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Cooler Days in Little Saigon : Political tensions fade, but not memories of an old murder

There has been a welcome change in the political climate of Vietnamese immigrant communities since the troubled days eight years ago when magazine publisher Tap Van Pham was killed in an arson fire in his Garden Grove office. In the years before and immediately after Pham’s death, anti-Communists who had fled Vietnam after the war physically attacked some who did not share their views.

Now Hanoi and Washington have agreed to diplomatic relations; exiles and their American-born children in Orange County’s Little Saigon and other Vietnamese communities are more willing to speak their minds; and assaults are more likely to be verbal than physical.

The FBI, which with Garden Grove police tried for more than a year to find Pham’s killers, has just reopened the investigation. Perhaps people too scared to speak out in the past will find the atmosphere now more conducive to coming forward. But even if the probe does not turn up a killer, it sends the right message--that the arsonists are still being hunted.

Although police never ruled out the idea that Pham was the victim of extortionists, the evidence pointed to politics as the motive. A shadowy group claimed in letters to other Vietnamese-language publications that the fire was set because Pham published ads from companies favoring the Communist government in Vietnam. The same group claimed responsibility for other attacks as well.

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Last December the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called on the FBI and local authorities to try again to find the killers of eight immigrant journalists, five of them Vietnamese, in the United States.

Pham’s magazine avoided politics, but he rightly took advantage of his new homeland’s democracy and freedom of the press to publish what he wanted, not what some other person or institution dictated.

Other Vietnamese-language publications also have helped their readers adapt to their new country. They have been important in charting paths to mainstream America, adapting to a new culture without forgetting the old one. Attitudes in the Vietnamese community toward the Hanoi government are still divided, but the notion in some quarters that differing beliefs justify violence fortunately appears to be on the way out.


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