Tuesday, November 11, 2008

US Congressman opposes opening Vietnamese consulate

U.S. Rep. Al Green joined leaders of Houston's Vietnamese community in opposing plans to open a Vietnamese consulate here, citing concerns about the country's human rights record.

In a letter sent Monday to the U.S. State Department, the Houston Democrat wrote that opening a consular office in Houston could "undermine" the U.S. government's efforts to persuade Vietnam to improve religious and political freedom.

In addition, Green wrote that opening a consulate in Houston would "represent an affront" to the region's Vietnamese community, which numbers nearly 85,000 and has rallied against the proposal. The plan was first announced this summer during a visit to Houston by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, sparking protests that drew hundreds of Vietnamese.

Al Hoang, a Houston attorney and president of the Vietnamese Community in Houston and Vicinity, said community organizers have collected more than 15,800 signatures on a petition opposing the opening of a consulate. Hoang likened it to "having a German concentration camp in the middle of a Jewish community. That's exactly what it is like."

The State Department did not return phone calls Monday. Pham Tung, a spokesman for the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, said negotiations are continuing between the two governments, calling efforts to delay the opening based on allegations of human rights abuses "unfair."

"The relations between the two countries has improved so far, and opening of the Consulate General in Houston will further improve the relations," Tung said. "It's unfair to try to delay or hinder the opening."

U.S. trade with Vietnam topped $10 billion in the first eight months of 2008. In 2007, when Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization, its trade with the U.S. topped $12 billion.

President Clinton lifted the embargo on Vietnam in 1994. The U.S. established a liaison office there in January 1995 and normalized relations six months later.

"We want Vietnam to prosper," said Hoang, who immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1975. "But not only in the economy. In the spirit, in the soul. We want people in Vietnam to enjoy what we enjoy in the United States — freedom. That's what we want."

Hoang said the community has serious reservations about the country's actions when it comes to human rights and religious and political freedom.

In his letter to the State Department, Green cited a Human Rights Watch report that found last year to be "characterized by the harshest crackdown on peaceful dissent in 20 years."

In its 2007 report on human rights practices in Vietnam, the U.S. State Department describes the government as an authoritarian state ruled by the Communist Party of Vietnam. The report also said the government prohibited political movements and arrested activists.

Last year, a Houston-based Vietnamese human rights group erected a billboard calling for "Human Rights for Vietnam Now!" with an iconic photo of a plainclothes Vietnamese guard muzzling religious leader Father Nguyen Van Ly during a government trial.

The local Vietnamese community is one of the largest international populations with no consular office in Houston. More than 75 countries, many with significantly smaller populations than Vietnam, have consulates or consul generals in Houston, including the Kyrgyz Republic and Namibia, according to the Greater Houston Partnership. Vietnamese immigrants living in the U.S. generally rely on a consulate in San Francisco, opened in 1997, or the embassy in Washington to get visas and other documents.

susan.carroll@chron.com