By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Today, the argument continues over whether Vietnam should be granted Most Favored Nation trade status, the same low-tariff status accorded to other acknowledged human-rights violators such as China and Indonesia. That argument takes place at high levels of the State Department in Washington, D.C., but it does not take place openly in Little Saigon.
In fact, Truong Van Tran is correct when he insists that the Vietnamese-language media — Radio Saigon, Vietnamese television, and the many newspapers and magazines that serve this highly literate community — are closed to anyone who even hints at an oppositional viewpoint. Although thousands of Vietnamese-Americans have invested or are doing business in Vietnam, whoever dares to suggest that wide-ranging association with Vietnam is good for both countries is almost certain to meet a similar fate to that of Dr. Co Pham and Truong Van Tran. They will be labeled as communists and their views denounced as propaganda, spoken in exchange for favorable treatment from their puppet masters in Hanoi.
The methods by which the anti-communists have exerted pressure in the media run from violence to the kinds of economic coercion that compel self-censorship. Twelve years ago, Tap Van Pham, a publisher in the neighboring community of Garden Grove, was murdered in a firebombing of his office after his magazine, Mai, had run an ad for a company associated with Vietnam. That murder remains unsolved. According to a 1994 report by the New York–based Committee To Protect Journalists, eight of the 10 immigrant journalists killed since 1981 for the way they covered the news in their community were Vietnamese writers in California, Texas and Virginia. More recently, Westminster’s Yen Do, the former editor of the largest daily Vietnamese-language newspaper outside of Vietnam, was forced to resign his post when militant groups applied massive pressure on his paper after he mildly criticized the closed nature of politics in Little Saigon. He has retained his position as publisher of Nguoi Viet, but he says that he now has to keep out of the public eye. "Actually," Yen Do says, "you can say there is zero tolerance of different views from the media in Little Saigon and the Vietnamese community."
One student activist at UC Irvine, who uses the nom de plume Ao Vai, which means cotton shirt — a reference to a group of anti-French writers in the 1920s — decries the bullying of the extremist group Khang Chien. According to Ao Vai, this secretive group is funded through a chain of popular noodle shops. "You don’t know who they are, but you know them when you see them at demonstrations," he says. "They are the ones who are always wearing army fatigues. The group is made up of soldiers for the South Vietnamese army, and for them the war has never ended."
The irony of the situation, says Ao Vai, is that the extremists who claim to be fighting for democracy and political freedoms have become the main oppressors. "When are those anti-communist protesters ever going to realize that the real enemy here, the direct threat to liberty, is them?" Ao Vai wrote in a fax.
Thang Ngoc Tran denies that his group, the Vietnamese Communities of Southern California, or any other anti-communist organizations suppress free expression in Little Saigon. "We are refugees from suppression," he says. The anti-communist majority has "the power of discipline," he explains, meaning that if they exert pressure they do it within the law. "Mr. Truong parked his car in front of his store, and no one touched his car even though they knew it was his. No one crashed into his door. That is the power of discipline — not violence. So if someone says they’re afraid of violence, that’s not true."
Hardliners argue that even to discuss improving relations with Vietnam is to abet the communist rulers, who have a knack for turning divisions among expatriates into useful propaganda. Hanoi, they say, hears every word that is said in Little Saigon. The place is crawling with spies, they say. VCOSC’s Thang Ngoc Tran estimates that as many as 20,000 communist spies are living in Southern California alone, conducting espionage under the guise of being political refugees. When a South Vietnamese soldier dies in prison, Thang explains, a spy assumes his identity and "escapes" to the U.S. Many of the boat people were communist spies as well, Thang says.
The man at the heart of this storm, Truong Van Tran, has all along insisted that he is not a communist. To advocate a different policy toward Vietnam does not automatically make you a communist, he reasons. His goal, Truong says, is to give courage to the many other Vietnamese-Americans who feel as he does but are too intimidated to speak up. When asked how many such people there are in the region, he answers 10,000 or 20,000, the same number Thang Ngoc Tran gave when asked how many spies there were. "Maybe it will take six months, maybe a year," Truong says, but he plans to lead the Vietnamese community toward a better future.
After giving the interview for this article, Truong, his wife and his two children, dressed with the red scarves around their necks that were worn by Uncle Ho’s Communist Youth, climbed into their blue Hyundai and returned to Hi Tek video to once again confront the mob. The car was stopped in the driveway by a throng, which had been waiting since shortly after the verdict. Truong stepped out of the car and was faced by 26-year-old Giang Ho, a diminutive but tough-looking protester with the demeanor and exaggeratedly upright posture of an army drill sergeant. Giang Ho continued to bellow at Truong for several minutes as the crowd closed in on Truong and television cameras captured the drama. Suddenly, a spit-smeared hand reached out from the crowd, making an audible slapping sound across Truong’s face. A few moments later, Truong partially collapsed up against his car, his mouth once again agape in a kind of melodramatic horror. It took several seconds before he slumped to the tarmac, where Giang Ho blanketed him with the yellow-and-red-striped flag of the former South Vietnam. After the ambulances took Truong away again, journalists and police viewed the tape in a local news station’s microwave van and realized that it had been quite a parting performance. Little Saigon’s last best hope for free speech had lived to fight another day.
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