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Cablegate: The Ambassador in the Central Mekong: Focus On Ethnic Khmer,

VZCZCXRO6441
RR RUEHDT RUEHPB
DE RUEHHM #0234/01 0741432
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 151432Z MAR 07
FM AMCONSUL HO CHI MINH CITY
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 2217
INFO RUEHHI/AMEMBASSY HANOI 1587
RUCNARF/ASEAN REGIONAL FORUM COLLECTIVE
RUEHHM/AMCONSUL HO CHI MINH CITY 2391

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 HO CHI MINH CITY 000234

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PHUM SOCI PREL PGOV KIRF PREF VM
SUBJECT: THE AMBASSADOR IN THE CENTRAL MEKONG: FOCUS ON ETHNIC KHMER,
ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT, TIP ISSUES

REF: PHNOM PENH 342

HO CHI MIN 00000234 001.2 OF 003


1. (SBU) Summary: Discussions on economic development,
trafficking in persons, religious freedom and NGO
activities headlined the agenda during the Ambassador's
March 4-7 visit to the Mekong Delta provinces of Soc Trang,
Vinh Long and Dong Thap. Vinh Long's more favorable
geographic locale and more progressive leadership appears
to be the driving force behind the province's success in
creating a favorable environment for businesses and NGOs
alike. Meanwhile, in Dong Thap, poorer transport links to
Ho Chi Minh City and local officials' apparent skepticism
of foreign organizations and the private sector have
translated into a comparatively lower per capita GDP and
tight control over NGOs. In Soc Trang, government
officials and a prominent ethnic Khmer Buddhist monk
separately denied that there was a crackdown against ethnic
Khmer monks and pagodas in Soc Trang, as reported reftel.
However, despite the province's economic growth -- which
appears to benefit ethnic Vietnamese and ethnic Khmer alike
-- there appears to be at least some underlying suspicions
that cloud relations between ethnic Khmers and the local
government. End Summary.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT TOP PROVINCIAL PRIORITY
--------------------------------------------

2. (SBU) During a visit to the Mekong Delta provinces of
Soc Trang, Dong Thap and Vinh Long March 4-7, Party and
government leaders emphasized to the Ambassador that
economic development, particularly attracting foreign and
domestic investment, is their top priority. The provincial
leaders said that private capital is needed to fuel mid-
teen double-digit growth targets over the next five years.
Senior officials in each province expressed similar plans
to shift their economies away from agriculture toward
industry, commerce and services by focusing on
infrastructural improvements and administrative and
licensing reforms. Soc Trang provincial leaders told the
Ambassador that they hope that the GVN will complete four
new highways and a deep-sea container port in the province
by 2008. Soc Trang People's Committee Chairman Huynh Thanh
Hiep added that the province recently sponsored business-
promotion conferences in HCMC and Can Tho to attract
investors to its three industrial parks. The province also
announced a reduction in land usage fees and implementation
of administrative reforms. Both Soc Trang Chairman Huynh
Thanh Hiep and Dong Thap Party Secretary Huynh Minh Doan
noted that the provinces in the Mekong require strong
budgetary support from Hanoi. But Doan acknowledged that
the central government often only provides "encouragement."

3. (SBU) The Ambassador noted that more than improved
infrastructure is needed to develop the provinces.
Provincial leaders need to do more to combat corruption,
improve education and training, increase the speed and
transparency of land allocation and eliminate the bias in
favor of State-owned enterprises at the expense of the
private sector. The Ambassador suggested that the
provinces in the Mekong should work together more
effectively to represent common interests at the central
level. For example, the region's National Assembly
delegates could be a powerful asset in Hanoi. The
Ambassador praised the political leadership in Vinh Long
for its proactive efforts to improve the business climate
there. The Ambassador noted that the province ranked
fourth in the 2006 national Provincial Competitiveness
Index. Although still very modest, Vinh Long's 40 million
dollars in FDI is ten times that of Soc Trang and Dong
Thap.

4. (SBU) In all of his meetings, the Ambassador also
stressed the importance of continued progress on religious
freedom. The officials in all three provinces said that
religion is an integral part of Vietnamese culture and
history and that they were committed to the full
implementation of Vietnam's legal framework on religion.
The Ambassador emphasized that provincial leaders need to
ensure that the process of implementing the legal framework
is consistent, positive and transparent to avoid
misunderstandings. With regard to Protestantism, official
guidelines should be published to ensure that house
churches are registered properly with the government. The
Ambassador also emphasized the U.S. commitment to work with
the GVN and provincial authorities to combat Avian
Influenza and HIV/AIDS. He encouraged the provincial
leaders to be leaders in stamping out prejudice against
people living with HIV/AIDS.

NGOS NEED A FAVORABLE ENVIRONMENT, JUST LIKE BUSINESS
--------------------------------------------- --------

HO CHI MIN 00000234 002.2 OF 003

5. (SBU) The Ambassador visited four NGO projects focusing
on maternal health, anti-trafficking, avian influenza,
flood prevention and educational exchange. In Vinh Long,
Catholic Relief Services (CRS) appeared to have a
productive and strong relationship with local and
provincial authorities. CRS officials took the Ambassador
on a tour of two projects they were sponsoring in the
province: a restored flood levee and an innovative
Internet-based exchange program between the province's
premier high school and high school students in San
Francisco. In contrast, the operating environment in Dong
Thap for NGOs is more challenging. The Ambassador's two
meetings with CARE and ADAPT (the An Giang Dong Thap
Alliance to Prevent Trafficking) faced near cancellations,
bureaucratic delays and tight control by the local chapter
of the Union of Friendship Organizations (UFO), the agency
tasked with liaising with NGOs. CARE was told the night
before the meeting with the Ambassador that its
representatives would not be permitted to travel to the
district where the project was located. Only after the
Ambassador raised the issue with provincial leadership were
visits to the two CARE Avian Influenza projects able to go
ahead as planned. Similarly, the province also initially
wanted to block the Ambassador's scheduled visits to the
home of scholarship beneficiaries sponsored through the
ADAPT program. Again, a clear message from the Ambassador
was enough to remove the bureaucratic barrier, although
Dong Thap People's Committee Chairman Truong Ngoc Han
warned that investors and NGOs alike need to be vetted by
the government in order to ensure they were engaging in
legitimate activities and not "undermining social stability
and order."

TRAFFICKING IN PERSONS
----------------------

6. (SBU) The Ambassador, accompanied by ADAPT
representatives, visited a middle school located in a poor
Cambodian border district, where 64 at-risk girls receive
education scholarships. The ADAPT program is co-funded by
USAID. The families of the children are too poor to pay
for school; without the scholarships, the girls involved
would be forced to quit school and work to support their
families. With limited education and marginally employed,
these women would be prime targets for traffickers. The
Ambassador also visited the home of a former scholarship
beneficiary, a 12-year old girl named Tham Nguyen. Despite
receiving assistance from ADAPT, Tham's family recently
forced her to quit school to care for her disabled
grandfather and young cousin. Speaking to Tham's aunt, her
sole guardian, the Ambassador encouraged Tham's return to
school. The aunt, who is in her 20s and herself a high
school dropout, lied and told the Ambassador that her niece
was already 15 and did not need additional schooling.

7. (SBU) The ADAPT program manager told the Ambassador that
Tham's case was just one example of the many challenges her
organization faces working with Dong Thap provincial
officials. Despite repeated requests for the Women's Union
to compel Tham's family to send her back to school, no
official action has been taken. (Note: A provincial
Education Department official accompanied the Ambassador on
his visit to Tham's family, and also pushed the aunt to
allow Tham to go to school. End Note.) She also
complained that the provincial Women's Union is
"stonewalling" their push to launch reintegration and
vocational training for TIP victims, even though ADAPT had
received permission from the provincial People's Committee
to launch the initiative. However, the Vice Chairwoman of
the Provincial Women's Union later told the Ambassador that
the People's Committee does not believe that ADAPT's
consortium partner, Pacific Links Foundation, is qualified.
We are seeking clarification from the province.

ETHNIC KHMER ISSUES
-------------------

8. (SBU) In Soc Trang, the Ambassador met in private with
a prominent leader of the ethnic Khmer Buddhist community,
the Venerable Duong Nhon, at his pagoda. The monk
repeated what the Ambassador had heard earlier from
People's Committee Chairman Hiep, namely that there is no
GVN crackdown against ethnic Khmer monks, despite
allegation by overseas Khmer groups (reftel). The monk
said that reports that police had blocked access to four
pagodas or had defrocked or detained ethnic Khmer monks
were incorrect. He explained that two of his young monks
were stopped in a routine traffic stop by transit police
enforcing helmet and passenger restrictions. The monk and

HO CHI MIN 00000234 003.2 OF 003


provincial officials blamed alarmist reports for causing
monks in the area to subsequently protest the alleged
arrest of their fellow monks. The ethnic Khmer leader
emphasized that the misunderstanding has been cleared up
with no aftershocks.

9. (SBU) The monk said that -- in the past -- there were
tensions between ethnic Khmer Buddhists and the Protestant
community in Soc Trang. The Buddhists were angered by
Protestant missionary work among Buddhists, as well as the
rejection of ancestor worship. These activities caused a
"split" in the ethnic Khmer community, the monk said.

10. (SBU) Speaking more broadly on socio-economic
conditions for the ethnic Khmer community, the Venerable
Nhan emphasized that the ethnic Khmer community in Soc
Trang receives assistance from the government through
various programs to assist the poor. He asserted that
there are no land disputes between the government and
ethnic Khmer in Soc Trang. The government also
facilitates the operation of Khmer pagodas and allows the
Khmer community to organize business clubs that promote
entrepreneurship. These business clubs are open to
overseas ethnic Khmer, who have personal ties to the
various local communities in the province. From his
office in the pagoda, the monk also showed the Ambassador
a vocational training school that is being built in
cooperation between the Khmer pagoda and local government.
The pagoda has donated land for the project, while the
government funds the construction. Once it is completed,
the government also will cover the operating costs of the
school. The school will be open to ethnic Khmer and
ethnic Vietnamese in the community.

11. (SBU) Venerable Nhan was subtly critical about what he
viewed as an insufficient level of ethnic Khmer
representation in political system. For example, he noted
that there need to be more ethnic Khmer representatives in
the National Assembly, as well as in the local government.
He was also critical of GVN efforts to combat trafficking
in persons. He stated that there are "many cases" of
people trafficked to Cambodia who returned to Vietnam with
HIV, suggesting that more government assistance is needed
to facilitate care and reintegration of victims.

COMMENT
-------

12. (SBU) We did not see any unusual police activity in the
vicinity of the Khmer pagoda or in surrounding villages.
Indeed, the pagoda and its associated villages appeared
reasonably prosperous, suggesting that the Mekong's
relatively recent economic takeoff -- largely driven by
aquaculture -- is also benefiting the ethnic Khmer.
However, despite the assurances of our Buddhist
interlocutor that things are going well between the ethnic
Khmer and the government, the visit suggested some
underlying tensions or suspicions still exist between the
ethnic Khmer community and the local government.

13. (SBU) All Mekong Delta provinces face the same
development challenges: a low value-added agricultural
sector, limited infrastructure and a relatively low level
of education. Of the three provinces visited by the
Ambassador, Vinh Long was the most progressive, not only in
its approach to business but also in its attitudes toward
foreign NGOS. Not surprisingly, it has the highest per
capita income and has attracted the highest level of
foreign investment of the three provinces. Of course, it
also benefits from its smaller population and its relative
proximity to Ho Chi Minh City and Can Tho, the largest city
in the Delta. Conversely, Dong Thap, whose leaders told
the Ambassador that private business is only acceptable if
it also does not undermine "social stability," has one of
the lowest per capita GDPs in the Mekong. End Comment.

14. (SBU) Bio Note: In addition to his role as a leading
Khmer Buddhist cleric, Venerable Duong Nhon, 77, is a
member of the National Assembly (a role he intends to give
up this year) and a Vice-President of the National Board of
the GVN-recognized Vietnam Buddhist Sangha (VBS). He also
chairs the provincial chapter of the VBS. In addition, he
runs the Pali Supplemental High School, the most important
Buddhist training academy for ethnic Khmer in the Mekong
Delta.
WINNICK

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