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A fight for Viet flag

For immigrants, old banner is a rallying point

It is not the first time the Boston City Council has ventured into foreign policy. But this time, someone out there is actually taking notice.
Two weeks ago, the council unanimously passed a resolution to recognize the "Heritage and Freedom Flag" as the official symbol of Boston's Vietnamese-American community. That flag, with its yellow background and three red horizontal stripes, is also the old South Vietnamese flag.

And that has upset officials of the Vietnamese government, which the United States officially recognized, with full diplomatic relations, in 1995.

Officials of the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington came to Boston last week to visit city councilors, to explain that the official Vietnamese flag is the one associated with what used to be called North Vietnam, a yellow star on a field of red. The Vietnamese officials argued that, if any Vietnamese flag is to be recognized at City Hall, it should be that one, because Saigon fell in April 1975 and relations between their nation and the United States have been cordial for years.

Flying the other flag is "disrespectful to the entire nation," said Bach Ngoc Chien, press attache of the Embassy of Vietnam.

"A small minority of Vietnamese-Americans who claim themselves representatives of the Vietnamese-American community living in Boston aim at sowing division, rekindling the past hatred and painful pages of the history between our two nations and among the Vietnamese themselves, running counter to the aspirations and interests of the two peoples," he said. "This could potentially set an undesirable precedent to other ethnic communities in Boston."

But the councilors, who so far this year have debated resolutions to condemn the war in Iraq and to laud the Dixie Chicks for their opposition to the war, are unmoved, now that one of their proclamations has sparked a diplomatic fracas.

Councilor Maureen E. Feeney of Dorchester, who sponsored the resolution, refused to meet with the Vietnamese officials. "I felt no need to meet with the communist representatives," she said."We're not talking about Vietnam. We're talking about Vietnamese-Americans, who have come to this country and do not want their flag to be the flag of the regime that drove them out of their country."

But the embassy officials, including Vu Dang Dzung, deputy chief of mission, did meet with Councilor Maura A. Hennigan of Jamaica Plain. But Hennigan made it clear that she stood by her vote. She also invited community activists, who challenged the Vietnamese officials on the nation's human rights record.

"If they feel they would like that flag to be the symbol of their community in our neighborhood, it's important for us to support them in that," Hennigan said. "The gentleman from the embassy said, `We don't agree,' and what I said to him is, `What you feel in Washington, that is in Washington, and we here in Boston support our community here.' "

The resolution was worded to limit its effect to the local Vietnamese community, in an attempt to avoid diplomatic unpleasantness. The resolution states that the council "supports the recognition of the Heritage and Freedom Flag as the official symbol of the Boston Vietnamese-American community."

And confining the resolution to Boston's Vietnamese-American community keeps it within City Council rules prohibiting motions that do not have "a direct bearing on the business of the council," a rule which killed the Iraq and Dixie Chicks resolutions earlier this year. About 100 Vietnamese-Americans, clutching the older Vietnamese flags, crammed into the middle section of the council's gallery to view the vote. When every councilor voted in favor of the resolution, they sent up an enormous cheer. A recess was called so that order could be restored.

"The old flag represents us; the communist flag reminds us of a very painful past," said Mary Truong, an activist in the Boston Vietnamese community.

The 2000 Census counted nearly 11,000 Vietnamese-Americans in Boston, the second largest Asian population after Chinese-American residents.

"We received hundreds and hundreds of signatures and calls and e-mails asking us to support this," Feeney said. "As one gentleman said to me, `We left Vietnam with nothing but our flag.' They really feel like they need to claim this as their own."

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