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Vietnam Trip Denounced by Noisy Crowd : Protest: About 60 people opposed to closer ties with the Communist regime demonstrate outside local group's seminar and criticize its plans for trade mission.

August 21, 1994|GREG HERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — Angered by plans for a trade delegation sponsored by Orange County's Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce to meet with top officials in Vietnam next month, about 60 people staged a noisy but orderly protest Saturday morning outside a hotel where the chamber hosted a daylong business seminar.

The emotional crowd, which held up signs and banners and waved the flag of the former Republic of Vietnam, shouted slogans such as "No Freedom, No Trade!"

Extra security people were stationed at entrances to Quality Hotel meeting rooms, and seminar attendees were required to pass through metal detectors.

Plans for the trade mission clearly touched off an emotional response among the protesters, many of them expatriate Vietnamese whose bitterness toward the current rulers of their homeland quickly bubbled to the surface Saturday.

"The Communists, they killed us and we had to leave our country where we were born," said Jo Le. "People died. My aunt died. My uncle died. People are still dying. We would love to go back to Vietnam, but not under the Communists."

Chamber of Commerce president Co Pham, who watched the demonstration with his bodyguard only yards away from the protesters, responded that "this is a free country and they have the right to freedom of speech."

The six-hour demonstration was organized by the Vietnamese Community of Southern California, one of the largest Vietnamese American groups in the Southland. The group is strongly opposed to closer ties with the Communist regime in Vietnam.

Vietnamese language newspapers revealed Thursday that a chamber-sponsored delegation, eager to improve trade between the United States and Vietnam, is scheduled to meet with President Le Duc Anh, Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet and other top government officials in September. The delegation of business representatives, which is still being put together, so far includes only a handful of Vietnamese Americans.

Le, a 30-year-old dentist from Hacienda Heights, said she heard about the protest on the radio and stopped by to participate briefly before heading to her practice, where patients were waiting.

"I had to leave my practice to be here, but I felt it was important," she said.

Lan Pham, a 47-year-old civil engineer from Irvine who was especially critical of the chamber president, led the demonstration through much of the morning.

"Co Pham is a traitor! Down with Co Pham!" Lan Pham shouted repeatedly into a megaphone.

If Co Pham goes to Vietnam, "he helps the government keep their position," Lan Pham said in an interview. "He is going to meet with them and party with them while a lot of people are still living in the streets with no food. He came here as a political refugee, and now he has betrayed us."

Co Pham said he is sensitive to the accusations against him but believes the protesters do not speak for a majority of Vietnamese expatriates.

"We know we can't please everybody," he said. "We are educating the Vietnamese who want to do business because we're the chamber. We want to build a bridge between the United States and Vietnam. At the same time that we trade, we still demand human rights and democracy. My dream is to bring democracy to Vietnam."

A Times poll taken shortly after President Clinton lifted the U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam in February found that 54% of the Vietnamese living in Southern California favored full diplomatic relations with Vietnam and the lifting of the trade sanctions. Just 20% voiced opposition to those moves.

Co Pham said advertising for the seminar was kept to a minimum in order to prevent protests. He said he was pleased that approximately 200 people showed up Saturday, despite the protest.

Seminar participants chatted in the hotel hallway between sessions and said they were unfazed by the protest going on outside.

"I can understand why they are here, and certainly their cause is proper," said Cang Le, a businessman and consultant. "But I think they need to sit down and communicate with Co Pham. They are not reconciling with each other. I see that Pham is setting aside the past. But for them, the past is not over yet."

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