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Why the defunct South Vietnam flag was flown at the Capitol riot

The flag has become a symbol for different things: anti-communism, U.S. imperialism, democracy and recollection of the past.
Protesters seen all over Capitol building where pro-Trump
Supporters of President Donald Trump gather in front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.Lev Radin / Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Ensigns bearing Confederate and neo-Nazi imagery defined the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. But for Vietnamese Americans, it's the sight of a defunct flag — representing a country that ceased to exist nearly a half-century ago — that brought up painful questions about identity, trauma and the legacy of U.S. imperialism.

The yellow-and-red-striped banners of the former South Vietnam flew above crowds of rioters all over the Capitol grounds. Many of the flag carriers were Vietnamese Americans who, in support of President Donald Trump, have often used the emblem to express nostalgia for a lost home and opposition to communism.

"This flag to me is an anti-Communist flag," Michelle Le, a Seattle-based real estate broker who flew the banner at the rally, wrote in a Facebook post, which has been deleted. "It's a reminder of my roots and heritage. I had lived through Communism and I know the tyranny and the pain it had inflicted on many families." (She declined to comment.)

But to community advocates who saw the South Vietnamese flag, or the Yellow Flag, as a symbol of democracy and unity, its presence at a riot was both alarming and infuriating.

"The ideas of authoritarianism, of overturning the people's will, are not the principles that this flag stands for," said Tung Nguyen, president of the Progressive Vietnamese American Organization, or PIVOT. "It's about us being free, and Trump is not someone you can be free under. White supremacy is not something you can be free under."

IMAGE: Trump supporters storm Capitol
President Donald Trump's supporters gather outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

For Vietnamese Americans, the Yellow Flag represents many, often clashing, aspects of the refugee experience. For decades, people have used it to express hatred for a communist regime that banished them from their country. The same sentiments buoyed the group's long-standing loyalty to the Republican Party. (Vietnamese Americans were the only Asian group to favor Trump over President-elect Joe Biden in November.)

But the flag's growing visibility on the far right "opens up a bigger can of worms" for the diaspora, said Thuy Vo Dang, an ethnic studies professor and curator for the Southeast Asian Archive at the University of California, Irvine. (The emblem has even been spotted in Australia at a "Stop the Steal" rally, a far-right campaign that falsely alleges widespread voter fraud against Trump.)

"On the one hand, it's a political symbol," she said, noting that the banner's meaning has shifted over the years depending on "whose voice is loudest." "But on the other, there is this very affective and sentimental personal attachment that many in the refugee community have toward it."

After communist North Vietnam defeated the U.S.-backed South in 1975, scores of South Vietnamese refugees resettled in America. In Vietnam, the North's red flag replaced their yellow one. In the 1990s, Vietnamese American leaders began lobbying local elected officials to recognize the defunct banner as the "Heritage and Freedom Flag" to represent the displaced overseas community. More than 20 states have adopted resolutions to do so.

Image: Pro-Trump gathering in Washington
Supporters of President Donald Trump gather in front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.Stephanie Keith / Reuters

Today, the flag is a permanent, sacred fixture at important cultural events, including Lunar New Year, or Tết, festivals, serving as a totem of solidarity and rebirth. It has allowed people to reminisce about their former lives, Vo Dang said, while giving them the strength to forge new paths in their adopted home.

But as with other emblems of national pride, allegiance to the South Vietnamese banner has also deepened divisions within the group.

In 1999, more than 10,000 residents of Westminster, a Vietnamese American enclave in Southern California, packed the streets in violent protest when a video store owner displayed a poster of Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary communist leader, along with the red flag. On college campuses, domestic and international students have fought over which Vietnamese flag should be flown at graduation ceremonies.

Nguyen, of PIVOT, said it's crucial to acknowledge that the anger of the debate often arises from unaddressed trauma.

"A lot of our elders feel like they did suffer a lot in Vietnam and during the transition here, and they associate that suffering with things such as communism," Nguyen said. "Their emotions are so strong they don't always see what's the real cause of their suffering."

Deepening chasms within Vietnamese American community — along class, age and ideological lines — mirror those in American society at large, said Long Bui, a historian and author of "Returns of War: South Vietnam and the Price of Refugee Memory."

"Most Vietnamese Americans are actually independent, but Republicans are most visible," he said. The younger generation is strongly progressive, he said, but ethnic media tend to amplify conservative voices. The flag, however, "reflects the past and also present and future concerns" for the community, he said. One way to move forward is to recognize the dangers of hypernationalist thinking.

The controversy around the flag's alignment with right-wing causes, Vo Dang said, gives Vietnamese Americans an opportunity to interrogate the accepted narrative about their past.

"Our relationship to the U.S. has always been informed by its role in Vietnam and its so-called role as 'saviors' to us as refugees," she said. The framing conditions Vietnamese refugees to be "forever indebted" to their adopted country, she said, without acknowledging how U.S. military intervention contributed to the destruction of their homeland.

"So when Trump says loyalty to him is tantamount to loyalty to the U.S.," she said, "some people really think they're 'freedom fighters' upholding democracy."

After last week's events, many younger people started questioning their elders' unyielding loyalty to and interpretation of the banner's values.

"This is an opening for us," Vo Dang said, "to hold our leaders to task and ask, 'How can you help us create spaces for dialogue about our difficult past without reducing it to one-liners like, 'This flag is about freedom' or 'This flag is about hate?''"