By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
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"You want to know why they have such hatred of communists?" Thang Noc Tran says. "Their freedom was taken away, and they love freedom. When they see a Vietnamese flag, they remember this pain." Daniel Pham, one of the hundreds of thousands of "boat people"who fled Vietnam in the 1980s on small, unseaworthy boats and rafts, echoes this sentiment. "Why must I see this bloody flag? Why must I see this hateful picture of the murderer Ho Chi Minh?" Pham asks. A federal judge in the former South Vietnam, Pham spent seven years in a re-education camp. The French accent he acquired decades ago as a student in Paris surfaces, and his voice trembles, "When I see these things I have nightmares. I remember my suffering in the jungle prison."
It’s hard to find anyone here who believes Truong Van Tran was right to affront these veterans the way he did — whatever his constitutional rights are as an American citizen. But the "code of conduct" that residents say should have prevented him from raising the Vietnamese flag suppresses more than such inflammatory acts of provocation. Many here say political discussion about Vietnam is strictly limited to unyielding condemnation of the communist government. Younger Vietnamese — those born in America as well as the so-called "1.5 generation," who were born in Vietnam but immigrated here at a young age and were raised as Americans — feel compelled by respect toward their elders not to offend them with controversial political talk. And those who do raise their voices have frequently been harassed and intimidated into silence by the anti-communists in groups such as the Vietnamese Community of Southern California, the Committee for the Preservation of Just Cause, and secret societies far to their right, such as the mysterious Khang Chien, which means "resistance fighters." Through the years, political discussion has occasionally been cut short by a bomb ripping through an office building or the sudden death of someone who dared break ranks with the anti-communist majority.
If you ask anyone in Little Saigon to introduce you to another Vietnamese Ă©migrĂ© besides Truong Van Tran who supports unrestricted relations with Vietnam, they will tell you to call Dr. Co Pham. There are plenty of others, they confide — a "silent majority," even — but while local businessmen fit the bill, only Pham agreed to talk for the record. Pham’s notoriety began in 1994, when he stunned the local community with the announcement that he planned to lead a delegation of businessmen on an eight-day tour of his homeland to scout out potential business opportunities.
Pham’s medical center was picketed daily for a year by demonstrators denouncing him as a communist, a conspirator and an opportunist who wished to become a high official in the Vietnamese government. In those dark days, he says, he received numerous death threats, his office was evacuated in a bomb hoax, and his wife and son received crank telephone calls notifying them that he had been killed or critically injured.
At that time the Clinton administration was reinstating diplomatic relations with Vietnam and lifting the trade embargo that for 19 years had kept the nation poor and isolated. Pham was and is a very successful doctor, president of the Orange County Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce and a major fund-raiser for the Orange County Republican Party. In the five years since Clinton overhauled U.S.-Vietnam relations, Pham has remained a controversial figure in the community, even if Truong Van Tram has recently replaced him as — in the words of one critic — Little Saigon’s "public enemy number one."
Taking a moment from treating patients at his frenetic Bolsa Medical Center, a bright-pink complex in Little Saigon, Pham settles into a chair in his cramped, windowless office. Photographs of the boyish obstetrician exchanging handshakes with Pete Wilson, Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich and George Bush cover the office walls and testify to the doctor’s generosity as a GOP contributor.
"Some people have funny ideas," Pham says. "They call me a communist. I am not a communist."
Pham says he came to the conclusion in the early 1990s that the aggressive isolation of Vietnam was strengthening, rather than debilitating, the communist government. At the time, Russia and Eastern European countries that had been run into the ground by incompetent socialist dictatorships were being transformed in the freewheeling image of Western capitalist democracies. But in Vietnam, where Americans were prohibited from doing business and American tourists could not spread the gospel of the greenback, there was no change at all. Meanwhile, the people of Vietnam were going hungry. The annual per capita income in Vietnam was around $250, one of the lowest in Asia. "I changed my mind and realized that we have to create economic opportunity for the people before we can hope to change the government," Pham says.
This argument that political and human rights would follow economic progress was nothing novel. Indeed, as the Cold War mentality waned, such thinking was beginning to harden into foreign-policy orthodoxy. There were the so-called "rogue states," which were deemed too intransigent to deal with. And vestigial Reaganite cold warriors intersected with human-rights advocates in an odd united front to protest trade with the "Tian An Men Butchers" of China. But for the most part, containment was on the way out and engagement was very much in. Yet Dr. Pham was way out of step with the ferociously anti-communist local leaders who argued that trade with Vietnam only benefits the so-called "Red Mafia" — the corrupt elite of the Communist Party.