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Vietnamese Leader Nixes Concessions : Communism: Comments by Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet enrage O.C. expatriates who oppose U.S. decision to normalize relations.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even while offering a conciliatory message to overseas Vietnamese, such as those in Orange County, Vietnam served notice Wednesday that it will make no concessions on demands for more democracy or the question of political prisoners despite the U.S. decision to normalize diplomatic relations.

Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet said, however, that he believes normalization will allow expatriates to get closer to their homeland.

Kiet said Vietnam “calls upon the Vietnamese community in the United States to help each other in unity to strive for a peaceful and prosperous life, helping develop a new relationship between Vietnam and the United States, and at the same time to join in the shared endeavors with fellow Vietnamese inside the country to build a strong Vietnam with a prosperous people and a just and civilized society.”

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Diplomats said the appeal seemed aimed at getting the overseas Vietnamese community to mute its strident criticism of the Communist Party’s continuing monopoly on political power and harsh treatment of dissidents.

Overseas Vietnamese, including many in Orange County, have been among the most vocal critics of President Clinton’s decision to normalize relations.

Speaking on national television early Wednesday to express his gratitude that Washington will establish full relations with Hanoi after 41 years, Kiet said the decision contributes to the peace and stability of Southeast Asia. He pledged that the Vietnamese government will “do its utmost” to help resolve questions about the fate of more than 2,200 U.S. servicemen still officially listed as missing in the Vietnam War.

Yet Deputy Foreign Minister Le Mai, a senior Vietnamese diplomat who has spent most of his career negotiating an end to Vietnam’s long isolation, indicated that his country has no plans to overhaul its political system in response to Clinton’s gesture.

“I do believe the choosing of any political system is the right of every nation,” Mai said at a news conference. He said it is a principle all countries should respect.

In Orange County, Kiet’s comments were received with anger by those who oppose the renewal of diplomatic relations with Vietnam and with hope by those who welcome it.

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Tuan Anh Ho, who served in the South Vietnamese army during the Vietnam War and later spent 10 years in a Communist re-education camp, was appalled by what he described as the arrogance of Kiet’s statement.

“How could they ask that we reconcile when they go on doing what they do?” he said. “There is a right and a wrong, and we can’t support what is wrong.”

Long Pham, assistant program director for Little Saigon Radio, who spent seven years in prison after the war, said that Kiet wants a strong economy while maintaining communism. But the two cannot coexist, he said.

Describing the Vietnamese government as a tree without roots, he said: “It can’t live for very long. Historically speaking, Communist countries that develop economically have been prone to democratic changes as well. Look at Russia and Eastern Europe.”

Ban Bui, president of the Vietnamese Community of Southern California and the fledgling Vietnamese Overseas Nationalist Community, said that the speech only energized his organizations’ plans to fight against Vietnam’s alleged human rights violations.

Chau Tue Carey, founder of the Vietnamese Women’s Organization, said that she will participate in a demonstration today at the Santa Ana Civic Center that will provide a lesson for Vietnam in how to permit dissent.

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“This is a peaceful demonstration. This is the only way to fight. We won’t use guns or ammunition. We will use our First Amendment rights and our freedom of speech,” she said.

But those who favor relations with Vietnam were somewhat encouraged by Kiet’s remarks.

Co Pham, president of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce in Orange County, who led a controversial trade delegation to Vietnam in 1994, said that the speech was a good gesture.

“I think it shows that they’re willing to cooperate with the United States,” Pham said. “I was a little disappointed at what [Kiet] had to say about some things, but I can understand their situation. They decide what is their priority, and right now their priority is the economy.”

The speech also did not dismay those looking to strengthen ties with their homeland. Several travel agencies in Little Saigon on Wednesday reported up to a 50% increase in inquiries about trips to Vietnam.

Si Duong, a 42-year-old Garden Grove businessman, said that diplomatic normalization may bring him back to his homeland for the first time since the fall of Saigon.

“I waited 20 years to see my parents in Saigon,” Duong said. “Now I will check for the best prices and maybe set up a business there to care for them.”

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Vietnam has allowed market reforms to transform the country’s economy, which is now one of the fastest-growing in Asia. But the Communist Party remains firmly in control of the state and brooks no criticism.

On the question of political prisoners, Mai said the government regards them all as criminals. “All prisoners, as well as those on temporary detention awaiting trial, are Vietnamese citizens who have violated Vietnamese law,” he said.

Amnesty International, a London-based human rights organization, lists at least 60 people it describes as “prisoners of conscience” being held by the Vietnamese government. They include writers, a doctor and a Buddhist monk, all of whom are being detained for what Amnesty International describes as a “peacefully held belief.”

Most have been accused by the Vietnamese government of “counterrevolutionary activity,” including one case in which a doctor was sentenced to 20 years in prison for merely being a member of Amnesty International.

Mai added that while Vietnam would be willing to conduct a dialogue on human rights, it should be “considered in the broad context of its global nature, and it is not a subject between Vietnam and the United States.” This would seem to suggest that the Hanoi government believes human rights should be discussed by the United Nations and other international bodies.

The Vietnamese have always considered the Communist Party’s monopoly on power as non-negotiable, although in recent years non-Communists have been allowed to contest elections to the National Assembly and city councils.

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But the hard line on political prisoners suggests trouble ahead if the Clinton Administration tries to proceed to the next step in the normalization process, which would be to grant most-favored-nation trade status to Vietnam.

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