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Vietnam leader's U.S. tour starts here
Seattle Times staff reporter
For the first time since the end of the Vietnam War, that country's prime minister will visit the United States next week, stopping first in Seattle to meet with Boeing executives and returning later in the week to meet with Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates.
Prime Minister Phan Van Khai and a delegation of about 200 politicians and business leaders are to arrive here Sunday for a nationwide tour to promote trade.
Many local Vietnamese expatriates here and elsewhere in the U.S., still bitter over the fall of South Vietnam and communist Vietnam's poor human-rights record, said they will stage demonstrations.
"We will protest at Boeing. We will protest wherever he stays," said Trong Tang, president of the Vietnamese American Community of Washington State, a coalition of 24 Vietnamese business, social and community groups.
Khai's visit here is the first leg of a weeklong tour that will include several stops, including in Boston and Washington, D.C., where Khai will meet with President Bush, Boeing officials said yesterday.
The Vietnam Embassy in Washington, D.C., confirmed that the prime minister will meet with Gates and Boeing executives but would not provide details of his itinerary. The Vietnam News Agency, the country's official news service, reported that the prime minister will be in the United States June 19-25.
"Symbolically, it is a big thing. It signifies that normalization between the two countries is coming along," said the University of Washington's Christoph Giebel, an associate professor in the School of International Studies and the Department of History, and an expert on Vietnam's history.
"It's the sign of the times. We can't look at Vietnam through the lens of the war all the time."
The visits come on the 10th anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic ties between the United States and Vietnam.
According to Boeing officials, the prime minister and his delegation will arrive in Seattle on Sunday morning and likely will tour a Boeing facility. Alan Mulally, president and chief executive officer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, then will meet privately with Khai, Boeing officials said.
Khai is scheduled to meet with Bush Tuesday. In Washington, D.C., the prime minister also will be involved in a ceremonial signing of a deal to buy four wide-bodied Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner jets worth up to $500 million, Boeing officials said. The deal with Vietnam Airlines was made in December.
A Microsoft spokeswoman said yesterday that the prime minister will have a private meeting with Gates sometimes late next week, though details were not available.
A meeting with Gates is significant in that the Microsoft founder is greatly admired by young people in Vietnam, said Chau Ngoc Tran, deputy editor-in-chief of the Saigon Times weekly, based in Ho Chi Minh City.
In Seattle, business leaders and state officials consider the visit an important step toward improving trade relations. Vietnam was the state's 19th-largest trade partner in 2003, according to the most recent figures available from the Washington State Department of Community, Trade & Economic Development.
"The administration is pleased with his arrival. Vietnam is an emerging economy," said Hal Spencer, spokesman for Gov. Christine Gregoire.
But within the Vietnamese community here, many former South Vietnamese soldiers still hold bitter feelings for Khai, 71, who rose rapidly after the war ended in April 1975. Khai was elected the mayor of Ho Chi Minh City, the former capital of South Vietnam, in 1985 before becoming prime minister in 1997.
So intense is the hatred many feel toward the communist regime that protests have erupted around the U.S. over displays of the Vietnamese flag. In Olympia three years ago, more than 100 expatriates protested at South Puget Sound Community College after students included the communist flag as part of a larger international display to welcome foreign students.
In Seattle, many Vietnamese community leaders said that number likely will go up when the prime minister arrives next week, though "the protest will be peaceful," said Tang, the local community leader. He said demonstrations would focus on promoting democracy and stopping human-rights abuses in Vietnam.
Tang said many here are bothered that communist Vietnam has no democracy and restrictions on free speech and religion, yet the delegation is trying to put the country in a positive light.
The furor has been most intense in California, home to the world's largest Vietnamese population outside Vietnam. The concern of a riot is so great there that many cities in Southern California have discouraged the communist delegation from visiting.
Garden Grove and Westminster, two Orange County cities with many Vietnamese expatriates, even passed "no communist zone" laws last year that require any Vietnamese government delegation to give the cities at least two weeks' notice of an official visit.
Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or email@example.com
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