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Obama assures Vietnam, rights 'no threat to stability'

Barack Obama has urged Vietnam's leadership to grant its citizens greater freedoms and respect human rights. The US president is in the Southeast Asian nation on a three-day visit aimed to boost trade and security ties.

US President Barack Obama told the Vietnamese government on Tuesday that upholding basic human rights poses no risk to the communist country's future.

In a speech at the National Convention Center in Hanoi, Obama said respecting freedom of speech, a free press, and the right to demonstrate would instead bolster Vietnam's economy and its standing in the region.

"Upholding these rights is not a threat to stability but actually reinforces stability and is the foundation of progress," Obama told the audience, which included Communist Party officials.

"Vietnam will do it differently than the United States ... But there are these basic principles that I think we all have to try to work on and improve," he added.

Barack Obama with Vietnam's President, Tran Dai Quang

Obama is given a warm welcome by President Tran Dai Quang at Hanoi's Presidential Palace

'Areas of concern'

Ahead of the trip, activists had called on Obama to press the Vietnamese government on its poor human rights record. Vietnam is often criticized for cracking down on protests, jailing government critics and tightly controlling the media.

Earlier Tuesday, Obama met with a number of civil society activists, including advocates for freedom of speech, press and the internet. However, he acknowledged that authorities had prevented some individuals from attending. According to Reuters, prominent government critic Nguyen Quang A was taken by police hours before the event and kept in custody while the meeting took place.

"Vietnam has made remarkable strides in many ways," Obama said, but "there are still areas of significant concern."

Obama's speech came a day after he announced the lifting of an arms sales embargo on Vietnam. Some activists criticized the move, saying it took away the president's leverage to push for greater human rights freedoms in Vietnam.

Closer ties

Obama is expected to fly to Ho Chi Minh City later on Tuesday to meet with entrepreneurs and make the case for the 12-nation trans-Pacific trade agreement, which is currently stalled in the US Congress.

Obama said the US was willing to help Vietnam meet its commitments under the agreement, which include giving workers the right to form unions and prohibiting forced labor and child labor. The US is keen to improve ties with fast-growing Vietnam in an attempt to offset China's influence in the Asia-Pacific region. The country's expanding middle class is also seen as a promising market for US goods.

Obama has proven immensely popular so far on his trip, with locals gathering to greet him wherever he goes. On Monday night, the president sat down with celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain at a Hanoi eatery to discuss Vietnamese culture and sample some local street food.

The visit is Obama's first to the country - and the third by a sitting president since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

nm/kms (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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