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Vietnam's Flag Raises Hackles in Little Saigon

Garden Grove may follow Westminster in deciding to fly the South Vietnamese banner for official events. City Council meets tonight.

March 11, 2003|Mai Tran and Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writers

Invoking symbols from a war gone by, officials in Westminster and Garden Grove have joined with Vietnamese emigres in a campaign to banish the flag of communist Vietnam from local official functions.

To fly in its place: the yellow banner of the vanquished Republic of South Vietnam.

Garden Grove City Council members are to consider a resolution tonight that would designate the South Vietnamese flag for official functions, mirroring a resolution the Westminster City Council approved unanimously last month.

The flag issue has no effect on foreign policy, but the campaign has drawn outrage from the Vietnamese government, which has complained to state and federal officials.

Flags have long been powerful symbols in Little Saigon, a district that sprawls across the two cities and serves as hub of Southern California's Vietnamese community. Flags have launched controversies there over everything from 1st Amendment rights of free expression to whether protocol allows the South Vietnamese flag to be flown at the same height as the American flag on U.S. soil.

The current campaign first surfaced in Virginia, where the State Department intervened last month to persuade state legislators to kill a measure that would have required the state to fly the former South Vietnamese flag at official functions.

A similar resolution was approved Feb. 19 in Westminster, where the South Vietnam flag hangs in storefronts.

The resolution of Garden Grove Councilman Mark Rosen would affect municipal functions in which foreign flags are displayed. He said the South Vietnamese flag "represents the hopes and dreams and democracy of the Vietnamese people, rather than a flag of conquest, which is what the communist flag represents."

While the State Department intervened in Virginia, a spokesman -- who declined to be identified by name -- said it was unaware of the California efforts and had no comment. But he said the campaign raises constitutional questions over municipal and state interference in foreign affairs, which is a federal responsibility.

The Vietnamese government, which termed the Virginia effort "insolent," has been more aggressive.

Nguyen Tam Chien, Vietnam's ambassador to the United States, wrote to Gov. Gray Davis last month urging him to "take proper measures to stop the resolution" in Westminster because it "goes against international conventions and practices," and is "written in such a very improper language ... full of slanders and fabrications about Vietnam."

Davis spokesman Russ Lopez said the governor's office replied, noting that Vietnam and California enjoy good relations, but that Westminster City Council members are entitled to set their own policy.

The flag of South Vietnam, three horizontal red stripes on a yellow background, was first raised in 1948 under the rule of King Bao Dai in Hue, in the center of the country. The stripes symbolize the north, central and southern regions of the country, and the flag represented Vietnam during its battles with France.

The current Vietnamese flag was flown by North Vietnam and followers of Ho Chi Minh during the civil war that ended with the pull-out of U.S. troops in 1975 -- and that sparked the exodus that led to today's growing Vietnamese American community.

Emotions from that era still exist in Little Saigon.

Tony Lam, the first Vietnamese American councilman in the United States, once was accused by fellow emigres of being a traitor when the communist Vietnamese flag appeared by accident in a newspaper ad for his restaurant. And four years ago, hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Little Saigon after a Vietnamese American shop owner displayed the communist regime's flag and a picture of Ho Chi Minh in his shop window.

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