SCMP Friday, November 17, 2000

Clinton appeals to Vietnamese youth

REUTERS in Hanoi

Updated at 9.24pm:
US President Bill Clinton said on Friday the United States and Vietnam had opened a new chapter with his historic visit to Hanoi, showing a ''painful, painful past can be redeemed in a peaceful and prosperous future''.
Speaking live on Vietnamese television, an unprecedented privilege granted to the first US president to visit since the Vietnam War ended, Mr Clinton also gently urged Hanoi's communist leadership to strengthen human rights and open up its political system.
However, Vietnamese watching said the translation of his speech as broadcast on state-run Vietnam Television became virtually unintelligible when he mentioned sensitive rights issues.
Mr Clinton tried to make his case to the Vietnamese people, in part by pointing to the US history of civil liberties and political freedoms, while acknowledging the stain of slavery and the long denial of political rights to blacks and women.
''In our experience young people are much more likely to have confidence in their future if they have a say in shaping it, in choosing their governmental leaders and having a government that is accountable to those it serves,'' he said.
Vietnamese viewers said there were no problems with translation of Mr Clinton's comments on the war, given in a speech to students at Hanoi National University.
Mr Clinton said the war, which killed 58,000 US soldiers and an estimated three million Vietnamese, was a tragedy on all sides and imposed ''staggering sacrifice'' on Vietnamese, but he suggested it was time for both countries to move on.
''The histories of our two nations are deeply intertwined in ways that are both a source of pain for generations that came before and a source of promise for generations yet to come,'' he said.
''Today, the United States and Vietnam open a new chapter in our relationship,'' he added, sharing the stage with a bust of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam's revolutionary leader and America's wartime nemesis.
Mr Clinton arrived in Vietnam on Thursday for a three-day visit designed both to lay to rest some of the ghosts of the war and to build a new relationship based in part on trade.
He has received a remarkably friendly welcome from ordinary Vietnamese who smiled, waved, cheered and reached out to shake his hands as he walked the streets of the capital.
Newspaper editorials in Vietnam's state press said Mr Clinton and his wife Senator-elect Hillary were ''warmly welcome''.
The Communist Party daily Nhan Dan (People) praised Mr Clinton for lifting a punitive trade embargo in 1994, normalising diplomatic relations a year later and for a landmark bilateral trade pact signed in July.
People like company director 52-year-old Nguyen Thinh found parts of the speech they could understand inspiring and empathetic.
''It's encouraging for the young generation, especially Vietnam's younger generation,'' she said, while 28-year-old office worker Tran Thu Huong said it was in tune with Vietnamese feelings.
''His speech expressed sentiments that are close to the Vietnamese people,'' she said.
Shopkeeper Tran Dinh Tung, 57, said it carried a strong message.
''I think the speech was very significant. I was a bit surprised that President Clinton understands Vietnam's history so well,'' he said. ''This was a very intelligent speech. I think it's vital that we scrap all the animosity because we have scrapped a lot.''
Mr Clinton said the two countries needed to continue to help each other heal the wounds of war, not by forgetting the heroism and tragedy suffered by all sides, but by embracing the spirit of reconciliation.
''May our children learn ... that a painful, painful past can be redeemed in a peaceful and prosperous future,'' he said.
Speaking with great care, Mr Clinton gently urged Hanoi to consider strengthening its respect for human rights, opening up its political system and further liberalising its economy.
''Let me say emphatically, we do not seek to impose these ideals, nor could we,'' Mr Clinton stressed.
''Only you can decide if you will continue to open your markets, open your society and strengthen the rule of law.
''Only you can decide how to weave individual liberties and human rights into the rich and strong fabric of Vietnamese national identity.''
Mr Clinton, who opposed and avoided the Vietnam War, began his day with a welcoming ceremony with full state honours at Hanoi's Presidential Palace hosted by counterpart Tran Duc Luong.
Asked how he felt about being the first serving US president to visit since the war, Mr Clinton told reporters: ''I am glad to be here and I'm looking forward to building a new future. This is very moving ... this welcoming ceremony.''
After talks with Mr Luong and a stop at Hanoi's 11th century Temple of Literature, Mr Clinton emerged on to a commercial street and shook hands with dozens of smiling and cheering bystanders.
People stood four and five deep on the pavement in front of French colonial-style shopfronts, leaning forward toward the president to shake his hand.
Mr Clinton also visited a craft shop to do some Christmas shopping and then stopped for lunch at a small Vietnamese restaurant.