Cablegate: Ambassador's Visit to Vinh Long

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.




E. O. 12958: N/A

1. SUMMARY: On May 5, 2003, Ambassador Burghardt, DPO, and Conoff
traveled to Vinh Long province in the Mekong Delta with Catholic
Relief Services (CRS) Country Representative Chris Gilson. The
Ambassador met with representatives of the provincial People's
Committee and Union of Friendship Organizations (UFO) before
visiting two villages where CRS is building new homes for flood
victims. Religious leaders have been allowed to play a small role
in the project, which is an encouraging signal about the
government's attitude. END SUMMARY.

2. Arriving in Vinh Long, the Ambassador noted that it had not
changed much since his last visit to the province 30 years ago.
Although Vinh Long is the second largest exporter of rice in
Vietnam (with the U.S. and Iraq as major clients), it remains one
of the poorest provinces in the country and has an annual GDP per
capita of $330 USD. The majority of people live in rural areas
and rely on agriculture as their main source of income. The
province illustrates the relatively slow rate of development and
lack of infrastructure in the delta region, which suffers
regularly from flooding during the annual rainy season.

3. The Ambassador visited two villages where CRS is building
elevated houses for flood victims. The average income falls below
$175 USD in these villages, which are inhabited by people of Khmer
origin. Villagers gave the Ambassador a warm welcome and appeared
quite happy with their new homes. Gilson expressed satisfaction
with the success of the project and said that by the end of 2003,
CRS will have built over 1,100 houses in Vinh Long. CRS began
working in the province after the flooding in 2000 and has used
this project to build a better relationship with the Vietnamese
government in the south where its activities are more restricted
than in the northern region of the country. CRS hopes it has
established valuable contacts that will lead to future cooperation
on more extensive projects.

4. Phan Van Dau, First Vice Chairman of the Vinh Long People's
Committee, emphasized the poverty in the province and expressed
gratitude for the CRS projects. He said he wanted to expand
cooperation with CRS and other American NGOs. Noting that there
had been bitter fighting in the area during the war, Dau said the
province understood it was time to look to the future and develop
good relations with the U.S. A businessman who previously worked
for a State Owned Enterprise in the rice trade, Dau said the
province was interested in working with the Consulate to attract
American companies. The Ambassador encouraged him to reach out to
overseas Vietnamese as an investment source. Dau noted that Vinh
Long is located on the regular tourist track of the Mekong Delta
but that the number of tourists in the province has decreased 20
to 30 percent as a result of the SARS epidemic.

5. During the trip, the Ambassador had an interesting discussion
with Tran Van Khai, Vice Chairman of the Vinh Long Union of
Friendship Organizations, about Decree No. 7 issued at the Ninth
Party Congress on the relationship between the government and
religious groups and minorities. Khai was preparing to take part
in meetings that are being held throughout Vietnam to educate
cadre about the decree so they can make sure it is implemented in
their localities. Khai claimed that this decree was a
confirmation of the GVN's liberalization toward religious groups.
He emphasized that the Communist party needed to utilize the
strengths of religious organizations and encourage their
participation in government. The CPV needs new membership and
cannot afford to exclude religious groups, he added.

6. Gilson said he has noticed the government's changing attitude
toward religious groups through his work in Vinh Long. Each
village holds popular assemblies to select the families who will
receive CRS houses. Religious leaders, including Catholic clergy,
take part in these meetings and their advice about their parish
members is often followed. According to both Gilson and Khai,
neither the government nor the party has a role in the decision-
making process. Gilson also said this is the first time CRS has
had the church as a partner on a project in Vietnam and that local
government officials have been comfortable with this relationship
thus far.

7. COMMENT: Despite Khai's claim, it is still unclear how the GOV
intends to implement Decree No. 7 on religion and minorities,
which has both positive and potentially restrictive elements.
Vinh Long leadership, at least, appears to be taking some steps in
the right direction by allowing CRS to partner with a Catholic
church. Although Vinh Long officials appear eager for additional
humanitarian assistance from the U.S., some of the other delta
provincial leaders are reportedly less forthcoming in their
dealings with both religious groups and NGOs. END COMMENT.


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