Terror in Little Saigon: A Second Exile
Newspaper clippings capture Doan Van Toai’s years as an essayist and speaker on the future of his homeland, Vietnam. (Kendrick Brinson for ProPublica)
By 1989, Doan Van Toai had become a prominent commentator on the political affairs of Vietnam, his home country. Toai had witnessed the corruption of South Vietnam’s political leaders, and later suffered first-hand the brutality of the Communist victors after the war. Now, in America, he’d found cause for cautious optimism.
Toai wrote essays for publications including The Wall Street Journal. He’d done a stint as a researcher at Tufts University outside Boston, and launched an advocacy group called the Institute for Democracy in Vietnam. Working with a co-author, he had published a well-received memoir called The Vietnamese Gulag. He gave speeches around the world.
And then, on a summer morning outside Toai’s house in Fresno, California, a man armed with a .380-caliber pistol shot him. One bullet wrecked Toai’s jaw and destroyed six teeth before exiting beneath his left ear. Another ruined his intestines.
After the shooting, the Vietnamese Organization to Exterminate Communists and Restore the Nation took credit for the attempted murder of Toai. The FBI had long regarded the ostensible group — VOECRN — as a cover for the violent work of a very public organization founded years before by former South Vietnamese military officers. That group, formally known as the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam, had brought elements of the war back home to America. Its members wanted to re-take Vietnam and openly raised money to finance an army to do so. The FBI, over many years of frustrating investigation, had come to believe the group, known most commonly as the Front, was willing to kill or terrorize those in American who criticized its aims and operations.
Toai was one of those detractors, and his brush with death had an effect that doubtless pleased the Front. He gave up public writing. He abandoned the speeches.
“I quit talking,” he said.
In that, Toai had company. Other survivors of dozens of acts of terror carried out against Vietnamese immigrants on American soil during the 1980s — many of which the FBI suspected the Front was responsible for — shut up or moved. Some abandoned businesses or retreated from their own communities and what had been active public lives.
ProPublica and FRONTLINE reported last month on the Front’s suspected campaign of terror and the government’s failed efforts to hold anyone accountable. Today’s installment of Terror in Little Saigon examines the steep, enduring price paid by the victims of that violence. These Vietnamese-American victims had already experienced the twin calamities of war and displacement before landing in the U.S. Now, in a variety of ways, they had been returned to the life they thought they had left behind, one circumscribed by fear, one less than fully free, one in which brutality went unpunished.
It could feel, said one victim, like a second exile.
The FBI listed Toai in its files as a likely victim of the Front. But for all of the FBI’s suspicions, the agency failed to ever make a case against the Front’s members for what, by 1990, had become a string of killings, arsons and beatings. Among those murdered were five Vietnamese-American journalists and the FBI considered the Front to have been behind most, if not all, of those murders. But the bureau had not made a single arrest for those killings.
Vietnamese-American journalists say that the political disputes that roiled the community during the 1980s have largely dissipated. Even then, they say, it was only a small minority of extremists who seemed bent on silencing those with whom they disagreed.
Still, many of those who suffered back then are to this day reluctant to talk about their experiences. ProPublica and FRONTLINE set out to talk to as many victims as we could. Toai hadn’t spoken publicly about his shooting for years. Others we spent time with — including a relative of a murdered journalist named Le Triet — hadn’t spoken at all about their grief, frustration and enduring fear.
Some affected by the violence of that era remain resolute in their silence. ProPublica and FRONTLINE arranged an interview with a Vietnamese-American radio host who had been on air during those volatile years. The host ultimately backed out of the interview, sending a text message saying that he was still worried about discussing the period. A prominent writer who’d been targeted for death after lambasting the Front in a book also declined to speak, as did a man who survived a near-fatal shooting. In San Jose, California, a man who had gotten death threats from VOECRN in 1988 was too scared to revisit the incident.
Toai, 43 when he was shot, recovered from his wounds in a hospital room watched over by an armed guard. He was stitched up, and his damaged mouth was fitted for artificial teeth.
But his new American life had been forever altered.
“After that,” Toai said of his unsolved shooting, “I’m thinking this country is not safe.”
Twenty-five years after the murder of Le Triet, a 61-year-old columnist for a Virginia-based magazine called Van Nghe Tien Phong, one of his close relatives would only agree to talk about the killing on the condition that he or she would not be named.
After all, the person said, the authorities have never arrested those responsible. The relative had never spoken publicly about the case and its aftereffects.
Shortly after Triet’s assassination in 1990, Triet’s relative got what they said was a menacing phone call. “The person said, ‘I know where you are. I know who you are. I know where you live. And you don’t know anything about me. So you should watch your back.'” Shaken, the relative bought a pistol and took shooting lessons.
“I cannot forget how I felt in those days. Because I knew the police were in the dark,” the relative said.
Triet was the last of the five Vietnamese-American journalists killed during the spate of violence within the Vietnamese-American community. An assassin — or assassins — fired a barrage of .380 caliber bullets, killing both Triet and his wife, Dang-Tran Thi Tuyet, as they returned to their home in Fairfax County, Virginia, after a dinner party.
Triet had suffered greatly while living in Vietnam. After Ho Chi Minh’s forces took control of northern Vietnam in 1945, they killed Triet’s father and 26-year-old brother by burying them alive. As a 16-year-old boy, Triet was sent to a series of Communist prisons, where he spent roughly three years; during much of that time, his captors tortured him. When his hair grew shaggy, he used a piece of broken glass to cut it.
The emotional damage was deep. In those days, the relative said, Triet “was very angry. Anger is what he had.”
Triet and his family moved south, to Saigon, in 1954. When the city was seized by the Communists in 1975, Triet fled again, this time to the U.S. Triet wound up in the Virginia suburbs outside Washington, D.C., an area that would become a hub for Vietnamese refugees. It was not an easy transition — for nearly a decade he never saw one of his three children, a daughter who remained in Vietnam.
But eventually Triet developed some semblance of a normal life. He got a job as a furnace operator with Arlington County’s Water Pollution Control Division and began writing columns for Tien Phong magazine, which brought him widespread renown within the Vietnamese diaspora. “Those were his happy years,” said the relative. “He considered himself successful. He lived comfortably.”
In print, Triet could be caustic. His “pen was sharp and he was intelligent,” the relative recalled. “He was annoyed by anything unjust.”
One of his frequent targets was the Front, which he had supported at first, but had come to believe was misleading its followers and misappropriating donations. When the writer and his wife were murdered, the relative immediately suspected the crime was a product of the long-running feud between the group and the writer.
Triet was the second Tien Phong employee to be assassinated. Ten months earlier, layout designer Do Trong Nhan was murdered in similar fashion when a gunman squeezed at least eight shots into Nhan’s 1980 Datsun 200-SX as he prepared to drive to work. The shots struck the 56 year old in the face, neck, abdomen, chest, left shoulder and left hand. Police records show the fatal shots were fired from a .380 caliber auto-loading handgun.
According to interviews and FBI documents, investigators believed the killings of Nhan, Dang-Tran and Triet may have been the work of the same professional assassin or assassins.
Several former members of the Front have publicly denied any involvement in the murders. But five former senior Front members told ProPublica and FRONTLINE the group operated a death squad.
After the murders, the relative said, the fear was crushing: waking from sleep screaming or sobbing. The relative once had enjoyed going to Tet festivities, Vietnamese-language book signings, performances by Vietnamese-American musicians. The deaths of Le Triet and his wife, and the threatening call that followed, changed all that. The relative chose to stay away from those cultural events, effectively banishing themself from the community. The relative moved to a new neighborhood far from the Vietnamese-American enclaves of Northern Virginia and severed nearly all ties to the old life. Among the worries was the relative would somehow get drawn into the dispute that had led to the murders of Triet and Tuyet.
“The joy of our lives was limited unfairly,” the relative said.
Former newspaper publisher Nguyen Tu A — brash, outspoken — was one of the few victims to share his story without hesitation.
During the 1980s, Tu A published a weekly Vietnamese-language newspaper called Viet Press. It had a circulation of as much as 7,000. And in its pages, Tu A, much like Toai and Triet, challenged the Front. Days after Toai was shot, Tu A received a communique signed by VOECRN. It was a picture of drops descending into a spreading pool of blood, according to an FBI description. There were four words on the page: “Who is the next?”
“Nguyen Tu A had written an article critical of the Front,” observed an FBI agent in a report, adding that Tu A’s politics were similar to those of Toai — he thought trade and diplomacy between Vietnam and the U.S. could liberalize the regime.
Tu A, who lives in Westminster, California, said the threats, though not acted upon, had an effect: He shuttered the paper after less than five years of publishing; and more lastingly, the threats forced him to live in a near constant state of wariness. Looking back, that state of suspicion was crystallized for him by a strange phone call he has never been able to expunge from his memory.
It was about 9 p.m. one night, he said, when an unidentified man called him with urgent news: your brother has been in a car accident and been taken to a nearby hospital. Tu A, the caller said, needed to come to the hospital as quickly as possible. Suspicious, Tu A contacted the police. He learned that his brother hadn’t been in a crash, wasn’t injured and wasn’t at the hospital.
Tu A didn’t go anywhere.
“It was a trap,” he said.
Shrewd? Paranoid? Tu A isn’t sure what to make of his choice. It’s just another small, unnerving uncertainty in an unsolved domestic terrorism case.
Doan Van Troai has always insisted he doesn’t know who shot him. That’s what he told the cops back in 1989 and that’s what he told ProPublica and FRONTLINE during a series of interviews this year, both on camera and off. He told us he long ago gave up on the idea of ever seeing the man who shot him stand trial.
FBI records, though, show agents thought the Front was possibly behind the attack. One informant told FBI agents he’d been present during a Front chapter meeting when a leader informed the assembled members that the organization was responsible for the shooting, bureau documents indicate. The chapter leader revealed that Toai “had been punished by the Front” for his writings, the informant said.
Toai had grown up in a Mekong Delta village called Rach Ranh. His mother farmed rice; his father, like many men of his generation, fought to push the French colonialists out of Vietnam.
“It was a blessed land. Rice grew well in the rich, alluvial soil,” Toai wrote in Vietnamese Gulag, which was co-authored by David Chanoff. “Fruit abounded and was available for the picking.” As a child he caught fish with his bare hands.
As a young man, Toai moved to the big city — Saigon — and eventually went to work as a branch manager for a bank. The position gave him a close-up view of the culture of bribery and kickbacks plaguing the government in the south.
And so when the Communists took control of the south in 1975, Toai was hopeful. Then 30 years old, with an easy smile and hair worthy of a Kennedy, Toai thought the new regime might represent an antidote to corruption. He took a job on the Revolutionary Finance Committee, which would overhaul the financial system in the territory the Communists now controlled.
But within two months, police had tossed him into a jail cell, a 12-by–30 foot box with some 40 other men. Toai says his imprisonment came after he balked at plans to confiscate private property from small business owners and farmers.
Conditions were beyond grim. He remembers his jailers mixing sand into his daily serving of rice, making it nearly inedible. The sand, his captors told him, was so he would think of his mistakes while he ate. Day after day, Toai and the other inmates had to write up autobiographical narratives so they could be educated about the many misdeeds they’d committed throughout their lives. Deaths due to a lack of medical care were common.
Finally, after 28 months in captivity, Toai strode out of prison. He never got a concrete explanation for why he’d been imprisoned or why he’d been released. He fled Vietnam, and wound up in America with his wife and three children.
While living in the U.S., Toai focused on his organization, the Institute for Democracy in Vietnam, which sought to gradually transform his homeland into a more open society. The institute was backed by a cast of Democratic and Republican politicians, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, with whom he became close. For Toai, the goal was to “use the peaceful way and education and training to help the Vietnamese Communists to change,” he recalled. He saw a major opportunity during the late 1980s when Vietnam’s major patron, the Soviet Union, began to democratize in the era of glasnost and perestroika.
His ideas, however, were unpopular with hardline anti-Communist Vietnamese refugees.
Some of them, like those who belonged to the Front, believed that armed struggle could unseat the Communists. To Toai, this notion was ridiculous, and he said as much in public and in his essays.
Then he got shot in the face.
In the wake of the shooting, a deep sense of disillusionment settled over Toai. America’s much-vaunted freedoms — liberties he had sought out after his imprisonment — now seemed more like platitudes than reality. During an interview in the kitchen of his home in Southern California, Toai’s disappointment was still raw.
“This so-called freedom of the press,” he said, was “not really freedom at all.”
Toai shuffled out of the public eye, abandoned his advocacy and writing. Today, Toai leads a very low-profile life. He heads a small for-profit college that offers training for people looking to run restaurants or become paralegals. As a professional, he goes by an Americanized version of his name, a decision in part meant to further obscure his past. And he has kept that amended name out of the headlines.
Asked why he’d chosen to speak with ProPublica and FRONTLINE, he joked: “Now I’m 70 years old and I don’t care.”
(Pictured above: Newspaper clippings capture Doan Van Toai’s years as an essayist and speaker on the future of his homeland, Vietnam; Kendrick Brinson for ProPublica)