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Cablegate: (Sbu) Ambassador Meets Democracy Activist Nguyen

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

051154Z Aug 05





E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: A) Hanoi 1971 B) HCMC 169 and previous C) Hanoi 1861

1. (SBU) Summary: In a private meeting in Ho Chi Minh City,
democracy activist Nguyen Dan Que told the Ambassador that
there has been a gradual expansion of personal freedoms in
Vietnam. The visit of Prime Minister Phan Van Khai to the
United States has strengthened the hand of "liberals" within
the Communist Party in the run-up to the 10th Party
Congress. Que strongly favors Vietnam's WTO accession; he
believes that Vietnam's participation in a rules-based
system will hasten the demise of the Communist Party. While
the Ambassador made clear that he could not guarantee a
favorable result, he promised to intercede with the GVN in
support of Que's efforts to visit the United States as well
as urge the GVN to permit Que to return after a visit. The
Ambassador cautioned that finding a way to calibrate Que's
message, acknowledging some of the good as well as the bad,
would go a long way towards maximizing the impact of his
visit while minimizing the risk of a GVN backlash. In a
subsequent meeting with Hanoi Poloff, Ministry of Public
Security (MPS) officers said that Que's "actions" in Vietnam
are becoming more and more difficult to tolerate. They also
said that MPS would be able to support Que's trip to the
United States if it is permanent, but the concern that he
would use a temporary visit to publicly criticize Vietnam's
human rights record makes supporting a temporary visit
"sensitive and difficult." End Summary.

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2. (SBU) The Ambassador and leading democracy activist
Nguyen Dan Que met for an hour at a private room at Ho Chi
Minh City's Caravelle Hotel on August 3. (Que had expressed
unease at meeting the Ambassador at the Consulate.) Seven
months after his amnesty and release from prison (ref B),
Que told the Ambassador that he is mentally and physically
fit. Arriving by taxi, Que said that he had no problem
coming to the meeting, although police routinely monitor his
activities and those of his wife and two sons. Police have
cut telephone service to his house and blocked the use of
his wife's cell phone. Police had cut off at least two
phone interviews he was giving to U.S. journalists and
academics using cell phones since his amnesty. (Que now has
a new cell phone, but he is unsure how long it will be
operational.) Police question the infrequent visitors to
his home after their visits and seek to intimidate their
guests not to return, Que added. On a more positive note,
Que said the authorities have never attempted to block the
monthly financial assistance from his brother his family has
been receiving since his first arrest in 1978.

3. (SBU) The Ambassador noted that he had read Que's March
2005 interview with Voice of America. He had found it hard
hitting, perhaps even somewhat aggressive in tone. The
Ambassador asked whether the police, while in prison, at the
time of his release, or afterwards, tried to persuade or
intimidate Que to stop. Que replied that he was not
interrogated or pressured by police, even when in their
custody, because they "know better than to try." However,
police have asked his wife to urge him to stop giving

Vietnam Slowly is Changing for the Better

4. (SBU) In Que's view, although Vietnam's transition to a
market-based economy is well underway, Communist Party
domination and mismanagement left the country well behind
where it should be at this point in time. However, the U.S.-
Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement, Vietnam's effort to
accede to the World Trade Organization (WTO), and an
internal impetus to reform is fostering irreversible and
positive change. This process has been bolstered further by
the successful visit of Prime Minister Phan Van Khai to the
United States. The Khai visit has opened new possibilities
for enhanced cultural and information exchange, which is
particularly significant for Vietnam's youth. It also has
bolstered the "liberal/reformist" wing of the Communist
Party, at a time when internal tensions are increasing in
the run-up to the Party's 10th Party Congress in 2006.

5. (SBU) Que believes that the pace of change and Vietnam's
international integration are putting one-party Communist
rule under increasing strain. The Communist Party is
incapable of keeping up with the requirements of a rules-
based environment in which Vietnam increasingly must
participate. As it responds to demands for reform --
tackling corruption, for example -- the Party is inexorably
weakened and power gradually is shifting to the people. Que
pointed to the strengthening of institutions such as the
National Assembly and the increasing availability of the
Internet as developments that, over time, could limit the
monopoly of the Party on power and information.

6. (SBU) Because of these factors, Que said that he strongly
supports Vietnam's accession to the WTO as well as greater
cultural and educational exchanges between Vietnam and the
United States. Greater economic freedom and prosperity will
give people the courage to demand other rights.

7. (SBU) However, as the USG works with Vietnam on WTO
access, it should emphasize that respect for human rights
and democracy are preconditions for Vietnam's full and
successful participation in the world economy. In this
regard, the United States should find ways to reduce the
Communist Party's power and "tip the balance" in favor of
democracy in Vietnam. In this regard, Que suggested that
the USG consider establishing a website to promote democracy
in Vietnam and have President Bush meet with leading
dissidents when he visits Vietnam in 2006. The USG also
should push the GVN to take concrete steps to reconcile with
the overseas Vietnamese community, promote greater autonomy
for ethnic minority Vietnamese and end GVN limitations on
the spiritual life of the Vietnamese people, including
recognition of the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam, Que

8. (SBU) Que envisioned a nine-point "road map to democracy"
for Vietnam. (Note: these are the same points Que outlined
in his April 2005 VOA interview.) This would require the
USG and others to press the Party to:

-- ease the flow of information into and out of Vietnam;
-- expand freedom of speech;
-- release all political prisoners;
-- end government intervention in religious affairs and
"oppression" of ethnic minorities;
-- secure a declaration from the Politburo that the National
Assembly is the supreme legal body in Vietnam;
-- secure a GVN declaration that Vietnam will fully adhere
to all international norms on human rights and religious
-- pass a law divorcing the Party from Government at all
levels of administration;
-- pass a new electoral law; and
-- call for free and fair general elections and draft a new

How Hard and How Fast to Push?

9. (SBU) The Ambassador agreed that Que's roadmap was
laudable and said we share his desire and vision for a
Vietnam that fully respects human rights and democratic
ideals. However, the Communist Party will not "commit
suicide," so these kinds of changes would require
considerable evolution in how the Party sees its role.
Moreover, the changes that Que is describing usually occur
because of internal developments in a society, not because
of outside pressure. We need to appreciate that this
transition is likely to be a lengthy one, particularly in a
one-party state, the Ambassador noted. For example, China
has changed significantly since 1978, although the Communist
Party remains firmly in control. Nonetheless, China is
moving in the right direction, and that is what is
important. The same process will happen in Vietnam. The
Ambassador told Que that recently he participated in a live
"webcast" in which human rights and other sensitive issues
were discussed openly (ref C). For Vietnam, this is a real
step forward.

10. (SBU) The Ambassador also stressed that a key question
is how far to push and how to deliver the message of change
to the Vietnamese authorities. For example, the Ambassador
had publicly called for Que's release, but did not attack
the GVN in the process. He has critiqued how Vietnam is
handling aspects of its economic reform policy but with
enough positives so as not to alienate the GVN. Similarly,
the Ambassador said that while he rejected GVN entreaties
not to meet with Que (ref A), he would not publicize his
meeting, a step that would only antagonize the authorities.
Que said he would also refrain from publicizing the meeting.

Que to the United States?

11. (SBU) Que told the Ambassador that he wishes to visit
the United States, both to share his political views with
the Vietnamese-American community, politicians and others,
and to visit his relatives. He sought USG support with the
GVN to obtain a passport, facilitate his travel to the
United States, and ensure that the GVN will allow him to
return to Vietnam. The Ambassador committed to assisting
Que, and noted that, as a respected individual, his message
will have an impact both inside and outside Vietnam.
However, the USG could not guarantee what the GVN response
will be. The Ambassador observed that the tone of Que's
message in the United States will have great bearing on a
GVN decision on permitting his return. Que said he

Ministry of Public Security (MPS) Reaction

12. (SBU) On August 4, MPS representatives sought an off-the-
record meeting with Hanoi Poloff to discuss the Ambassador's
meeting with Que. A senior MPS department director met
Hanoi Poloff at a local cafe. The officer asked about Que's
attitude and the content of the conversation, then asked
specifically about Que's travel plans and whether the USG
would allow him to immigrate. Hanoi Poloff advised the MPS
officer that Que had said he does not intend to immigrate to
the United States, but instead wishes to take a three-to six-
month trip. The MPS officer responded that the GVN would
have "no problem" permitting Que to depart permanently for
the United States, but permitting a short-term visit "would
be sensitive and difficult." The problem, the officer
stated, is that the GVN fears that "anti-Vietnam forces" in
the United States will use Que as a "mouthpiece against
Vietnam" in the United States, which will "deeply offend the
Vietnamese people." This would make it difficult for Que to
return to Vietnam. Hanoi Poloff confirmed the MPS officer's
assumption that there is no legal way the USG could compel
Que to avoid public speaking appearances in the United

13. (SBU) Hanoi Poloff asked about the current status of
dissident novelist Duong Thu Huong, who was granted a
temporary visa to visit Italy and France and who was then
featured in a highly critical article on the front page of
the New York Times. The MPS officer said that she has not
returned to Vietnam, and that the handling of her return has
become "another sensitive and difficult question."

14. (SBU) The MPS officer explained that MPS and the GVN are
very much aware of the danger of creating "symbols" out of
imprisoned activists and the damage that legal action
against them does to Vietnam's international reputation.
However, these dissidents are breaking Vietnamese laws, and
as long as those laws exist, it is MPS' job to enforce them.
"We try to deal with these sensitive issues in an
appropriate manner," the official said. "But it becomes
difficult. Que's actions, for example, are coming closer
and closer to being unacceptable."

15. (SBU) After the meeting with the Ambassador, Que told
HCMC Poloff that he would begin the application process for
a Vietnamese passport "the following week." He added that
he is not aware of any administrative detention or other
legal ruling against him that would prevent him applying for
a passport or traveling. After the meeting, ConGen
confirmed that Que returned home without incident.

16. (SBU) Comment: In previous meetings with Que after his
release from prison, Que categorically refused to consider
resettlement in the United States for himself and family,
telling HCMC Poloff that "his place is in Vietnam."

17. (SBU) Comment, continued: In the meeting with the
Ambassador, Que demonstrated the same tenacity and
conviction that helped him survive years in prison and house
arrest. Also notable was Que's optimism that Vietnam,
through a process of international integration, is
inexorably headed towards a more democratic future. It is
that optimism and eagerness for change that also poses the
biggest risk for Que. In past public statements, he has
dispensed with nuance and taken a very tough line against
the GVN. It remains to be seen whether Que can and will act
on the Ambassador's advice to carefully calibrate his
message. As we support Que's plans to visit the United
States, we will continue to stress the importance of finding
a way to maximize the impact of a U.S. visit while
minimizing the risk that the GVN will subsequently deny him
reentry. The GVN seems to have decided that having Que as a
dissident cause celebre in Vietnam is worse than adding him
to the corps of anti-Vietnam activists in the United States.
The temporary visit scenario, however, presents the
possibility that Que will return to Vietnam after saying or
doing something in the United States that blatantly violates
one of Vietnam's laws on "threatening national unity" or
"abusing democratic freedoms" or some other authoritarian
catchall, thus "forcing" the authorities to throw him back
in jail. The GVN clearly wants to avoid this outcome. End


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