WASHINGTON (AFP) — Vietnam needs to improve its human rights record if it wants to build a close relationship with the United States, a senior US envoy said Wednesday ahead of a visit to the region.

Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for Asia, told a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that he will travel next week to Vietnam and Laos for talks on a range of issues.

"We have, I would say, a bit of a dichotomy with Vietnam -- very real concerns about backsliding on issues of human rights and religious (freedom) issues in recent years," he told lawmakers.

"But at the same time, this is a government that sees that it wants a closer relationship with the United States for strategic reasons," Campbell said.

"It's going to be very hard to have that kind of relationship unless they take specific steps to improve the situation at home," he said.

Vietnam and the United States this year mark the 15th anniversary of diplomatic relations and have been gradually developing military ties despite the legacy of their long and bloody war.

But the United States has been concerned about Vietnam's imprisonment of a series of dissidents, its media restrictions and what activists describe as organized harassment of followers of revered Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

Vietnam has also historically had friction with China. The two nations have had an increasingly acrimonious dispute over two potentially resource-rich sets of islands in the South China Sea.

Campbell said he also sensed a "desire in Laos -- a careful one -- to have a better relationship with the United States" but said the communist nation was "at the very earliest stages" of any progress on democracy and human rights.

He said he would also speak in Laos about how to clean up some of the millions of US bombs left over from the secret US air campaign in Laos aimed at disrupting North Vietnam's supply routes into the South during the war.

"This is not only a critical issue strategically, but it's also a critical moral issue," Campbell said.

Campbell was responding to questions by US Representative Eni Faleomavaega, who said the United States has given a total of 176,000 dollars to clear around 80 million bombs that failed to detonate in Laos.

"This is absolutely outrageous, and it's not the America that I would think of," said Faleomavaega, who heads the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asia and recently visited Laos.

"They never declared war against us. We're the ones that just simply went over there and bombed the heck out of them," Faleomavaega said.


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