Invisible Enemies

Who's the real threat in Little Saigon? Ask the FBI.

Yet Tran insisted he has nothing to worry about. "If I can have a chance to talk with the people, maybe they will understand why I am doing this," said Tran. "I am fighting for freedom in the Vietnamese community."

Tran's determination may be outmatched only by that of his opponents. What began in mid-January as a sign-waving stunt by a few dozen demonstrators quickly metamorphosed into a daily protest by hundreds of enraged protesters. In the past two weeks, the protest exploded after police were photographed arresting elderly Vietnamese women who crossed a police line. By the end of the month, up to 15,000 people at a time were estimated to have gathered together in a mass display of Little Saigon's hatred for communism, Ho Chi Minh, and least but not last, Tran himself. In the words of Nguoi Viet's Do, the protest is the first chance many younger Vietnamese have ever had to exercise their free-speech rights as Americans. He calls the protests the equivalent of "a Vietnamese Woodstock."

While his behavior is far more provocative-and some would say downright naive or even crazy-than that of anyone who came before him, Tran is not the first person to take a controversial political stance in Little Saigon. That person would most likely be Tap Van Pham, the former editor of Mai, the Vietnamese-language entertainment magazine now run by his wife and daughter. Around 2 a.m. on Aug. 9, 1987, Pham was asleep at his otherwise empty office on Westminster Boulevard in Garden Grove, when a fire broke out. Pham died of smoke inhalation.

Garden Grove police detectives determined that the fire was intentionally started with gasoline, and they noted that there had been no attempt to make the crime seem accidental. Whoever was responsible had even poured gasoline into Pham's car, which was parked outside, but apparently chose not to light it.

Because of the destructiveness of the fire and the absence of eyewitnesses, police had almost no evidence to pursue. It was well-known that Pham had angered many of his neighbors by accepting-and printing-advertisements for companies that offered refugees an opportunity to send money to relatives in Vietnam. But who might have been responsible for the killing? The mystery appeared to be cut short the day after the bombing, when a cryptic note arrived in the mail at Nguoi Viet Daily News. The typewritten message claimed responsibility for the murder on behalf of a group identifying itself as Viet Nam Diet Cong Hung Quoc Dang, or the Vietnamese Organization to Exterminate Communists and Restore the Nation (VOECRN).

Do said he still remembers police arriving at Nguoi Viet to examine the note, which he remembered had been postmarked Las Vegas. "They asked us all if we had touched the letter," he said. "Many of us had, and they took all of our fingerprints."

According to Tam Thanh Pham, Pham's daughter, her father wasn't killed because of his politics. She said Pham had loaned approximately $70,000 to various Little Saigon businessmen. She believes the note claiming responsibility for the murder was a ruse to throw police off the track. She said she told the FBI as much, and the agency followed up. "Whenever the FBI's Vietnamese-speaking agent interviewed the suspects, [the suspects] already seemed to know he was coming and were prepared with a statement."

One Vietnamese-community activist, who asked not to be identified, recalled that he was rumored to have been involved in Pham's murder by people familiar with his stridently anti-communist views. He claimed he was not involved with the murder but had visited Pham several times to ask him to run advertisements in his magazine for right-wing groups. Pham refused. "Every time I asked, he refused my request," he said. "I wasn't surprised when they killed him."

Besides Pham, four other Vietnamese journalists were slaughtered between 1980 and 1991. They included, in chronological order, publisher Lam Tran Duong of San Francisco, editor Nguyen Dam Phong of Houston, and layout designer Nhan Trong Do and editor Triet Le, both of whom worked for a Vietnamese magazine in Fairfax County, Virginia.

The New York-based CPJ, which documented the murders in a 1994 report, has also documented eight other incidents involving Vietnamese-Americans who were threatened or attacked, including Do. On Jan. 5, 1982, someone shot at Bach Huu Bong, publisher of a now-defunct Vietnamese weekly, as he left a restaurant in Los Angeles' Chinatown. Bong later identified the triggerman as Tai Huu Nguyen, the leader of an Orange County gang. Days earlier, Bong had written an article showing that the gang had been formed by ex-South Vietnamese navy frogmen. Tai was convicted of shooting at Bong, but his sentence was suspended, according to the CPJ report, because "he had no prior criminal record in this country. Bong ceased publishing his newspaper."

On April 30, 1988, French-naturalized novelist Long Vu visited Orange County to meet with former U.S. Congressman Robert Dornan (R-Garden Grove). While here, he was beaten so badly by unknown assailants that he will suffer partial paralysis for the rest of his life. Imprisoned for six years before escaping Vietnam, Vu's crime was that he was rumored to have collaborated with his captors.

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