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January 31, 2003

Va. Legislature in Vietnam Flag Flap

By Bob Lewis

RICHMOND, Va. (The Associated Press) It's a fight about civil war, about North and South, and flying the flag at public schools.

But the Confederate banner has no role in this dispute. It's about Vietnam.

Virginia's Legislature passed a bill Friday requiring the flag of the former South Vietnam America's ally during the war to replace the flag of the current communist government at public schools and state universities, whenever such flags might be displayed.

While the proposal, which cleared the House 68-27, still needs approval of the Senate, the State Department fears it may cause diplomatic friction at a time when U.S.-Vietnam relations are improving.

In seeking to quash the legislation, the department told Virginia's House Rules Committee that the bill amounted to the state conducting its own foreign policy. Department spokesman Lou Fintor noted no other state is seeking to recognize the yellow flag of South Vietnam.

The bill cleared the House on the 35th anniversary of the Tet offensive, launched by communist guerrillas against U.S. and South Vietnamese troops in 1968. The attack shocked Washington in its ferocity and was one of the turning points of the war.

Del. Robert D. Hull, the bill's sponsor, said most of his constituents who are from South Vietnam fled when Saigon fell to communist forces in 1975.

To those expatriates, he argues, the sight of the current Vietnamese flag a single five-pointed yellow star set on a field of crimson is an insult.

On Friday, opponents questioned whether the measure violated free speech rights by forcing the flag of a defunct nation to be displayed.

Business and political exchanges between the United States and Vietnam have started to flourish as the Southeast Asian nation makes fitful efforts to open up its economy.



On the Net:

HB 2829: http://leg1.state.va.us/031/lis.htm
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Vote on Vietnam Flag Ignites Deep Passions
Communist Emblem Painful to Many

By William Branigin and Phuong Ly

(The Washington Post) - Su Van Nguyen fought the communists as an officer in the South Vietnamese army. He endured seven years of torture, hard labor and indoctrination in a communist reeducation camp, he says, before finally coming to America with his family nine years ago. He didn't expect he'd be refighting the war here.

But that's exactly what Nguyen, 53, and countless other Vietnamese refugees say they've experienced at schools and community events with the display, usually inadvertently, of the red flag with yellow star of the communist Vietnamese government -- a flag that, in Nguyen's words, represents "no freedom and no human rights."

For him and others, this symbol of a system they abhor has no place at their school international nights and community diversity celebrations, on the walls of their day-care centers or in the pages of their health pamphlets -- to name just a few places where the Vietnam flag has flown, and drawn protest, in recent years.

Nguyen joined the battle four years ago when the communist flag appeared on a letter sent home from Mosby Woods Elementary School in Fairfax County. He and the parents of 20 other students protested its inclusion in a diversity celebration, and school officials quickly apologized, promising to display instead the flag of the former South Vietnam.

It was just the start. Now the issue is beginning to stir passions beyond the Vietnamese American community, which has at least 45,000 members in the Washington area. Virginia delegates are scheduled to vote today on a bill that would settle the question in favor of the yellow flag with red stripes representing the former government of South Vietnam.

The measure, sponsored by Del. Robert D. Hull (D-Fairfax), survived an effort by the U.S. State Department to kill it yesterday, easily passing its second reading in a voice vote.

The bill, which the State Department said would be the first law of its type in the nation, would mandate that "the only flag depicting the country of Vietnam that may be displayed in any state-sponsored public function shall be the flag of the former Republic of Vietnam."

While seemingly of limited interest, the bill actually has broad reach -- affecting public schools, colleges, universities and other state institutions -- and touches many people at their emotional core. It has aroused sharp complaints from the Vietnamese Embassy and has highlighted divisions within the Vietnamese American community.

Although many see the issue as nothing less than a fight for the soul of that community, others feel that it's time, nearly 28 years after the fall of Saigon, to stop symbolically fighting the war and move on.

Caught in the middle are school officials, whose parents want one flag to represent Vietnam but whose textbooks give them another.

At Anthony Lane Elementary School in the Alexandria area of Fairfax County, a Vietnamese American group wanted the communist flag on display in the cafeteria with other nations' flags taken down. Principal Helene Brower agreed to remove the offending flag earlier this month, but said she did so because the fire marshal told her that all the flags had to come down anyway.

And in Montgomery County, the communist flag was replaced by the South Vietnamese banner in the school system's "Hall of Nations" display at the request of a Vietnamese counselor and parent advocate a few years ago. "We serve the refugees who fled Vietnam," said the counselor, Tuyet Tran.

Not all schools were as accommodating. Vietnamese community activist Nguyen Thi Le, who fled Vietnam in 1975, the year the war ended, said administrators at three Fairfax schools -- Robinson Secondary and Frost and Poe middle schools -- refused her entreaties.

"I asked them, 'Do you fly the Nazi flag? Why are you flying this?' " said Nguyen, 67. "It is very painful."

She said the administrators replied that they couldn't take down the communist flag without approval from higher-ups.

Last week, the school system weighed in, as Fairfax Deputy School Superintendent Alan Leis instructed his principals that "we will only fly the 'current' flag of any country in any display of world flags." Thus, the South Vietnamese flag may be put up "only in a historical display, but never in addition to or in place of the current Vietnamese flag."

"If my bill gets through, they'll have to change that," Hull said yesterday. He said he has received more than 140 e-mails of support from Vietnamese Americans and Vietnam War veterans.

Among Hull's backers is Bao Vu, 40, a computer programmer who fled Vietnam at age 16 and now lives in Annandale with his family. Last year, he said, his 9-year-old son came home from his day-care center upset that the communist flag was on display for international day. Vu complained, and the center switched flags, he said.

But a hair salon owner who declined to be identified for fear of being labeled a communist sympathizer had a different view: "I feel this flag is just like a community flag. Some parents have to understand that the past is over."
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House passes bill requiring flag of defeated South Vietnam

RICHMOND (Associated Press) - The House passed a bill today that would require the yellow flag of the former Republic of Vietnam to be displayed at public events in Virginia, not the banner of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

The bill passed 68-27 on the 35th anniversary of the Tet offensive, launched by Vietnamese Communist guerrillas against U.S. and South Vietnamese troops in 1968. The bill awaits action by the Senate.

Del. Robert D. Hull, D-Fairfax, who represents a sizable Vietnamese immigrant population in his suburban Washington, D.C., district, said most of those people fled South Vietnam when it fell to Communist forces in 1975. To those South Vietnamese expatriates, the sight of the current flag -- a single five-pointed yellow star set on a field of crimson -- is a hurtful insult, Hull said.

The U.S. State Department said the bill was the only one of its kind in any state, and sought to have it killed, saying it could damage diplomatic relations the United States has today with its former adversary.

The State Department also told the House Rules Committee the legislation amounted to Virginia conducting foreign policy, a prerogative the U.S. Constitution reserves solely for the president, said department spokesman Lou Fintor.

Del. Leo Wardrup, a retired 28-year U.S. Navy officer, said he was once so angered by a North Vietnamese flag in Washington during the Vietnam War that he ripped it down. Discord over the past and present flags of Vietnam, however, is not the Legislature's business, he argued.

``Let's just stay out of this,'' Wardrup, R-Virginia Beach, said in floor debate on Thursday.

On Friday, opponents questioned whether the measure violated free speech rights by compelling the display of the defunct nation's flag at official gatherings in schools and other public venues.

``This bill is unconstitutional because the public schools set out in this bill are public forums,'' said Del. Bradley P. Marrs, R-Chesterfield.

Hull countered that the bill does not breach the First Amendment because it does not forbid individuals from flying any flag they choose.
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