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Anti-Communist Faction Stalks Fearful Vietnamese

October 05, 1987|MARK I. PINSKY and DAVID REYES | 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."

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