To be naïve to the sensitivities of a particular community is forgivable; however, to turn a blind eye to a community’s deep-seated concerns when they are brought to your attention is shameful. This is precisely what happened in the City of Irvine, California, when one Councilmember attempted to add the City of Nha Trang in Vietnam to Irvine’s list of “Friendship Cities.” When this individual ignored warning signs that doing so would be an insult to the Vietnamese-American community in Orange County and across the nation, the resounding voice of the community was deafening.
Hundreds of concerned residents, myself included, flooded Irvine’s Council Chamber to oppose a plan that would establish ties with the City of Nha Trang. To anyone who doesn’t have an understanding of the Vietnamese-American community, it may seem out of place to see so many rise up against a “Friendship City” relationship. But to the Vietnamese-American community of Orange County, which is the largest population outside Vietnam, it was a cry against human rights violations, human trafficking and child labor violations.
For more than three decades, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has systematically violated the basic human rights of their own people through arrests, unjust condemnations and incarceration. Community leaders, political dissidents, journalists and ordinary citizens who voice an opinion that contradicts the government find themselves arrested and imprisoned. Many Orange County residents have themselves fallen victim to these abuses when visiting Vietnam.
Specifically, in Nha Trang, journalists have been suspended for reporting on local government corruption, human rights activists have been silenced, and individuals who attempted to participate in a peaceful protest were reportedly beaten and temporarily detained. If Nha Trang’s human rights record was not concerning enough, human trafficking, sexual exploitation of children and child labor have also been an issue.
The fact that Irvine City Councilman Larry Agran proposed a “Friendship City” relationship with any city in Vietnam, much less with Nha Trang, was an insult to the whole Vietnamese-American community of Orange County and to the very tenets upon which the United States is founded: freedom and democracy.
As soon as I found out about Councilman Agran’s plans I asked him and the Irvine City Council to reconsider the agreement, well before their meeting agenda was made public. Instead, Councilman Agran disregarded my plea and decided to move forward.
As someone who came to this country as a refugee, I could not, in good conscience, stand idle while Irvine extended an olive branch to a nation that violates the rights of its citizens.
My family, like many Vietnamese-American families in Orange County, fled on a ten-meter boat sailing across the South China Sea in search for freedom. We were lucky enough to land in the United States, a country that has afforded me all of the opportunities that I would have lacked in Vietnam. Because of this, I feel indebted to this nation and felt an obligation to ensure that Irvine did not establish a relationship with any city in Vietnam.
Following the release of Irvine’s agenda on Friday, the news spread quickly in the Vietnamese-American community. I immediately convened a meeting over the weekend with Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Lalloway, Councilwoman Christina Shea and more than 20 prominent Vietnamese-American community and business leaders. Both Councilmembers were very receptive to my concerns and publicly stated that they would not be supportive of the proposal. Shortly thereafter, Councilman Agran expressed intent to withdraw the City of Nha Trang from consideration for Irvine’s Friendship City Program. However, the item remained on the agenda for Tuesday night.
Early Tuesday afternoon, hundreds of residents began to gather at City Hall, so many that the City had to shuttle people in from nearby parking lots. They packed the Council Chamber and spilled into the hallways while others stood outside waving the American and South Vietnamese flags and chanting protests in the hot sun.
As representative of Orange County’s First District, home to the area of Little Saigon, I was honored to be the first to address the Irvine City Council. I expressed my disappointment for Councilman Larry Agran’s blatant disregard for the feelings of the Vietnamese-American community and asked that the City reconsider the agreement.
In the end, the Irvine City Council may have decided against including Nha Trang as a “Friendship City,” but Councilman Agran’s actions re-opened deep wounds in the Vietnamese-American community, wounds that will not heal until the government of Vietnam ceases to violate the human rights of its citizens.
Some may say that protesting Irvine’s establishment of a relationship with Nha Trang will not do anything to improve human rights in Vietnam, much less address the issues of human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children in Nha Trang. However, what we did was reaffirm that the United States and its cities are committed to the fundamental values of freedom and democracy.
Janet Nguyen was elected to the Orange County Board of Supervisors in 2007 and overwhelmingly re-elected in 2008 and 2012. In doing so, she set many firsts in Orange County politics as she became the first woman Supervisor to represent the First District, the first Asian-American and the first Vietnamese-American to serve on the Board of Supervisors, as well as the youngest Supervisor elected in Orange County history. In addition, Supervisor Nguyen is the highest ranking Vietnamese-American elected official in California and the highest ranking Vietnamese-American woman elected official in the United States.