(CNSNews.com) – Vietnam’s communist party chief Nguyen Phu Trong told President Obama in Hanoi Monday that bilateral relations should be strengthened on the basis of respect for each other’s sovereignty and political institutions and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.
The communist party’s official organ, Nhan Dan, claimed that Obama during the encounter “spoke highly of the role and vision of the Communist Party of Vietnam in leading the country to achieve important milestones over the past years and in its strategic policy on the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] negotiation process.”
The Voice of Vietnam national broadcaster said Obama “praised the Vietnamese Communist Party (CPV)’s vision in leading Vietnam to gain great achievements over the past years.”
The White House has not released a readout or transcript of the president’s meeting with the 72-year-old Trong.
Vietnam’s government is subordinate to the party, making Trong’s position effectively more powerful than those of the country’s president or prime minister. He was appointed to the post at the party’s 11th national congress in 2011, and to a new five-year term at the 12th national congress last January.
A stalwart with a background in party propaganda media, Trong has been named by the press watchdog Reporters Without Borders as a “predator of press freedom.”
Last summer Trong became the first CPV secretary-general to visit the White House. At an July 7 Oval Office meeting, Obama and Trong in remarks to the press both mentioned they had spoken candidly about human rights, without elaborating. They did not take questions.
Obama on Monday also held a joint press conference with Vietnam’s new President Tran Dai Quang, and announced he is lifting a three-decade-old arms embargo on Vietnam.
Obama said the two countries continue to have disagreements on democracy and human rights.
“I made it clear that the United States does not seek to impose our form of government on Vietnam or on any nation. We respect Vietnam’s sovereignty and independence,” he said.
“At the same time, we will continue to speak out on behalf of human rights that we believe are universal, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion and freedom of assembly.”
Quang, who served as minister of security until being appointed president at the January party congress, said Vietnam does protect and promote human rights, and attributed progress in that area to its election as a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council.
(Vietnam is one of 11 current members of the HRC that are ranked “not free” by Freedom House. The Geneva-based council this year has the smallest proportion of “free” members in its ten-year history.)
Authoritarian one-party state
Vietnam held elections on Sunday for the 500-seat National Assembly, but critics noted that candidates were vetted and many independents barred from running. Moreover, true legislative power resides not with its lawmakers but the party Politburo and Central Committee, also picked at the January congress.
The State Department’s latest human rights report describes Vietnam as “an authoritarian state ruled by a single party” which restricts the rights of its citizens “including freedom of assembly, association, and expression; and inadequate protection of citizens’ due process rights, including protection against arbitrary detention.”
The report also recorded “arbitrary and unlawful deprivation of life; police attacks and corporal punishment; arbitrary arrest and detention for political activities; continued police mistreatment of suspects during arrest and detention, including the use of lethal force and austere prison conditions; and denial of the right to a fair and expeditious trial.”
On Tuesday Obama is meeting with civil society representatives before delivering a speech.
Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters earlier the meeting will “give him an opportunity to reaffirm his commitment to human rights and inclusive governance in Vietnam, as we do in countries around the world.”
Ahead of the trip, a group of Democratic lawmakers urged Obama to press Hanoi to release an 87-year-old Buddhist dissident, Thich Quang Do, who has spent the last three decades of his life either in prison, exile or – his current status – under house arrest.
Separately, 20 lawmakers from both parties called on Obama in a letter to raise concerns with his hosts about rights violations, enclosing a list of more than 100 activists, journalists, and bloggers whom they said had been unjustly imprisoned.
They also appealed to him not to consider lifting the arms embargo until Hanoi demonstrates “a serious commitment to improving its human rights record.”
The Bush administration in 2004 designated Vietnam a “country of particular concern” for egregious religious freedom abuses. The following year it signed an agreement in which Vietnam undertook to address concerns, and the State Department removed it from the list in late 2006, citing “significant improvement towards advancing religious freedom.”
The Obama administration is negotiating with Vietnam and 10 other countries in the Asia-Pacific to finalize the TPP free trade agreement. Together with the tiny sultanate of Brunei, Vietnam is the only TPP negotiating partner that is not a democracy.