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Challenges ahead for Vietnam

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Vietnam: Day Six

The interfaith delegation to Vietnam, of which I’m a part, concluded our week by meeting with a variety of officials in Hanoi, the capital. Invariably, Vietnamese government officials and the leaders of various non-governmental organizations greeted us warmly, thanked us for coming, served us the traditional tea and welcomed our efforts to enhance U.S./Vietnamese partnership over the issue of Agent Orange/dioxin.

But we faced a different reality when we met with the American Ambassador, Michael Machalak, at the U.S. Embassy. Security, as we expected, was tighter than anywhere else, but it was so tight that persons enter for screening only two by two, leaving everyone else to wait and roast in the hot sun for several minutes. That we could have understood, but even when we raised it, there was no apology, no explanation. It was a jarring contrast to the graciousness of our Vietnamese hosts.

In the meeting itself, the Ambassador was anxious to tell us about Vietnamese cooperation in locating soldiers long missing in action (MIA’s), about improved trade and expanded educational exchanges. There is a booming economy here, and those are positive developments.

But the war legacy of Agent Orange/dioxin clearly remains a stumbling block. He told us, for example, that the United States had contributed $46 million for people with disabilities, including victims of Agent Orange. Sounds impressive, but under questioning, we learned that $46 million since 1989 –a 21 year period. This comes to about $2.2 million per year – a pittance in the U.S. foreign aid budget.

Later, he was asked if he had read the report of the report of the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin, which he had received about two weeks prior. This is a highly prestigious group of knowledgeable citizens from both countries working on this issue for about two years. He said he had not had a chance to study it in detail. I leaned over to one of my colleagues and asked about the length of the report. “About 12 pages,” he said.
Finally, when pressed about the report, he said that people in Washington would be looking for “closure” on this issue. But members of our delegation suggested that “closure” is hard to define, and he agreed.

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In fairness, the Embassy, in cooperation with the Vietnamese government and various NGO’s, is working to clean up the toxic “hot spots” where poisonous dioxin was stored or spilled during the war. But a substantial amount of the money for testing and clean-up has come from private sources like the Ford Foundation. In several more years, these might be cleaned up, but “human closure” is another question.

How is there “closure” for a child who struggles to breathe, or whose limbs are twisted? For the parents who cry over the deformities of the child they hold in their arms? Indeed, how is their “closure” for many of our own veterans who are showing symptoms of disease only now in their sixties, and who have to fight for every nickel in compensation?

When this journey began, and we introduced ourselves to each other as persons of faith, I said that I was part of the “Dan Berrigan wing” of the Catholic Church! My colleagues laughed, but the description “connected.” By whatever name, his is a legacy of peacemaking to be cherished as we grapple with the legacy of war and the tragedies of Agent Orange/dioxin.

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