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Biggest Rights Rally Yet in Little Saigon

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A noisy but peaceful flashlight vigil drew 15,000 people to Little Saigon on Friday for prayers and a protest against what speakers called continued human rights violations in Vietnam, Westminster police said.

The gathering was the latest--and largest--in weeks of demonstrations provoked by a merchant who posted a Communist flag and photograph of the late Ho Chi Minh in his Westminster video rental store. The action inflamed the immigrant population centered in Little Saigon, home to the largest Vietnamese community outside Asia.

“The idea here is to promote unity in the community and nonviolence for the protest,” said Diem Hoang Do, one of the organizers. “We want to put the focus on human rights violations in Vietnam.”

The video store owner, Truong Van Tran, is “asking for human rights when [in Vietnam] 75 million people don’t have human rights,” said Bao Mai, a member of Youth for Democracy, a Los Angeles-area group.

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The rally opened at 8 p.m. with prayers offered by clergy from five faiths. It swiftly became massive and noisy, the atmosphere akin to that of a rock concert.

Though the throng in the bustling commercial district was boisterous, it was upbeat, and police reported only two arrests, of men in a nonpolitical fistfight. Instead there were singing, praying and shouting in a show of unity organized by more than 20 Vietnamese student and religious groups.

Westminster Police Lt. Bob Burnett said the largest crowd since the demonstrations began--probably more than 15,000--filled the shopping center parking lot and overflowed into retail parking areas more than a mile away, blocking merchants from their own businesses at times.

The area at Bolsa Avenue and Bushard Street “is becoming very impacted, and we’re having to control traffic by closing some streets,” Burnett said.

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Organizers said one purpose of Friday’s rally, in which flashlights were used instead of candles for safety reasons, was to present a dignified picture of the Vietnamese immigrant population while reiterating its fierce opposition to communism.

Images of anger and confrontation more often have been captured by the news media at past rallies, Do said. During those earlier demonstrations, he said, people were reacting from the deep pain they feel over the issue.

“We feel that emotion may have been misinterpreted, and we want to have a chance to project a more positive image,” Do said. “We want to protest for human rights, not just for the sake of protesting.”

On Monday night, about 10,000 people had filled the shopping center and spilled into nearby streets for a political rally promoted by local Vietnamese-language media.

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Merchant Tran, 37, single-handedly inflamed the anti-communist fervor of the community. Tran told The Times that he hung the Communist flag and portrait of the late Vietnamese leader in his store only to provoke a community dialogue about the current Vietnamese government.

After making four trips to Vietnam since 1990, Tran said, he came to believe there was significant improvement in the well-being of people in his homeland, thanks to the nation’s current leadership. Tran has vowed to fight to keep his Communist items displayed despite the protests and eviction proceedings begun by his landlord.

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Friday’s night’s rally drew a decidedly younger crowd than did earlier protests. Vietnamese and American flags fluttered as speakers took the stage and demonstrators switched their flashlights on and off.

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Speakers chanted “Freedom!” and were answered by the crowd: “For Vietnam!”

Viet Dzung, a singer and deejay on Radio Bolsa, a Vietnamese-language station, was one of those addressing the crowd.

“I would like to take this opportunity to tell the people in Hanoi that they are the losers. And the unity of the Vietnamese community is growing stronger and stronger every day,” Dzung said, to raucous cheers.

Earlier in the evening he said in an interview: “A lot of people were saying the fight against communism is for the old people. Tonight is to show the younger generation that, although they don’t live in harsh conditions, we have to fight to get communism out of the world.”

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