Global Furor Dooms Vietnam Flag Bill
Va. Panel Shelves Honor for Symbol Of Fallen Republic
Sunday, February 16, 2003
RICHMOND -- A proposal to honor the flag of the fallen Republic of Vietnam, an idea that has inflamed passions from Northern Virginia to Southeast Asia, has been sent to die in a Virginia Senate subcommittee that won't meet before the General Assembly adjourns.
The measure, sponsored by Del. Robert D. Hull (D-Fairfax), would have required the flag of South Vietnam to be flown in place of the official flag of the communist government at all public events in Virginia.
To save the spirit of the bill, Hull proposed an amendment that provided the option of flying the flag rather than mandating its display, but senators showed no appetite for a cause with international implications. The flag bill had sparked opposition from the Bush administration, several congressmen and the government of Vietnam.
Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), the sole member of the subcommittee in which the bill resides, said he will not call the subcommittee into session to consider it. "Traditionally, the General Assembly of Virginia adheres to the constitution of Virginia, and it does not empower us to enter into international affairs," he said.
But Hull said he would seek at least a vote in the Senate Rules Committee. "I'm going to write a letter asking for the courtesy to be heard on my bill," he said.
Despite the bill's fate, backers declared at least a partial victory. They said getting this far achieved a primary intent: to assert the political pull of the 29,000 Vietnamese Americans who live in Northern Virginia.
"I think the goal here is that it shows [that] the Vietnamese American community is able to flex its political power," said Hung Quoc Nguyen, president of the Fairfax-based National Congress of Vietnamese Americans. Nguyen promised that come November, when all General Assembly members face reelection, the community will remember "those who supported this bill and ones who didn't support it."
The Vietnamese flag bill appeared last month in a House of Delegates committee where many measures paying symbolic tribute to particular constituencies are sent. Almost immediately after the bill was narrowly approved, Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) received a phone call from the U.S. State Department expressing its dismay. A short time later, the Vietnamese government reacted angrily, denouncing the proposal as "insolent."
Over the past two weeks, the news media in Vietnam have picked up the story, and government officials there have been asked about the proposal during regular briefings. At the state capitol, Hull and Norment said they have received an unprecedented number of calls from U.S. officials, members of the worldwide media and constituents.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage sent a letter this month to Senate Majority Leader Walter A. Stosch (R-Henrico) expressing the department's "deep concerns" about a bill that "could have potentially serious adverse consequences for the conduct of United States foreign relations."
Secretary of State Colin Powell, responding to a letter from Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Dy Nien, said in a letter last week that the department had informed Virginia officials that the bill was unconstitutional and had encouraged them to kill it, a State Department official said.
Hull, who has been criticized by state and federal officials for mucking with foreign affairs, chastised Powell. "While the secretary of state on one hand is trying to get support for going to war against Iraq, it looks like he's doing the bidding of a communist government," Hull said.
Bach Ngoc Chien, press attache for the Embassy of Vietnam, said in a statement that the bill was "very detrimental to the Vietnam-US friendly relationship."
The flag of South Vietnam has a yellow background with three horizontal red stripes, signifying North, Central and South Vietnam. To many Vietnamese Americans who fought under that flag, it represents their lost cause of freedom. They consider the current flag -- which contains a gold star on a red background -- to be an oppressive symbol and a cruel reminder of their suffering.
Nguyen Dinh Thang, executive director of Boat People S.O.S., a Vietnamese American civic group in Falls Church, said that one in eight Vietnamese Americans is a torture survivor or the relative of one, and "when they see that flag it is very traumatizing and very painful for them. I think that the Senate may have missed the point altogether."
Other members of the Vietnamese American community, especially the young, are ambivalent about the flags. They say the struggle to raise the fallen flag is a political effort intended to arouse passion for a battle they did not fight.
"For the majority of us in the younger generation, we do not have the same emotional scars as parents and elders in our community," said Thanh-Thuy Nguyen, a 29-year-old Washington area activist. "This is literally a red flag coming up and reminding us what they've gone through, and that is legitimate. But in a way, they should also teach us how to move on and live our lives.
"This really is just a bill working on people's emotions, anxieties and fears," Nguyen said.
Hung Quoc Nguyen, of the national congress, said: "This is what it is to be an American. You voice your opinions -- sometimes people agree with it, and sometimes they don't."