By Thuy Vu
KQED News is launching a new multiplatform service in October called KQED Newsroom on television, radio and online, with three–time Emmy Award–winning journalist and anchor Thuy Vu as host. This is her first blog post for News Fix.
In a rare trip, Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang is meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House today. The Obama administration is seeking to strengthen security and trade ties with Vietnam as part of its effort to deepen relations with Southeast Asia. Truong’s trip to the United States is only the second visit by a Vietnamese president since the two countries resumed relations in 1995.
Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a luncheon in Washington, D.C., hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry in honor of President Truong. In 1975, I fled Vietnam with my family as Saigon was falling to the communists, so I came not only as a journalist but as someone intimately affected by the war.
As the two men stood on stage, the symbolism was undeniable. Kerry is a Vietnam veteran. Truong is a former Communist Party chief who was jailed by the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government in the early 1970’s. On Wednesday, the former foes stood side by side as political allies in the campaign to rebalance power in Asia amid China’s growing dominance. It was a portrait of reconciliation as Kerry thanked Vietnam for its help in finding the remains of U.S. servicemen and praised its pledge to assist U.N. peacekeeping efforts in 2014. The two countries have gone “from conflict to friendship,” Kerry said.
President Truong did not look back at the war in his remarks, choosing instead to focus on the future. He spoke of the U.S. as a valuable military and economic partner. Trade between the two countries has grown to $26 billion since a trade deal was signed in 2001. Truong barely touched on the thorny issue of human rights, saying simply “Vietnam has been continually making progress on human rights.”
That certainly will not satisfy critics on Capitol Hill, who charge Vietnam is holding more than 120 political prisoners. It won’t quiet Human Rights Watch, which says Vietnam is jailing a growing number of dissidents, bloggers and religious leaders for crimes such as “conducting propaganda” and “disrupting the unity of the state.” And it definitely will not soothe the bitterness many Vietnamese Americans still feel about losing their homeland to a regime that they view as corrupt and abusive.
Even as the two countries look to the future, the war’s legacy continues to loom. Dioxin from the 20 million gallons of Agent Orange sprayed by U.S. forces to defoliate jungles that provided cover to communist forces still needs to be cleaned up. Many health experts believe the toxic chemical has caused birth deformities, cancers and other disabilities among Vietnamese as well as Americans who are Vietnam War veterans. The problems were extensively documented in 2010 by the Vietnam Reporting Project, a joint program of the Ford Foundation and San Francisco State University’s Renaissance Journalism Center. I was one of 15 journalists from across the U.S. who traveled to Vietnam to provide reports from the ground.
As an immigrant, it’s sometimes a challenge for me to report on Vietnamese issues. I face expectations that aren’t necessarily leveled at other journalists. It’s my obligation to be fair, yet many Vietnamese Americans view me as part of the community and therefore want me to be more of an advocate. They’re often disappointed when I don’t give their arguments more weight in my reporting. They’ve even accused me of succumbing to Vietnam’s propaganda machine, deepening their wounds.
I know their pain. My grandfather was taken away by the communists for being a landowner. He disappeared and my family never knew what happened to him. My uncle was a high-ranking South Vietnamese military official. My brother was jailed by the communists, who also eventually seized our home.
So when I’m criticized by my own community, I get where they’re coming from. I understand their concerns; however, I’m a journalist, not an advocate.
When I stood for a picture with Truong at the state luncheon, I worried whether I should put more distance between the two of us. Unlike the shots of Kerry and Truong standing side by side, my picture is not about reconciliation. It’s simply about recording a moment in time, coupled with reporting that I hope is fair, insightful and of value to the public…and especially to my fellow Vietnamese Americans.
For an examination of the ongoing human rights concerns in Vietnam, see Andrew Lam’s report on New America Media.