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Calif. Poster Flap Opens War Wounds

February 22, 1999

WESTMINSTER, Calif. (AP) _ With its sweet-smelling bakeries and pungent fish markets, the neighborhood known as Little Saigon is normally a peaceful gathering place for the Vietnamese refugees who make this sunny southern California city home.

But in recent weeks, Little Saigon has attracted police in riot gear police and thousands of raucous demonstrators enraged by a shopkeeper’s display of the Vietnamese flag and a poster of the late communist leader Ho Chi Minh.

``This communist flag we call the blood flag. This is like the swastika,″ said Ky Ngo of the Vietnamese-American Community of Southern California. ``What they feel is hurt, anger.″

The symbols, protesters say, are as offensive to the 200,000 ethnic Vietnamese who live in Westminster as a swastika and a picture of Adolf Hitler would be to Jews who suffered during the Holocaust. Many who survived atrocities under Ho’s regime say this has reopened wounds they have struggled to heal since the fall of South Vietnam in 1975.

The emblems hung on the wall of Truong Van Tran’s video store for months without much trouble. Then someone knocked down the Ho picture in mid-January, prompting him to fax a taunt to local anti-Communist activists: ``Here, I dare all of you ... if you all think you are great, then go ahead, come over to clear me out.″

They responded with round-the-clock demonstrations and thousands of screaming protesters. Tran, 37, himself has been assaulted at least twice, dozens of demonstrators have been cited and one enraged woman even rammed her stroller _ with two children inside _ against a police barricade, prompting her arrest for alleged child endangerment.

Among those who view Tran’s plight as a fight for freedom of speech is the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. The group is giving the shopkeeper free legal representation.

But protesters see a bigger picture: Tran as a pawn of Vietnamese government officials intent on wreaking havoc among those who fled their homeland. How the community reacts is a test of whether Vietnamese-Americans can stand up to their former rulers, they say.

``If we lose today, we have no hope for the Vietnamese people,″ said Thamh Nguyen, a 40-year-old salesman who was among some 10,000 people who protested outside Tran’s store Saturday. ``This is a very important event.″

Ngo urged fellow protesters to be nonviolent, then cried nearby as some of them clashed with police. At least 12 people were arrested. Some protesters praised police, but others challenged officers to stand up to Tran in honor of Vietnam War veterans.

Tran denies having any connection to the Vietnamese government.

He said he began displaying the communist emblems after visiting Vietnam in November, his first trip back since he fled the country in 1980.

He concluded that Vietnam under communist rule is better than most Vietnamese-Americans believe, and said he wanted to persuade others in the community to establish better relations with their homeland, he said.

Tran emerged unscathed Saturday thanks to police who surrounded his store but his troubles are not over. His landlord has ordered him to vacate the property for failure to pay rent and for causing a disturbance, a conflict that is apparently headed to court.

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