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Anti-communist demonstrators chant "Freedom!" as they wave miniature yellow flags with red stripes during massive organized rallies against video-store owner Truong Van Tran. But some historians point out that the three red stripes on a yellow background could be taken to represent the succession of client regimes propped up by French, Japanese and U.S. military might-hardly freedom-loving governments.
In a friend-of-the-court brief filed on Feb. 12 in Orange County Superior Court in support of Tran's right to display the Vietnamese flag in his shop, Vietnamese-affairs historian Hong Van Huynh argues that contrary to the demonstrators' belief that the South Vietnamese flag represents "free" Vietnam, the banner was actually created in colonial days, when the country struggled under foreign control.
Japanese officials first imposed the flag on their colonial subjects during World War II. Ho Chi Minh had refused to head the Vichy-like regime under Japanese control, but Bao Dai, the playboy last emperor under French colonial rule, was induced to return from Hong Kong to become the nominal ruler of Vietnam under the Japanese.
According to Huynh, a former member of South Vietnam's air force and now head of the Vietnam-America Friendship Association's California chapter, Bao Dai's Japanese-inspired flag had three red stripes on a yellow background-just like the one favored in Little Saigon today, but with one exception: the center stripe was broken in the middle to represent the Chinese symbol for "propriety."
"Bao Dai thought it was 'appropriate' for him to collaborate with the Japanese," says Huynh.
When the Japanese lost the war and withdrew from Vietnam, the French returned and made one modest change in what Huynh calls the "fascist" flag: they made the red stripes blue to represent three rivers in southern Vietnam. According to the French, the blue-striped flag represented the Autonomous Republic of Cochinchina, which was the southern portion of Vietnam. In 1948, the flag was changed once again, with the three blue stripes again becoming red-this time a solid red-representing the three regions of Vietnam under the French: Tonkin, Annam and Cochinchina. The French went a step further and would not allow their colonial subjects to refer to themselves as Vietnamese.
Huynh argues that the demonstrators "still shamefully wave the French-colonial flag" and are ignorant of its origins. Indeed, he argues that some demonstrators are "Vietnamese traitors" because they served in the French colonial army as mercenaries, even as Ho was seeking to liberate the nation from foreign invaders.
Huynh's position on the origin of the South Vietnamese flag is surprisingly supported-somewhat-by a leaflet on the flag distributed by the conservative Vietnamese Community of Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Dated June 1998 and distributed in Little Saigon on Feb. 26, the leaflet concedes that the flag "championed by free Vietnamese everywhere" is a "new version of a similar flag . . . first flown in March 1945 when Vietnam Emperor Bao Dai reclaimed its independence from France." Huynh smirks at the claim. France never gave Vietnam independence, he points out; the French maintained total control until their forces were trapped and destroyed in the Battle of Dienbienphu in the 1950s and were subsequently forced out of Vietnam.
Huynh attempted to distribute copies of his organization's friend-of-the-court brief to anti-communist protesters outside Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana on Feb. 10, but, according to Huynh, demonstrators chased him down the street. Huynh says he was rescued by officers who took him to a police station to wait out the crowd and that he has since filed a civil suit in Superior Court seeking damages from protest organizers. A date for the hearing before Judge Michael Brenner has yet to be set.
The flag's history is not the only one being revised in Little Saigon. The New York Times recently reported that some demonstrators have told police they might even immolate themselves to protest retailer Tran's act of defiance of his fellow refugees, like Buddhists in 1960s South Vietnam. That analogy is misplaced, however. The monks were not protesting the communists, but rather the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government's crackdowns on religious groups-the very government whose flag the demonstrators now say represents freedom and human rights in Vietnam.