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Calif. Poster Flap Opens War Wounds

February 22, 1999

WESTMINSTER, Calif. (AP) _ Some view his actions as a fight for freedom of speech. Others see him as a pawn of a foreign government, intent on wreaking havoc in America.

Almost all agree that Truong Van Tran has shaken up Westminster’s Little Saigon, a normally peaceful gathering place for Vietnamese refugees in this sunny Southern California city.

In recent weeks, Little Saigon has attracted riot gear-clad police and raucous demonstrators enraged by Tran’s window display of his homeland’s 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 Tran has reopened wounds they have struggled to heal since the fall of South Vietnam in 1975.

Tran said the emblems had been hanging on the wall of his video store for months without much trouble.

That was before he faxed a taunt to anti-communist activists in the area in mid-January: ``Here, I dare all of you... if you all think you are great, then go ahead, come over to clear me out.″

They called his bluff with round-the-clock demonstrations, with crowds of up to 10,000 screaming protesters. Tran 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.

Tran’s plight has attracted the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which is giving the shopkeeper free legal representation. The ACLU says it’s a freedom of speech case.

But protesters see a bigger picture: Tran as a pawn of the Vietnamese government who wish to intimidate those who fled. 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, 40, who joined 10,000 people 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 has denied having any connection to the Vietnamese government. He told reporters at an ACLU news conference Friday that his family actually fought the communists during the Vietnam War.

Tran said he began displaying the communist emblems after a visit to Vietnam in November, which was his first trip back since fleeing the country in 1980.

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

Tran said he sent the taunting fax after someone had knocked down his picture of Ho. He took down the flag and picture after a judge ordered him to do so, but he re-hung them Saturday after the judge reversed her own decision.

He may have emerged unscathed Saturday thanks to police who surrounded his store, but his troubles aren’t over. Tran’s landlord has ordered him to vacate the property for failure to pay rent and for causing a disturbance.

The California-based Communist Party newspaper Nhan Dan (People) has criticized the United States for what has happened to Tran, saying it is unacceptable that ``extremists″ had been allowed to attack Tran.

Some observers suspect Tran may simply be a media hound who likes the attention.

``We were trying to figure out why he’s doing this,″ said Mark Knowles, a private security guard at the strip mall where Tran’s shop is located. ``The truth is he wants to die famous.″

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