By LP Hastings
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Just days earlier, Father Nguyen Van Ly had been sentenced to eight years in prison for subversion against the regime. During his sentencing hearing in the central Vietnamese city of Hue, Ly managed to read several lines of a poem before a guard covered his mouth with his hands: "Communist trial of Vietnam/A lewd comedy for years/Judges are a bunch of baboons/Servants of dictators, who are you to judge?" A photograph of the incident swept through the Internet and found its way to the front pages of Vietnamese-language newspapers throughout the world, including Little Saigon—with the notable exception of Viet Weekly.
After Vu returned to Orange County from Vietnam, right-wing activists and Little Saigon media outlets united in a chorus of denunciation over his newspaper's refusal to print the picture, which had become a symbol of perceived religious oppression in Vietnam. In a letter to readers, Vu responded that he and his reporters felt the photograph—and the Vietnamese government's treatment of Father Ly—was a bit more complex than one might think. Vu had visited Nguyet Bieu and interviewed many of Ly's supporters there. "They were very impressed with Father Ly," Vu says. "They said if everyone in Vietnam were like Father Ly, everything would be better. They were very defiant."
But the villagers also explained that Ly's battle with Vietnamese authorities had nothing to do with his religious teachings, but a dispute involving an irrigation ditch the government wanted to build on land next to the church. Asked if they had been persecuted for being Christians, the villagers shook their heads. "We saw people practicing [religion] everywhere," Vu recalls. "There is such a renaissance of religion everywhere. I think the government in Vietnam tried to suppress the leadership of a church to avoid it turning into a powerful force that can mobilize the masses to overthrow the government, but to suppress the common people from practicing? No."
Viet Weekly's editorial mentioned that even Marine downplayed the photograph of Ly being muzzled in court when he spoke about religious freedom at his April 6 press conference, reporting that Marine "affirmed that Father Ly's noisy behavior in the courtroom . . . even in America would be dealt with forcefully."
After Vu published the editorial, the newspaper's critics in Little Saigon declared it had fabricated the statement. When Vu posted an audiotape and transcript of Marine's comments on the newspaper's website (www.vietweekly.com), his critics accused him of misrepresenting Marine's comments because the ambassador didn't actually accuse Ly of being disruptive, but only said that he knew of "certain circumstances in trials in the United States, a judge would order a prisoner who is speaking out to be removed forcefully, so there is a question about decorum in a court of law that may well be the explanation for that step that was taken [in regards] to Father Ly."
Vu denies he fabricated anything. "I stand by the audiotape," he says. "If it is fabricated, then I should be in jail by now, or the embassy would have contacted me. That's the cornerstone of their charge against me. If they can prove that, what is the defense for me? How could I make up Michael Marine talking about religious freedom other than if I were trying to help the communist regime?"
In an e-mail, Angela Aggeler, a press and cultural attaché with the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, said her office was unaware of the controversy surrounding Viet Weekly's coverage of Marine's press conference. "I believe Ambassador Marine's comments speak for themselves, and I have nothing to add to them," she wrote.
The anti-communist uproar against Viet Weekly intensified in Little Saigon a few weeks later, just in time for the anniversary of the April 30, 1975, end of the Vietnam war. Hoping to spark a debate over attitudes about the war in Vietnam and America, Viet Weekly printed two opinion pieces from a Vietnamese-language website. The first article, which ran in Viet Weekly on April 25, had been written two years earlier by University of Michigan professor and Vietnam veteran Keith Taylor, who defended the U.S. role in the war and celebrated South Vietnamese soldiers as heroes. On May 4, the newspaperran an opposing piece by ex-Viet Cong soldier Ha Van Thuy, who attacked Taylor's essay.
"Dear Professor Taylor," Thuy wrote. "Vietnamese people were the first to defeat the colonial French and America." Thuy described Ho Chi Minh as a "world-recognized cultural leader and great personality" and blamed the 9/11 terrorist attacks on U.S. foreign policy. "If I say this, people will think I am evil, but truly the 9/11 attacks were an appropriate price for America to pay for the things it did to the world," he wrote.
That particular line, Vu claims, has been taken out of context by the media in Little Saigon. "They say we praise Ho Chi Minh, that we support al-Qaeda, but these are just two opposing articles and one guy's opinion about 9/11—which is shared by most of Europe," he says. "But we print a lot of opinions that are offensive to the government of Vietnam. But they ignore that and try to take us out by saying, 'Don't read Viet Weekly anymore. They're communist.'"
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