Anti-Communist Faction Stalks Fearful Vietnamese

Times Staff Writers

Six years afterward, Ngo Vinh Long clearly remembers the moment his life almost ended outside a Harvard University lecture hall.

He had just emerged from a panel discussion where he had called for improved relations between the United States and the government in Hanoi and was being escorted to his car through a rowdy crowd of Vietnamese refugees who were denouncing him as a Communist agent.

"When I saw the lighted Molotov cocktail go by me, I hit the ground," the 41-year-old history professor recalled. "It crashed onto the windshield of my car. I was not injured, but the fragments injured a policeman. I had gasoline all over my body."

The gasoline did not ignite, and police were able to subdue the assailant, a former Saigon naval officer who later was acquitted on grounds of temporary insanity.

But before the trial, a leaflet was distributed claiming that the attack was the work of an obscure group calling itself the Vietnamese Party to Exterminate the Communists and Restore the Nation. "The shameless Ngo Vinh Long has been sentenced to death," it said. "One of our comrades . . . threw a cocktail bomb at him, but unfortunately he escaped death."

The attack was one of a series of violent acts in U.S. Vietnamese exile communities since 1980 that surviving victims, relatives and friends say are the product of strong anti-Communist feelings among Southeast Asian immigrants. But state and local investigators have been reluctant to ascribe political motives to these crimes, and the FBI has declined to get involved, saying none of the incidents meet the bureau's criteria for designation as terrorist attacks.

Now, Garden Grove police say they have determined that a recent communique from the same group that claimed responsibility for the Long attack is genuine. That communique was sent from San Jose to newspaper editors and Vietnamese businessmen in Orange County and claimed credit for the Aug. 9 arson fire in which Garden Grove publisher Tap Van Pham died.

The line between legitimate anti-Communist activism and political intimidation long has been a sensitive and hotly debated subject within Vietnamese communities in this country. And police trying to determine whether anti-communism has played a role in certain crimes continue to complain that law-abiding individuals in those communities often refuse to cooperate in investigations because they are so strongly opposed to communism personally.

Unsafe to Voice Views

Still, there is concern within the Vietnamese exile community in North America that it is unsafe to advocate improved diplomatic relations, commerce or travel between the United States and Vietnam. In fact, some Vietnamese editors and community leaders say, it is dangerous even to be accused of harboring such thoughts.

"I don't think anyone is willing to speak the truth (about how they feel about normalizing diplomatic relations) because they are afraid that some militants sometimes do stupid things," said Nguyen Tu A, editor of Viet Press newspaper in Westminster. "Even though they live in a free country, they cannot speak out."

He added that he keeps several automatic weapons in his home, where he also has his newspaper office.

'Not a Good Idea'

"Normalization is a very hard topic to discuss," said Nguyen Khanh, editor of Hoa Thinh Don Viet Bao, a Vietnamese weekly newspaper in Arlington, Va., who opposes improved diplomatic relations. "It's not a good idea or safe for anyone to bring up that idea."

On those rare occasions when newspapers have opened their columns for discussion of the topic, "very few people participate," said Dieu Le, editor of Ngoc Viet newspapers of Garden Grove. "People are afraid of being labeled Communist sympathizers or Communists. They are afraid, and they don't want to speak up."

In recent months, some law enforcement officials have come to the conclusion that a number of violent incidents in Vietnamese communities were politically motivated. Interviews conducted by The Times with about two dozen law enforcement officials since the death of Pham in Garden Grove have produced a list of 11 such incidents.

In addition to the attacks on Long and Pham, there were fires at the offices of export companies in Canada and a Los Angeles export firm; shootings of journalists in Arlington, Va., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston and Silver Spring, Md., in which two died; the shooting of a pro-Hanoi activist and his wife in San Francisco, in which the wife died, and the wounding by gunfire of a former Saigon housing official in Orange County.

Asked about these attacks, Anthony R. Crittenden, a specialist on Asian crime with the California attorney general's office, said: "We do consider them terrorist incidents. There is a pattern of individuals being killed because they are known or thought to be Communist sympathizers."

Crittenden said he had been monitoring local police investigations of several attacks in Vietnamese communities in California and recognizes a "common method of operation." Most, he said, involve shootings at close range with small-caliber handguns or nighttime firebombings.

Though communiques had been received over the years claiming that a total of nine violent acts were the work of the Vietnamese Party to Exterminate the Communists and Restore the Nation, until recently there was no evidence of the group's existence aside from those communiques. Then, on Aug. 27, the Garden Grove Police Department announced that it had concluded that a communique claiming responsibility for the Pham arson was genuine.

Garden Grove Police Sgt. Phil Mason and others involved in the Pham investigation have refused to disclose how the authenticity of the communique was determined. But Mason said he now believes that its author "is responsible for, or directly connected to," Pham's death. He said that belief is based in part on "a detailed examination of all the letters" purportedly sent by the same group and claiming responsibility for other attacks.

Terrorist Organization

Investigators have concluded, Mason said, that the Garden Grove firebombing was prompted by the appearance of ads in Pham's weekly entertainment newspaper for companies considered by some anti-Communists to be fronts for the Hanoi government. Mason said he now believes that the group that claimed responsibility is a bona fide terrorist organization that has been operating on a nationwide level for several years.

Brian Jenkins, director of research on political violence for the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, said there probably have been terrorist attacks motivated by deeply felt anti-communism within U.S. Vietnamese exile communities in recent years. Factional violence among political groups has been "widespread" within all immigrant communities in the United States, he said.

But he added that very little academic or statistical study has been done on the subject in Vietnamese communities.

Index of Terrorist Acts

The FBI has maintained an annual index of terrorist acts, the "Analysis of Terrorist Incidents in the United States," since 1981, according to bureau spokesman Bill Carter. It does not include any of the 11 incidents identified by other law-enforcement officials as being politically motivated.

FBI spokesman Lane Bonner explained that only about 20 incidents each year are included in the index and that the criteria for inclusion are stringent. In general, an incident is included if there is an absolute, confirmable claim of responsibility by a terrorist group known to the FBI; if information from a reliable informant known to the FBI links a terrorist group to the incident, or if there is physical evidence at the crime scene linking a terrorist group to the incident, Bonner said.

FBI Definition

The FBI defines a terrorist act as "the unlawful use of force or violence against a person or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."

Asked about the 11 incidents identified by state and local law enforcement officials, Jenkins said: "Those actions would clearly fit the FBI's definition (of terrorism). There's no doubt in my mind."

Said Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose), a former FBI agent whose congressional district includes a large Vietnamese population: "If these are politically motivated crimes, orchestrated by a centralized network, then the Justice Department and the FBI should take a careful look at the situation. I've urged them to do just that in a number of these cases. Unfortunately, they persist in viewing these as local matters. This attitude is very troubling, given the increasing incidence of violence."

State Action

State Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp said his office has been "looking into (suspected terrorist acts) from an intelligence standpoint," compiling information from local investigative agencies for use in future investigations. "Our role in these kinds of things is just that. We are not set up to mount an operation and flood an area" with investigators.

Referring to the incidents of violence within California Vietnamese communities as "a wave of suspicious killings and shootings," Van de Kamp said: "If I were living in those communities, I'd have to be concerned."

Some in the Orange County's Vietnamese community are skeptical about the police conclusion that Pham's death was politically motivated, although they acknowledge the strong feelings by anti-Communist militants on the subject of normalization of relations with Hanoi.

Doubts Group's Existence

Cao Phi, president of the Vietnamese League of Orange County, said, "Nationalists would not engage in violence like that." He also said he doubts the very existence of the group that claimed responsibility for the Pham arson, adding that most Vietnamese immigrants in Orange County are more concerned with youth gangs than terrorists.

But Nguyen Tu A, the Westminster journalist, said he was beaten by a group of Vietnamese "gangsters" several years ago after publishing an article critical of a former high-ranking South Vietnamese military man.

"How can you understand a person pulling a gun on you and shooting at you at three meters?" asked Bach Bong Huu, publisher of a small Los Angeles newspaper, who was shot at twice in 1982 after suggesting that a group of former Saigon military officials was involved in extortion in the Little Saigon area of Orange County.

'Atmosphere of Terror'

As early as 1984, a political exile group known as the Assn. of Vietnamese in the United States was expressing concern about a "well-planned and coordinated" campaign designed to create "an atmosphere of terror within the Vietnamese community."

The association, which has supported better relations between the United States and Hanoi, said in a report prepared that year:

"The victims of these terrorists include not only progressive Vietnamese but also conservatives who have tried to expose the extortion schemes that are camouflaged as anti-Communist activities. Their victims also include Vietnamese businessmen who are not engaged in any political activities, and even Americans who want friendship and normal relations with Vietnam."

Shot at Close Range

The same year that report appeared, Cal State Fullerton physics professor Edward Lee Cooperman, a longtime supporter of normalization of diplomatic relations who traveled frequently to Hanoi, was shot at close range in his office by a Vietnamese student.

He bled to death while the student, who was a friend, went to a movie. Cooperman had received numerous threats since 1981, by phone and in person, from Vietnamese students on the campus, according to his wife, Klaaske.

After a mistrial, Minh Van Lam, the student who shot Cooperman, was tried a second time before a judge who found Lam guilty of involuntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to three years and is now free.

After the trial, Superior Court Judge Richard J. Beacom conceded that the truth about the killing may not have come out. But he joined both prosecution and defense attorneys in condemning Cooperman's relatives and supporters, who claimed that the killing was a political assassination and that the Orange County district attorney's office had done less than exemplary work in the case.

Rewards for Death Offered

Long, who now teaches at the University of Maine, said that since the Molotov cocktail attack he has had to move seven times, had to get an unlisted telephone number and had to take his children out of public school. When he speaks on university campuses he is accompanied by bodyguards. Leaflets have been distributed at some meetings offering large rewards for his death, Long said.

If the political violence continues, Long said, it may ultimately damage the image of the entire Vietnamese community in the United States--not just those such as himself who support better relations with Hanoi.

"The Vietnamese community will be seen as a violent minority," he said, "people who cannot operate according to American norms of rational discourse and the rule of law."

Times staff writer Robert L. Jackson in Washington contributed to this story. INCIDENTS OF VIOLENCE Some law-enforcement officials say these 11 incidents--all involving Vietnamese immigrants--appear to have been politically motivated:

1. Jan. 24, 1980: Magazine publisher Nguyen Thanh Hoang's car and Arlington, Va., home are targets of an arson attack. Hoang is injured. Two years later, Hoang appears on a "hit list," with several other Vietnamese editors, issued by a group calling itself the Vietnamese Party to Exterminate the Communists and Restore the Nation.

2. April 23, 1981: Ngo Vinh Long, a Vietnamese scholar at Harvard who favors normalization of relations between the United States and the Hanoi government, is the object of a Molotov cocktail attack. In a leaflet distributed later, the Vietnamese Party to Exterminate the Communists and Restore the Nation claims responsibility. A former Saigon naval officer is charged with the act and found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.

3. June 8, 1981: PEDCO, an import-export company sending parcels to Vietnam, is firebombed in Los Angeles. The Vietnamese Party to Exterminate the Communists and Restore the Nation claims responsibility.

4. July 21, 1981: Duong Trong Lam, a leftist newspaper editor, is shot and killed in San Francisco. The Vietnamese Party to Exterminate the Communists and Restore the Nation claims responsibility. A young Vietnamese co-worker of Lam is arrested and then released.

5. Jan. 5, 1982: Weekly newspaper editor Bach Huu Bong is the target of a shooting attack in Los Angeles after publishing an article about extortion by Vietnamese gangs in Orange County. A former Saigon military officer is convicted of attempted murder, but the verdict is reversed on appeal. After a second trial ends in a hung jury, he pleads no contest to an assault charge.

6. Aug. 24, 1982: Weekly newspaper editor Nguyen Dam Phong is shot and killed at his office in Houston after publishing an article on extortion by a group that claimed to be collecting money for anti-Communist guerrillas in Vietnam. Phong appeared on the same "hit list" as Hoang.

7. May 28, 1984: Nguyen Van Luy, founder and honorary president of a pro-Hanoi organization, and his wife, Pham Thi Luu, are attacked by a gunman in San Francisco. Luu is killed, and Luy is critically wounded. The Vietnamese Party to Exterminate the Communists and Restore the Nation claims responsibility.

8. Nov. 25, 1985: Offices of two Canadian companies specializing in sending parcels to Vietnam are damaged by fire in Montreal. The Vietnamese Party to Exterminate the Communists and Restore the Nation claims responsibility.

9. March 20, 1986: Tran Khanh Van, a former housing official in the Saigon government and a friend of Cooperman who was portrayed as favoring normalization of relations with the Hanoi government, is shot in front of his house in Orange County. The Vietnames Party to Exterminate the Communists and Restore the Nation claims responsibility, but the man charged says he is a member of another anti-Communist organization. First trial ends in mistrial. New trial scheduled.

10. Aug. 6, 1987: Cao The Dung, a controversial Vietnamese journalist, is shot and wounded by someone firing into the bathroom of his Silver Spring, Md., home.

11. Aug. 9, 1987: Tap Van Pham, editor of a weekly entertainment publication, is killed during an arson attack on his Orange County office where he was sleeping. The Vietnamese Party to Exterminate the Communists and Restore the Nation claims responsibility.

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