Buried at the bottom of a detailed account of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s trip to the G-20 Summit were a few lines on his meeting with Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. Though Vietnam is not a part of the G-20, a grouping of the top 20 economies in the world, Phuc and other leaders travelled to the event for meetings on the sidelines.
“In his discussion with Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the Vietnamese leader raised concerns about five local councils in Australia that reportedly support the flying of the ‘yellow’ flag, which was the flag of the former government of South Vietnam,” reported Fairfax media. “Mr Nguyen asked Mr Turnbull to exert his influence and stop the practice.”
How Turnbull responded to this request in their private bilateral is not known. Like the United States, Australia has been asked to repress the flag before but it still flies freely in many areas of the country where Vietnamese diaspora have settled, many of them refugees from the country previously known as the Republic of Vietnam.
Though an evergreen issue with Hanoi’s communist-led government, not much has been said about it in recent years, especially as new generations of young overseas Vietnamese return to start businesses and repair ties.
Vietnam’s government has long tried to quash the old flag flown by its diaspora in remembrance of the country’s previous division between capitalism and communism, so far to little avail. US freedom of speech laws mean it cannot be banned there.
In 2015, the issue arose uncomfortably in the US at an event marking the 40-year anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.
The US government would not allow the South Vietnamese flag to be flown at its Camp Pendleton base, which received around 50,000 of the refugees who fled the fall of Saigon immediately after the war, as bases may not fly the flag of nations the government does not recognize.
It is, however, recognized as a symbol of the Vietnamese community in a dozen or so US states, including in California’s Orange County and other areas of the state with large ethnic Vietnamese populations. The Garden Grove City Council in California earlier this year moved to reaffirm a previous 2003 resolution that the South Vietnam yellow and red horizontal striped flag is the only recognized flag of Vietnam.
The well-organized and politically vocal community in California, whose older generation leans strongly Republican, flies the flag at various community events. Banned inside Vietnam, pro-democracy groups like Viet Tan also hoist the flag at their overseas events calling for political change. Vietnam War veterans also display it during commemorative events.
In Australia, the Maribyrnong Council in Melbourne, home to suburbs like Footscray with large Vietnamese populations, recognizes and flies the flag.
Viv Nguyen, then the vice-president of the Vietnamese Community of Australia (VCA), told the neighborhood newspaper Star Weekly in 2015, “If people feel strongly about the red flag, good for them, but the [South Vietnam] flag is not representative of another sovereignty,” she said.
“It represents a journey this community started from a very tough beginning.” The “yellow flag” will fly on special days, like Australia’s ANZAC Day, which commemorates the war dead each year with a dawn service.
While allowed at the small council level, Canberra firmly forbids the VCA from bringing the flag to official events in the capital. The Hanoi government regards the flag as illegal and it is strictly banned within Vietnam.
Vietnam’s attempt at political inference might seem unusual for Australia, which more often worries about Chinese political influence or meddling in its domestic affairs.
These have been many, from attempts to influence the Chinese diaspora’s opinions on China’s naval sovereignty to the Kimberley Process debacle in Perth earlier this year, when Chinese delegates interrupted the opening speeches and refused to allow the event to continue until the Taiwanese delegation had left.
However, Hanoi also has a long history of keeping tabs on Vietnamese refugee communities that settled in the West after the war, as documented vividly in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer.
Nothing much will likely come of Phuc’s overture to Turnbull over the flag, something the well-educated and worldly people at Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs would, or should, know.
Vietnam has recently launched yet another harsh crackdown on its dissidents, sentencing several to prison terms for their political opinions. Communist authorities view the flag and the people who fly it overseas as linked to campaigns aimed at undermining or even toppling its rule.
The VCA is regarded with suspicion in Hanoi and its members and associates are firmly banned from returning to Vietnam. Indeed, they are often turned back at the gates of Ho Chi Minh City’s airport upon landing.
Last year the VCA organized large protests in Australian cities against the Vietnamese government’s handling of the Formosa pollution scandal, viewed as one of the country’s worst ever environmental disasters. Many protest leaders were jailed. The Australian protests called on Turnbull to bring political pressure to bear on Hanoi.
Carlyle Thayer, one of the world’s leading experts on Vietnamese politics and security affairs, gave a talk on human rights to the VCA in Dapto, New South Wales, last year.
For this, Thayer believes he may have been prevented from attending the upcoming Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) 7th South China Sea conference in Washington due to pressure from Hanoi. Hanoi’s state-run Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam (DAV) and its associated Foundation for East Sea Studies will be represented and help to fund the conference.
Thayer, an Australian national, said that DAV had imposed a ‘no Australians’ rule for a conference it held on the South China Sea in 2016. CSIS has since said its decision on participants for its conference was made independently.
The dust-up could reflect quiet diplomatic tension between Vietnam and Australia since last year over an incident that saw Australian envoys unceremoniously sent home from Vietnam. There was also displeasure in Hanoi when its aid was cut, owing to overall huge cuts by Australia and Vietnam’s raised status as a lower-middle income country.
Still, Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop and her counterpart Pham Binh Minh met late last year in Canberra to agree upon a bilateral 2016 – 2019 Joint Action Plan. The plan, confirmed by Turnbull, is to elevate Australian-Vietnamese ties to a “strategic partnership”, whereas it currently stands at a lesser “enhanced comprehensive partnership.”
Former Australian leader Kevin Rudd decided in 2009 against improving ties to such a degree. His government’s use of the word ‘enhanced’ was a diplomatic compromise. Despite Vietnam’s previous drive to boost strategic ties, sources say it is Australia that is now pushing for better relations in light of the rising strategic uncertainties in the Donald Trump era.
Possibly as a result, Phuc asked Turnbull for the removal of the South Vietnam flags at a time when Australia is inclined for favors. The troubled Turnbull, still unpopular in Australia and within his own party, will almost certainly not grant Phuc’s wish, knowing the public fight he’ll face over a freedom of expression issue if he does.
Last year the VCA’s Brisbane chapter forced the name change of a hipster Vietnamese restaurant known as Uncle Ho, clipped reference to Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, a man many in Australia’s diaspora view as a murderer.
If communist kitsch can provoke such a visceral reaction, expect a spirited fight to any suggestion to bring down their proud flags.