HANOI - A senior U.S. official said on Thursday rights issues in Vietnam, including suppression of big ethnic minority protests last month, could make ratification of a bilateral trade pact more difficult than originally expected.
The landmark pact, which would open markets in both countries, was signed in July last year but still has to be ratified by the U.S. Congress and Vietnam's National Assembly.
"I think it will happen, the question is when it will happen and how much effort will have to be expended," said the official, who did not want to be identified.
He said the administration change in Washington had added to the complications, because key trade officials had yet to be nominated.
"We are working with business groups in the United States to help us educate a lot of the new members (of Congress) and also to establish a new coalition to prepare for the ratification.
"That process is going to be more difficult, I think, than we had originally anticipated, due to lots of factors. One is we have a new Congress and we have a lot of people about who we do not yet know their positions on trade issues.
"The others are that there will be a lot of people, a lot of groups in the United States, who will be mounting an effort to get the Congress not to approve the (pact)."
The official said he expected there to be criticisms over Hanoi's labour rights record and its regulations on free movement of citizens out of the country.
HIGHLANDS UNREST A PROBLEM
But the government's handling of protests in the central highlands, especially given the combination of factors, including religion, that could be said to have contributed to the unrest would be a particular problem.
The protests by ethnic minority hill farmers in the coffee growing highland provinces of Gia Lai Daklak in early February were the biggest known protests for years in communist Vietnam.
Residents blamed the unrest on encroachment onto tribal lands by migrants from the majority Vietnamese community and religious restrictions.
The issue has aroused particular interest in the United States as the ethnic minority people in the central highlands fought alongside U.S. forces during the Vietnam War and many later settled in the United States.
"That is going to be, I think, a very difficult issue to deal with," the official said, adding that it was not helped by the fact that foreign journalists and embassy staff had not been able to visit the area to get first-hand knowledge of the situation.
"There will be people in the U.S. who will seize on the highland incident and make allegations that are partially accurate, totally accurate or not at all and none of us will be able to say if they are right or wrong," he said.
"You could come out of that and say that there's a religious rights problem, you could come out of that and say there's a problem associated with the unauthorised seizure of land by the government," he said.
"And you could some out and say there's been excessive force been used to quell the uprising. There's a whole host of things associated with that that are going to cause greater focus on the problems there."
The official said that if claims made by groups opposed to Hanoi were sustained "that could be damaging (to the BTA) but I don't think it's necessarily a killer."
However he added: "I've had a lot of my friends who have been supporting us on BTA asking some very pointed questions."
The official said the catalyst for the February unrest could have been news that a dam project at Son La in northern Vietnam would dislocate 700,000 people, including 100,000 who would be relocated to the central highlands.
"(That) may have been the straw that broke the camel's back," he said.
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