Dozens of supportive Vietnamese Americans filled the Garden Grove City Council chambers Tuesday night as council members voted to support pending federal legislation imposing financial and travel sanctions on individuals complicit in human rights abuses against Vietnamese nationals.
The unanimous city council vote supported House Bill 4254, known as the Vietnam Human Rights Sanctions Act, which was introduced in March by Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton).
“Our support will be part of an ongoing thread and movement in Garden Grove,” said Councilman Kris Beard, who put the issue on the agenda. “We’re sending a profound message that Garden Grove is a communist-free zone.”
The bill would create a list of individuals who would be prohibited from entering the United States and purchasing, importing or exporting property and other financial transactions. The sanctions would only be lifted if Vietnam agrees to free political prisoners, ceases imprisonment of Vietnamese citizens for engaging in peaceful political activity, and conducts a transparent investigation into the killings of political activists.
Dai Pham, who was imprisoned in Vietnam, was one of fourteen speakers who addressed the council in support of the item.
“I was one of the last ten prisoners released after 17 years, and I want to speak up that Vietnam under the communists is the most inhumane regime in the world,” said Pham. “[This bill] would help break loose the dictatorial grip on the Vietnamese people.”
Several politicians also turned out in support of the item, including candidates for city council, Supervisor Janet Nguyen, who is running for the State Senate, her chief of staff, Andrew Do and former Chief of Staff Tam “Nick” Lecong. Do, a former Garden Grove city councilman, had largely disappeared from public life after resigning from Nguyen’s staff in 2010, but went back to work for her in May.
The council’s support for the Royce bill was no surprise. Garden Grove and neighboring Westminster and Santa Ana are home overall to the largest Vietnamese American community in the country. Garden Grove has passed several symbolic resolutions in line with the prevailing anti-communism of the Vietnamese refugee community.
In 2003, the City Council voted to adopt the old South Vietnamese flag, a yellow field with three horizontal red stripes, for official events instead of flying the flag of the current Socialist Republic of Vietnam government.
In 2012, the council passed a resolution discouraging official Vietnamese government delegations from visiting the city. And earlier this year, officials penned a letter to President Barack Obama condemning China for placing an oil rig in the South China Sea close to islands claimed by both China and Vietnam, and urging him to take action on human rights abuses.
Yet Councilman Chris Phan noted the pure symbolism of the city’s actions.
“I hope that this bill passes the Senate and our leadership has the fortitude to put it into effect. Because the Prime Minister on down in Vietnam will be on that list,” said Phan. “Unless our government at the federal level is willing to take this bill to heart — this is all just words.”
Vietnam is the second largest jailer of dissidents, bloggers and cyber-activists after China, with 35 bloggers in detention, according to the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders. There continue to be severe restrictions on freedom of speech, political rights, the right to assembly and practice of religion, according to the State Department.
Meanwhile, the Obama Administration has been pursuing a free trade agreement that could greatly benefit Vietnam, which is responsible for 39 percent of U.S. apparel imports.
Councilwoman Dina Nguyen noted she only received one email about the bill, from a resident who questioned the relevance of the item to the city council.
“The sender asked me, why is the city council even considering this tonight when it’s not city related? Well, I think it’s very related,” Nguyen said. “We need to send a message out – that there’s another place in the world that doesn’t have democracy, and America can affect change. I think we should speak up. I support bill HR 4254. That bill basically says – anyone who participates in the oppression of human rights in Vietnam, they will not be welcome here.”