Several Orange County elected officials and hundreds of Vietnamese American residents are telling the city of Riverside to sever its new relationship with Can Tho, Vietnam, citing the communist nation’s record of human rights abuses and the jailing of writers and dissidents.

Early Thursday morning, three buses of protestors, equipped with signs and South Vietnamese flags, left Hanoi Plaza in Westminster and headed for Riverside city hall.

Although Riverside council members first approved the agreement in March, protestors caught wind after the city finalized the relationship at a ceremony last week, sparking protests from Vietnamese refugees and veterans across Southern California.

Several elected officials, including State Senator Janet Nguyen and Congressman Alan Lowenthal (D-47th), have called on Riverside to nix the relationship with Can Tho, a city just south of Ho Chi Minh City, otherwise known as Saigon.

Westminster council members Wednesday signed a letter opposing the partnership, and Garden Grove will consider a similar resolution at their Feb. 10 meeting.

It has been more than 39 years since Saigon fell, and since then, many Vietnamese travel freely to Vietnam to visit family, travel and do charity work.

Yet the wounds of war and immigration are still wet, and many refugees and activists oppose official government and business relationships with the Vietnamese regime

In a letter to Riverside city officials, Fountain Valley Mayor Pro Tem Michael Vo wrote of his own memories of the fall of Saigon in 1975, when he was 12 years old.

“Many churches and temples were converted to government meeting places. Priests and Monks were placed in concentration camps for their beliefs. The Communists jailed my parents so they could take house we lived in, the movie theatres we owned, and the farms that had belonged to us for several generations,” Vo wrote.

He noted the country’s record of human rights abuses and restrictions on freedom of expression. Vietnam ranks fifth in the world for the jailing of reporters and journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“Riverside’s sister city, Can Tho, has a government that suppresses virtually all forms of political dissent, using a broad array of repressive measures,” Vo wrote. “Freedom of expression, association and public assembly are tightly controlled. Religious activists are harassed, intimidated and imprisoned. State-run drug rehabilitation centers exploit detainees as forced laborers making goods for local markets and exportation.”

Forming international sister city relationships has grown increasingly controversial as Orange County’s immigrant population grows.

Last April, Irvine city councilmembers killed a proposal for a relationship with another Vietnamese city, Nha Trang, when more than 600 people, many  from Little Saigon, showed up to protest.

Several years prior, a similar attempt to befriend a city in China drew opposition from 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,” councilmember Jeff Lalloway said at the time. “And to accept a communist regime as a friendship is insulting to everything we are as American.”

In response to the controversy, Riverside city officials released a statement saying that, while it”respects all viewpoints and the rights of everyone to express themselves,” the relationship is a venue for “direct, person-to-person conversations on issues of mutual interest to people all over the world” and the city “looks forward to further developing those bonds with the people of Can Tho.”

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