas Day, 1978, and installed a puppet government, is seen as crucial to ending the fighting.
Vietnam formally withdrew its troops a year ago, although officials concede that some advisers remain.
Beyond working toward a settlement in Cambodia, Rohrabacher said Vietnam must release its political prisoners, which may number as many as 1,000, before the nation can move to reopening an active trade relationship with America.
A political thaw in Vietnam, Rohrabacher said, would help ease the wrenching problem of Vietnamese refugees, thousands of whom are interred in camps in Indonesian, Hong Kong, Thailand and other Southeast Asian nations, awaiting permission to emigrate to the United States and other countries.