A few weeks ago, an FBI spokesman offered The Orange County Register a less-than-dramatic news flash: the bureau is monitoring the activities of communist agents in Little Saigon. The news that the FBI monitors foreign agents and that some of those agents might operate in Little Saigon should surprise no one. But in the context of 15,000-person-strong demonstrations and hysterical attacks on communists, the Register's sensational story added new urgency-and, for some, credibility-to the massive demonstrations outside the video store of Truong Van Tran, a man many demonstrators have labeled a communist. "It doesn't take much to be called a communist," said Westminster police Lieutenant Bill Lewis. Tran's crime was to hang a poster of Ho Chi Minh and a Vietnamese flag on the back wall of his Hi Tek TV and Video store. But Lewis complained that the Register's story about the presence of communist spies-accompanying stories about the city's high-profile protests-has only raised the level of paranoia in the already paranoid Little Saigon.
The danger isn't hypothetical: in Little Saigon, being called a communist can get you killed. While the FBI boasts of its ability to track communist spies in Little Saigon-many of whom apparently assume the identity of jailed or dead ex-South Vietnamese officials-the agency prefers not to discuss a far-more-serious threat to life and liberty in the Vietnamese community: right-wing extremists culled from the ranks of Vietnamese immigrants with U.S.-supplied training in the art of terror. Such groups are suspected of being responsible for at least five unsolved murders in Vietnamese communities throughout the U.S. since the early 1980s-all of them execution-style killings of Vietnamese journalists.
The FBI hasn't ignored Little Saigon however. As recently as two years ago, the FBI went so far as to pay for advertisements in Nguoi Viet Daily News and other Vietnamese-language newspapers across the country, asking readers to inform on suspected communist spies. Would-be informants were instructed to call a Mr. Bo Cau at a Bay Area telephone number. For weeks, the FBI's hot line was inundated with Vietnamese callers taking advantage of the chance to accuse one another of spying for Hanoi.
To the outside world, including the FBI, Little Saigon is an impenetrable world of exiles, organized crime and extreme anti-communist politics. Unlike many other Vietnamese enclaves in the United States, its residents include not only refugees who fled Vietnam's communist regime, but also scores of former high-ranking military officers and officials of the South Vietnamese government. Since the end of the Cold War in 1989, the killings of political dissidents in neighborhoods like Little Saigon have stopped, according to a 1994 report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). What hasn't stopped is the fear that the killings will start anew-perhaps set off by the kind of anti-communist hysteria sweeping Little Saigon over the past several weeks.
One of the Vietnamese journalists who managed to survive the wave of terror is Yen Ngoc Do, former editor of Little Saigon's Nguoi Viet Daily News. In April 1990, Do's name turned up on a hit list circulated by anti-communists in Little Saigon. Do's troubles started when a local television broadcast he produced briefly-and inadvertently-aired the image of a Vietnamese flag. According to the CPJ report, an unidentified group threatened to execute Do and other Vietnamese-community leaders on the anniversary of the fall of Saigon.
The paper took the threat seriously. The year before, a Nguoi Viet delivery truck parked in front of the newspaper office had been set ablaze. Scrawled on the wall of the building was the following message: "Nguoi Viet, if you are VC [Viet Cong], we kill." Do's last offense as editor was to be quoted in a New York Times article about companies doing business in Vietnam. On Sept. 28, 1994, following an angry protest and threatened boycott by 300 people, he resigned, although he retained his post as Nguoi Viet's publisher.
Do appeared downright nervous while being interviewed last week. His hands shook continuously as he spoke. He refused to discuss his resignation in detail. "I didn't want to invite any more trouble, so I resigned," he said evasively. "There is freedom to publish here, but not freedom of expression. There is no room to disagree in this community."
Although few things are more dangerous than being branded a communist in Little Saigon, Tran seems strangely unworried about his predicament. Instead, Tran, 37, insists he's just like most of his neighbors in Little Saigon. In 1980, like millions of others, he fled Vietnam on a rickety wooden vessel crammed with 90 people. After four months in a Thai refugee camp, the then-17-year-old Tran arrived in Little Saigon, where he met his future wife, Kim Nguyen. In America, the couple prospered. Tran learned how to fix televisions and VCRs and opened Hi Tek TV and Video in a mini-mall at the corner of Bolsa and Bushard in Westminster. To complete their pursuit of the picture-perfect American Dream, they have raised two children. Like many other Vietnamese-Americans, the couple gave their kids European-sounding first names, Fritzi and Don Washington-the latter after the American revolutionary leader.
Meanwhile, curiosity about Vietnamese history led Tran to read books about the life of Ho Chi Minh. Last November, Tran finally cashed in on his interest in Ho and paid a first-time visit to Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital. Like many American visitors, including several U.S. congressmen who arrived after the U.S. government normalized relations with Vietnam in 1994, Tran found Hanoi to be a beautiful city full of friendly people who liked Americans. More to the point, Vietnam seemed much less repressive and impoverished than the country he remembered fleeing 18 years earlier. The day after he returned from Hanoi, Tran decided to hang the portrait of Ho Chi Minh in his store and risk the worst label that could be pinned to a Vietnamese in Little Saigon: being a communist.
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.
According to the CPJ report, on Aug. 3, 1988, Tu A. Nguyen, publisher of Viet Press, and two other people were "sentenced to death" in fliers stapled to telephone poles in Westminster shortly after the trio visited Vietnam.
Behind these attacks was one common thread: the victims had all rubbed their anti-communist neighbors the wrong way. More disturbing, the CPJ notes, was the presence in many of these incidents of the same organization that had claimed responsibility for killing Pham in Little Saigon: the VOECRN. The group's name first surfaced in 1982, when Houston police discovered it on a note left next to the body of Houston journalist Nguyen Dan Phong. The note contained a list of names of several other Vietnamese journalists whom the VOECRN had also sentenced to death. One of those was Triet Le, who, along with his wife, was shot to death outside their suburban Virginia home eight years later.
According to the CPJ, which cited anonymous law-enforcement sources, the VOECRN's "suspected masterminds were influential members of the Vietnamese community and former members of the South Vietnamese government and armed forces." The CPJ also quoted police sources saying they suspected a link between the VOECRN and legal anti-communist groups that, among other things, raised money to lobby for a toughening of U.S. policy toward Vietnam and published anti-communist magazines.
One such group is the California-based National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam, which is more commonly called the Front, or Khang Chien, which means "resistance forces" in Vietnamese. Led by the late Hoang Co Minh, a former admiral in the South Vietnamese navy, Khang Chien modeled itself after the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan contras, raising money from Vietnamese exiles in America to support a liberation army based in Thailand. At least one Vietnamese journalist to die at the hands of the VOECRN, Le, had written articles critical of Khang Chien and Minh. Unlike its shadowy, terror-prone counterpart, however, Khang Chien over the years has boasted many members, including storeowner Tran's wife, Kim Nguyen. Throughout the 1980s, its members wore brown uniforms, attended political rallies, and sold copies of their magazine on street corners in Little Saigon.
"I gave money but wanted to see results," explained one former contributor. "They later admitted that their 'army' was made up of Thai and Cambodian people acting as soldiers and that they were using the money to live the high life in Bangkok."
Amid increasingly convincing reports that the organization and its supposed Thai-based liberation army was a fraud, support for the movement dwindled in the late 1980s. In 1991, a federal grand jury indicted five Khang Chien members for tax evasion and posing as a nonprofit organization after an investigation revealed that the group spent its money on personal expenses instead of on weapons to attack Hanoi. Nonetheless, according to UC Irvine student activist Ao Vai, who uses a nom de guerre, some of the organization's members are helping to provide uniformed security assistance for the anti-Tran rallies in Westminster.
While the CPJ report noted that police believe the VOECRN has been "dormant" since the early 1990s, it pointed out that the group could resurface at any point. "There has never been a thorough federal investigation into the possible links among these murders," the CPJ concluded.
One source involved in the investigation said local police departments were stymied by their lack of Vietnamese-speaking informants. Further complicating access to the community, he said, "was the undercurrent of suspicion that these ex-South Vietnamese army guys were somehow protected by the CIA-plus the very factual knowledge that these guys were ruthless and well-organized."
Nguoi Viet's Do believes the group has either gone underground or dissolved. "In Vietnam, people were trained in this type of action by the Americans," he said. "They are more prepared than the people who blew up the building in Oklahoma City."
While the FBI is happy to acknowledge its efforts to monitor communist spies in Little Saigon, the agency refused to discuss what it knows about the group that has caused the most trouble: the VOECRN, the death squad that claimed responsibility for Pham's murder. Nonetheless, FBI records show that on April 9, 1992, the agency began a federal racketeering and terrorism investigation into the secretive death squad.
Even that information was difficult to obtain; the FBI finally provided it in response to a 3-year-old Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Weekly. The records also show that in the mid-1970s, the FBI investigated a Washington, D.C.-based anti-war journal named Nguoi Viet Doan Ket, which is unrelated to the Nguoi Viet Daily News in Little Saigon. Evidently, the FBI suspected that the D.C. paper had been infiltrated by communists. While the results of the investigation are unknown, the documents reveal an early and quite keen interest on behalf of the FBI when it came to spying on the Vietnamese community in the United States.
Most of the FBI records released to the Weekly are heavily redacted by FBI censors. Page after page is filled with nothing but black stripes. The FBI also withheld 31 pages relating to its activities in Little Saigon because, it argued, releasing the information might compromise U.S. national security.
Meanwhile, the members of the secret death squad that killed Pham and has claimed responsibility for a reign of terror across the country have never been identified, at least not publicly. Twelve years after Pham's murder, the Garden Grove Police Department said the case is still open, but only because it remains unsolved. Over the years, police have worked with FBI investigators to find Pham's killers, but according to Sergeant Mike Hansfield, neither agency has so far been able to produce any leads or suspects. "We haven't done any recent follow-up investigation on this case," he said. "It's kind of sitting here because we don't have any information to go on."
Hansfield also said that the investigation has been hampered because residents have been too afraid to speak to the police. "Whenever you have a violent incident like this, in which someone is capable of firebombing a newspaper office," said Hansfield, "people are going to be less than cooperative because they know they could be next."
Former CPJ director Bill Orme is equally pessimistic-but for entirely different reasons. Now a New York Times reporter in Jerusalem, Orme said the FBI was slow to investigate the killings of Vietnamese-American journalists until the CPJ released its report in 1994. "Our contacts in the FBI made it clear these were cases that could not be fully investigated without a major investment in time and staff, and it was the view of the FBI agents involved that they would not get those resources unless it was in response to political pressure on the Justice Department," Orme said. "The Vietnamese community itself was not a source of such pressure, and neither was the local or national press. We succeeded with our report in getting the Justice Department to put the FBI back on the case, but I fear that we did not succeed in keeping the pressure on."
Meanwhile, in Little Saigon, there is fear. Just about the only person who seems immune to that fear is Tran, who says he won't budge. The fact that Tran has yet to be stopped is a testament less to the way Little Saigon has changed over the years than it is to Tran's Zen-like refusal to bow down to the crowd, even provoking it with a series of high-profile attempts to enter his store-which hasn't been doing any business for weeks.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"These people are behaving like communists," he said, gesticulating impatiently. "That is why I will never give up. The more crowds there are, the more confidence I have."
Although the protests have so far been mostly peaceful, Tran has received numerous death threats. Sometimes, they're issued on the radio by an anonymous caller. Otherwise, the threats are shouted at him face-to-face in front of his store. On Monday, protest-security guards did Tran a favor by hauling him away from an almost-certain beating in the parking lot.
Tran admitted he knows little of his community's bloody past and had never heard of Pham until now, but he insisted, "I am not afraid." In that respect, the outspoken storeowner seems as determined, principled, and perhaps equally doomed as the famous Buddhist monk who in 1963 set himslef ablaze in front of reporters to protest religious persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government.
Or maybe Tran is just naive about the danger he has created for himself. "They cannot stop me," he said in an interview on Friday. "I have a right to hang a picture in my store. I want to show the Vietnamese community they must follow the law in America. The law is the law."