Misguided: Frontline’s “Terror in Little Saigon”

On Tuesday, PBS’s Frontline will air a documentary investigating the unsolved murders of Vietnamese-American journalists in the 1980’s. Based on the promotional materials and the conversations with the journalist, I came to realize that the piece is formulated on an ill-founded narrative.

It’s always refreshing when mainstream media puts a focus on the complex and layered stories of immigrants and people of color. This is not one of those times. This piece seems to advance a narrative based on rumors and hearsay. It will cause unnecessary division and mistrust.

Below is my letter to Frontline’s editorial team to express my concerns.

October 30, 2015

Raney Aronson-Rath, Executive Producer
David Fanning, Founder and Executive Producer at Large
Andrew Metz, Managing Editor
A.C. Thompson, Reporter

Dear editors,

While limited, I have been in contact with AC Thompson about the upcoming broadcast of “Terror in Little Saigon.” We’ve spoken on background, in late September.

I am writing to Frontline’s editorial staff now because I’d like to point out some serious concerns about the narrative of this broadcast. This is based on my conversation with AC and my understanding that this piece will point to the supposed evidence that links “the Front” to attacks on Vietnamese-American journalists during the 1980s.

A little bit about me: I am not a member of Mat Tran (“the Front” as it’s called in the documentary). I am also not from the generation that this piece is focused on. In fact, I was born after these events took place. I am an organizer for Viet Tan, a pro-democracy organization whose founders were leaders of Mat Tran. I work with the individuals that AC had attempted to interview.

I have not written before because I was honestly incredulous as to how this piece could even exist. It is only after the promotional materials were published that I was moved to write.

ProPublica and Frontline reopen the investigation into a death squad run by former South Vietnamese military men that killed journalists, torched businesses and intimidated those who challenged its dream of re-starting the Vietnam War — all on American soil.

ProPublica and Frontline re-opened the investigation, talked to victims and suspects, examined once classified files, uncovered government missteps and won startling admissions. Five members of the organization, known as the Front, conceded the group had run an assassination squad. It even had a nickname: ‘K-9’.”

Having not seen the broadcast but having direct knowledge on the subjects in question, let me be absolutely clear: there was never a death squad in “the Front.” There was never a kill list. There was never a policy to use violence to silence critics.

K9 is not the nickname of any assassination squad. K9 was the designation for a regional division/chapter within the organization. It is shortened from Khu 9 — the Vietnamese word “khu” is translated as region. These organizers are Vietnamese refugees. Had they even known of it, why would they want to name any chapter after an American canine police unit?

That these murders occurred and remains unsolved is a grave injustice. If AC did win “startling admissions” from these individuals, why were the authorities not notified? Why have those responsible not been brought to justice?

Through the course of my conversation with AC, it became apparent that a narrative had already been established, based on the documentary “Enforcing the Silence” by the consulting producer Tony Nguyen.

It would appear that AC’s investigation was to gather evidence based on hearsay testimonies that bolstered an existing theory and pinned responsibility to a group that happened to be the largest anti-communist organization from that time — “the Front.” Never mind that another organization did claim responsibility: the VOECRN.

Already, this precluded any leeway for past Mat Tran leaders to speak because questions on supposed violence or murders committed or ordered by them are accusations that did not warrant a response.

The Vietnamese community, like most minority groups, continually suffers from misrepresentation. Stories that are amplified are almost always written by outsiders, with support from voices that are frequently one-sided and unvetted. We want opportunities for discourse, but surely a request for comment for a preconceived narrative is not the place to start.

I will be watching the broadcast and hope that this email can serve to open dialogue. I commend AC Thompson and Frontline for investigating crimes that have darkened my community’s history and for giving a voice to the victims. I’m just deeply disappointed that Frontline would choose to air an ill-founded narrative. I truly hope Tuesday’s broadcast proves me wrong.

Trinh Nguyen
Digital Advocacy Director, Viet Tan