It’s Not a Flag They Can Look Up To
The flying of the Vietnamese flag, the potent symbol of a lost war and a stream of refugees, could lead to demonstrations at Cal State Fullerton’s graduation this month by students and anticommunist activists from Little Saigon.
The banner of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, with a gold star on a red background, is supposed to fly with 79 other flags representing the homelands of Fullerton students.
For the record:
12:00 AM, May. 13, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 13, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Vietnamese flag -- An article in the California section May 6 about a debate over use of the Vietnamese flag at graduation ceremonies at Cal State Fullerton incorrectly reported that a similar controversy occurred last fall at the University of Puget Sound. The incident occurred at South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia, Wash.
But students want the yellow and red flag of the defeated South Vietnam to fly along with the Vietnamese flag, said Son-Kim Vo, coordinator of Fullerton’s Intercultural Development Center and advisor to the university’s Vietnamese Student Assn.
“The communist flag is immoral,” said Phu Ngoc Nguyen, 20, a member of the student association. “I want a flag that represents me to be flown.”
Students said they may walk out of ceremonies if the flag of South Vietnam is not flown. They are meeting with community members this weekend to map out more elaborate plans for next year’s ceremony if the university doesn’t agree to their flag compromise.
A committee of eight campus administrators and staff members have met twice to discuss how to keep the commencement from becoming political, said Owen Holmes, the associate vice president for public affairs and governmental relations, who chairs the committee.
“This is a special time for families and graduates,” he said.
More than 8,000 students will attend graduation May 29 and 30, with about 40,000 family members and friends also expected.
About 2,000 students of Vietnamese descent attend the university, which has an enrollment of more than 30,000.
Chien Ngoc Bach, spokesman for the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, urged school officials to hang the flag of his country, which has been recognized by the United States since 1995.
“As an educational institution, the university should teach students about the truth rather than myth,” he said.
The controversy comes a week after officials from Garden Grove and Westminster, home to the largest Vietnamese population outside Vietnam, proposed ordinances to keep trade delegations and officials from the communist nation from visiting Little Saigon.
Several U.S. cities, including San Diego, Houston and St. Paul, Minn., have passed resolutions requiring that the South Vietnamese flag represent the country when necessary at civic events.
Emotions have run strong in the Vietnamese exile community since the fall of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, in 1975, when many supporters of the South Vietnamese government and American intervention were driven into exile or forced into “re-education” camps.
A Westminster video store owner’s display of the communist flag in 1999 sparked months of demonstrations. Others in the fiercely anticommunist community who have shown the slightest support for Vietnam’s government have been denounced as traitors.
International flags were displayed at Fullerton’s graduation for the first time in 1997. Paula Selleck, a spokeswoman for the campus, said the Vietnamese flag was displayed for the first time last year.
Vo, the advisor to the Vietnamese Student Assn., said she thought both Vietnamese flags had flown previously.
The Vietnamese flag that flew last year attracted the attention of at least one man, who climbed a fence and pulled down the banner several hours after graduation, said Lt. Will Glen of the university’s police department.
When police asked that the flag be returned, he handed them a South Vietnamese banner instead.
Fullerton is not the only college to have problems displaying the Vietnamese flag. Vo said that a few hours before commencement at Santa Ana College two or three years ago, people noticed the Vietnamese flag was being flown. Members of the Vietnamese community complained to university officials, and all international flags were taken down, Vo said.
Last October, officials at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., faced similar protests after they hung international flags, including one from Vietnam, to decorate the campus. The campus refused to back down when students complained.
Because of its proximity to Little Saigon, Fullerton has a special relationship with the Vietnamese community. Fullerton President Milton A. Gordon said he has been told the campus has the largest number of students of Vietnamese descent of any university in the country.
Since the late 1990s, the campus has cultivated a closer relationship with the Southeast Asian country, including at least two visits to Vietnam by Gordon.
Cal State Fullerton has agreements with five Vietnamese universities for a variety of collaborations that include faculty visits. In addition, 31 students from Vietnam attend the Fullerton campus.
Vo said the flag controversy began after last year’s graduation. She said a Little Saigon newspaper blamed the Vietnamese Student Assn. for allowing the university to fly the flag.
She said the students sent a petition to Candy Mink, the dean of students.
Mink said she didn’t remember the petition but recalled meeting students between the end of December and the beginning of February. “I listened to those concerns and the university leadership is addressing them,” she said.
Xuan Vu, a board member of the Vietnamese American Public Affairs Committee, who has been working with the students, said the South Vietnamese flag is an important symbol.
“We’re not doing this to keep out the Vietnamese government, but it’s a clear message of representation,” she said.
“We’re saying, ‘No, the communist government does not represent us.’ ”