The nearly 1,300 Vietnamese Americans who filed documents this month in an attempt to recover property and assets in their homeland appear to be out of luck.
According to the U.S. State Department, claimants had to be U.S. citizens at the time they lost property during the Vietnam War to qualify for compensation from the Vietnamese government. More importantly, they were required to file claims by 1983.
Officials with the Vietnamese Community of Southern California, the nonprofit agency that fielded 1,285 new applications for compensation during the past two weekends, said Thursday that they knew about the 1983 deadline and the citizenship rule but organized the drive anyway.
Lien Nguyen, who organized the application drive, said the group hoped to exert pressure on Congress to amend the 1980 legislation that established the rules and allow more recent Vietnamese immigrants to apply for compensation.
The organization also hoped to make a "political statement," he said.
"The communist government in Vietnam does not believe in the right of private property. Everything is owned by the government," said Nguyen, who heads the group's asset claims committee.
"But if we can get them to even just sit down to discuss this with us, then we would have made them recognize that there is such a right. That would be a victory," he said.
A spokesman for the Socialist Republic of Vietnam's office at the United Nations in New York said the Vietnamese Community of Southern California is being too optimistic.
"I want to stress that the Vietnamese government does not have any plans to recognize requests from people who fled in 1975 but who weren't U.S. citizens at the time," said Tran Quy Duc. "Those who are giving them hope are being unrealistic."
David Bradley, counsel for the U.S. government agency in charge of negotiating the claims with the government of Vietnam, said the new applicants will receive compensation only if "the Vietnam government agrees to do so . . . or if they convince Congress to change the law."
Only 192 claimants have been deemed eligible for $99.5 million in private property and corporate assets under applications filed by 1983.
Corporate claimants include such large companies as IBM World Trade Corp., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists Entertainment Co., Warner Bros. Inc. and General Electric Co.
Four Orange County residents--one of Vietnamese descent--filed before the deadline, requesting about $110,000 in lost property and other assets, Bradley said.
They are Robert J. Burns of Westminster, who is now deceased; Cuc Pham Norris of Orange; and Pauline and Richard Wright of Fountain Valley. All seek compensation for the loss of businesses.
"I've been told that there is definitely a good chance that my client will get compensated," said Paul Sowa, a Tustin attorney representing the estate of Robert J. Burns.
Burns was a Westminster businessman who owned Index Corp., which provided food and housing in Vietnam for members of an international committee.
The Vietnamese government owes Burns' heirs about $70,330, without interest, Sowa said. The attorney said he cannot predict when the compensation might arrive.
Nga Nguyen, 55, of Orange, who filed documents last weekend at the Vietnamese Community of Southern California's Westminster office, said she was surprised to learn that she is not eligible to reclaim the two homes she lost in Saigon and Ban Me Thuot, a town in the central highlands. The properties were confiscated by the communist government in 1979, when Nguyen fled to the United States.
"I don't think the law is right," Nguyen said. "First of all, I've never heard of the existence of the law until now and so didn't know in 1983 that I was supposed to file for the loss.
"Second of all, how could I have been an American citizen at the time I lost my home?"
"I guess the law doesn't care about the loss of Vietnamese Americans," Nguyen added. "I hope the Vietnamese community could somehow convince the U.S. government to help us retrieve some of the property that was forcibly taken away from us."
When told that the Vietnamese Community of Southern California was aware of the law, even if she wasn't, Nguyen said: "Well, at least they tried. That's more than I can say about the law."
Congress passed legislation in 1980 authorizing the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, a quasi-independent agency housed in the U.S. Justice Department, to accept appeals for lost property in Vietnam, said Bradley, counsel for the commission.
The law set February, 1983, as the deadline for all applications. The commission finished compiling the claims list in 1986.
The first discussions of the assets were held in Hanoi on Feb. 28 and March 1, just weeks after President Clinton lifted the U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam. The talks are scheduled to continue next month.
Claimants are also seeking 6% annual interest, dating back to 1975, when the Republic of Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese.