Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai’s historic visit to the United States signals a diplomatic step forward, but expatriates of the Communist country are urging President Bush to promote freedom and democracy.

Mr. Khai is the first Vietnamese prime minister to visit the U.S. since the war ended three decades ago. But what greeted him in Seattle, his first stop, was a group of protesters who chanted “Go home Khai!” and overshadowed what his delegation hoped would be a landmark news conference.

A group of Vietnamese expatriates across the country have taken out an ad in today’s edition of The Washington Post, urging President Bush to pressure Mr. Khai to institute democratic reform and restore freedom.
In an open letter to Mr. Bush, they ask him to remind Mr. Khai of “Hanoi’s obligation to respect human rights; release all prisoners of conscience; return self-governance to religious congregations; [and] restore freedom of the press.”

They also ask the president to urge Vietnam to “abolish Article 4 of the 1992 Constitution,” which established the Communist Party of Vietnam as the ultimate ruler and arbiter of all matters in the country.

The Vietnamese “don’t have the freedom of expression, religion or movement,” Tony Nguyen Thanh Trang, chairman of the Vietnam Human Rights Network, said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Nguyen himself has been unable to return to Vietnam where prominent human rights advocates, including leaders of unapproved churches, have been arbitrarily detained and imprisoned.

Mr. Khai’s visit, however, is largely aimed at securing U.S. backing for Vietnam’s entry into the World Trade Organization [WTO] and boosting private investment in order to exceed its annual growth rate of about seven percent and more than US$6 billion in trade with the United States.

On Sunday, he toured a Boeing plant in Renton, Washington, and met with Microsoft founder Bill Gates as well as executives from Gap and Nike. He is also scheduled to ring the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange [NYSE] and visit Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston.

Under the one-party system, Mr. Nguyen said, “any competition would be unfair because they abuse women and children in forced labor and prisoners in labor camps.”

In the 2004 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the U.S. State Department cited Vietnam for abusing children and prisoners as part of the national workforce. The Communist government was also cited for restricting or banning the freedom to speak, publish, worship and travel.

At the same time, the Bush administration has been seeking closer defense ties with Vietnam. U.S. naval vessels have made port calls in the past two years, and the Pentagon plans to invite Vietnamese officers for U.S. military training.

But the open letter to Mr. Bush cautions that U.S. strategic interests would be served only “when Vietnam has a true government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”