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Freed Activist Is Seen as a Hero

Released by Vietnam, Cong Thanh Do is back in the U.S. and working for the freedom of other members of his anti-communist group.

October 01, 2006|Christopher Goffard | Times Staff Writer

Cong Thanh Do's family never found it especially strange that he spent his evenings glued to his laptop, sometimes well past midnight. Nor did they think it unusual when, on family trips to his native Vietnam, he regularly disappeared to visit unnamed "friends" in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi.

Unknown to them or anyone else, the San Jose engineer -- a mild, inconspicuous father of three who favors Polo shirts and jeans -- was operating for years under another identity: "Tran Nam," an underground freedom-fighter and founding member of a banned anti-communist group. Using the Internet and on annual vacations, he oversaw a network of dissidents pushing for change in Vietnam.

Do's dual life came to light after he was arrested in mid-August while traveling in that Southeast Asian country with his wife, Tien Jane Dobui, and 9-year-old son. The government accused him of plotting to attack a U.S. Consulate, but sent him home last week after 38 days in a Ho Chi Minh City jail where he went on a hunger strike that stripped him of 20 pounds.

"This work is very dangerous," said Do, 47, relaxing Saturday at his brother's apartment in Garden Grove, where he owns a coffee shop and has become a hero to the large Vietnamese-American community of Little Saigon. "I did the work in the dark for almost five years. Nobody knew about anything."

Do said that members of his People's Democratic Party of Vietnam scattered throughout that communist country are unknown by their real names even to each other, a precaution taken to prevent those captured from implicating others. Committed to nonviolent change, the activists surreptitiously distribute anti-communist materials, adopting and scuttling new e-mail addresses regularly to avoid detection.

On yearly trips to Vietnam, Do said, he would meet with other leaders at coffee shops, restaurants and parks in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

"We never communicated through the phone, all through the Internet," Do said, adding that his cellphone was the first thing seized when he was arrested.

After he was jailed on his latest trip, Do said, authorities accused him of being a terrorist, a charge the U.S. Embassy dismissed. He was interrogated day and night, he said, and locked in a sweltering 10-by-10-foot cell with two other prisoners, where he embarked on the hunger strike in protest. He said his cellmates, who were common criminals sympathetic to his plight, brought him water and saved his life. "After 10 days your body is really weak," Do said. "Most of the time I lay there on the floor."

After a while, he said, he felt no hunger but only exhaustion. He tried to minimize his movements, meditating and keeping his mind blank and away from worries about his family. "I tried not to think about them," Do said. "The more you think about them, the more you go crazy."

Do said he was in jail for 18 days before being permitted to see a representative from the U.S. Consulate. His story, when it got out, prompted a chorus of protest from the Vietnamese-American community and U.S. lawmakers, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

Lan Nguyen, a Westminster attorney, activist, and member of the Garden Grove Unified School District board, said Do's case struck a powerful chord among Vietnamese Americans, especially those concerned about democracy in their homeland and personal safety when they travel.

"The American government's State Department sent a very strong message to the Vietnamese government, 'Don't do that again,' " he said.

The Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, D.C., could not be reached for comment.

Janet Nguyen, a Garden Grove councilwoman, said that she's never met Do but had received many pro-democracy e-mails sent under his pen name. "Everybody worked to bring him home," she said. "The bottom line for us is, he's an American citizen who's just voicing his opinion."

Do fled Vietnam for the United States in 1982, settling briefly in the Washington, D.C., area before coming to California, where he got an engineering degree from Cal Poly Pomona. His wife, who is 43, said she was arrested by Vietnamese authorities briefly and questioned about her husband's activities, but had little to tell. She knew he had an interest in Vietnamese affairs, but figured his late-night computer sessions were spent reading.

Do's daughter, Bien Dobui, 21, a student at San Francisco State University, said she knew of her father's desire for democracy in Vietnam, but didn't know he was actively working for the cause. She's proud of him now that she knows the truth, she said.

"I've always known my dad is someone who isn't really afraid to push the limits," Dobui said. "When he announced he was on a hunger strike and people kept telling us it's not true, we knew it was true.... I wanted to think he was eating. But we knew if he said he was doing something, he was going to do it."

Bien Dobui took time off from school to help fight for her father's release. "The house is full of flowers from people telling my dad he's a hero," she said. "He doesn't think he's a hero. He only thinks, 'Good, now people are aware of what's happening.' "

Do said his main job now is trying to win the release of six other members of his group who are incarcerated in Vietnam. "They can stop me from going back to Vietnam," he said, "but they're not going to stop me from doing the work."

christopher.goffard

@latimes.com

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