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O.C. Group’s Visit to Vietnam Angers Faction

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A trade delegation sponsored by Orange County’s Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce will travel to Vietnam in September for an unprecedented meeting with President Le Duc Anh and other top government officials, the chamber announced Thursday.

The 10-day trip, which will mark the first time that top leaders of the Vietnamese government have received a delegation organized by Vietnamese American expatriates, immediately sparked protests from Vietnamese Americans who steadfastly oppose closer ties with the Communist regime.

The U.S. delegation, however, will include only a handful of Vietnamese Americans, along with other business representatives eager to improve trade between the two countries.

“This is historic in that as far as we know, no other Vietnamese groups have been able to set up something of this magnitude with Vietnam,” said Hien Phan, executive director of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce. “We hope it will be successful, and we hope it will only be the first of many such delegations.”

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Wary of hostile reaction from Vietnamese Americans, chamber officials, who said they have been planning the trip for several months, attempted to keep it a secret.

But news of the tour leaked in the Vietnamese press Thursday. Immediately, one of the largest organized Vietnamese-American groups in the Southland announced that it would stage a protest at a business seminar the Vietnamese chamber is conducting Saturday.

“We don’t want anything to do with the Communists, and we don’t want anything to do with people who support them or do business with them,” said Quyen Van Le, president of the Vietnamese Community of Southern California. “As long as there is a Vietnamese community, there will be protests to anything that proposes that we work with the people who destroyed our lives and made us refugees.”

The chamber billed the trip, scheduled Sept. 30 to Oct. 9, as an “historic trade mission to Vietnam.” It is co-sponsored by the Asian Business League of Southern California.

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About 25 people--including bankers, developers, academics, immigration attorneys and representatives from medical, trading and industrial companies--have verbally committed to go, Phan said. He and other officials declined to identify any of the delegation’s members, but said most are not ethnic Vietnamese.

“We want to protect their privacy and we want to protect them from harassment,” Phan said.

According to the chamber itinerary, delegates would visit Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. In Hanoi, they are to meet Oct. 3 with President Anh , Communist Party General Secretary Do Muoi, Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet and Deputy Prime Minister Phan Van Khai.

They are also scheduled to talk with Minister of Foreign Affairs Nguyen Manh Cam and officials of the Hanoi People’s Committee, which governs the city. Delegates also will meet with officials of the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City.

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According to chamber literature, the delegation will seek to “promote goodwill” between the two nations, expose the American business community to the Vietnamese investment process and help build relationships between business people in the two nations.

Co Pham, president of the Westminster-based Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, said he has received numerous “verbal” assurances from representatives of the Vietnamese government that the delegation will meet with President Anh and other top Vietnamese officials. Pham said he is waiting for written confirmation of the meetings, without which, he said, the trip will not occur.

“For companies contemplating . . . business in Vietnam, this trade mission will introduce you directly to top decision-makers who will assist you in formulating your investment and trade strategies,” chamber officials advertised in a letter sent Aug. 2 to various business people throughout the state and elsewhere seeking additional members for the trade delegation.

“I want to make sure that the trip is worthwhile for those participating, and that they meet the very people who could help them if they choose to do business with Vietnam,” Pham said. “This is a business trip for business people. This is not a political trip.”

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In the Aug. 2 letter, chamber officials demanded that delegation members promise not to “distribute or disseminate any political and ideological literature or material in Vietnam.”

For the most vocal conservative Vietnamese Americans of Orange County, there is no dividing line between political and business relations with the Vietnamese government.

The lifting of the U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam by President Clinton in February brought the promise of closer economic ties between the two nations, but at the same time heightened tensions in Orange County’s Vietnamese community between those who supported Clinton’s decision and those who did not.

A Times poll taken shortly after the embargo was lifted found that 54% of the Vietnamese living in Southern California favored full diplomatic relations with Vietnam and the lifting of the trade sanctions, while just 20% voiced opposition to those moves.

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The survey of 861 Vietnamese residents, conducted between March 28 and April 19, had a sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

On Thursday, after news of the impending September trip was publicized, the Vietnamese Community of Southern California, which lists membership of 5,000, faxed letters to Little Saigon Radio, various Vietnamese organizations and conservative Vietnamese newspapers, encouraging people to join its protest Saturday at a chamber-sponsored seminar in Anaheim. The seminar, co-sponsored by West Coast University in Orange, is for business people interested in investing in Vietnam.

Pham “is trying to undermine our fight and belief, which is absolutely no dealings with the Communists until human rights are restored,” said Duy Sinh Nguyen Duc Phuc Khoi, editor of the newspaper Tu Do, which published a scathing editorial against Pham Thursday. The editorial accused the chamber of “becoming the Chamber of Commerce of Hanoi.”

“Meeting with the highest ranking officials of Communist Vietnam will only mean lining (the government’s) pockets,” the editor said. “It will not mean improving the lives of the 73 million people in the country who are living in miserable poverty.”

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Pham “has done many things that offended us before,” said Le, president of the Vietnamese Community of Southern California. “But this is the worst he’s ever done. He’s going to shake hands with the most powerful of our enemies.”

Last year, hundreds of people demonstrated outside of Pham’s Westminster office after he hosted a Vietnamese ambassador to the United States at his Huntington Beach home. Pham received numerous death threats and hired a bodyguard.

Pham said he is prepared for similar pressure this time.

“I’m just doing what I think is right, and what I think will help business people here in the U.S. and the ordinary people in Vietnam,” he said.

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“I wish people who don’t agree with me would agree to meet and talk to me instead of just fanning hysteria.”


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