Flag Protest Turns Into Political Rally 10,000 Strong


What began as a protest against a Communist flag at a Westminster video store drew more than 10,000 people Monday to a massive political rally for freedom in Vietnam.

Police said the crowd, which overflowed the shopping center and jammed nearby streets, was the largest in weeks of demonstrations in Little Saigon. Vietnamese immigrants are protesting shopkeeper Truong Van Tran’s display of the Communist Vietnamese flag and a portrait of the late Communist leader Ho Chi Minh.

“For us this is about more than Mr. Tran,” said protester Tony Le, 47, who said his father was killed by Vietnamese Communists.

The crowd chanted, sang patriotic songs and listened to a series of speakers calling for reform in Vietnam.

Despite a carnival-like atmosphere marked by colorful South Vietnamese flags and patriotic musical performances by local artists, the mood at the rally was solemn. “This is not a party,” said Vinh Pham, 16. “It’s a political demonstration--we didn’t come here to party.”


Tran Trong Dat, a community leader and protest organizer, said the major media attention paid to the event is a chance to send a message worldwide: “We need to fight for freedom and democracy in Vietnam.”

Protests began on the eve of Martin Luther King Day when Tran, 37, posted the flag and portrait, saying he wanted to encourage fellow Vietnamese to view their homeland in a new way. The reaction was immediate and intense--hundreds of people began daily vigils and demonstrations at the shop. A judge ordered Tran to remove the offending items but later reversed the decision.

The protests have erupted into violence at least three times, twice against Tran and once against a man the crowd believed to be pro-communist.

Over the weekend, protected by a police escort, Tran returned the items to the back wall of his shop.

On Monday, as the crowd spilled into the streets adjoining the strip shopping center on Bolsa Avenue and jammed balconies of a mall across the street, merchant Tran was served with a lawsuit filed by his landlord to evict him for allegedly not paying his rent, failing to provide adequate insurance and creating a public nuisance.

Nancy Kaufman, Tran’s lawyer, said she considered the legal action “very defensible” and would file a response within a week.

“It would certainly be a lot easier and cheaper for everybody if the various parties involved could work out a way to live amicably,” she said, “although it seems kind of grim right now. Apparently, people are so outraged by this picture that they’re coming to see it from miles around.”

Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Rights Commission, said protest leaders, who vow to continue their vigil until Tran is evicted, are negotiating with Westminster police on an agreement to allow the demonstrations to go on without affecting other businesses.

“I expect that an agreement will be reached in the next few days,” he said. “I don’t expect people who have suffered a war like these refugees have to be able to leave their pain and anger behind. I just hope that we are able, through mediation, to keep the situation safe for the peaceful demonstration of those feelings.”

Noticeably absent Monday were uniformed police officers. The city had said that police would keep their distance unless the protest turned violent. To help ensure order, protest organizers had provided their own security guards, many of them war veterans dressed in South Vietnamese military uniforms.