Clinton courts Viet youth

Los Angeles Times

HANOI – Sharing a dais with a flower-bedecked bust of revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, President Clinton on Friday reached beyond Vietnam’s government to appeal to the country’s overwhelming young population as the force for change in this Communist state.

The president, on a historic visit to Vietnam, used carefully worded but obvious language to call for basic human rights, from freedom of religion to the right to political dissent.

“Young people are much more likely to have confidence in their future if they have a say in shaping it, in choosing their governmental leaders and having a government that is accountable to those it serves,” he said in his first speech in the nation, given to students at Vietnam National University in Hanoi. It was also broadcast twice nationally, a first for any speech by a foreigner.

Clinton hastened to add that the United States does not seek to “impose” its ideals. “Your future should be in your hands,” he said.

In a country with 94 percent literacy, among the highest in the developing world, Vietnam’s well-educated young pose one of the greatest challenges to the Communist regime. Roughly 60 percent of this country’s 80 million population was born after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. In comparison, about one-third of Americans were born in the same period.

The government is woefully unable to accommodate the aspirations of the 1.4 million young people who enter the work force annually. Thousands of college graduates are working as chambermaids, waiters and taxi drivers, leaving the Communist Party struggling to maintain its relevance to young people more interested in the ideology of the MTV generation: a good job, material goods and a good time. Only 12 percent of Vietnamese younger than 30 belong to the party.

American culture, cinema and fashion are wildly popular in Vietnam.

Among the most prevalent T-shirts for sale are “Hard Rock Cafe – Hanoi” and “Hard Rock Cafe – Saigon,” even though the chain has no presence in either city.

Clinton told an overflow crowd of about 400 students Friday that Americans believe that the “freedom to explore, to travel, to think, to speak, to shape decisions” is critical in building nations as well as enriching individual lives. Vietnam’s new generation deserves “the chance to live in your tomorrows, not our yesterdays,” he said.

To appease fears, the president emphasized that the United States is eager to build a “partnership” with Vietnam and increase cooperation in trade, scientific research, health and environmental advances to help the Southeast Asian nation’s development.

Clinton lifted a trade embargo against Vietnam in 1994, restored diplomatic relations in 1995 and secured the signing of a U.S.-Vietnamese trade agreement this year.

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