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Early Life

In Vietnam, Phong was a prominent journalist who had contributed to major newspapers such as Trắng Ðen, Chính Luận, and even Văn Nghệ Tiền Phong (VNTP) when they were still in Saigon. He and his family immigrated to the US in 1975 and stayed at a refugees camp in Arkansas before settling in Houston, Texas. To foster his passion for journalism and support his family, Phong worked at a terrarium factory and then later as a dental technician. Recalled his sixth son Nguyen Thanh Tu, Phong would get up very early in the morning and began writing for his newspaper called Freedom (Tự Do) and painstakingly had to hand write diacritics into the text since early typewriters didn't have Vietnamese characters.

Buddhist's Mouth, Snake Heart

According to Nguyen Thanh Tu's interview with Ha Giang at Nguoi Viet (a prominent newspaper in Westminster), Phong was aware of The Front (An Anti-Communist Paramilitary Extremist Group) when he was still in Vietnam. He'd known the two top members of the organization - Phạm Văn Liễu and Hoàng Cơ Minh. In the US when Tự Do became the largest Vietnamese language newspaper in Houston, TX, the Front reached out to Phong and even invited him to one of their rallies and asked him to write an article about them in his newspaper for good publicity. Possibly they might had wanted to recruit him to write for their own would be newspaper called Resistance.

The Front's rally in Garden Grove. Credits: Đỗ Thông Minh
The Front's rally in Garden Grove. Photo Credits: Đỗ Thông Minh

Using his investigative intuition of a reporter, Phong kept trying to dig deeper into The Front's operation, especially their fundraising tactics and what they did with the donation. His curiosity turned to suspicion. The more he participated in the Front's public gatherings, the more he became doubtful at their motive and integrity. According to Tu, his father was courted by the Front to join and help them create propaganda that could promote a mythological image of the group. They would treat the father and son to lavish dinners and ordered expensive dishes for them. Phong and his son were cautious not to take the bait. To brag of their accomplishment, members from the Front showed Phong photographs of a military camp in the jungle boasting they had already stationed inside Vietnam. After inspecting the photos carefully, Phong concluded that they were faked. There were elements in the photos that didn't look right. For example, the surrounding did not look like they were in a Vietnamese jungle. Phong's mistrust toward the Front escalated when they bribed him with envelopes of cash. They even offered to buy him a car and give him money to expand his newspaper. Eventually, after multiple fail attempts to shut him up, they resorted to violent threats over telephones. In these phone calls, the person on the other line clearly stated that they represented The Front and said that if Phong wouldn't stop with the accusations then he would be killed. The Front even pushed the community to boycott Tu Do and coerced businesses not to advertise in the newspaper. Tu said that he sensed a lot of fear when he delivered his father's newspaper to clients. They either threw them in the trash or hid them carefully so no one could see they received the newspapers from Tu Do.

tu-do-articles
Nguyen Dam Phong's newspaper Freedom criticizing The Front's leader and operation. Photo Credits: Propublica

There was no way that Phong could back down now. Pushing to expose the Front's fraudulent activities further, in a bold move, Phong flew to Thailand to research on the Front's military base. He discovered that the camp was a lot smaller than what they had said. Instead of 10,000 soldiers they had about couple hundreds and many of them were Thai locals and people from Laos. Realized that the progress The Front had bragged back in the US was exaggerated, Phong returned to prepare his writing to tell the truth to the Vietnamese people.

Military Camp in Cambodia. Credits: Đỗ Thông Minh
Military Camp in South East Asia. Photo Credits: Đỗ Thông Minh

Mini Documentary on the history of The Front (Vietnamese Language)

No Shell Casings

In their final attempt to persuade Phong to cease his negative publications that could hurt their cause, the top members of the organization invited him to a restaurant to give him one last warning. Phong would never thought his enemy would go through with it. He thought that being a reporter and living in the USA would protect him from political assassination. After he's shot, a note was left on his body claiming VOECRN was behind the attack. According to Propublica's investigation, FBI files showed that VOECRN could be a pseudonym used by K-9, a regional chapter of the Front who'd also acted as a death squad taking out oppositions. Crime scene evidences were limited, not even bullet shell casings were found. It was clearly the work of professionals.

A Stone In The Heart

For Nguyễn Thanh Tú, no one could understand what he'd went through all these years. His father's death not only brought him the anguish of losing a loved one but also caused him to feel being betrayed and outcast by his own people since no one in the Vietnamese community had the courage to speak out, not even prominent Vietnamese American journalist, literary figures, and artists living in the area back then. Furthermore, he felt being marginalized by the American justice system since all these 30 years even the FBI couldn't find out who the assassin was. However, he knew for certain that The Front was behind his father's murder. In an outpouring of emotions, Tu admit to Propublica that he just wanted validation that he was right from the beginning. He needed an answer for closure so a stone in his heart can be lifted.

Nguyen Dam Phong's son, Nguyen Thanh Tu, who is actively trying to get the justice department to re-open the case of the murders of the Vietnamese journalists.

Facts about Nguyen Dam Phong

  • Name: Nguyen Dam Phong (Nguyễn Đạm Phong)
  • Age: 48
  • Pen Name: Ðạm Phong
  • Publisher: Tự Do, Freedom
  • Cause of Death: Shot outside of house on driveway in his pajama.
  • Date of Death: August 24, 1982
  • Location: Houston Texas
  • Kin: 10 children, notably 6th son Nguyễn Thanh Tú
  • Top Suspects: VOECRN, The Front

***If you know of any information that can help bring justice to the families, you can take action. Your identity will be kept private.

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