The Government of Free Vietnam Is No Republic for Old Men

From Garden Grove, the organization tried to bring down its former country's Communist regime. Instead, it gave American diplomats a giant headache

By 1999, the SEC also got involved and won a suit against C.S.I. Ag., claiming the promise of Chilean gold reserves "materially undermin[ed] the safety of the investment." An arrest warrant was issued for Pierce; in 2001, Pierce and several associates were found guilty of large-scale international investment fraud unrelated to the GFVN. He's currently serving a 20-year federal prison sentence connected to that scheme.

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As diplomacy grew between the United States and Vietnam, Nguyen Huu Chanh and the GFVN became a larger and larger headache for the two countries. By then, the group had already been incurring the wrath of governments.

Nguyen Huu Chanh: Labeled a “Terrorist” by the Vietnamese government
Riley Kern
Nguyen Huu Chanh: Labeled a “Terrorist” by the Vietnamese government
Nguyen Huu Chanh and delegates
Courtesy Special Collections and Archives, UC Irvine Libraries / Government of Free Vietnam Publicity and Organizational Materials collection (MS-SEA009)
Nguyen Huu Chanh and delegates

In 1999 and 2000, GFVN members living in Thailand and Cambodia were arrested for allegedly attempting to smuggle explosives and anti-government leaflets into Vietnam, where they planned to distribute and use the items. Tried in Ho Chi Minh City—the former South Vietnamese capital of Saigon—in 2001, the individuals received sentences of up to 20 years. None of their names was publicly released, appearing only in diplomatic cables and the Congressional Record as part of a list of political prisoners submitted by our very own Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach). The trial put the Vietnamese on alert, and they began leaning on a network of spies and diplomats to try to flush out the GFVN in Vietnam and beyond.

In October 2001, tipped off by Thai police, Orange County Sheriff's deputies arrested Vo Duc Van of Baldwin Park as he stepped off a plane at John Wayne Airport. He faced charges in the United States for using a weapon of mass destruction in a foreign country connected to an "attempted bombing" of the Vietnamese embassy in Bangkok the year before. Vo's detention—and possible extradition to Thailand and, even worse, Vietnam—was widely publicized and kicked off protests and marches in Orange County. In 2002, hundreds marched in Santa Ana and held a two-day hunger strike, hailing Vo as a folk hero.

"We want to stand behind him. He's a freedom fighter," Chanh told the Los Angeles Times at the time.

The charges in the United States were dropped after Thailand requested his extradition, however. Meanwhile, Vo's older brother, Vinh Tan Nguyen, was arrested in Manila for a similar bombing attempt on the Vietnamese embassy in the Philippines. Vietnamese authorities said the bombs failed to explode, but Vo claimed he defused them before they could because Vo didn't want to harm innocent people.

FBI agents visited the GFVN's offices in November 2002 twice to ask Chanh about its activities. Under the Neutrality Act, it's illegal for U.S. citizens to support military action against foreign nations during peacetime.

"I answered with the truth because I have nothing to hide," Chanh told the Times. "I am a freedom fighter for my country, and I am ready to face any retribution, even if I will die.

"I didn't do anything wrong in the United States," he continued. "The FBI does their job and asks me questions, and I do my job to fight for my country."

Between 2001 and 2008, Chanh and the GFVN appeared more than 20 times in U.S. diplomatic cables from Vietnam obtained by the Weekly. The first mention is made in passing, but the second was much more serious.

"MFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] Americas Department Deputy Director Pham Van Que presented to A/DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] on Sept. 19 a non-paper on alleged 'terrorist' Nguyen Huu Chanh," reads a diplomatic cable dated Sept. 24, 2003. The note accused Chanh of being a terrorist ringleader who would travel to Laos and Cambodia to "recruit and train people to produce, use mines and bombs," as well as "purchase grenades and explosives for terrorist activities against Vietnam."

It explicitly mentions seven occasions between 1999 and 2001 on which the Socialist Government of Vietnam alleged Chanh ordered terrorist attacks—incidents that led to the first batch of arrests.

Nothing came of this, but the anti-GFVN overtures persisted. In a cable dated June 30, 2004, regarding a meeting between the Deputy Chief of Mission Raymond Burghardt and Bui Dinh Dinh, the director of the Ministry of Foreign Affair's Consular Department, Bui commented that the broader relationship between Vietnam and the United States was going "quite well," but was still hindered by "two 'obstacles to trust'"—one of which was Chanh.

"He [Director Dinh] also claimed that Nguyen Huu Chanh, as leader of the Free Vietnam Movement (a.k.a. Free Vietnam Alliance) worked to 'incite terrorist acts' in Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines," the cable stated. "Dinh argued that the U.S. speaks out often against terrorism, but does nothing to stop terrorists living in the U.S. from conducting terrorist acts."

By then, Vo was a cause célèbre in the United States. Though U.S. charges were dropped, he remained in federal custody for years in Los Angeles while waiting for extradition to Thailand. When he ran out of appeals, hundreds protested again, hoping President George W. Bush or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would intervene. Vo Duc Van was extradited in 2006 and found guilty in 2007 for attempting to bomb the Vietnamese embassy in Thailand. He was initially sentenced to 24 years in prison, but it was reduced to 12 because of a confession. After being released early in 2011, he returned to his home in Baldwin Park.

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