Hundreds converged on the Irvine City Council meeting Tuesday night to protest a proposed friendship between Irvine and the Vietnamese city of Nha Trang, saying the idea is disrespectful to residents who fled from the country’s oppressive communist regime.
Councilman Larry Agran had proposed the idea but by Monday had pulled back in the face of a growing uproar from the Vietnamese community.
Agran’s withdrawal didn’t stop a huge crowd of outraged Vietnamese residents — many waiving the striped yellow flag of South Vietnam — from massing on the plaza outside City Hall and within the council chambers.
“Down with communists!” a mustachioed Vietnamese man in military fatigues shouted into a bullhorn.
“Shame on you, Larry Agran!” Chanted a woman.
In response to the controversy, the Republican council majority — Mayor Steven Choi and council members Jeff Lalloway and Christina Shea — voted to kill all three of Agran’s friendship cities proposals, including those with Karachi, Pakistan, and Baoji, China, because they didn’t go through the proper bureaucratic channels.
That action then offended a small group of Pakistanis, who walked out of the council chambers after Choi indicated that Karachi supported terrorists. One of them, who said his name was Mohammed Khan, insisted that Choi is wrong, because the Taliban is composed primarily of those “damn Arabs” who are “making a mess around the whole world.”
“How can [Choi] give remarks like that? He singled us out,” said Khan, an immigrant from Karachi. “Is he crazy?”
Orange County is home to the largest Vietnamese population outside Vietnam, numbering more than 180,000, many of them war refugees. Most reside in Little Saigon, which runs through Garden Grove and Westminster.
Agran’s proposal, which is a precursor to a more formal sister cities relationship, touched a nerve still raw 40 years after Saigon fell to communist forces. Scores of people, including nearly 20 elected officials or their representatives, spoke for hours to the council about the issue.
“Nothing could have galvanized the Vietnamese community more than what you did,” said Lan Quoc Nguyen, a Garden Grove school board trustee.
Elected officials who spoke included county supervisors Janet Nguyen and Todd Spitzer, state Sen. Lou Correa, Orange County Clerk-Recorder Hugh Nguyen, Garden Grove Councilwoman Dina Nguyen and Huntington Beach Councilman Joe Carchio, among others.
One of the most common themes highlighted by protesters included Vietnam’s human rights violations.
Clerk-Recorder Hugh Nguyen, who fled to the U.S. as a boy, said his mother's brother was locked up in a forced labor camp for several years. He spoke of a childhood filled with war and “horrible memories.”
County Supervisor Janet Nguyen, who is also a Republican candidate for the State Senate, said Nha Trang arrested journalists for exposing corruption, among other “blanket human rights violations.”
“Shame on you, Mr. Agran, for not thinking twice,” Janet Nguyen said.
Agran said his idea sprang from a proposal by local Vietnamese, including some from UC Irvine, who wanted to see their immigrant experience and civic life “part and parcel of the fabric of our city.”
Agran also claimed to have sought the advice of Irvine Chamber of Commerce President Talia Hart, who told him that emotions over the issue were no longer as frayed.
Choi said during the meeting that he received a text from Hart claiming that Agran never approached her about Nha Trang. Agran said he didn’t mention a specific city but that he, Hart and Choi met with the Vietnamese consul general on Oct. 3.
Agran said he and the consul general exchanged “modest gifts.”
Agran said when he was mayor in the 1980s, he helped reunify five families broken apart by the Vietnam war. He said it took 14 months for the reunification to be complete and took that long because he didn’t have basic lines of communication with local officials.
That’s when he realized moving toward relations, even with repressive governments, was important, Agran said.
“That lesson really stuck with me,” he said.
And while he defended his proposal, he didn’t push for placing it back on the agenda. Instead, he motioned to approve friendship relationships with Karachi and Baoji, dropping Nha Trang from the list.
But the council's Republican majority denied that motion and instead supported a proposal from Councilwoman Christina Shea to make sure cities are vetted for having respect for human rights before being proposed as friendship cities.
Shea, Choi and Lalloway voted for Shea’s proposal. Democrats Agran and Councilwoman Beth Krom voted against it.
The vote included approving a letter to the consul general stating the city supports “freedom and not communism,” condemns “all human rights violations, holding political prisoners, child trafficking, and not allowing full and free media, and not allowing people to worship with freedom.”
This crisis was familiar to the Irvine council. The city’s efforts several years ago to build international relationships with a city in China had offended Taiwanese residents, because the Chinese city’s condition was that Irvine nix relations with a Taiwanese city.
“Let President Obama worry about foreign relations — that’s his job — not here in City Council,” Lalloway said. “And to accept a communist regime as a friendship is insulting to everything we are as American.”
Krom said that there needed to be a meaningful discussion about how to open up countries like Vietnam to democratic and human rights reforms, something the friendship proposal was intended to do, she said.
“How do we have a positive influence on the world?” Krom said. “Because I’ll tell you it’s not going to happen by itself, and if we don’t have influence in those countries, we’re not going to be able to change what’s happening there.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the office designation of Huntington Beach Councilman Joe Carchio. Also, the article misstated which member of Orange County Clerk-Recorder Hugh Nguyen's family was locked up in a Vietnamese forced labor camp.