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Emigres Oppose Visit by Leader of Vietnam

Phan Van Khai will land June 21 in Washington. Whether he will come to Little Saigon is in doubt.

June 08, 2005|Mai Tran | Times Staff Writer

An unprecedented visit to the United States later this month by the prime minister of Vietnam has raised concerns and brought protest threats in Little Saigon, the largest Vietnamese community in the United States.

Prime Minister Phan Van Khai will be the highest-ranking official of his nation to visit the United States since the Vietnam War ended in 1975. His visit, beginning June 21, will include a stop in Washington to meet President Bush. He is also scheduled to tour New York, Seattle and possibly California.

In the last week, local protesters have been organizing against his visit, even though he may not come to Southern California.

"We are going to come out strong," said Lac Tan Nguyen, vice president of the Vietnamese Community of Southern California, a nonprofit organization that aids Vietnamese immigrants. "We have to let him know that he's not welcome here."

The Communist government still rouses the passions of many Vietnamese immigrants. Little Saigon merchants still fly South Vietnam's flag, and residents successfully blocked an official visit by Vietnamese dignitaries last year.

The visit stirs emotions and anger in the anti-Communist emigre community that fled the war-torn country. Many crammed into boats and drifted at sea for weeks before they were rescued by commercial vessels. Thousands were imprisoned. Others were sent to reeducation camps, where they were beaten, tortured and starved.

Several groups, including one calling itself the Committee to Oppose Phan Van Khai's Visit, said they had made banners and raised donations. Ads have appeared in Vietnamese-language newspapers and about $22,000 has been raised toward a $70,000 full-page ad in the Washington Post to run the day Khai will be in the city.

"The Vietnamese Communists are not respectful of our feeling," said Sinh Van Ho, 45, of Garden Grove and a longtime activist planning to go to the nation's capital.

Organizers said the Khai protest could draw a larger crowd than in 1999, when 15,000 protesters and police in riot gear lined Bolsa Avenue after a merchant displayed a picture of the late Communist leader Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese flag inside his store. The protest lasted 53 days.

"Although this protest displayed the people's 1st Amendment rights, Westminster expended an inordinate amount of taxpayers' dollars in the form of public safety funds to help maintain peace, order and safety in Little Saigon," Westminster Mayor Margie L. Rice wrote last week in a letter to Vietnamese Ambassador Chien Tam Nguyen. "We do not want a repeat of these actions in our city."

Even if the prime minister skips Little Saigon, local organizers said they still would protest his U.S. visit June 18. They are coordinating with counterparts in the nation's capital to provide transportation, meals and lodging for protesters. Tour buses have been booked to take demonstrators to San Francisco, where Khai may visit a Vietnamese consulate.

Activists are asking permission from local and county officials to hang the South Vietnamese flag on utility poles and public areas.

Last week, Garden Grove and Westminster sent their letters to the Embassy of Vietnam in Washington and to the State Department, reminding them of those cities' no-Communist zone policies.

The policies require a 10-day notice from Communist Vietnamese delegations that plan to visit Garden Grove or Westminster.

They were passed last year after a six-person delegation from Vietnam was to tour Little Saigon in a motorcade.

Westminster officials said they could not guarantee the safety of the officials, so the public tour was canceled. The officials eventually went on a low-key, private visit.

Officials at the Vietnamese Embassy declined to comment Tuesday.

The Vietnamese community's influence in Orange County was evident Tuesday at the Board of Supervisors meeting, when supervisors voted unanimously to recognize the former South Vietnam's flag as the symbol of the Vietnamese American community in the county.

Supervisor Lou Correa, who introduced the measure, said the flag provided a powerful symbol to the Vietnamese American community in Westminster, Santa Ana and Garden Grove, which are in his district.

Three other California counties, 73 U.S. cities and seven other states have taken similar action, Correa said.

The board's action allows the flag to be flown at county events in the Vietnamese community and at county-owned facilities where a Vietnamese event is taking place.

While in the United States, Khai is expected to sign agreements involving maritime, transportation and adoption issues.

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Times staff writer David Reyes contributed to this report.

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