WASHINGTON, May 12 (UPI) — As Vietnam enters a new political phase, Vietnamese Americans and their supporters are calling for openness, freedom and an end to corruption.

On Friday afternoon, the International Committee for Freedom, which is dedicated to supporting the nonviolent movement for human rights in Vietnam, marked the seventh anniversary of the congressional resolution designating May 11, as Vietnam Human Rights Day.

Sen. George Allen, R-Va., and Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., were among those who spoke at a well-attended gathering in the Caucus Room of the Russell Senate office building.

Huy Pham, who had been a senior ambassador in the Saigon government, was optimistic about the future. “If you had asked me a few months ago about the prospects of a free Vietnam, I would have said, ‘probably,’” he told United Press International. Now, because of dramatic political developments, Pham believes Vietnam certainly will be free.

It’s a matter of time, Pham said.

The former ambassador referred to a change in Hanoi’s Communist Party leadership last month. On April 22, Nong Duc Manh, considered a moderate, became the new party leader, replacing the unpopular and autocratic Le Kha Phieu.

What’s extraordinary, Pham told UPI, is that Manh openly accused his predecessor of rampant corruption. Nothing like this has happened before, he said.

In his introductory remarks, committee chairman Dr. Quan Q. Nguyen, demanded that the communist regime respect basic human rights, abolish the one-party system and hold free and fair elections under United Nations sponsorship.

“Restore equal protection under the law to all Vietnamese religious groups,” he said.

Nguyen said the human rights situation in Vietnam is getting worse. He brought up the case of his brother Nguyen Dan Que, who is under house arrest in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

Nguyen Dan Que, also a physician, could have left Vietnam after the communist victory in 1975, Quan Nguyen told UPI. Instead, he chose to stay to provide medical care for the poor. Since 1975 he has spent more than 15 years in prison, much of that in solitary confinement, because of his advocacy of democracy and human rights.

The father of the Nguyen brothers was a leader of the anti-French Nationalist Party after World War II. To eliminate rivals within the anti-colonialist resistance, Communist leader Ho Chi Minh ordered the liquidation of Nationalist Party members in the fall of 1946. On Oct. 11 of that year, some 200 nationalists were killed in Hanoi and their bodies thrown into Ha Le Lake.

“Vietnam ranks first in Southeast Asia in bribery and corruption,” Nguyen said at the conference. This results in “economic depression, loss of human dignity, and spiritual demoralization.”

Sen. Allen picked up on the theme. Since 1994, Vietnam has aspired to attract new investment and the fruits of economic engagement, he said, but it has been haunted by the specter of continuing isolation, repression and corruption.

“The current leaders in Vietnam are paying some lip service to restarting the reform process that was halted a few years ago,” Allen said.

“During the mid 1990s, liberalized policies spurred investment of about $2 billion annually, “but that has been reversed,” the senator said, and Western capital has fled the country.

Citing figures from the Wall Street Journal, Allen said that foreign investment in Vietnam had dropped from about $2 billion a year to $600 million last year.

“Who wants to invest in a country where bribery is what matters, where your property is not protected, and you cannot trust the government?” Allen asked.

“Vietnam is one of the poorest nations, there’s no independent press, they repress peaceful expression, they have a state-controlled religion,” he said. “It’s no wonder that someone involved in free enterprise is not desirous of investing in a country that treats its own people that way.”

The senator mentioned the bilateral trade agreement that Vietnam signed with the United States late last year “and the appointment of purported reformers in high government positions.” But he wondered if it is all window dressing.

Vietnam has a choice between freedom and respect for human rights or stagnation and totalitarianism, Allen said.

He recalled that during last Communist Party congress, banners lined the streets of Hanoi with quotes from Ho Chi Minh—words about freedom and independence and unity of the people.

“But,” Allen said, “we also must remember that Ho Chi Minh’s ideas of freedom came on his terms: ‘All those who do not follow the line I have set out will be smashed,’” the senator said.

Tom Davis, who represents many Vietnamese-American constituents in Congress, also decried the “widespread corruption and human rights abuses in Vietnam.” The Virginia representative called on Hanoi to release all prisoners under house arrest.

“Many of you could have chosen to go to Paris, but you would never be considered a Frenchman,” Davis told those assembled. “You could have gone to Germany, but you would never be considered a German. If you come to the United States, you can become an American. That’s our great promise to the world.”

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