U.S. cancels visit to Little Saigon by Vietnam officials

Local leaders in Calif. couldn't guarantee safety of Communist delegation

April 25, 2004|By Mai Tran | Mai Tran,LOS ANGELES TIMES

The State Department has canceled a weekend visit to Southern California's Little Saigon by Vietnamese Communist Party leaders after Westminster, Calif., officials said they could not guarantee their safety.

The trip to the largest Vietnamese community in the United States was planned by the Vietnamese government and intended as a gesture of good will to improve relations with expatriates who fled or migrated.

The delegation, which will visit Los Angeles today and San Francisco, New York City and Washington in the days ahead, planned to tour the Little Saigon business and shopping district by motorcade, escorted by California Highway Patrol officers.

But anti-Communist activists in Little Saigon said the visitors would be unwelcome. Protesters had planned to demonstrate, wave South Vietnamese flags and even toss eggs when the motorcade drove by.

"It's like taking Fidel Castro down to Little Havana in Miami," Westminster Councilman Andy Quach said of the delegation's plans.

Many immigrants who fled their homeland when South Vietnam fell in 1975 remain firmly anti-Communist. Before fleeing, many were imprisoned in so-called re-education camps where they said they were beaten, tortured and starved.

The fact that the visit would come just days before the community's commemoration of the fall of Saigon stirred even more anger.

The former premier of South Vietnam, however, described the cancellation as a missed opportunity.

"It's time to sit and talk with them," said Nguyen Cao Ky, a Southern California resident who returned to Vietnam this year for the first time since Saigon fell. "Whether it's here or in Vietnam, it's the right thing to do."

The State Department said the visit, which began Thursday and ends Friday, was requested by Vietnamese officials.

Thanh Phuc Nguyen, vice president of the Vietnam National Assembly and chairman of the assembly's Committee on Foreign Affairs, is leading the six-person delegation. Nguyen is scheduled to meet next week with John R. Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, to discuss security issues.

"The government of Vietnam has been making a lot of effort to reach out to the Vietnamese community overseas," said Chien Ngoc Bach, a spokesman for the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington.

The Little Saigon stop was canceled Friday afternoon after two police departments warned federal officials that the group's safety could not be guaranteed.

"We just wanted to make the State Department aware of the contentious feeling of the Vietnamese community in this area regarding someone of his affiliation," said Westminster Police Capt. Mitch Waller, referring to Nguyen. "It would be very difficult for us to guarantee his safety if he comes to our city, having experienced what happened in 1999."

In 1999, about 15,000 demonstrators rallied for 53 days in front of a video store after its owner hung a picture of Communist leader Ho Chi Minh and the Communist flag.

"The anti-Communist sentiments among members of this community are as strong, if not stronger, than anywhere else in the world," Garden Grove Police Chief Joseph Polisar wrote in a letter Friday to a federal law enforcement officer.

"I urge you in the strongest possible terms to avoid bringing representatives of the government of Vietnam to the Little Saigon area," Polisar wrote.

Delegation officials declined to comment.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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