Clinton Trip to Vietnam:
Reactions from Vietnamese Communities in the U.S.
By Jackie Bong Wright
On this past December 10, 2000, World Human Rights Day, what did President Clinton and his wife, Senator Hillary Clinton, wish for Christmas? Here are some guesses. The President might have been wishing that future history books would include a chapter on his being the first American President to set foot in Vietnam since it became Communist in 1975. Mrs. Clinton may not only have wanted to see the U.S. election laws revised, but also wished that Santa Claus would open Vietnam’s door to a real multi-party, democratic system.
That same day, supporters of presidential candidate Al Gore camped outside the Vice President’s residence on Massachusetts Avenue with placards and banners, asking passers-by to honk their horns for a recount of the 43,000 “undervotes” which the U.S. Supreme Court had ordered frozen. The legal battles in the courts and the shouting matches on the streets were in full swing. Further down Massachusetts Ave, at Sheridan Circle, about a hundred Vietnamese, having traveled from as far as California, demonstrated in front of the “Vietcong” Embassy, as they called it. They demanded that the Vietnamese authorities open their door, free political and religious prisoners in Vietnam, and end their dictatorial reign.
Vietnamese Community – USA
“The Vietnamese Politburo had better follow President Clinton’s advice in implementing trade and political reforms. If not, they will not survive very long if Bush is elected,” said Dr. Truong Ngoc Tich from Dallas, the Chairman of the Vietnamese Community-USA. “ Economic development cannot be achieved without political changes. How can you put laws on paper, not implement them, and keep all the power in the politburo without giving basic human rights to your own people?” Dr. Tich asked. For each of the past five years, he and his wife, in their early eighties, have brought two dozen delegates from Texas to Washington in three annual pilgrimages. They come at the end of April, to commemorate the “Fall of Saigon;” in mid-May, on Vietnam Human Rights Day; and in early December, on the UN’s World Human Rights Day.
Dr. Tich was elected by a coalition of 19 national Vietnamese community organizations across the country, comprising over 100 Vietnamese local associations. Their objectives were to encourage the Vietnamese in the U.S. to participate in the democratic process, and to support democracy and freedom in Vietnam. He, like the heads of the other organizations, had been drafted into the army to fight the Vietnamese Communists alongside the Americans and the other Allied forces during the Vietnam War. He said they have been loyal to the vows they had made when President Kennedy first sent troops to Vietnam, and would go on fighting until the Communists brought prosperity and freedom to the Vietnamese population. They would not rest until democracy was restored in Vietnam, he asserted.
Vietnamese Community – Texas
How do the Vietnamese in the U.S. fight for democracy in Vietnam? “We have done it within the laws of a democratic society, said Truong Nhu Phung, of Houston, Texas. A former colonel in the Vietnamese army and head of the Vietnamese Armed Forces Alumni, was elected by 39 other Vietnamese associations. Over 150,000 Vietnamese reside in the Houston area. Most strongly supported George W. Bush, and prayed that their choice would finally change the Communist regime in Vietnam.
Every year on World Human Rights Day, his group and those from other states start their day by paying tribute to American veterans with a wreath-laying ceremony at the Vietnam Memorial. Col. Phung said that the former Vietnamese army officers would never forget the sacrifices, in life and blood, of their American friends-in-arms. They then move on to Lafayette Park in front of the White House. In protesting for human rights, they are emulating Senator Hillary Clinton, who last month spoke out loud and clear in Saigon, and the many other American citizens who refuse to be muzzled. Col. Phung said that he and his fellow soldiers wanted to keep alive the symbolic light that the President and the Senator allowed to shine in Vietnam.
The Vietnamese-Americans’ second way of fighting for democracy in Vietnam was to send thousands of letters and petitions to the White House. On this Christmas 2000, they asked for a special wish: freedom for a heroic Vietnamese- American citizen, a former Vietnamese pilot named Ly Tong. Six hours before President Clinton landed in Vietnam, Ly Tong, 54, from New Orleans, rented a plane in Thailand and flew over Vietnam, spreading thousands of leaflets around the Saigon area asking the Vietnamese people to rise up against the Communist government during the President’s visit. Back safely in Bangkok, he was greeted by the Thai police and put in jail. Vietnam asked Thailand to extradite him to Vietnam, while a U.S. representative from the American Embassy went to visit him in prison. News of his arrest was circulated via the internet throughout the world, and Vietnamese communities sent petitions to the Thai government, the State Department, the U.S. Congress, and the White House to ask for his release.
Vietnamese Community – California
Mr. Tran Ngoc Thang, Chair of the Southern California Vietnamese Community, and Mr. Nguyen Te Dam, Chair of the Northern California community, collected thousands of petitions and started a legal fund to bail Ly Tong out of prison and hire lawyers to defend him against charges. They joined other delegates and the Washington area Vietnamese Community at the Thai embassy to present petitions for Ly Tong’s release. Their Vietnamese constituents, numbering over 250,000 in southern California, including Los Angeles and Orange County, and nearly 200,000 in the north including San Francisco, Sacramento, and San Jose, the most populated areas of California, have also been concerned with other human rights issues.
The third way of fighting for democracy in Vietnam, said Mr. Dam, was to raise funds for the flood victims of the Mekong delta, and to assist the various religious leaders who joined the peasants in demonstrating against corrupt Communist officials and in asking for freedom of religion. Notable among these religious leaders were the Venerable Thich Quang Do, head of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, who is under house arrest; Father Nguyen Van Ly, a Catholic priest who was released from prison and exiled to a small parish in central Vietnam; and the recently-jailed Mr. Ha Hai and his compatriots from the Hoa Hao Buddhist Church in the Delta. They claimed that their denominations had been infiltrated by Communist elements, and that their members were denied the right to worship freely without being constantly harassed.
The fourth way of fighting for democracy in Vietnam has been to rally thousands of Vietnamese-American community members, done most effectively in California. “We do it very fast, thanks to the six Vietnamese radio stations in our area, whether we are supporting representatives who espouse our ideals of democracy in Vietnam, or protesting against people who empathize with the Communists. Last year, for instance, we gathered over 40,000 Vietnamese to protest against Tran Truong, a Vietnamese businessman who displayed the Vietnamese Communist flag and a picture of Ho Chi Minh, the Communist leader,” recounted Mr. Thang Tran. “This year, we raised funds for Mr. Tran Thai Van, a young and dynamic Vietnamese lawyer who was successfully elected to represent us in the City Council at Garden Grove, Orange County. We also strongly support Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, who, against all odds, paid visits to prominent Vietnamese dissidents during Clinton’s trip to Vietnam,” he said.
Vietnamese Community – Washington Area
World Human Rights Day 2000 culminated with the installation by the Vietnamese Community (VNC) in the Washington Area of board members recently elected by 25 organizations from Maryland, D.C., and Virginia with a constituency of around 60,000. Out-of-town delegates were invited to join 500 other guests at a dinner marking the VNC’s tenth anniversary. Mr. Le Quyen, President of the Executive Committee, introduced the new Board officers, and laid out their plan of action for the year 2001-2002. Welcoming the delegates, he said that his board members would collaborate with other Vietnamese communities around the country to become a strong force.
Le Quyen and his colleagues had written thousands of letters to Dr. Kevin Bowen, Director of the William Joiner Center at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Dr. Bowen received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for the study of the Vietnamese diaspora to help shape U.S. policy towards Vietnam. When he selected two Vietnamese scholars from Communist Hanoi who were former anti-war protesters to do the survey, many disagreed. They compared it to Nazi officers doing a study of the Jews, which, they said, would be biased and manipulative.
They were also very concerned about the fate of the 250 Vietnamese workers hired from Vietnam by a Korean garment company, Daewoosa, to work in Samoa, a U.S. territory. After a few months of employment, the Vietnamese workers denied the required wages promised them, and were treated badly. Last month, an incident happened in which a Vietnamese female worker was beaten up, losing an eye. Many other Vietnamese workers were also injured in the melee. Samoan Congressman Faleomavaega said that he had received calls from two major Vietnamese communities, in California and Virginia, and was helping the woman who lost an eye get a visa to go to Honolulu for medical treatment.
The Vietnamese workers are being represented in court by U’unai’i Legal Service. Some Vietnamese have already gone on their own from the U.S. to Samoa to interpret for the workers in court. Vietnamese communities here have been relieved to learn that the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Department of Public Safety’s Criminal Investigative Division are conducting investigations of the Daewoosa factory.
Mr. Le Quyen said that the fifth way to fight for democracy in Vietnam was for the VNC to continue to team up with local associations to provide services for Vietnamese residents in this area. For instance, for the Lunar New Year at the end of January 2001, the Vietnamese Senior Citizens’ group is organizing a Tet Fair, where Vietnamese doctors from the Medical Association will provide free medical tests. In early spring, the National Institute of Administration Alumni (NIAA) will volunteer to do tax returns, free of charge, for low-income Vietnamese. In the fall, the NIAA will help eligible Vietnamese fill out citizenship forms.
The VNC will also co-sponsor voters’ registration drives with the National Foundation for Vietnamese-American Voters (NFVAV). In April, the VNC plans to hold a Youth Day seminar to encourage young Vietnamese to get more involved on the boards of local public institutions, and to participate in translating and interpreting for Vietnamese in need. Groups will implement horizontal management styles, and work with other organizations not only to build up Vietnamese communities in the U.S., but also to bring democracy to Vietnam.
Did President Clinton plant a seed of democracy in Vietnam with his historical trip? Was it a turning point in the U.S. – Vietnam relationship? Will President-elect G.W. Bush exorcise the Vietnamese Communist ghost? Only time will tell.