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

Today, Vo is a full-time student, working toward a business law degree. He spends whatever extra time he has defending his older brother from a deportation order. "I dedicated myself to improving Vietnamese politics," he says. "It didn't matter what organization I was with; we just tried to contribute to our goal of improving the politics in Vietnam. In that time, the organization was a good thing."

Vo believes the situation in Vietnam has gotten much better. "The effort of many Vietnamese Americans and Vietnamese overseas, as well as the struggles of many in the country, has improved the situation there," he says. "We send a lot of support to people in the country, so they can feel more brave and speak out more."

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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

The first signs the American government was souring on the GFVN appear in a note dated Oct. 22, 2004. Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Marie Huhtala told a Vietnamese minister that the Department of State was working on the extradition of Vo Duc Van and had asked the FBI to look into the organization. But by 2005, nothing had happened, and the Vietnamese government grew increasingly anxious.

"This is the second request we have received from the GVN [government of Vietnam] for assistance with Nguyen Huu Chanh and the Government of Free Vietnam in Exile," the cable, dated Jan. 3, 2005, reads. "Chanh and his group are seen as a serious threat by some in the GVN and clearly monitored closely. Embassy believes that any information we can provide to the GVN on Chanh and his group would be well-received in Hanoi."

"Vietnam has many times presented the case of Nguyen Huu Chanh to the Americans," reads a rough translation of the Vietnamese request. "Nguyen Huu Chanh not only has undertaken many terrorist activities against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, but also is being sought by the international office [of] Interpol for the smuggling of arms and terrorism. The issue of Nguyen Huu Chanh and his collaborators, who are planning to organize a 'National Convention' and to 'establish a Government' on Jan. 2, 2005, on United States territory, is a provocation that cannot be accepted by Vietnam. This activity not only aims at undermining the Government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam—an autonomous nation, having diplomatic relations with the United States—but also aims to divide the ethnic unity that Vietnam is working hard to develop. At the same time, this activity goes against the direction of growing positive relations between Vietnam and the United States."

The request concludes, "Consequently, Vietnam proposes to the United States to take appropriate measures to prevent Nguyen Huu Chanh and his collaborators from organizing this so-called 'National Convention' mentioned above, as well as other activities of a hostile nature against Vietnam, and at the same time requests that the United States collaborate with Vietnam to arrest Nguyen Huu Chanh and render him to Vietnam for trial."

By this time, the Vietnamese government had tracked Chanh for decades, listing the addresses of every place he'd stay, every house he'd live in. It took the efforts of the United States' main ambassador in Vietnam to calm the country's concerns about Chanh and the GFVN. In a cable dated Jan. 18, 2005, from Vietnamese Assistant Foreign Minister Nguyen Duc Hung to U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Michael Marine, Hung said he was alarmed that the GFVN "planned to open a representative office in Washington, with an opening ceremony scheduled for Feb. 12."

"You must prevent this," the assistant foreign minister stressed. "If not, it will be extremely harmful to our relations. You must prosecute him for his crimes. . . . Please take action. . . . If [the opening of Chanh's Washington office] occurs, everything we have achieved to this point will be lost.'"

Marine's office replied less than a month later. "Responding to AFM Hung's question about Chanh's reported plans to open a GFVN office in Washington, D.C.—in front of which would fly the flag of the old South Vietnam—the Ambassador said that we have to keep things in perspective," the cable read. It noted that a GFVN convention held in Anaheim that had alarmed the Vietnamese government was a "non-event," adding that Chanh's plans to open an office wasn't illegal.

"It may be better to ignore Chanh than to draw attention to him," Hung responded.

After that cable, no additional direct references to Chanh or the GFVN were made by the government of Vietnam. By this point, GFVN members were continuing their campaigns of supposed terror. In September 2005, three American citizens—Nguyen Thuong Cuc, Huynh Bich Lien and Le Van Binh—and four Vietnamese nationals were arrested in Vietnam for attempting to set up pirate-radio transmitters under the direction of Chanh and the GFVN. As with the first GFVN followers to be arrested, Cuc, Huynh and Le were charged with crimes against the state, a charge that carries a punishment of between 12 years in a prison camp and death.

However, unlike the original arrestees and Vo, Cuc, Huynh and Le received help from a source who could legitimately apply pressure to Vietnam—then-United States Senator Mel Martinez (R-Florida). The 2005 arrests came at a crucial time for U.S.-Vietnam relations, right before Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization. Before American companies could benefit from the lower tariffs, a bill granting Vietnam permanent normal trade relations needed to be passed by Congress. Before the bill could come to a vote, the senator, who counted Cuc as one of his constituents, put a hold on the bill. After the hold was in place, the Vietnamese government quickly granted a trial. After one day in court, on Nov. 10, 2006, the group was sentenced to 15 months in prison, with credit for time already served. The U.S. citizens were deported back to the United States by the end of the year.

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