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California and the West

Vietnamese American Group Imperiled

Dispute: Infighting over election threatens to splinter social service organization. Some fear community will also be damaged.


Two years ago, thousands of Vietnamese Americans endured rain and hourlong waits to cast their ballots in an election for the leadership of a group they hoped would become a uniting force within the community and a powerful tool in mainstream politics.

But the organization that once held the promise of becoming a voice for the largest Vietnamese community in the United States is being torn apart by petty politics and charges of power-mongering.

An election this month to lead the Vietnamese Community of Southern California was thrown into chaos after the last-minute withdrawal by one of two slates. Much of the controversy over the election revolves around Irvine businessman Ban Binh Bui, 58, the outgoing president who critics say attempted to derail the balloting to hang on to power.

In the election's wake, the two opposing groups are wrestling to determine who will run the nonprofit social service organization.

"The infighting has reached a level today that's unbearable," said activist Dung Tran. "The community is united when it comes to fighting the government of Vietnam, but internally, we're divided."

The impasse threatens to cripple one of the most prominent Vietnamese American organizations in the Southland or, worse, splinter it into two competing factions. Beyond the anger and confusion of the moment, the election problems highlight an organization seen increasingly as fragmented and ineffectual within the community.

There are 300,000 Vietnamese emigres in Southern California--about 200,000 of them in Orange County. It is a tight-knit community where people find it difficult to bad-mouth each other publicly, saying it would put the entire group in a bad light.

"This split between leaders in our community--it divides our community," said Ninh Vu, president of Little Saigon Radio, a Vietnamese-language station. "I am very ashamed about that."

Although critics have questioned its influence and importance, the group has been one of the more visible organizations within the Vietnamese American community, often serving as an umbrella for other organizations to work together. It is also the only one to attempt to represent the entire Vietnamese American community in the Southland through its regionwide elections.

When the Vietnamese Community of Southern California was founded in the late '80s, the plan was to have a group that could articulate the community's political and social needs, said Phong Thanh Duc Tran, one of the original members and a well-known political commentator. The group was united behind its opposition to the Communist government in Vietnam and its attempts to involve the Vietnamese American community in mainstream politics.

It held its first election in the parking lot of a Westminster supermarket in 1989. Over the years, the organization's activities grew to include social services for newly arrived refugees, such as English and citizenship classes and job placement. It also coordinated Orange County's annual Tet Festival, which celebrates the Vietnamese New Year.

In 1996, the group tried to broaden its base outside Little Saigon, holding elections from the San Fernando Valley to San Diego. The campaigns included candidate debates, computerized registration and media advertising.

About 10,000 people voted, but the internal conflict that would eventually divide the organization had already begun.

"We did so many good things," Tran recalled. But once the group became successful, he said, people aligned themselves with the organization for political gain.

With his salt-and-pepper hair and fiery anti-Communist rhetoric, Ban Binh Bui, 58, has cut a distinctive figure since he was first elected the group's president in 1994. A successful Irvine businessman who owns three medical clinics, he won reelection two years ago. Under his leadership, the group strongly opposed normalization of U.S.-Vietnam relations, which came in 1995.

"The most important thing I've done is build a stronger community so we can fight the Communists," he said in an interview at his headquarters last week.

Among his proudest moments: blocking attempts by Vietnamese Ambassador Le Van Bang to visit Orange County, demonstrating against a traveling exhibition of water puppets from Hanoi, and even taking to task a Fullerton storage facility owner for mistakenly placing the Communist Vietnamese flag outside his business to drum up business.

But within the last couple of years, Bui has become a magnet for controversy.

Criticized for his autocratic style--Bui acknowledges that others call him "dictator"--he nevertheless defends his manner, saying, "Nothing will get done otherwise." Others say he has abused his leadership position. Last year, after quarreling with his elected vice president, Bui kicked him out of his post.

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