Days after signing an agreement to forge a relationship with a city in Vietnam, elected leaders in Riverside are bracing for hundreds of Vietnamese American protesters who have vowed to gather outside City Hall and demand that officials rescind their pact with the communist country.
Organizers from Little Saigon, an immigrant community where deep animosity remains toward the communist government that controls their homeland, have rented a fleet of buses and said that hundreds of protesters will begin assembling outside the Riverside Civic Center on Thursday.
The group successfully persuaded Irvine to sever a similar relationship with a small coastal city in Vietnam last year.
The Riverside City Council voted in favor of entering a sister city relationship with Can Tho in March, yet activists weren't alerted until officials from the picturesque city in the Mekong Delta flew to California to formalize the partnership this month. Photos of the celebration appeared in local newspapers.
"It doesn't matter that the contract has been signed," said Dr. Huu Dinh Vo, board president of the Federation of Vietnamese Communities of the USA. "If we don't speak up, they will keep celebrating. We care about a country whose people are still suffering -- and we want them to reconsider their agreement."
Vo said the protest was aimed at getting Riverside and other municipalities to think twice about "linking hands with the communists."
Last spring, more than 600 protesters – many bused in from neighboring Little Saigon – gathered at City Hall in Irvine after that city was poised to form a friendship city relationship with Nha Trang. The proposal was abandoned, as was a proposal to form a similar partnership with a city in China – a move that then drew angry protests from Irvine's sizable Chinese American community.
Riverside Mayor Rusty Bailey said the partnership with Can Tho marks Riverside's ninth sister city partnership.
"We have common bonds, common visions," the mayor said.
Bailey said he understands the concerns of the protesters and said several Vietnamese veterans protested when the issue was debate last spring.
The sister city pacts are generally designed to encourage cultural understanding between two diverse areas. "Those goals are the goals we have as a city in all our relationships," the mayor said.
But activists said the partnership with Can Tho, a city known for its colorful canals and floating marketplace, sidesteps the hard reality of human rights abuses in Vietnam.
"If we don't fight back, this will continue," Vo said. "They have to know what it's like living under that kind of regime. Children, adults, no one is safe – no one has real freedom."
Bailey said he welcomes the protesters.