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Freed Vietnamese Poet Gets a Hero's Welcome

December 18, 1995|JOHN POPE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WESTMINSTER — After spending decades in Communist prison camps in Vietnam, Nguyen Chi Thien escaped in 1979 and scaled the wall of the British Embassy in Hanoi to deliver his life's work, a collection of more than 400 poems. The title: "Flowers From Hell."

He was captured and again imprisoned, but the work won him international recognition and was translated into eight languages.

And Thien, who was finally allowed to leave Vietnam last month after nearly 30 years in prison, was hailed as a hero Sunday by more than 300 people who gathered on the steps of Westminster City Hall to welcome him to the United States and rally against human rights violations in his native land.

"I'm very happy to be standing here on the soil of freedom," the thin, bespectacled Thien told the cheering crowd. American flags and the red-and-yellow flags of the former Republic of Vietnam were waving in the wind.

Thien, reportedly suffering from poor health after being physically abused in prison, had been under house arrest since 1991. He was allowed to leave in November after pressure from Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, according to organizers of the rally Sunday.

"We are here to help publicize and call attention to the fact that never before have the rights and dignities of the Vietnamese people been so violated as they are today," said Do Hang Diem, an event organizer.

Thien's powerful poetry is popular worldwide, said Westminster Councilman Tony Lam, and gave many their first glimpse into the cruelty of the Communist government.

"This man has suffered so much on behalf of human rights," said Westminster Mayor Charles V. Smith, who presented Thien with a special commendation from the city. "We must carry that message worldwide . . . until one day we can see Communism fall and democracy restored to Vietnam."

Thien, who was first imprisoned in 1958 for publishing an anti-Communist magazine called For the People, gave a short speech in Vietnamese before reading selections of his poetry, which chronicles the plight of the Vietnamese people under the dictatorship.

Because of his condition, he left quickly and was not available for questions.

After his speech, people of all ages, waving placards and signs, marched around the Westminster Civic Center.

"I lived in Vietnam for about 15 years, and I'm very aware of the human rights violations that are going on there," said Van Giao Hoang, a student at UC Irvine. "Whenever there's an event like this, I try to come and lend my support."

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