Cablegate: Ca Mau Province: At the End of the Line, but Blessed By

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. (SBU) SUMMARY. Lying at the southern tip of Vietnam, Ca Mau
is one of the country's more isolated provinces. Heavily
dependent upon aquaculture, especially shrimp, the province has
enjoyed strong recent economic growth. While the province
actively touts its natural resources and advantages, it has
received little foreign direct investment, and plans for economic
diversification are vague, with many projects being run by the
central government in Hanoi. Based on discussions with provincial
officials, as well as reports from Protestant leaders in HCMC, the
province has yet to make its peace with unregistered Protestant
house churches, an issue DPO discussed at length with the heads of
the Union of Friendship Organizations and the Committee for
Religious Affairs (CRA) during a recent visit to the province.
DPO and Poloff also met with Ca Mau People's Committee Chairman Vo
Thanh Binh; representatives of the provincial Department of
Planning and Investment (DPI); and leadership from the Department
of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs (DOLISA). This was
ConGen's first official visit to Ca Mau since 1998. END SUMMARY.

2. (U) As Vietnam's southernmost province, Ca Mau lays claim to
the country's longest seacoast, largest underwater forest (second
largest in the world after the Amazon), and largest area for
aquaculture. Aquaculture, especially shrimp, composes the bulk of
Ca Mau's economy. In the first nine months of 2003, Ca Mau
exported 60 tons of aquaculture products, including 45 tons of
shrimp (worth $350 million), primarily to the U.S. and Japan. Ca
Mau's private sector exports a total of 56 products to the U.S.
market. The provincial poverty rate, according to September 2003
estimates, is below 10 percent. The population is primarily
ethnic Vietnamese Kinh, but the province is home to many of
Vietnam's minority groups, including 43,000 ethnic Chinese and
30,000 ethnic Khmer. According to provincial officials, Ho Chi
Minh said that Ca Mau has the blessing of the gods, the blessing
of good land, and the blessing of a harmonious people.

3. (SBU) Because of Ca Mau's dependence on aquaculture,
provincial officials repeatedly raised the issue of past and
(potentially) future U.S. anti-dumping cases involving catfish and
shrimp. Chairman Binh insisted that Vietnamese producers were not
engaged in dumping, and called on the USG to reduce trade barriers
to benefit both countries. Other officials attributed the
relatively rapid drop in poverty over the last three years to a
shift by small landholders from growing rice to growing rice and
raising shrimp.

4. (SBU) According to the provincial DPI, Ca Mau attracts little
foreign direct investment, and has only two FDI projects, both
under $1 million. Ca Mau officials attributed this to Ca Mau's
relatively remote location. They also acknowledged that both the
provincial government and the GVN must do more to improve
infrastructure. The central government runs all major development
projects in the province, including the upgrade to Ca Mau's
airport, construction of a major fertilizer plant, and oil and gas
exploration off the coast. The provincial DPI chairman could
provide only the sketchiest details on these projects. He knew,
for instance, that Vietnam Airlines is scheduled to begin flights
from Ho Chi Minh City to the province in December 2003, but did
not know how often those flights would run.

5. (SBU) The provincial government is developing a master plan
for eco-tourism in Ca Mau, including plans for area beaches,
national forests, local bird sanctuaries, and marshes. Once the
plan has been completed, the provincial authorities will submit it
to the GVN for approval and then release a book and call for
foreign investors. Other plans to diversify Ca Mau's economy away
from aquaculture include developing labor-intensive industries,
such as textiles, high tech assembly, and shipbuilding.
Provincial authorities provided few specifics, however, and talked
mostly about needing to attract investment and provide job
training and placement.

6. (SBU) According to the heads of the Union of Friendship
Organizations and the Committee for Religious Affairs, Ca Mau's
four religious groups (Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, and Cao
Dai) have excellent relations with each other and the provincial
government, and often celebrate each other's festivals. They said
three Protestant churches affiliated with the GVN-recognized
Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam are legally registered and
able to operate freely, but claimed that no unregistered house
churches operate in the province. Citing Decree 26, which says a
religious group must have a unified organization and structure to
operate, they said any unregistered group would be unacceptable.
Worship by a single family at home, however, was not a problem,
they stressed.

7. (U) DPO raised the specific case of six house churches which
Post contacts in the Protestant community reported had been closed
in Dam Doi district, but officials denied these claims. A heated
but still friendly debate followed about different approaches to
religious freedome and, specifically, the need to include
unregistered house churches as legitimate places of worship when
safeguarding religious freedom. At one point, the head of the
Union of Friendship Organizations, implicitly referring to the
closing of house churces, let slip that he "knew the village,"
which had not been named. He said the people there already had a
registered church and he could not understand why they needed
another. The two officials also expressed frustration that the
widespread freedom in the province for all groups to practice
religion at home and in registered churches, pagodas, etc., was
not being acknowledged. DPO made clear that the religious freedom
accorded to organized religions and individuals was important and
appreciated, but that freedom of religion extended to all forms of
religious practice, including informal gatherings in small groups,
such as house churches.

8. (SBU) While driving back to HCMC, DPO and Poloff made an
unannounced stop at a legal Protestant church in Bac Lieu
province, just past the Ca Mau border, and spoke with Pastor
Nguyen Khac Nhan (protect), who has been a pastor in Vietnam for
over 40 years. He is not only the pastor of the legal church, but
also the head of 39 unregistered house congregations. His legal
congregation included 3185 members, 20 from Ca Mau, and nearby
house churches had an additional 440 members. Of his ten
children, five had themselves become pastors, and one was serving
in Ca Mau. In Bac Lieu and Ca Mau, he claimed, house church
Protestants were often followed by local authorities, but
harassment was not serious and believers were not afraid. House
church members occasionally used the legal church for large
celebrations as well, without any problems. He himself has been
called in by the police to answer questions about his activities
after leading services at house churches, while he said his
relations with local officials are generally good and he has had
complete freedom to run services as he wishes in his legal church.
He had heard reports of the house church closings in Ca Mau, but
thought their existence was generally tolerated. He said there
were more significant problems in the Central Highlands, where he
also had connections.

9. (SBU) COMMENT: Ca Mau is an isolated province, and the
provincial government sends conflicting signals. Chairman Binh
used to be the Commander in Chief of Ca Mau's military command
before becoming the Chairman of the Provincial People's Committee.
His bearing and interactions were very formal and non-committal,
almost stereotypical of the classic Communist official. Unusually
for a People's Committee official, he touted "national defense" as
one of the province's strengths, though he did not elaborate and
backtracked quickly when asked if there were any specific security
concerns in the area. Likewise, the head of the Committee for
Religious Affairs had never met with a foreign official before,
appeared somewhat nervous and seemed unfamiliar with the house
church model as a legitimate, recognized form of worship. On the
other hand, the head of the provincial DPI talked about efforts to
reduce bureaucracy and attract businesses and proudly claimed that
businesses could now obtain licenses in a single day.

10. (SBU) COMMENT CONTINUED: One reason the GVN may be handling
Ca Mau's major development projects directly is because of
corruption. Chairman Binh's predecessor was removed from office
in 2001 for a corruption scandal involving local businesses. More
troubling is an October 22, 2003 vernacular news article reporting
that 50 out of 65 provincial government offices in Ca Mau were
guilty of some form of financial misconduct.


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