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    Vietnamese join day of rallies

    A group demonstrates against the Vietnamese government for ceding land to China and against U.S. senators.

    By KATHRYN WEXLER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 23, 2002

    TAMPA -- In the first Tampa Bay area rally by Vietnamese Americans, 100 people took to downtown streets Monday to protest actions by the communist Vietnamese government.

    The local event was part of what organizers said was an international protest Monday. Residents also organized in cities such as Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, where there are large Vietnamese communities.

    Participants said they wanted to call attention to a deal two years ago in which Vietnam apparently ceded a parcel of land along its northern border to China.

    "This is our first protest because we are frustrated," said Thanh Ingalls, 70, a Vietnamese activist. "Even though we've been under the rule of the Chinese and French, we never gave our land to anyone. We want our land back."

    The protest was also aimed at U.S. senators, who haven't yet voted on a bill that would force Vietnam to improve its human rights record before receiving nonhumanitarian aid. The Vietnam Human Rights Act passed in the U.S. House in September.

    Suppression of religion is one problem, demonstrators said.

    "All religion is under the government's control (in Vietnam)," said Phong Nguyen, a computer engineer who pulled two of his sons out of school so they could participate in the protest.

    "For every occasion we want to hire a priest, we have to ask permission from the government," said Nguyen of Plant City. "They control the seminary."

    As Tampa residents watched, the group waved American and South Vietnamese flags along Franklin Street, hoisted signs and shouted Vietnamese slogans. "Freedom!" they occasionally yelled.

    A few held placards with color photos of dead or pained Vietnamese, suffering they blamed on the Communist government. "The Communist Party of Vietnam has committed high crimes of treason," read many T-shirts.

    The protesters were composed of local Vietnamese associations. About 17,000 Vietnamese live in the Tampa Bay area, according to one estimate.

    Demonstrators blamed U.S. Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts, for blocking the bill in the Senate.

    Kerry released a statement Monday saying he and Sen. John McCain, both Vietnam veterans, are against the legislation because they think it will undermine efforts to gain more rights in Vietnam.

    "We're very concerned that denying aid to Vietnam would actually slow human rights improvements while cutting off humanitarian relief already going to some of the neediest people on the planet," Kerry wrote.

    Protesters said they hoped their message would ripple across the Tampa Bay area and introduce their viewpoint to Americans.

    "Six associations are gathered here to ask the government and the people of Hillsborough County to support us and protest the Vietnamese government giving the land to the Chinese government. Our grandfathers protected us and they gave away the gate," Ingalls said.

    But many in downtown Tampa seemed not to grasp the meaning of the protest.

    Jim Crouse, taking his lunch break shortly before noon, was one of the confounded.

    "Something about a communist, a murderer -- I don't know," said Crouse, a federal planner, when asked if he understood the protesters' message.

    -- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Kathryn Wexler can be reached at 226-3383.

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