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While some Vietnamese suspect US is still `punishing' them for war, sympathy for MIA searches is rising

A QUICK way for an American to lose money in Vietnam often presents itself when someone approaches claiming to have secret evidence of an American soldier missing in action (MIA).

Usually, such "evidence" comes only for a price. To the wise, this is a sure tip-off to a scam. A G.I. dogtag with the name of a soldier can cost you a few dollars. One Hanoi shopkeeper claims to have movie footage of an American pilot being shot down and marched to prison. Price: $100.

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But such con games are not typical of how most Vietnamese see the intense concern Americans have about MIAs. The closer the two countries have come to completing the search for information or for the remains of missing American soldiers, the more sympathy can be found among Vietnamese.

"It's mind-boggling how much cooperation we now have from the Vietnamese," says Keith Flanagan, supervisor of "casualty resolution" at the United States MIA office in Hanoi.

Since the two countries began to cooperate in 1988, sending out joint teams to remote spots to search for MIA remains for example, "we've seen a quick change from antagonism to cooperation," Mr. Flanagan says.

When these MIA teams go into villages, the first reaction has often been negative, as reported by Mr. Flanagan. "We've got 300,000 MIAs of our own in Vietnam, why should we be concerned about a few hundred of yours?" the villagers say.

BUT since the Vietnamese are very family-oriented, and not a single family in Vietnam is without a casualty of its own from the "American war," as it is called in Vietnam, they soon begin to understand the feelings of American MIA families.

"Now we are actually getting real remains," Flanagan says, instead of fake remains from profit-seekers.

For various reasons, since the end of the war, the US has refused diplomatic recognition of Hanoi and led a crippling economic embargo against Vietnam. From 1980 to 1989, the main impediment was Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia. But even after Hanoi pulled out its troops, the US continued to demand "the fullest possible accounting" of MIAs.

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Hanoi officials, however, don't believe that the MIA lobby in Washington is the real reason that the US still regards Vietnam as an official enemy. They think there are "forces" deep in the US military and foreign policy establishment who want to punish Vietnam for winning the war, for violating the 1972 peace agreements or, as some US officials insist, withholding information on MIAs.

Hanoi has critics of its own with the military who say the US deserves no help on MIAs. "A minority in Vietnam do not want to see normalization," says Ha Huy Thong, a foreign ministry official. "They say, `The US killed our people,' or they ask, `What do we get in return for finding MIAs?'

"What's important is that the majority of Vietnamese do understand that this is an emotional and sensitive issue in the US, and that it is good for both governments to cooperate."

Despite steady progress in reducing the number of unsolved MIA cases and strong interest by US firms to do business in Vietnam, Hanoi was disappointed that President Clinton said in April that he would not lift the embargo until "we have gone a long way toward resolving every case that could be resolved at this moment in time...."

But officials here were happy that Clinton said normalization does not require that every case be solved first.

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