The resting place of one of the murdered journalists, Nguyen Dam Phong. Screen capture from the documentary.

A documentary by ProPublica and PBS’s Frontline tries to shed light on cold case murders of Vietnamese-American journalists from the 1980s, raising the reasonable suspicion that the journalists were killed for political reasons, because of things they wrote.

The documentary would be a great contribution if it prompts new tips to help solve the assassinations. However, the effort veers off into conspiracy theory, muddying the water by essentially accusing a group called “The Front” of killing its critics, without credible evidence supporting it.

The murders told in the documentary dated from the 1980s. There has been no recent politically motivated murder since, but intolerance of different ideas has not abated. People still have knee jerk reactions to perceived communist slants.

Lack of free speech is a real problem. Self-censorship is a real problem. Journalists are pressured to toe the lines by random guys claiming to represent the Vietnamese-American community. But a conspiracy theory is not how you solve it.

The documentary “Terror in Little Saigon,” available both as a one-hour video (transcript here) and as a longer written report, goes through the assassinations of five Vietnamese-American journalists in the 1980s, when anti-communism in the United States and in the Vietnamese community reached feverish and violent heights.

During that time, journalists were killed, offices were burned, and violence spread in the Vietnamese-American community. All of which made today’s protests look tame. One arson in Garden Grove killed journalist Pham Van Tap who was sleeping in his office. An organization calling itself the Vietnamese Organization to Exterminate Communists and Restore the Nation (VOECRN), or in Vietnamese, Việt Nam Diệt Cộng Hưng Quốc Ðảng, claimed responsibility for the arson and several murders. The FBI lists VOECRN as a terrorist organization.

What the documentary by reporter A.C. Thompson strains to do is to draw a link from VOECRN to another organization, the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam, or the Front for short. Allegedly, the Front ran an assassination team called K9.

If that link was proven, or at least if some credible evidence were presented, the documentary would be groundbreaking. The Front has since dissolved amid massive and very public infighting, and some formed a new political party called Viet Tan, now one of the most well-known activist groups, well connected to the political classes in both parties.

Beyond furthering the solving of the murders and providing closure to victims’ families, proving that link would change understanding of the history of the Front and Viet Tan and materially alter the political dynamics of the Vietnamese-American community.

For that reason, many Vietnamese-Americans anxiously awaited the broadcast, expecting some smoking gun. At the end, however, all the people I talked to came away disappointed, like me. I read the much longer written report with more details and information. Nothing.

ProPublica and Frontline tried and failed to deliver on their hype.

* * *

Once one peels off the otherwise good job on history and obviously very many reporting hours, there’s nothing there. The link from VOECRN to the Front rests solely on one flimsy pillar, a man convicted of attempted murder.

Tran Van Be Tu today, bragging about his crime in the documentary. Photo by Frontline.
Tran Van Be Tu today, bragging about his crime in the documentary. Photo by Frontline.

The ex-convicted is Tran Van Be Tu, a rabid anti-communist who, to this day, is still unrepentant of trying to kill the former Housing Minister of South Vietnam in 1989 for suggesting the U.S. should normalize relations with Vietnam (we eventually did in 1995). At trial, he and his lawyer both showed up in jackets emblazoned with the wordsViet Cong Hunting Club.”

Be Tu, however, at the time of the shooting was not a member of the Front though he now claims he had been recruited to join K9. A man who delights in his attempt to kill another human and shows no remorse for his crime, is not a reliable witness when that man claims someone tried to recruit him to be an assassin.

(If you read the written report, there’s another support, an anonymous source who purported to be a former member of the Front. Shown the five murder victims, he pointed at two and said, “We killed them.” There’s no evidence showing he’s really a former member of the Front, or was in any position to know anything of the K9 death squad. Besides, why would a person – out of the goodness of their heart?? – confess to accessory to murder? Is there an agenda?)

The case for the whole documentary crumbles for lack of a link from the deaths, which very much happened, to the Front.

Thompson, to his credit, put in a lot of effort in showing the history about the Front and the Vietnamese-American world of the 1980s, and overall did a good job. But he did not to do what we journalists call “set the scene.” He did not convey the environment and the mood of the time.

I was there. I lived through it. So, let me tell you the story.

* * *

In the 1980s, Vietnamese enclaves in the U.S. were violent places. People were beginning to make money, but still hoarded cash at home, so crime rose. Vietnamese gangs ran rampant; many police departments had specialized Viet gang investigators. Businesses were shaken down for protection money. Home invasions were epidemic. Witnesses were intimidated, and police informants were beaten and in some cases killed.

Anti-communism reached murderous levels as well. Five of the killings were told in the documentary: Tap in Westminster, Duong Trang Lam in San Francisco, Nguyen Dam Phong in Houston, and Do Trong Nhan and Le Triet in Fairfax County, Virginia.

There were others. Minh Van Lam, a student at Cal State Fullerton, in 1984 shot and killed physics professor Edward Lee Cooperman, who had advocated closer scientific collaboration between the U.S. and Vietnam.

For many of these killings, VOECRN claimed responsibility, but no one was caught. Rumors swirled as to exactly who was VOECRN, with many suspecting the Front to be behind VOECRN, rumors the documentary now repeats.

All five of the murders recounted in the documentary remain unsolved. FBI Special Agent Katherine Tang-Wilcox got FBI Director Louis Freeh to personally order a “major case” investigation on organized crime and domestic terrorism grounds. She was unable to prove any connection to the Front, though, and her colleague would recall the case as a “‘wild goose chase’ propelled by nothing but ‘conspiracy theories,’” a quote that was in the written story but not the film.

* * *

The Front’s full name is the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam, or Mặt trận Quốc gia Thống nhất Giải phóng Việt Nam in Vietnamese. Founded in 1980, its goal was to raise an army to take back Vietnam from the hands of the communist government there.

The founder was Hoang Co Minh, a former rear admiral in the South Vietnamese Navy. He set up bases in Thailand, with the blessing of a Thai general (as recounted in the documentary). From there, they conducted military incursions through Laos into Vietnam. In one such military campaign, Minh and several others were killed in action in 1987.

The group received support from across the spectrum. It had been only 5 years since South Vietnam lost its last battle. It was the time of Nicaraguan Contras and of the invasion of Grenada.

In that climate, an armed invasion sure sounded like a good idea.

The Front raised funds through Vietnamese professionals and businesses. As the documentary recounts, some felt pressured and reported to the FBI as extortion. Others, however, proudly advertised their contribution including, just among people I know, several doctors, a poultry shop owner, and a laundromat owner.

So when someone claims to be a “former member” of the Front, it means very little. Many people were former members of the Front, including many who now hate it with a passion.

The Front faced almost immediate criticism.

Lots of people questioned Minh and the Front over lots of reasons–the lack of transparency on money, skepticism of a base located in Vietnam or disbelief over their claim of support by Japanese or Australian governments. (Among some of the earliest and most vocal critics of the Front was Al Hoang, who in 2009 won a seat on the Houston City Council.)

Minh’s death, which the Front did not confirm until 2001, did not end the Front’s activities or the criticism. Support for the Front took a nosedive after several of its officials were indicted on tax charges, as the documentary shows. The tax case was dismissed, however, because of technical mistakes by the prosecution.

More criticism ensued. How much did the Front’s leadership know the military expeditions were pointless? Why did the Front continue to deny Minh’s death long after it happened? Were volunteer fighters sent to their deaths like lambs to slaughter? And how about an accounting of the money contributions? In the documentary, it became obvious that even after all these years, former leaders of the Front still feel uncomfortable talking about it, fidgeting, giving evasive answers and fake laughs.

When the Front dissolved in 2004, it was with loud and very public recriminations among its members, each accusing the others of sundry wrongdoings. Some went on to found the Viet Tan political party (which claims to have been secretly founded at the same time as the Front), known in English as the Vietnam Reform Party, and in 2006 had another publicized split, again with members accusing others of wrongdoings.

Today, opinion on the Front falls generally along one of three strands. One is full-fledged support for all things Front, exemplified by Johnny Nguyen interviewed in the documentary. The second is ambivalence, mixing support for the Front’s aim of overthrowing the communist rulers with criticism of its methods and conduct. The third strand is outright hatred and opposition to everything the Front had ever done and everything Viet Tan is doing now.

These widely differing and extreme views of the Front make it hard to collect facts about it. Loyalists who say there’s no way the Front did anything bad deserve as much skepticism as, and this is important, opponents who under the guise of an anonymous source point the finger at the Front as a bunch of murderous thugs.

* * *

I’m no stranger to the intolerance of different ideas in the Vietnamese-American community. Any hint of perceived communist slant, and someone somewhere will call for a protest, a boycott. In 2008, protests started against Nguoi Viet Daily News on account of artwork I published as an editor. It has been eight years, but protesters still occasionally show up and accuse Nguoi Viet of being communist.

There are others as well.

In 2007 Viet Weekly magazine ran an article by University of Michigan professor and Vietnam veteran Keith Taylor, who defended the U.S. role in the war, and the following week a response by former North Vietnamese soldier Ha Van Thuy, who attacked Taylor’s essay. For that the magazine earned 11 months of protest outside its Garden Grove office.

The result is self-censorship.

Well-meaning people, like the murdered journalist’s friend interviewed in the documentary, would sincerely tell reporters to tone it down, to stay away from this subject or that person, for fear of negative repercusion. The documentary raises the reasonable point that the journalists may have been killed because of something they wrote, but tries to do too much and ends up with just an unproven conspiracy theory supported only by innuendo and rumors.

The day after the broadcast, ProPublica and Frontline tweeted a call for help in both English and Vietnamese, asking people to provide tips leading to solving the murders.

I think that’s an awesome idea, and I retweeted the invitation. It is obvious that the documentary uncovered no new real evidence beyond recycling old rumors. But if the broadcast leads to renewed attention and leads uncovering the identity of those behind the murders, be they VOECRN as they claimed, or the Front as they denied, or whoever, ProPublica and Frontline will have done a great public service.

The memory of journalists who died for free speech deserves it.

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