‘Terror in Little Saigon’ Reexamines Murders of Five Vietnamese-American Journalists
Between 1981 and 1990, five Vietnamese-American journalists were murdered in cities across the U.S. in what the FBI suspected as political assassinations. Their names were Duong Trong Lam, Nguyen Dam Phong , Pham Van Tap, Do Trong Nhan, and Le Triet — but not one arrest was made in their killings.
Thirty years later, a documentary by PBS "Frontline" and ProPublica, "Terror in Little Saigon," has dived deep into a new investigation, with A.C. Thompson as the lead reporter and Tony Nguyen as a consulting producer.
Building off of Nguyen’s first film, "Enforcing The Silence," which investigated the murder of Vietnamese-American journalist Duong Trong Lam, "Frontline" and ProPublica obtained thousands of pages of newly declassified FBI documents and interviewed previously identified suspects, family members of victims, over two dozen members of the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam (also known as the Front), and FBI agents who worked on the cases.
Founded by Hoang Co Minh, the Front intended to "topple the Hanoi government," according to "Terror in Little Saigon, and liberate Vietnam from communist rule. Thompson writes that Minh built a guerrilla army with a secret base in Southeast Asia and chapters across the U.S. to raise money for the Front’s efforts.
According to "Terror in Little Saigon," the Front launched "three failed invasions from the borders of Thailand and Laos," violating the Neutrality Act "which bars residents and citizens of this country from efforts to overthrow a foreign government." According to "Frontline" and ProPublica’s reporting, the State Department, the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the FBI had knowledge about the Front’s military activity in Southeast Asia, but no one was held accountable.
The five Vietnamese-American journalists who were murdered were known to either be communist sympathizers or to openly critique the Front, the organization’s finances, and its leaders, which investigators believed made them a political target. "Terror in Little Saigon" suggests that the Front’s assassination arm, known as K-9, was connected to the five deaths.
In response to "Terror in Little Saigon," Viet Tan, a Vietnamese pro-democracy party founded by early leaders of the Front, has accused the film of lacking "journalistic integrity" and is asking for a retraction. In an open letter to "Frontline" and ProPublica written by Duy Hoang, Hoang says that the Front "never had a policy to use violence to silence critics," and that "the organization never had a death squad nor a kill list."
This newspaper headline, translated by Tu Nguyen, reads "The truth about the former vice admiral Hoang Co Minh, leader of Mat Tran (the Front aka Viet Tan) going back to the country [Vietnam] to fight." Courtesy of Tony Nguyen
Hoang adds that K-9 was a chapter of the Front for "members who lived in areas without Vietnamese communities," though retired FBI agent Katherine Tang-Wilcox is quoted in the film as saying that K-9 "was established as the assassination arm of the Front."
Some Vietnamese Americans are calling the investigation flawed and offensive, including California State Senator Janet Nguyen and Garden Grove resident Tammy Tran, who launched a petition on Change.org asking PBS to retract the film, apologize for their misrepresentation of the Vietnamese-American community, and conduct a thorough investigation on the reporting by "Frontline" and ProPublica.
"Many today, in the U.S. and elsewhere, would be more than willing to provide information that could help resolve these cold cases and potentially lead to convictions."
"The filmmakers portray one perspective, a set of information to fit into one narrative they believed in," Tran told NBC News. "They use images of community events, South Vietnam veterans, and older people in our Little Saigon community in telling their story of terror. That’s where it becomes really negative and frankly very harmful to the community."
Growing opposition to the film has also resulted in the creation of the "Our Little Saigon" website, which aims to showcase some of the community’s responses to the film. "’Frontline’/ProPublica framed the refugee community as angry and susceptible to manipulation, then pinpointed [the Front] to exacerbate the image of embittered vengeance. While it perhaps makes for a compelling story, it is reductive," creators of the site told NBC News.
"Frontline" and ProPublica responded to the outpouring of criticism with a note online explaining, "ProPublica and FRONTLINE followed the reporting where it took us. Where it took us over and over again was to the Front. We in no way sought to demonize Vietnamese refugees, and the profound hardships they endured both during the war and in the exodus after."
While some critics have called the film’s information hearsay, supporters of the film do believe that some of the interviews serve as an admission and confirmation of the assassination within the group. Former Front member Nghia Nguyen, for example, was videotaped during an interview saying that it was "quite possible" that Front members were behind the assassination of journalist Dam Phong Nguyen.
Dam Phong Nguyen’s son, Tu Nguyen, told NBC News he believes that time is running out for those who want justice for the murdered journalists. "As time goes on, the number of credible witnesses will only decrease," Nguyen said. "The diaspora community today is very different from that of the 1990’s…Many today, in the U.S. and elsewhere, would be more than willing to provide information that could help resolve these cold cases and potentially lead to convictions."
At a community meeting last month in Garden Grove, California, hosted by Garden Grove City Council member Phat Bui, people discussed whether or not "Terror in Little Saigon" producer Tony Nguyen was a communist sympathizer, to which Nguyen responded to NBC News, "No. I’m not a communist agent. It’s defamation…they’re trying to discredit the film and me."
Nguyen stresses that neither his film nor "Terror in Little Saigon" should be considered "definitive pieces." Instead, he hopes his work will encourage others to lead their own investigations on the unsolved murders of five members of the Vietnamese-American community.
A second Change.org petition is calling for the FBI to reopen and resolve the cases of the five murdered Vietnamese-American journalists. Critics of the film, such as Tammy Tran and the founders of the "Our Little Saigon" website, told NBC News that they support reopening the investigation in order to bring justice to the victims.
"I like to believe that Vietnamese Americans today will stand up for different perspectives and outlooks," Nguyen said, "and that we’ll no longer allow dominant voices in our community to resort to threats and violence to silence others as we have done in the past."
Clarification: An earlier version of this article suggested that the five murdered Vietnamese-American journalists all openly criticized the Front. That is incorrect, as one journalist was seen more as a communist sympathizer.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article suggested that Tammy Tran and the Our Little Saigon website founders supported the Change.org petition to reopen the FBI’s investigation. That is incorrect. Tran and Our Little Saigon support the reopening of an investigation, but not specifically the Change.org petition.