The visit to the U.S. of Nguyen Phu Trong, head of the Communist Party of Vietnam, and his meetings this week with U.S. President Barack Obama and key members of Congress, is laying the foundation for a normalization of relations between the two countries, beginning to resolve some long-lasting aftereffects from the Second Indochina War—such as remedying the impacts of Agent Orange chemical weapons attacks—and securing Vietnam’s support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement.
No one can dispute that these are commendable goals, in principle. At the same time, in Mr. Obama’s rush to promote the TPP trade agreement, and implement the “Asia tilt” for U.S. foreign policy, a host of major concerns of special importance for the U.S., and for Cambodia, have been given very short shrift.
Mr. Obama gave a brief nod in his talks with Mr. Trong to Vietnam’s serious human rights abuses, but completely ignored several other issues closely related to core commitments to fair trade practices and rule of law—issues that have particular significance for Cambodia.
On the human rights front, Vietnam continues its long-standing pattern of major abuses directed against anyone criticizing of the government or promoting democratic reforms, according to recent reports by the U.S. State Department and Human Rights Watch (HRW).
A 2014 world report from HRW says “the human rights situation in Vietnam [has] deteriorated significantly, worsening a trend evident for several years,” with “long prison terms for many peaceful activists whose ‘crime’ was calling for political change.”
Another major human rights issue that deserves attention is Hanoi’s treatment of its indigenous ethnic minority groups, which are systematically repressed to prevent their political opposition—persecution HRW says is responsible for more than 100 Montagnard asylum seekers fleeing into Cambodia over the past year.
With respect to trade and economic issues, gaining Vietnam’s support for the TPP agreement is of paramount importance for the Obama administration. In his fights over the TPP with Congress, the U.S. president has given his assurance that worker and consumer rights will be adequately protected in the pact.
But Vietnam’s actions in Cambodia strongly suggest that these promises will prove hollow. In factories and plantations in Cambodia owned and operated by the Vietnamese government and their puppet companies, unlawful land evictions to foster development plans have been rampant, and worker rights and health protections have frequently been ignored to keep costs down.
London-based environmental group Global Witness in 2013 issued the report “Rubber Barons: How Vietnamese Companies and International Financiers Are Driving a Land Grabbing Crisis in Cambodia and Laos,” which explained in graphic detail how Vietnamese companies are unlawfully displacing thousands of landowners to establish their plantations without providing adequate compensation or relocation assistance.
Partly as a result of these abuses, expanded trade with Vietnam and its trade partners will allow American consumers to purchase cheaper Asian products, thus benefitting from unfair trade and human rights practices, despite Mr. Obama’s assurances to the contrary.
Finally, Vietnam’s push for clean-up efforts in the areas most adversely affected by U.S. Agent Orange attacks, and for the payment of compensation to those who have experienced health problems associated with the toxins, have been a major element in Mr. Trong’s negotiations with Mr. Obama and with members of Congress.
What is ironic is that Vietnam, at the same time they are making these requests, have been spraying chemical herbicide on crops and farmland in territories that are part of ongoing border disputes with Cambodia, aimed at forcing the Cambodian farmers in the area to leave.
Obviously, Vietnam’s chemical spraying along the Cambodian border is nowhere near the scope and nature of the massive use of Agent Orange in the region by the U.S., but it still involves prohibited use of chemical agents for unlawful purposes, and as such may well violate Chemical Weapons Convention standards. Vietnam is placing itself in a very embarrassing position when it seeks reparations for chemical weapons violations by the U.S. at the same time that it is engaging in these practices.
Equally important from Cambodia’s point of view, the government in Phnom Penh should not be complicit in Vietnam’s abuses by failing to protect worker rights in Vietnamese-owned factories, granting massive land concessions to Vietnamese rubber and sugar companies, and failing to protect Cambodians being attacked in the border areas, including members of parliament.
As the U.S. moves forward with its efforts to promote economic trade with Asia, and to give more prominence to Asian elements of its foreign policy as a counter-balance to China’s influence, it will be important to monitor whether these developments come at the expense of human rights in the region. In addition, Cambodia needs to pay careful attention to how these developments impact its own workers and landowners, who are directly affected by Vietnam’s widening economic sphere of influence.
Morton Sklar is the founding executive director emeritus of the World Organization for Human Rights USA