According to the Government of Free Vietnam (GFVN), the morning of May 1, 1998, began with a hike and gunfire. Hundreds of freedom fighters from Vietnam and beyond gathered at a compound near the Cambodia-Thailand border for a three-day conference. The GFVN members had hoped to do something they had dreamed of since the fall of Saigon.
"The group had just reached the bottom of the third mountainside when an explosion was heard," reads the GFVN's account of the morning, published in its official handbook, printed by the thousands and distributed worldwide. "A grenade was thrown from atop a high mountaintop, hitting the lower edge of the flagpole in front of the conference location. Next, a military invasion [by Cambodian soldiers] from the Cambodian territory, who had hid atop the mountaintops [unleashed a] downpour [of] shootings with AK-47s, B-40s and additional tens of grenades. . . . Comrade Nguyen Huu Chanh was present at the scene and calmly arranged for all [GFVN members] to face the current situation without panic as death neared only inches away."
Then, the group says, the Thai military intervened, engaging the Cambodians. Pinned between the two sides, the group fled into Thailand, where it was easily captured by the military. The account concludes, "After the lives of 84 freedom fighters were safely guaranteed, Mr. General Secretary [Chanh] returned to Bangkok in the early morning of May 2, 1998, with overseas delegates to continue the second segment of the conference as scheduled."
Or so the GFVN say. No independent account of the attack was ever reported, nor did the Thai, Cambodian or Vietnamese governments ever confirm the skirmish. But the attack, imagined or not, couldn't have come at a worse time. Just three years earlier, relations between the United States and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam had finally begun to normalize. In 1994, the United States lifted its trade embargo on Vietnam; in February 1995, President Bill Clinton announced the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries after 20 years of severed ties. By that August, both countries had opened embassies in the other, and the U.S. had sent its first diplomatic mission to Vietnam in more than two decades.
While official relations between the two countries warmed, the relationship between Vietnamese Americans and their former fatherland remained as icy as ever. Though the Socialist Republic of Vietnam began to allow Americans—Vietnamese Americans included—back into the country in 1991, anti-communist fervor remained (and, to an extent, remains) high in the diaspora, and Clinton's move was met with muted anger. In Little Saigon, protests were organized following the announcement, and Vietnamese American community leaders sent letters to the White House and to members of Congress concerning their disapproval, knowing full well their opinions meant little compared to possible profits.
A flurry of anti-communist organizations—with names such as the Viet Tan and the Vietnamese Constitutional Monarchist League—popped up, joining others formed following the defeat of South Vietnam. The largest would become the GFVN, known in Vietnamese as Chính Phu Lâm Thoi Viet Nam Tu Do. Founded on April 30, 1995—the 20-year anniversary of the fall of Saigon—the group defined as its goal "[to] dismantle the Communist dictatorship of the Social Republic of Vietnam by a peaceful, practical and persistent approach."
At its beginning, the GFVN counted former South Vietnamese soldiers, politicians and refugees, as well as some American Vietnam War veterans, among its members. It funded leaflet distributions, radio hijackings, and—according to the government of Vietnam—bombing and arson attacks, all in an effort to overthrow the Reds. With Chanh—who had spent time in the South Vietnamese jungles and appeared in propaganda materials as a dark-haired and fiery man dressed in equally dark suits—as its head, the GFVN became Vietnam's bane, labeled terrorists and even that well-worn cliché: Public Enemy No. 1. While the organization's stated goals were peaceful, its actions drew government scrutiny, ultimately leading to arrests, deportations, and FBI and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigations.
But did it deserve all this attention? The GFVN's dispatches and writings about itself would fit well in a Graham Greene novel, with descriptions of coordinating movements and attacks from remote jungles written with militaristic flourish. Yet the group's claims to have trained more than 100,000 supporters at KC-702, a hidden camp in the Indochina frontier, where part of the above account takes place, seem dubious at best. After all, its base of command was not somewhere deep in the Mekong Delta, but rather an office building on the fringes of Little Saigon off Brookhurst Street in Garden Grove, the city the organization always called home.
* * *
There was a time when Nguyen Huu Chanh would openly—and proudly—discuss bombings.
"Ask Nguyen Huu Chanh about bombs, and for a second, a smile flickers across his face," wrote Kay Johnson for a 2001 TIME magazine article. "In fact, bombings are one of [his] favorite topics—and hobbies. . . . He readily describes the bombs his supporters threw at the Vietnamese embassies in Bangkok and Phnom Penh, and the one they claim to have planted in Hanoi's airport. Chanh's favorite subject, however, is the destruction yet to come.
"The next attack will be 'a very important target' inside Vietnam itself," the article continued, next quoting Chanh. "'Our bombs use an electronic system, a new design. And I control the code.'"
The interview was so unnerving that an unnamed TIME reporter approached U.S. Charge d'Affaires Robert C. Porter Jr. in November 2001 about its content. "A TIME magazine correspondent recently informed Charge on Nov. 19 that she recently interviewed both [GFVN's] Vo Van Duc and Nguyen Huu Chanh," reads a diplomatic cable from the Hanoi embassy declassified in 2006. "During the course of the interviews, both men reportedly discussed the objectives and methods of their organization. She indicated that if U.S. legal authorities were interested in listening to the tape of the interviews, they should contact the legal department of the magazine. (She admitted that she wasn't certain that access to the materials would be granted.)"
The cable concludes, "Please protect the source of this information."
By then, the American government was trying to figure out the GFVN. Were they really as credible a terrorist threat as al-Qaeda, as the Vietnamese regime insisted, or was it really just a group of middle-aged men mixing Walter Mitty with Rambo?
The GFVN's pedigree, at least, was legitimate. Its roots were in previous resistance groups, and its senior leadership was dominated by former South Vietnam elite. Its first "Vice Prime Minister" was Linh Quang Vien, an American- and French-educated military officer who held senior positions in multiple governments in South Vietnam before rising to the rank of lieutenant general. The Minister of Justice would be Nguyen Huy Dau, a South Vietnamese ambassador who was a law professor and served as a senior judge in the Superior Court of Saigon. Assuming the title of Prime Minister was Nguyen Khanh, a South Vietnamese general and Head of State of the Republic of Vietnam from 1964 to 1965 after a bloodless military coup that overthrew a military junta put in place by a previous coup.
Leading the troops was Nguyen Huu Chanh. A civil engineer before the Vietnam War, GFVN documents say he became a member of a resistance group located in Central Vietnam. In 1982, the leader of that group, a man named Nguyen Hoang Dan (whom the government of Vietnam identifies as Chanh himself), sent Chanh overseas to build support for the overthrow of the communist regime. Eventually, he landed in Little Saigon, using it as a jumping-off point to travel the world, rallying the diaspora and eventually turning them on to the GFVN cause.
The group positioned itself as the organization most capable of taking back Vietnam. "A peaceful approach must always be the means to settle all conflicts and disputes, including the subversion of the current Communist government," reads the GFVN's mission statement. "All approaches must be nonviolent to avoid unnecessary bloodshed to the nation."
At its height, the GFVN claimed it collected more than $1 million per year in donations from Vietnamese Americans across the globe, and conferences held in Southern California always drew hundreds. But from the get-go, the GFVN ran into problems. Before the organization was even founded, Chanh had attempted to broker a deal with the Republic of Vanuatu to resettle 50,000 Vietnamese refugees stuck in camps across Southeast Asia and the Philippines; the plan ultimately fell through because of political turmoil in the island nation. On May 5, 1997, Chanh and Gary J. Pierce, a Studio City resident who was also the president and CEO of C.S.I. Ag., signed documents establishing an agreement to endorse a $500 million issuance of "bearer bonds" by the GFVN. Investors who purchased a minimum of $10,000 worth of bonds were promised an annual return of 5.5 percent in addition to double their original investment at the end of five years. As collateral, C.S.I. Ag. put up the company's supposed gold reserves in Chile, worth more than $20 billion by their estimates.
The bond sale was publicized on both the GFVN's website and its publications. In a letter to the Vietnamese community explaining the arrangement, Pierce wrote, "By this action, we add our support with all free nations of the world, in support for the Government of Free Vietnam's peaceful program to achieve Freedom, Democracy and the return of Human Rights to the nation of Vietnam." He even appeared in a self-produced "documentary" of the GFVN, interspersed between scenes of GFVN leaders and local politicians, including a young Curt Pringle, giving speeches about the goals of the organization. In the documentary (one of the few items the group ever produced in English), Pierce spoke about plans to purchase an island in Australia that would be renamed "Saigon Island" and serve as a home for the group. He even mentioned approaching the Australian government to open a consulate and eventually a full embassy.
However, on July 14, 1998, then-California Commissioner of Corporations Dale E. Bonner ordered the GFVN to stop offering the bonds. "While the department takes no position with regard to the politics or the viability of the organization, 'Government of Free Vietnam' is illegally soliciting investments in California," Bonner wrote in a statement released by the state. "Political and charitable fund-raising is perfectly proper, but not if the offerings are dressed up as investments and offered through the investment marketplace."
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.
* * *
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.
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.
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."
* * *
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.
Vu Phi Long, president of the Ho Chi Minh City People's Court, told reporters he was aware of the diplomatic situation and had decided accordingly. "We carefully considered the case before announcing the verdict to make it suitable for the present situation," he told the Washington Post.
They still had it in for Chanh, though. He was arrested in South Korea in 2006, more than a year after he stepped down as "Head of State" of the Government of Free Vietnam, proclaiming "he now has the confidence to leave the home base in the good hands of" others. The Vietnamese government asked the South Koreans to arrest Chanh on the charge that he was a terrorist mastermind who planned the smuggling of weapons. The move set off protests in Los Angeles and Orange counties. After three months of confinement, the South Korean Supreme Court ruled Chanh was a political dissident and allowed him to return to the United States.
"I have believed in South Korea's judicial system, and now I am grateful to the South Korean court for its fair ruling,'' Nguyen told the South Korean Yonhap News agency after his release.
Vietnamese officials were upset at the decision.
"We reiterate that [Chanh] is the leader of a ring of criminals who have conducted terrorist actions against Vietnam," read a statement released by the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, D.C. "We request countries concerned to cooperate with Vietnam in stopping terrorist acts committed by Chanh's group and punishing the perpetrators."
By then, the GFVN was already on its way to irrelevancy. In a website change between April and June 2006 (the period during which Chanh was arrested), the site was updated to include a cry for help in petitioning for Chanh's release. All mentions of KC-702 and other militaristic rhetoric disappeared. Meanwhile, members began passing away. Nguyen Khanh died on Jan. 11, 2013, at age 85 in San Jose from complications related to kidney failure and pneumonia. Nguyen Huy Dau died on Sept. 22, 2008, at the age of 94, and Linh Quang Vien died on Jan. 17, 2013, at the age of 94.
After Chanh's release, the website stopped updating, going dark sometime between 2009 and 2011. Currently, its URL, gfvn.org, is for sale.
* * *
Meeting Chanh today, he's a far cry from the striking "freedom fighter" once hailed in the refugee community. The 65-year-old still wears dark suits, though they're now often covered in sawdust from remodeling. He still spends most of his time in an office in Garden Grove, but now it's as the founder and CEO of GlobalTV, a company that offers programming in Vietnamese and other languages through the Internet. His business card forgoes any mention of the Government of Free Vietnam.
The jump from revolutionary group to entertainment executive may seem a large one, but Chanh and other GlobalTV employees see it very logically. By broadcasting Vietnamese programming to overseas communities from Israel to South Korea, they're helping to preserve and build Vietnamese culture for the day Vietnam sees free elections.
"The one thing about overseas Vietnamese communities is that they're pro-democracy and freedom, 100 percent," Chanh says. "The overseas communities call home, and they talk to people in Vietnam, and that's very good for the transfer of ideas. That's why Vietnam has opened the door."
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He continues, "Right now, the communists are just communists in name only, in the color red. Right now, they don't care. Every day, it changes in Vietnam—the economy, the technology, religion, everything changes. It's not 100 percent yet, but maybe 50."
And once Vietnam is 100 percent ready for a free election, once the communist government finally goes, Chanh and his former comrades will be ready.
"After fighting in the jungles, in Vietnam, in politics, I think I made a mistake before," he says. "I didn't have media before. For 30 years, people have been taught Communism—Uncle Ho, all that. Now, we have to retrain them.
"One day, Vietnam will have democracy like Cambodia," he continues. "And when that day comes, we will be ready."