February 9, 2003
Virginians Rally to
an Old Flag: South Vietnam's
House votes to replace the communist banner of the reunified nation at state
By David Lamb, Times Staff Writer
RICHMOND, Va. (Los
Angeles Times) - To Doan Dinh, 60, a South Vietnamese army officer who
fought with the Americans for eight years and escaped by boat in 1975, the sight
of Vietnam's national flag in U.S. schools and at international events stirs
anger and pain.
That flag, with a yellow star on a field of red, does not represent him as an
American, he said. Once the flag of North Vietnam and now the flag of a nation
reunified under communism, it's what he fought against. "It's a symbol of
oppression, killing people and pushing people out to sea," he said. "Seeing it
is a hurtful insult."
So when the Virginia House voted last month to replace the official flag of
Vietnam at state-sponsored events with that of a defunct nation, the Republic of
Vietnam -- commonly referred to as South Vietnam -- Dinh said he "never felt so
The measure was passed by a 68-27 vote Jan. 31, the 35th anniversary of the Tet
offensive, an unexpected attack on South Vietnamese cities, including Saigon.
Critics of the bill said this is tantamount to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam
replacing the Stars and Stripes with, say, a Confederate flag when a U.S.
delegation visits, and the Hanoi government responded with dismay.
"We totally reject this bill," said Bach Ngoc Chien, spokesman for the
Vietnamese Embassy in Washington. "First, South Vietnam no longer exists.
Second, according to the spirit of the agreement that established full
diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam, the two countries
respect each other's flag."
State Department officials said they had never heard of a state replacing the
flag of a sovereign nation and said the bill might be unconstitutional. Its fate
is in the hands of the state Senate rules committee, which may decide this week
whether to kill it, as the State Department wants, or send it to the full Senate
for a vote.
If the bill passes, the most obvious impact would be in public schools, where
foreign flags are often flown in cafeterias or hallways, acknowledging the
diversity of the student body. The Vietnamese American community, numbering
32,000 in Virginia, has been pressuring school boards for more than two years to
take down the Vietnamese flag -- or at least display the South Vietnamese flag
next to it.
"What should not be lost in this debate is that we are American citizens," said
Hung Nguyen, president of the National Congress of Vietnamese Americans. "We
have the right to exercise free speech and to support legislation that we find
amiable. This is a perfect example of democracy: Voters organize and an elected
official responds to the demands of his constituents."
The sponsor of HB2829, Robert Hull -- a seven-term delegate whose Falls Church
area has a large Vietnamese American population -- said the legislation was
intended to honor the wishes of his constituents and the memory of 1,309
Virginians who died in Vietnam, not to make a political statement. He dismissed
Hanoi's protest that the bill was "insolent."
"I don't care what the country of Vietnam thinks," he said. "I don't think
anyone on the House floor does."
In many ways, the debate seemed rooted in the 1970s, with references to
democracy versus communism and Vietnam mentioned as though it were still an
enemy. Hull said in an interview he would "gladly drop the legislation if Hanoi
releases its 50,000 political prisoners." (The figure commonly cited by Western
human rights activities is about 100; Vietnam says it has none.)
Another delegate, Richard Black, a Vietnam War veteran, said on the House floor
that the tongues of Christians in Vietnam's central highlands who taught Sunday
school were cut out and the eardrums of those who had heard Sunday sermons were
punctured with bamboo shards. (A U.S. diplomat in close touch with Vietnam,
though critical of Hanoi's tough response to recent unrest in the highlands, s!
aid the claim was "absurd and untrue.")
"Obviously, the implications of the bill are more symbolic than diplomatic,"
said Virginia Foote, president of the U.S. Vietnam Trade Council, who played an
important role in the establishment of full U.S.-Vietnam diplomatic relations in
"But what's troubling is that it doesn't represent the Vietnamese American
community as a whole, which was very much involved in the process of building a
new relationship between Vietnam and the United States. This bill is about the
past, not the future."