Outrage was the only emotion Minh Trung Tran could muster when he heard a historic stretch of land along Vietnam's northern border--one he remembers reading and singing about as a child--had been handed over to China.
Ai Nam Quan, a landmark that sits like a rumpled baseball cap on the top of Vietnam, is a symbol of long-fought-for independence and the site of legendary battles, such as one waged by 15th century King Le Loi against an invading Chinese army. It formed a boundary that separated the two countries.
The land and its surrounding waters were quietly ceded to China in 1999 and 2000.
"It's as if Americans can no longer sing the phrase 'From sea to shining sea.' Ai Nam Quan isn't just a piece of dirt and land. It represents our identity and spirit," said Tran, a 27-year-old Santa Ana resident who left Vietnam with his family as a youth. Rather than remain idle--or taking to the streets in protest--Tran has found a weapon in the Internet and an army of sympathizers in Vietnamese communities around the globe. Many of these people have relatives who fought in the Vietnam War or spent time in reeducation camps.
Operating from an office in Westminster, Tran is launching a global petition drive to get the land back, a Don Quixote-like fight to force a superpower to back down. Experts say the odds of the effort working are long and the message will be lost on those who still live in Vietnam, where Internet usage is limited.
But Tran and his associates believe their effort marks a new chapter in the way Vietnamese Americans influence public policy.
The half-dozen tech-savvy engineers, computer programmers and a business analyst in their 20s, 30s and 40s are developing a database of registered Vietnamese voters for petition drives and to lobby elected officials and the United Nations for endorsement letters.
"We want to build credibility," said Kelvin Ninh, 35, of Tustin, a computer programmer who helped Tran design www.vietnamvietnam.com, the Web site that contains the petition.
Although members of "Concerned Citizens Against International Threats and Aggressions" hope for the return of about 270 square miles of land and 4,247 square miles of sea, the more practical goal is to drum up political support and let the Vietnamese government know that "the world is watching." Ultimately, they hope for the land's return.
"The fact that they're trying to build this virtual community of Vietnamese on the Internet shows how savvy they've become," said Hien Duc Do, chairman of the social science department at San Jose State University. "I've never heard of that being done before."
The online strategy makes sense, Do said, because it's the fastest and most direct way to unite people scattered around the globe.
"But getting the land back, I think, is wishful thinking," Do said.
Vietnam officials said the land and sea treaties involving Ai Nam Quan marked an important step forward in building a stable environment in the region. They said they are aware of protests over the issue but are not familiar with Tran's group.
Past efforts to rally support among Vietnamese typically have been through Vietnamese newspapers, fliers, radio stations or protest rallies. Extremists have taken riskier steps, such as the pilot who flew over Vietnam dropping anti-communist leaflets.
"The group is using the most powerful weapon that's available in politics," said Rep Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach). "Because of the repressive form of government in Vietnam, this is the only staging area for protest of this kind."
But reversing the land deal is unlikely, Cox said.
The online petition allows organizers to gather support on health care, civil liberties and other issues. "There's no question that Vietnamese Americans can exert significant influence, not only on international relations, but politics on every level, as they have on the debate over trade relations with Vietnam and human-rights issues," Cox said.
Michael Nguyen, 36, a Vietnamese history buff from Aliso Viejo, not only wrote computer code for the petition but helped develop the group's strategic plan. Giving away Vietnam's land and territorial waters is "an issue of security for Vietnam," Nguyen said.
"I feel violated, even though Vietnam is far away, across an ocean," said Ninh, who left Vietnam when he was 10.
"I feel that someone's invaded your home and taken something from your home."