Vietnamese Call for News of Their Own Missing in Action

NY TRONG HUNG is one of the Vietnam War's neglected MIAs. Since the North Vietnamese soldier went missing in action in the Mekong Delta in 1972, his family has searched widely and in vain for news.

``When we received the notice that he was missing, we went to his Army division and friends. But they said they had no information and didn't remember what happened to my brother,'' says Ny Trong Huan, a Hanoi tailor who was 16 when his brother disappeared.

``We feel sorry for the families of American MIAs. They come from very far to find out about their relatives,'' he says. ``But even Vietnamese can't find any information about their relatives. So how can the US settle this problem?'' As the United States and Vietnam dispute the fate of more than 2,300 Americans missing in action or prisoners of war in Indochina, the plight of thousands of Vietnamese goes largely unheeded.

Government officials estimate that Vietnam has about 300,000 of its own MIAs. However, they have been overshadowed by the delicate issue of missing Americans, which stands as an emotional roadblock to normal relations between the two countries.

``Our policy is to consider them martyrs,'' says Ho Xuan Dich, acting director of the Vietnam Office for Seeking Missing Persons. ``We have many problems with Vietnamese MIAs. But because of this humanitarian problem with the United States, we have to put our emphasis on American MIAs.''

Fifteen years after the end of war and the reunification of Vietnam, the US pursues a search for missing Americans unprecedented in any other war.

Their families keep up pressure to ease the gnawing uncertainty about relatives. At the same time, a Western diplomat says, political conservatives in the US, still stung by America's only military defeat, block diplomatic and economic ties until Hanoi makes a full accounting.

US officials contend that Vietnam holds the remains of at least 600 American servicemen in storage and is releasing them gradually for political purposes.

Officials also are investigating reports of American prisoners of war, although they say there is no compelling evidence that any captives remain. Seventy percent of the 2,302 Americans unaccounted for from the Vietnam War are missing in Vietnam and the remainder in Laos and Cambodia, according to US officials.

WESTERN analysts say the MIA issue is Vietnam's only card in a game of escalating diplomatic dialogue, which began with last summer's policy switch by the US aimed at ending the Cambodian conflict.

In October Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach and Gen. John Vessey, the Bush administration's special envoy on the issue, met in Washington. They agreed to accelerate efforts to investigate the issue and to open an American humanitarian office in Hanoi.

Keeping a firm rein on the process, however, US Secretary of State James Baker III insists that ``the pace and scope of our ability to move toward normalization with Vietnam is going to depend on further progress on the POW-MIA issue.''

In Vietnam, meanwhile, thousands of families also bear the painful burden of not knowing. Vietnamese have an empathy for the issue, say Western aid workers experienced in the region, because in their Buddhist culture, the spirit of the dead must be at rest near the family.

The military has a committee to help Vietnamese locate family members and has a forensic laboratory to test remains, the government says. Officials are hampered by a lack of records and money and the higher political priority of American MIAs, observers say.

Those Vietnamese who can afford to undertake their own searches frequently have done so with little success. In many village war cemeteries, memorials and shrines often mark empty graves, Vietnamese and foreign observers say.

``Vietnamese have their own MIAs and are as desperate to find out about them as the Americans. Many were lost along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and in battles in the south, and no one knows what happened to them,'' says an official with a Western aid organization.

In seeking to resolve the question of the American missing, officials in Hanoi say they rely on the cooperation of local people and villagers. But, set against the backdrop of hundreds of thousands of unaccounted for Vietnamese, resentment is not uncommon, they admit.

``People say to us, `Why are you searching for information about the US MIAs and not searching for information about our children, brothers, and fathers,''' says Pham Van Ruyen, a diplomat working on the issue. ``We have to explain again and again that this activity is contributing to relations between the two countries.''

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