Organizers of a refugee reunion to mark the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon have canceled plans for a ceremony at Camp Pendleton because they will not be allowed to fly the South Vietnamese flag on the Marine base.
The Vietnamese American community would not be allowed to fly the flag on the base in San Diego County because it is the emblem of an "unrecognized country," said Jason Johnston, spokesman for Camp Pendleton. The United States has diplomatic relations with the communist government in Hanoi.
"U.S. government law does not allow the flag of an unrecognized country to fly on federal land," he said.
The commemoration event, originally scheduled to be held April 25, will be moved to a new location in Orange County, possibly in Little Saigon, officials said. But a specific site has yet to be determined.
The Orange County Fairgrounds – which the last two years has hosted the Vietnamese community's biggest celebration, the Tet Festival – is already booked and organizers are looking at parks and community centers to find a replacement big enough to accommodate an estimated 5,000 people.
"We are committed to making it the best [ceremony] for our community," said Sophie Tran, the event's communication's director. "We're absolutely thankful for what Camp Pendleton has done for us, but the flag and our anthem is so important – especially on this day."
South Vietnam fell to communist rule in 1975. But the country's beloved flag - yellow with three red stripes - is still used in all Vietnamese American community celebrations.
"For this gathering to be meaningful, we must have our flag and our national anthem," Tran said. "It would not be the same without it."
Since Tran and her organizing team learned of the "non-negotiable directive" from the Department of Defense and the State Department regarding the flag, they have been scrambling to find a new location that they hope to announce by Monday.
Team members initiated contact with Camp Pendleton officials a year ago about the commemoration event because the base had been the point of entry for many refugees to their new life in America.
"I know how rare it is to have a gathering on that special land," Tran said. "I'm heartbroken, but we want to stress that the event is not canceled. We will continue with our mission -- No. 1: to honor those who came before us; and No. 2: to share the stories of our humble beginnings with the younger generation."
"This is a bitter pill to swallow," event Chairman Duc Thien Ngo added, but the location change is needed "to maintain the unity of the Vietnamese American community."
Many in the immigrant community had hoped to visit Camp Pendleton on April 25 because they wanted to see a replica of the village where refugees stayed upon their arrival in 1975. The village, complete with tents and mess hall, had been erected specially for the event.
Anaheim businessman Henry Pham said he was disappointed that the Camp Pendleton ceremony was canceled but is happy that the commemoration event will still take place with the flag.
"Wow. I could not believe it when I heard about it," Pham said of the cancellation of the event at the base. "If you still have the event at the camp and the flag is absent, there could be massive protests. But you can't disappoint everyone who wanted to be there. This is a remarkable moment for Vietnamese Americans – 40 years. Four decades of resettlement and we have transformed ourselves. We need to pay attention to this date."