Tu Thang Nguyen, the son of murdered Vietnamese American journalist and newspaper publisher Dam Phong Nguyen. Credit: Edmund D. Fountain / ProPublica

A controversial ProPublica/PBS Frontline documentary, “Terror in Little Saigon,” has stoked a wide range of reactions in the Vietnamese American community with its investigation into a string of murders of Vietnamese American journalists in the 1980s.

The film, which aired earlier this month and delves into an abandoned FBI investigation, links the murders to a death squad within the anti-communist activist organization the Front, a group that swept up thousands of Vietnamese Americans after the Vietnam War in its mission to reinvade and topple the Communist regime.

Former leaders of the Front, or Mat Tran in Vietnamese, and another group tied to its founder, Viet Tan or the Vietnam Reform Party, have since denounced the documentary, given competing interviews with Vietnamese language newspapers and launched a site to express concerns about the film.

A number of local politicians have also joined in demanding an apology who have expressed concerns that the film broadly mischaracterizes Vietnamese Americans as “all political radicalists who will resort to suppressing dissenting opinions through violent means,” according to a letter from State Sen. Janet Nguyen to ProPublica.

Yet another segment of the community is calling on the FBI to reopen its investigation into the murders, including Tu Nguyen, the son of Dam Phong Nguyen, a journalist who was killed in 1982 for articles he published in his Houston newspaper “Tu Do,” or “Freedom.”

Tu Nguyen reached out to Voice of OC to talk about his father’s contributions to the Vietnamese community, defend the documentary and talk about how the film has shed light on the circumstances of his father’s death.

This interview had been condensed and edited for clarity. You can listen to the full interview here. Nguyen also gave an interview in Vietnamese to Nguoi Viet Daily News that is available on their website

What was your father’s career like in Vietnam?

My dad was a prominent journalist in Vietnam. He came here [and] was very excited…But I think when he first came to America he was very naive. And by that I mean…he thought he had the same guarantee of freedom of the press under the First Amendment, as English language journalists.

If all these writings were in English, and all five of [these journalists] got murdered, I can assure you the media would be all over it.

What was it like growing up with a newspaperman for a father?

I learned a lot from him. He teach us government, war, history […] When we moved to America, once he started his newspaper, things changed. It didn’t change as far as relationship between us and him, but him and the outside world.

Every day we would come home, every second, we lived with constant fear, there’s no word…to describe to you the fear we [lived] under. Constant fear, not knowing, when are they coming, is dad going to die today, are they going to take him away today or tomorrow? Every time the phone ring, I rush to answer the phone so my mom didn’t have to…I tried to get to it so my mother didn’t have to listen to…what the people making threats had to say.

What do you think of the criticism of this film — that there wasn’t enough evidence showing a connection between your father’s death and the Front? How did you come to believe that the Front was behind his murder?

Mat Tran and Viet Tan…I’m confused. Their existence is to promote freedom and democracy for Vietnam. So I’m sure they’ll agree democracy begins with the freedom of speech and protections of the First Amendment. If their contention is the founders [of the Front]…have nothing to do with the five murdered journalists, I’m asking them now, will they join me and Frontline in promoting democracy here by demanding the investigation into these murders? Their contention is, there’s no evidence, nothing new here. It’s irrelevant; you have five journalists dead for putting their pen to work.

…There is [also] evidence. If you look at the film…one of their former executives, Nguyen Xuan Nghia, he admitted…to AC Thompson and his colleagues: yes, the group [K-9] did exist, and I did participate in a meeting where they were discussing taking some publisher in Orange County [Yen Do of Nguoi Viet Daily News] out.

[Thompson] gave [existing leaders of the Front] plenty of opportunity to come out and defend themselves…now all of a sudden they come out with petitions. Frontline spent a lot of money on this — two years, interviewing 140 people — they didn’t just one day decide to put something together.

At the time, when your father was killed, did the Front come forward and claim responsibility, or was there any reason to believe at the time they were connected to his murder?

We were getting threats every day, on the phone. Tell your dad to stop writing. Stop messing with — back then they called it noi com, slang, livelihood. Back then these guys had no fear. It was lawless. Because everyone, the whole community, was silent… That’s how powerful these guys were. They instill fear in everybody.

Other editors would say, ‘the next couple weeks, slow down, get some rest.’ My dad was like, I’m a reporter…since when do we allow these — he called them thugs — dictate what to write. He made it clear, he would rather quit as a journalist then let them tell him what to do. Things like this happened in Vietnam, it was not his first time.

The Front was quite widespread at the time. A lot of people really believed in its mission, others left when they became disillusioned with it. What do you think of the Front? 

My dad was a Viet Nam Cong Hoa. His concern was for the Vietnamese veterans…he has nothing but utmost respect and he always nhớ ơn them. His reason was, these guys, we just lost the country, the memory is still fresh, we want to reclaim what we lost. He thought, good, its okay, as long as you have a leader. But they were not leaders, they were a group of thugs…

My dad knew the leaders, Pham Van Lieu and Hoang Co Minh, back in Vietnam. They were acquaintances…He started asking, what are you doing with all of that money?

The way they dress, the cars they drive, the watches they wear. He said, aren’t you guys supposed to save this money to go fight — he was concerned for the veterans, going over there blindly, trust these guys and die in vain. He was trying to stop them. He thought of them [the Front leaders] as thugs.

What kind of reactions of have you gotten to the documentary?

Nine-five percent support. Five percent, as I expected, disagreed. Many of those who disagreed have no idea, they were not in my shoes at that time and had no idea what it was like during those times…

The irony of this here is we came to America for one thing: freedom and democracy. That’s why we left Vietnam. And yet when we landed here, we were silent. We were told not to voice our opinions. And my dad was, what’s the difference here, what’s the difference between Viet Cong and you guys? That was in his articles…and this is why he kept writing.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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