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March 17, 2003

Vietnamese police bust virgin-trafficking ring

HANOI (Deutsche Presse-Agentur) - Police in southern Vietnam have arrested three women and one man charged with running a prostitution ring that specialized in offering virgins and sending sex workers to Taiwan, a police official said Monday.

The bust stemmed from a March 12 raid on a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, which found four prostitutes with four clients, said the policeman, who declined to be named.

The four sex workers led police to arrest Tran Huu Mai, Nguyen Thi Hong, Nguyen Thi Nam and Tran Ngoc Duc on charges of organizing prostitution, the policeman said.

Nam toured the rural provinces surrounding Ho Chi Minh City, and promised to find Taiwanese husbands for the young women she recruited, the policeman said.

Mai and Hong kept the women in two apartments in the southern city and organized clients. Duc worked at a hotel and organized the liaisons between the women and customers, policeman said.
When the girls that Nam recruited were brought to the southern business capital, they were forced to work as prostitutes to pay for their passage to Taiwan, the investigative police officer said.

The madams charged clients about 32 dollars per night. If the girls were virgins, the madams prostituted the young women for about 500 dollars per night, the policeman said.

The sex-workers had to pay the madams 50 per cent of their earnings, the policeman said.
Customers included foreigners and wealthy Vietnamese, and dozens of women had already been trafficked to Taiwan by the gang, the policeman said.

When the sex workers saved up enough for the airfare they were taken to Taiwan on tourist visas and forced to work as prostitutes there, the policeman said.

When their visa expired after six months, the brothel owners told police to arrest and expel them from the island in order to avoid paying the women, the policeman reported.

One of the prostitutes arrested on March 12 was deported from Taiwan and arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on March 8, without a cent, the policeman said.

She was forced to come back to the ring and ask for work, said the policeman.

Under Vietnamese law, if convicted, the defendants will face between five and 20 years in prison.


Flag Clash: Flying in the Face of Unity
To some, the push by Vietnamese Americans to use the symbol of their former regime raises a cultural issue: lack of assimilation.

By Scott Martelle

(Los Angeles Times) - Gary Greer wolfs down a sandwich outside his Garden Grove barber shop as he contemplates the intricacies of national sovereignty, diplomatic relations and the loaded question of which Vietnamese flag -- that of the victorious north or the vanquished south -- should fly at official city functions.

Neither, he decides.

"I don't know why they have to fly their flag," said Greer, 66. "It's the same thing with the signs they put on Brookhurst [Street]: 'Welcome to Little Saigon.' It's not 'Little Saigon.' It's Garden Grove."

Here on Garden Grove's commercial Main Street, a block-long strip that is more memory than urban core, a debate over which Vietnamese flag to fly has stirred passions.

For Vietnamese emigres who flooded into the area in the years after the Communist victory in 1975, the flag of South Vietnam represents a lost past.

But for many longtime -- and mostly white -- Garden Grove residents, the flag represents something else: the growth of an insular group of new neighbors slow to assimilate into American culture.

It is the friction between two groups clinging to separate pasts even as they lurch toward an uncertain future.

Once a mostly white farm town, Garden Grove has undergone a profound change, part of the urbanization of Orange County's older communities.

In the 1990s, Garden Grove's population shifted from white majority to ethnic plurality, with whites, Latinos and Asians each accounting for about one-third of the city's 165,000 residents. A critical part of that shift was the number of Vietnamese residents, which more than doubled in the 1990s to about 35,000, or 21% of the city's population.

There are now more Vietnamese Americans in Garden Grove than in neighboring Westminster, home to the Little Saigon business district and the de facto cultural heart of the Vietnamese American society.

"Our community is now rated as one of the most [ethnically] diverse in California ... and we all get along," said Chamber of Commerce President Connie Margolin.

Unlike immigrants from Mexico -- another sizable ethnic group in Garden Grove -- the Vietnamese fled as political refugees, and many still hope to return and overthrow the Communist government. They are more exiles than immigrants, and have a powerful attachment to symbols of the land they left.

"We are a political community, not an economic community," said Van Tran, a Vietnamese American member of the Garden Grove City Council.

Partly in recognition of the growing Vietnamese presence -- and the political power of the flag of the former South Vietnam -- the City Council last week voted unanimously to fly the yellow banner at official functions, snubbing the red flag of the current regime. Westminster adopted a similar resolution last month, part of a campaign the Vietnamese government denounced as "insolent."

The Garden Grove council also urged the school board and county and state legislators to take similar action. Assemblyman Ken Maddox (R-Garden Grove) was already working on a measure that could be submitted soon, but local school officials brushed the issue aside.

"The board handles educational issues, not political issues that are out of our hands," said Garden Grove schools spokesman Alan Trudell.

Some longtime residents such as Greer, the barber, question why the issue came up.

"I don't see any other flags flying here," he said, gesturing down the street where light poles hold American flags above baskets of pink geraniums. "There are no German flags, no French flags. The Mexicans are here as much as the Vietnamese, and you don't see any Mexican flags. I just don't understand that."

Down the street in the Rainbow Room, a dark-paneled bar that's been in the same spot and under the same ownership since 1954, the talk on a recent afternoon was mostly about baseball and spring training.

At one end of the bar, Tom and Debbie McConnell nursed midday beers and talked about changes in the city in which they grew up. Strawberry fields and orange groves that no longer exist. Houses packed into what once were open spaces. And the reverse: a vast parking lot behind the bar, once a neighborhood.

"A lot of people are moving out," Debbie McConnell, 44, said as she listed relatives and friends who no longer call Garden Grove home. They helped form an exodus that dropped Garden Grove's white population by 19,000 during the 1990s, while a similar number of Vietnamese Americans moved in.

"It's been changing for a long time," Tom McConnell, 45, said as he poked a lime wedge into his Mexican beer.

Debbie McConnell doesn't like to think of the changes in ethnic terms, but it's hard not to, she said. What might seem like a strong sense of solidarity in the Vietnamese community can be seen from the outside as willful isolation. "They are kind of taking over," she said.

Across the street, Joanne Miura, 49, and Roy Robbins, 47, talked in his used-book store about the delicate task of weighing the desires of one ethnic community against the needs of a multi-ethnic city.

"I can see why they have such feelings for [the flag], because it represents something to them that's just a horrible memory," Robbins said. "But whether local government should get involved, I don't know about that."

Miura, whose grandparents emigrated from Japan, grew up in Garden Grove when she was one of only a handful of Asian students in high school. She remembers being uneasy speaking Japanese in public. And she can remember no local debates over flying the Japanese flag. The situation never came up.

Miura saw last week's Garden Grove council meeting on local television and "was amazed at how animated" the speakers were. She fears the emotions signal a long wait before the divides between Garden Grove's ethnic communities are bridged.

"I can see them wanting to hang on to their old country, but it separates them from the rest of the community," Miura said. "It's nice to hang on to what was, but there's also a time to let go."


Foreign envoys meet Vietnam's top dissident Buddhist

HANOI (Agence France Presse) - The head of a banned Buddhist church in Vietnam has met foreign envoys for the first time in 20 years, the International Buddhist Information Bureau (IBIB) said Monday.

Two diplomats from the European Commission met Thich Huyen Quang, 86, on Wednesday in his room in a Hanoi hospital where he has undergone surgery to remove a feared cancerous tumour, the IBIB said in a statement.

The meeting was confirmed to AFP by a European source. A diplomat from the US embassy also met Quang, head of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), the statement said (without giving details of topics discussed during the visits.)

"The discussions were frequently interrupted by nurses, doctors and several people not wearing name tags who asked the diplomats to leave the hospital, ostensibly so they could attend to venerable Tich Huyen Quang," it said.

"Finally, a doctor cut short the visits and asked the diplomats to leave."

The Vietnamese authorities refused Friday to allow AFP to visit the monk, who has been under house arrest in the remote central province of Quang Ngai since 1982.

After the visits eight European diplomats met Thich Tue Sy, another member of the UBCV, the IBIB said.

The meeting focused on attempts by authorities to "change Buddhism into an instrument of the communist party," it said.

Thich Tue Sy expressed concern about "the suppression of Buddhism in North Vietnam from 1945-1975 and the continuation of these policies in the south after 1975."

The EBUV has been banned in Vietnam since 1981, when the sole Buddhist organisation allowed in the country, the Buddhist Church of Vietnam, was established.

The church's number two, Thich Quang Do, 74, was sentenced to two years of house arrest in June 2001 mainly for having launched an appeal for democracy in Vietnam.

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