To be a journalist in Vietnamese America, one must be prepared for intimidation, threats, political pressure, and, once upon a time, even death.
The traumas and wounds of the Vietnam War remain ever-present in the politics of Little Saigon’s around the country, and those who make it their job to chronicle these communities take on burdens and risks that defy the imagination of most American journalists.
In a groundbreaking documentary that aired last week called “Terror in Little Saigon,” journalist AC Thompson for PBS Frontline and ProPublica delves for the first time into the murders of several Vietnamese American journalists between 1980 and 1990, and the now abandoned FBI investigation into their deaths.
Included among the murdered journalists were:
- Duong Trong Lam, shot on a street in San Francisco in 1980.
- Nguyen Dam Phong shot in his Houston driveway in 1987.
- Pham Van Tap died of smoke inhalation after his Orange County office was set on fire in 1989.
- Do Trong Nhan found fatally shot in his car in Virginia in 1989.
- Le Triet shot while pulling into his driveway in Virginia in 1990.
The Frontline/ProPublica investigation asserts a link between a prominent group that dominated anti-communist activism in refugee communities at the time — The National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam, or The Front — to the journalists’ deaths.
Through interviews with former leaders and members of the Front, former FBI investigators and the examination of newly declassified documents, Thompson suggests the Front had a secret unit called K-9 that targeted and killed their enemies.
The Front, which had chapters around the world, had a mission of re-invading Vietnam and toppling the Communist regime. Support for the group was widespread, drawing not just former South Vietnamese Army veterans, but housewives, business owners, students and activists.
While it was one of many anti-communist groups at the time, it was the most prominent, and revelations about K-9 could reshape public understanding of the Front, which had swept up many Vietnamese refugees in a post-War fervor.
“From [the outset], you see an armed group that is trying to start an army with the intention of invading another country that the US is not at war with at the moment, and there’s a lot of evidence mounting that the group is killing and attacking its critics in the US,” Thompson said, referring to The Front in an interview with Voice of OC before the documentary aired.
“For all of these things, whether for the army, the murder, or the terrorism — they were never arrested or held accountable.”
Thompson said he spent much of the past year interviewing South Vietnamese veterans about both their experiences during the Vietnam War and their passion for political change in Vietnam. He also sought near-daily input from local Vietnamese American journalists, many who wanted the story to finally be told in its entirety, he said.
“To me one of the themes that became clear was, for a lot of folks the war didn’t end in 1975. In a lot of ways, it continued over here [in the US],” Thompson said in an interview with Voice of OC. “It’s a universal lesson — that we want to put an neat end date on these incredibly awful conflicts. But for the people involved, it doesn’t [end].
The documentary has drawn a mixture of praise, for drawing attention to the journalists’ deaths and investigating a powerful and politically controversial group, and criticism, from those who say it didn’t present much evidence connecting the Front to the murders.
It added “nothing new” for those who are familiar with these killings, said Hao-Nhien Vu, a former editor for Nguoi Viet Daily News, who is also a columnist for Voice of OC.
Vu is himself familiar with some of the consequences of reporting in Little Saigon. In 2008, he was fired from his job as editor of Nguoi Viet Daily News after he approved the publication of a photo of an art installation that was perceived as disrespectful to the South Vietnamese flag.
Hundreds of protestors gathered in a Westminster cul-de-sac in front of the newspaper’s office, boycotting the newspaper and accusing it of communist sympathies.
“Little Saigon does have a free speech problem. Journalists, and regular people too, face knee-jerk uproars whenever they try to say something new or just borderline controversial,” Vu said.
Vu said the investigation relied too much on anonymous or vague interviews with former Front members and failed to unearth any concrete evidence of ties between the murders and the Front.
Westminster resident Tien Le also reacted with disappointment on Facebook after the documentary aired, saying that, while he’s not defending the Front, there wasn’t much evidence that the group was implicated.
In the 1980s, as a 17-year-old man Le was swept up by the Front’s message and genuinely believed in its mission of restarting the Vietnam War.
“It was very real to people like me,” said Le in a Facebook post about the documentary. “I donated money to them. Attended a huge rally for them at the big Shrine Auditorium near USC with thousands of other people, all of us deeply believing that we were doing all we could to save Vietnam from the Communists.”
“Were we naive, in retrospect? Maybe so. Were we sincere? Definitely,” Le added.
Among the documentary’s harshest critics is Viet Tan or the Vietnam Reform Party, a group that was also founded by the leader of the Front, Hoang Co Minh.
Duy Hoang, a spokesman for Viet Tan based in Washington, DC, said in a phone interview that the documentary had an “ill-founded narrative” that relied on interviews and “hearsay” from former members of the Front to tie the group to the journalists’ deaths.
“The report does not present a single piece of evidence, document, order, or corroborated fact to support this claim,” Hoang wrote in a letter to ProPublica and Frontline editors.
He also criticized the documentary for a lack of cultural, political and linguistic nuance, and said it portrays Vietnamese American activists as vengeful and stuck in the past.
“I felt like there was a mocking tone when they were talking about how it was surreal at these [South Vietnamese veterans’] events,” Hoang said. “I live near Arlington National Cemetery, and people who are Korean War vets, I don’t see people mocking them.”
Hoang also suggested that the FBI focused on the Front simply because of its size and prominence, making it an easy target.
In an email, Thompson defended his reporting and apologized to those who felt the reporting was culturally insensitive and noted that associate producers Tony Nguyen, a filmmaker, and Jimmy Tong Nguyen, a translator and veteran of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, contributed heavily to the project.
Thompson encourages critics of the documentary to read the more detailed written piece on ProPublica’s website, which includes more information about the experiences of refugees, the reporting process and interviews that had to be cut from the documentary.
“Five different former Front members told us the group had a death squad. Some described, with first hand knowledge, particular attacks and killings. Unfortunately, these people didn’t go on camera, but it’s worth noting that it is very hard to get people to implicate themselves in homicides on national TV,” Thompson said.
And many of those off-camera moments were key.
“The moment we turned off the camera after our final interview with Mr. Nguyen Xuan Nghia, he told us that he’d been involved in a meeting in which Front members planned to assassinate Mr. Do Ngoc Yen, then editor of Nguoi Viet,” Thompson said. “I’d say the admission of a former top Front leader that the group planned to kill an editor is a new development.”
Thompson, says Viet Tan, which is run in part by former Front members and their children, has tried to recast the Front as a nonviolent political group, and rewrite history by stirring up opposition to the documentary.
He said they sought out interviews with Viet Tan and other former Front leaders, but were repeatedly turned down. The group issued a press release condemning the documentary before it aired.
“I stand by this reporting and film. And I need to say: I have heard a fair amount of criticism but I have yet to hear any of those critics evince the slightest bit of sympathy for the family of Nguyen Dam Phong and the others,” Thompson said. “That, I think, is profoundly sad.”
Contact [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.