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Cablegate: Changing Vietnamese Attitudes On Agent Orange/Dioxin

VZCZCXRO3596
RR RUEHHM
DE RUEHHI #1862/01 3040341
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 310341Z OCT 07
FM AMEMBASSY HANOI
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 6622
INFO RUEHHM/AMCONSUL HO CHI MINH 3880
RUEHBK/AMEMBASSY BANGKOK 6017
RUEHPH/CDC ATLANTA GA
RUEAUSA/DEPT OF HHS WASHINGTON DC
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHINGTON DC//USDP/ISA/AP/ES//
RHMFIUU/CDR USPACOM HONOLULU HI//J00/J005/J006/J01LA/J06/J5//
RHEHNSC/NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL WASHINGTON DC

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 HANOI 001862

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

STATE FOR EAP/MLS, EAP/EP, EAP/RSP, EAP/PD, OES/PCI
STATE PASS TO USAID FOR ANE, G/ENV
STATE PASS TO EPA/OIA (DENNIS CUNNINGHAM AND MARK KASMAN)
STATE PASS TO EPA/ORD (KEVIN TEICHMAN)
STATE PASS TO OGHA/HHS (STIEGER/VALDEZ/HICKEY)
CDC FOR OGHA (BLOUT/MCCALL) AND NCEH (THOMAS SINKS)
DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE (THOMAS SHUBERT AND WILLIAM VAN HOUTEN)
HHS PASS TO FIC/NIH (GLASS) AND NIEHS/NIH
BANGKOK PASS TO RDMA

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PREL SENV TBIO KPAO VM
SUBJECT: CHANGING VIETNAMESE ATTITUDES ON AGENT ORANGE/DIOXIN

REF: HANOI 1476

1. (SBU) Summary: Changes in Vietnam and U.S.-Vietnam relations,
combined with a maturing Vietnamese approach to public health, are
leading to positive shifts in Vietnamese attitudes on the issue of
Agent Orange (AO) and its contaminent dioxin. While long-standing
Government of Vietnam (GVN) propaganda continues to allege U.S.
responsibility for millions of disabled Vietnamese, AO/dioxin no
longer plays the principal role in the bilateral relationship it
once did. Interactions with GVN officials responsible for AO/dioxin
continue to grow more collegial and high-level GVN officials now
publicly acknowledge positive U.S. and multinational efforts to
address the issue. While the Vietnamese press continues to publish
articles focusing on "Agent Orange victims" - and Vietnamese
officials still wield the issue when "pressured" on human rights,
etc. - we now also see articles that focus on disseminating general,
practical information about disabilities, as well as some reports
noting U.S. skepticism of the scientific basis for many AO claims.
Past and present U.S. engagement with a more forthright and
independent public health sector are setting the stage for more
fundamental shifts over the medium-term, which will help "normalize"
the issue and encourage greater multilateral efforts to address
environmental and humanitarian issues. End Summary.

More Factual Reporting
----------------------

2. (SBU) Changes are in the wind with regard to public discourse
about AO in Vietnam. While remarks about "Agent Orange victims" can
still be found in the press almost daily, they have become less
pervasive and judgemental, with many fewer references to "crimes
caused by U.S. chemical warfare." For the first time, the English
and Vietnamese language local media are printing articles quoting
American officials refuting the scientific basis for linking dioxin
with specific disabilities, instead of letting the most expansive
claims of responsibility remain unanswered. With increasing
frequency, major Vietnamese newspapers, such as Tuoi Tre or Saigon
Giai Phong, publish less politically-inspired general reporting on
he plight of the disabled without mentioning AO/dioxin - a distinct
break from past practice. Senior Vietnamese officials and
scientific experts with responsibility for AO/dioxin issues are now
often quoted on ways to assist the disabled or remediate the
environment, moving beyond the prior focus on liability and
responsibility.

GVN Acknowledgement of Benefits of U.S. Engagement
--------------------------------------------- -----

3. (SBU) Media outlets are also publishing articles favorably noting
U.S. engagement. The February 2007 joint press conference during
which former Ambassador Marine and Dr. Le Ke Son, the Director
General of the office in the Ministry of Natural Resources and the
Environment that coordinates Vietnamese AO/dioxin policy, first
announced joint cooperation on the AO/dioxin issue (including a
$400,000 one-year State/EPA project) received widespread, positive
domestic coverage. Then-Ambassador Marine's July visit to Danang
airport, the site of areas with high concentrations of dioxin in the
soil, also received favorable press attention. In newspaper reports
on Ambassador Michalak's initial call on President Nguyen Minh Triet
this August, Triet acknowledged the U.S. efforts to help "Agent
Orange/Dioxin victims." A short October 14 article in Thanh Nien
newspaper again noted U.S. assistance to "AO victims" and implicitly
criticized the Vietnamese government for not doing enough. Media
coverage of Ford Foundation and UNDP activities further highlight to
the Vietnamese people U.S. and multilateral efforts to work with the
GVN to resolve dioxin-related issues.

4. (SBU) In contrast to prior exchanges, U.S. and Vietnamese
scientists at the second annual meeting of the U.S.-Vietnam Joint
Advisory Committee on the health and environmental effects of
AO/dioxin in Hanoi this August worked cooperatively and diligently
to find mutually agreeable environmental, health and capacity
building recommendations (reftel). Over the past year, a
significant number of Vietnamese officials have sought out their
American counterparts to praise this commitment. In an October

HANOI 00001862 002 OF 003


visit to USAID-funded disabilities programs in Quang Nam province,
Head of the Vietnam Association of Business for Employment of
Persons with Disabilities (VABED) Tran Vinh Quang (a former
Vice-Minister of Labor) responded to comments from the district head
regarding the high number of "Agent Orange victims" in the locality
by asking local officials to spend more time concentrating on
preventable causes of diseases "instead of focusing on the past."
These statements and actions reflect increased professionalism in
the Vietnamese approach to public health issues generally, but also
result from U.S. engagement with senior officials, public diplomacy,
technical dialogues and joint activities focused on environmental
assessments.

Less of an Organized Press Campaign
-----------------------------------

5. (SBU) While maintaining a system of post-publication censorship,
GVN propagandists are gradually moving away from instructing the
press on what it must publish. Newspapers now run more articles
explaining what can be done to prevent birth defects and other
congenital health conditions, instead of repeating AO claims.
Perhaps reflecting greater pragmatism among the Vietnamese political
leadership, the mass media has not pursued an organized AO-related
press campaign since late 2006, just after APEC. The leadership
seems to have abandoned attempts to cajole the United States into
confessing guilt, which it realizes is unlikely to happen and could
jeopardize continued U.S.-Vietnamese foreign assistance,
particularly in areas of health cooperation, economic growth, and
trade. Instead, the Vietnamese media has begun to reflect the
public understanding of the benefits of maintaining the status quo,
under which Vietnam continues to accept assistance from the United
States for environmental mitigation and for disabled people.
However, from time to time and undoubtedly at the urging of some
camps within the GVN, the press writes about "Agent Orange victims"
to indicate to the general public and certain advocates that the
issue has not disappeared.

Attitudes Will Not Shift Overnight
----------------------------------

6. (SBU) While we have witnessed an evolving approach towards
AO/Dioxin reporting, the GVN has invested tremendous resources and
credibility into a 30-year-old propaganda campaign. Despite
increased focus on scientific and medical discussions of public
health issues, AO/dioxin remains an important issue in bilateral
relations. Progress will be incremental. Some GVN officials will
continue to raise the issue at inappropriate times and in an
improper manner, especially when "pressured" on issues like human
rights. The media has featured the lawsuit by Vietnamese plaintiffs
in U.S. courts against the U.S. companies that produced Agent Orange
(and other tactical herbicides) and will do so as long as the GVN
remains hopeful that the litigation could lead to payments to
individuals.

7. (SBU) In addition, though Vietnamese censors have loosened press
controls somewhat, officials cannot quickly reverse this campaign
without raising serious questions among the Vietnamese citizens
subjected to overtly biased reporting for so many years. Some
international reporting, notably the Christopher Hitchens piece in
the August 2006 issue of Vanity Fair, reinforce Vietnamese
predispositions and make it more difficult to address local
attitudes solely through bilateral interactions.

Responses to Prior USG Actions Suggest Changes Will Continue
--------------------------------------------- ------

8. (SBU) Nevertheless, greater U.S.-Vietnamese cooperation on the
issue gives GVN propagandists a face-saving way out. Due to our
current efforts, they can highlight scientific cooperation and
environmental remediation, gradually expand and rationalize the
definitions and causes of disabilities, and begin to phase-out more
incendiary and non-factual claims. Indeed, we see parallels to the
AO/dioxin issue in the GVN's treatment of the U.S. experience in the
Central Highlands. The GVN viewed USAID's initial programs in that
sensitive region with great suspicion and, at times, hostility.

HANOI 00001862 003 OF 003


After several years of success and ongoing collaboration with their
Vietnamese counterparts, USAID's ongoing projects now enjoy broad
GVN support and positive media coverage.

Our Continuing Public Diplomacy Efforts
----------------------------------------

9. (SBU) To achieve our goals of "normalizing" this issue and
removing it as an impediment to U.S-Vietnam relations, we will
continue our public diplomacy efforts to educate contacts through
interviews, press releases, and scientific engagement. We will work
to ensure that AO/dioxin assistance is seen as part of broader
humanitarian program, including the well-publicized U.S. Leahy War
Victims disability assistance. To better measure our contributions
to changing Vietnamese attitudes, we plan to more systematically
examine press coverage of the dioxin issue and compare the
frequency, content, and location of reporting on different aspects
of the issue over different time points.

Comment
-------

10. (SBU) Engaging the GVN on AO/dioxin is transformational
diplomacy, by its nature difficult and time-consuming. Changing
attitudes, hardened by a generation of anti-U.S. publicity and
allegations that AO/dioxin causes widespread disabilities, will take
time. However, we now are seeing the fruits of our initial
technical assistance and public diplomacy efforts. We do not
suggest a shift in basic U.S. positions. U.S. officials should
continue their focus on the need for sound science to guide joint
efforts on AO/dioxin. While statements and actions by U.S.
officials skeptical of broad Vietnamese claims often provoke
pushback in the Vietnamese media, we can expect these reactions to
further diminish as our technical and humanitarian engagement
increases and Vietnamese public health reporting becomes more
professional. Successfully implementing the USD 3 million in
Economic Support Funds will better enable us to change Vietnamese
attitudes on AO/dioxin and will encourage multilateral efforts to
address environmental and health concerns.

MICHALAK

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
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