Vietnamese Americans agitate for human rights in their homeland

Nguyen Quoc Quan of Viet Tan, the Vietnam Reform Party, was imprisoned for nine months after returning to Vietnam to help his countrymen advocate for change.
(Bethany Mollenkof / Los Angeles Times)

Until Communist captors locked his dad in a 9-by-9-foot jail cell, Khoa Nguyen did not fully appreciate the battle his father was fighting.

As a boy, he remembered him talking about the struggles in his homeland, the basic human rights he believed his countrymen in Vietnam had been denied.

His parent’s activity with a pro-democracy group finally drew his father from the family’s comfortable Garden Grove home to Vietnam, where he hoped to train residents to use nonviolent methods in lobbying for reforms. Instead, he was charged with subversion and arrested.


“I did not completely understand his passion until he went to prison,” Nguyen said. “Then it became important. It became urgent.”

From UC Davis where he studies chemistry, the 20-year-old monitored his father’s nine-month captivity, which ended suddenly — and unexpectedly — in January when officials allowed Nguyen Quoc Quan to return to the U.S., where he received a hero’s welcome in the Vietnamese American community.

Now, at a time when Vietnam’s top leaders make their first visit to the U.S. since 1995, when the two nations resumed diplomatic relations, Khoa Nguyen is among those pushing for improved human rights and free speech in a country that many Vietnamese Americans haven’t seen since the fall of Saigon.

Ahead of President Truong Tan Sang’s meeting with President Obama on Thursday, Vietnamese American activists branded Vietnam “the new Myanmar in terms of repression,” blasting its government’s history of detaining dissidents, censoring the Internet and stifling the “development of civil society.”

The group Viet Tan, also known as the Vietnam Reform Party, is one of the strongest voices in the effort to bring political change to Vietnam. Regarded by the United Nations as a “peaceful” organization, it is seen as an enemy of the state in Vietnam, where it is banned.

In Vietnamese American communities, such as Orange County’s bustling Little Saigon, Viet Tan is a source of both news and inspiration to some.


“I’ve been reading Viet Tan news and catching up on the names behind the news,” said Mary Tran, who researched the party for a term paper at UCLA. “Every Vietnamese newspaper covers the human rights abuses that they highlight and the ongoing arrests of dissidents. That they document this is fascinating because their purpose is a purpose I believe in.”

Ha Nguyen, eating lunch at Pho Quang Trung in Little Saigon, spent part of the week in the Vietnamese enclave passing out fliers that urged Obama to “push for the release of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience” in Vietnam — as a condition of an expanded U.S.-Vietnam partnership. The Anaheim retiree said he supports Viet Tan’s campaign.

“I like how they work behind the scenes to try and inspire change,” he said. “It must start with improving social welfare and restoring civil rights.”

Viet Tan pushed hard for the release of Nguyen Quoc Quan, a former math teacher and longtime member who helps mobilize young people to join the cause.

Like his father, Khoa Nguyen has now applied to join the party. Founded in 1982 as the National United Front for the Freedom of Vietnam, the group operated underground for more than two decades. Potential members still must find sponsors within the party and enroll in training, learning about history, political strategy and social media, especially how to use video to spread messages.

Viet Tan leaders work to roll back restrictions against basic rights in Vietnam, promoting freedom of the press, boosting grass-roots movements and engaging in international advocacy, said Dung Tran, the group’s Southern California spokesman. “We selectively recruit those with energy and passion and a deep understanding of what it means to bring democracy to our country,” he says.


“I am proud that others know of the party’s work and my father’s work,” said Khoa Nguyen, who has attended training sessions in Canada. “Him being jailed unjustly is the first time I felt this is real. We’re doing something other people might not like, and if needed, we can go to jail as a family. My dad was always talking to me about fighting to give power back to the people — to empower people.”

Now back in Orange County, Nguyen Quoc Quan said he never considered his jailing as something “heroic.

We carry out our mission quietly,” he said. The real heroes, he said, are the “brave political prisoners” who remain in Vietnam.

Nguyen Quoc Quan said last year, when he went to the place he and other refugees still call Saigon (it was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the war), it was to conduct “nonviolent training.”

But according to the Vietnamese consulate in San Francisco, he flew to his homeland in April 2012 using an alias, “Richard Nguyen.” He “acknowledged to authorities that he planned to cause social turmoil and disturb public events in Vietnam through Viet Tan agents inside Vietnam,” officials said.

“In reality, they don’t have any proof” to bolster their accusations, Nguyen Quoc Quan responds.


Someday, he expects to return to Vietnam to resume his mission. “There will be a time when I need to come back because we value life and bringing good to people’s lives.

“I am simply doing social work.”