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Vietnamese Americans take action against redbaiting

April 06, 2009|My-Thuan Tran

Being called a communist sympathizer is enough to ruin a reputation in Little Saigon.

In this staunchly anti-communist Vietnamese enclave in central Orange County, where the flag of fallen South Vietnam continues to wave, business owners, politicians and even pop singers know the label can spark street protests and damaging reports in the Vietnamese press. And in the past, those targeted have generally endured the attacks, knowing it would be futile to counter the accusations.

But now, some Vietnamese Americans -- including a former superintendent and the owner of the nation's oldest Vietnamese-language newspaper -- are pushing back by taking their accusers to court, suing for slander and harassment.

Those who've turned to the courts to fend off the name-calling say they hope their aggressive stance will help tone down the redbaiting in places like Little Saigon, where it has grown to a near contact sport.

KimOanh Nguyen-Lam thinks the communist label directly led to her removal as the nation's first Vietnam- ese American public school superintendent. One week after she was appointed by the Westminster School District in 2006 to lead a school system where one-third of the students are Asian American, the offer was rescinded without explanation.

Some board members later said they did not believe Nguyen-Lam was qualified. But according to court documents, one board member conceded that local community activist Sinh Cuong Cao called board members after the appointment and told them Nguyen-Lam was a communist.

Nguyen-Lam, who alleges that Cao's comments influenced some board members to change their votes, now is suing Cao for defamation.

Nguyen-Lam, who fled the communist government with her family in 1975 and whose father was a South Vietnam government colonel, said it should be obvious she is not a communist.

"Mr. Cao's slandering negated all that my father stood for and damaged our family reputation," Nguyen-Lam said. "The decision to seek legal action is one way to prevent incidents like this from happening again."

Cao denies calling Nguyen-Lam a communist. In one of his court statements, Cao admitted giving his opinion to board members but said that he did not slander Nguyen-Lam because he had never met her and knew of her only through media reports. Cao's lawyer, Mark Bucher, said Cao's statements did not affect Nguyen-Lam's appointment.

In another case, owners of Nguoi Viet Daily News, the largest newspaper in Little Saigon, filed a suit against three protesters who for more than a year have been demonstrating outside the newspaper's office over the publication of a photo that they felt was sympathetic to communists. The suit alleges that the protesters have harassed and threatened employees and customers. The defendants denied the allegations and said they were practicing freedom of speech. The case will be heard next month.

To those unfamiliar with the politics of Vietnamese enclaves such as Little Saigon, the level of name-calling and suspicion might seem like a newsreel from the McCarthy era.

When a video store owner displayed communist symbols in 1999, it incited thousands of people to protest for 53 consecutive days. Tony Lam, the first Vietnamese American elected official, saw his Westminster restaurant picketed for two months by protesters who felt that he failed to show proper support for the massive anti-communist protests. In last year's county supervisor race, both Supervisor Janet Nguyen and Assemblyman Van Tran (R-Garden Grove) called each other communist sympathizers, though it seemingly cost them few votes on election day.

"The war, for the American public, ended in 1975, but for the Vietnamese American community, it is still an ongoing process," said Linda Vo, chairwoman of the UC Irvine Asian American studies department. "Unfortunately, in our community, anyone can be accused of being a communist."

Vo said that over the years, more and more people have been called communists, including businessmen and pop singers who have gone to Vietnam, as well as nonprofits raising funds for schools in the Southeast Asian country.

"There's name-calling and counter-name-calling," Vo said. "There is recognition that someone needs to speak up."

Tuan Joseph Pham of St. Paul, Minn., learned that the hard way.

Pham, a leader in St. Paul's Vietnamese community, was vilified after he lowered the South Vietnamese flag during a 2004 visit by a bishop from Vietnam who did not want to be photographed with political symbols. Shortly afterward, some branded Pham a communist and protested outside his market, driving customers away and eventually shutting down his business.

A former South Vietnamese soldier who endured two years of prison at the hands of communists, Pham said he was hurt by the accusations. He filed a defamation suit against seven protesters. The suit made its way to the Minnesota Supreme Court, and Pham was awarded $353,000 in damages.

"I felt there was no other way to stop them than to go to court," said Pham, 73.

Pham said the lawsuit appears to have made a difference in St. Paul's small Vietnamese enclave. Since then, he hasn't seen any more protests or heard more name-calling.

In Little Saigon the country's largest Vietnamese enclave, some are wary of the practice of redbaiting, called chup mu in Vietnamese, literally meaning to put the communist hat on someone.

Timothy Thieng Chi Ngo, vice president of the Vietnamese American Community of Southern California, said he is saddened for those who are unfairly cast as communists but is not sure whether lawsuits will stop the practice. Ngo said there are people who see themselves as watchdogs to protect against communists, who Ngo believes are infiltrating the Vietnamese community.

"The suffering of the Vietnamese after the war is so terrible," he said. "Everyone hates communists."

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my-thuan.tran@latimes.com

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