Casualties of War

Houston's Vietnamese now call Texas home, but they continue to be haunted by ghosts of the conflict that drove them here

What followed was no surprise. Nguyen's paper had received anonymous phone threats, fellow journalists had pleaded with him to back off and Nguyen even started carrying a gun. But, as his wife later told a reporter, "He would always tell me that in America there was all this freedom in journalism. That you could say and do what you wanted ... and nothing would happen to you." That was less than true for Vietnamese here, though, and not true at all for Nguyen when he opened his front door on August 25, 1982.

Today, Vietnamese community members of almost every stripe believe it was the National Front that killed Nguyen Dam Phong. "Phong knew a lot about the Front. So he wrote an article that was not so good for the organization. Everybody says that the Front killed him," a Vietnamese business owner says flatly. Local and federal law enforcers, as well as the international Committee to Protect Journalists, share that belief. But although evidence included items such as a right-wing hit list that included Nguyen's name, the investigation stopped short.

It wasn't just that investigators lacked the language skills to deal with immigrants, or that they were completely innocent of how to show respect, and garner trust, among the Vietnamese. In 1982, still believing in the Front, some immigrants blamed Nguyen for speaking out. "At that time, if anybody talked against the Front, they seemed to betray the community," the late-working businessman says. "It undermined the goodwill that we needed for our cause." Anti-Communism ran so deep in 1982 that some Houston refugees believed that anyone who blocked the Front deserved to die. And that "anyone" included Nguyen Dam Phong.

On a recent afternoon, Pham To Thu, a kindly, eager man, crosses town at rush hour armed with legal documents and human rights reports from Asia Watch. He wants to paint a clear portrait of the National Front, for which he is South Central Division chairman, as it exists in 1995. In courtly, only slightly blurred English, Pham To Thu will spend as much time as necessary to explain that the modest organization he helps lead is in fact peaceful.

"The reason I became a member is because I don't want the next generation in Vietnam to suffer," Pham says. "Since the Communists took Saigon, the country is poor, poor, poor. One-fifth of the young ladies between 16 and 36 are prostitutes. The Front contacts many different organizations and tells them what is happening in Vietnam."

Pham intensely opposes the United States' resumption of relations with Vietnam, which, although still Communist, imposed widespread economic reforms in the late 1980s. This month, the U.S. government continued putting the finishing touches on diplomatic relations with Vietnam, opening the country up for trade; to Pham, a former South Vietnamese sailor who fled in 1975, this only stamps approval for an anti-democratic, oppressive regime that still persecutes religious and politi-cal dissidents.

An unprepossessing electrical technician, Pham To Thu travels through Texas, New Mexico and Arkansas on his own time every month to meet with 100 to 300 National Front members. Together, they organize demonstrations and letter-writing campaigns on behalf of Vietnamese human rights. "Our goal is that Vietnam has a true democracy, that people have respect for human rights," Pham says. "We're not trying to kill Communists."

Still, despite the kind face Pham tries to put on his organization, today he finds few buyers. Most older-generation refugees who once backed the Front have now turned on it. Some slowly drifted off, disgusted by the accusations of fraud that Front leaders flung back and forth at each other as early as 1981. Others were shocked by the Front's apparent use of violence: Nguyen Dam Phong was just one of five Vietnamese journalists murdered allegedly because of their criticisms of groups such as the Front. Then there were beatings, vandalism and death threats, all attributed by authorities to right-wing groups, the Front among them. Some immigrants simply tired of the danger incurred by criticizing the Front, or backing normalization with Vietnam. "Back then, about 80 percent or more of the community supported the Front. Now it's 2 or 5 percent," says one Vietnamese professional. But while he's now willing to criticize the Front, he's still not willing to do so for attribution. The organization may be weakened, but memories of its strength -- or else the concern, even now, that to talk against the Front is to be seen as disloyal to the memory of South Vietnam -- linger. So much so that virtually every Vietnamese refugee who was interviewed about the Front asked for anonymity.

For most of Houston's Vietnamese, it was a 1991 federal grand jury indictment in San Jose that killed the dream of the Front for good. The case, charging Front leaders with conspiring to pocket funds garnered under nonprofit auspices, helped answer a decade's worth of gnawing questions. "This is my explanation," the professional man says. "The Front first of all was idealistic. Then they saw all this money, and they created a story, just like a movie, saying they had an army on the frontier of Vietnam. How could that be true?"

Indeed, it was probably the San Diego indictment that raised the specter of Nguyen Dam Phong. Although the FBI won't comment on what prompted them to reconsider Nguyen's murder, an HPD source says it's likely they're hoping to find something that will help them in their case against the Front in California.

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