After two tearful, nerve-racking weeks, Ngo Mai Huong got some good news Tuesday: her husband, Sacramento engineer and pro-democracy activist Nguyen Quoc Quan, is alive and well in a Vietnamese prison.
Ngo said the U.S. State Department told her that her “husband is in jail with two other detainees, and right now he’s teaching one of them English.”
Nguyen, a 54-year-old father of two teenage boys, belongs to Viet Tan – the Vietnam Reform Party. The international pro-democracy movement has been labeled “a terrorist organization” by the Vietnamese government.
Nguyen left Elk Grove Nov. 9 to meet with democracy activists.
On Nov. 17, Nguyen and several other activists, including another Vietnamese American, “Leon” Truong Van Ba from Hawaii, were arrested around Ho Chi Minh City for allegedly distributing pro-democracy leaflets.
Ngo said local Vietnamese activists told her Nguyen had been arrested. She heard nothing for days, and didn’t know if he was dead or alive.
Nguyen and Truong’s arrests triggered protests from Vietnamese organizations in Sacramento and San Jose. Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to help secure their release.
“It’s extremely disappointing to learn that the Government of Vietnam has arrested United States citizens in Vietnam for reportedly having a peaceful discussion,” Lungren wrote to Rice.
On Nov. 30, the Vietnamese government’s official news agency reported arresting several Viet Tan sympathizers, “crushing the plots by a group of reactionaries in exile to sabotage the Vietnamese State.”
The government’s report alleged that Nguyen, “who used a fake passport under the name of Ly Seng for entry into Vietnam … was assigned by the Viet Tan to return to the country to conduct anti-government activities in association with other elements.”
Duy Hoang, a Viet Tan leader based in Washington, D.C., said Nguyen was indeed sent by Viet Tan to Vietnam “to promote methods of nonviolent struggle.”
“I was involved in the planning of his trip,” said Hoang, a 1993 UC Davis grad in economics and political science. “He and other Viet Tan members were in the process of distributing a two-page leaflet on what nonviolent struggle is and how it can be a tool to liberate the people.”
Nguyen was talking about nonviolent protests in Burma, Mahatma Gandhi’s march to the sea in India to protest the British salt tax, and the pro-democracy movements that transformed Eastern Europe, Hoang said.
The Vietnam News Agency reported that police confiscated 7,000 anti-government leaflets published by Viet Tan.
Hoang challenged the Vietnamese government to publish the leaflet in its newspaper “to let the people decide if this is in fact an act of terrorism.
“We view ourselves as patriots who want to bring about political change by mobilizing the power of the people through all forms of nonviolent struggle, from peaceful protest to civil disobedience,” he said.
Nguyen, a high school math teacher in Kieng Giang province, loved to teach, Ngo said. He escaped Vietnam by boat in 1981 and came to the United States. He got his Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of North Carolina in 1987. Then he moved to San Jose, co-founded the Vietnamese Professionals Society and worked on developing a machine to translate English to Vietnamese, Hoang said.
The son of Ho Diep, one of Vietnam’s most famous singers of classic poetry, Nguyen read poetry in Vietnamese American magazines he found in San Jose. In 1989, he fell in love with a poem called “Mother”:
Like the falling rains from heaven
Mother is the star, the heaven and earth.
You are the protective arms from days of war.
Sweet lullabies echoing in the night.
You give me a life, lonely life.
The land tosses and turns in conflicts.
You give me a crib brimming with love
When I grow up my heart will belong to another.
Nguyen sent the author a book about Vietnam’s communist government and a liberation T-shirt, then flew to Chicago to visit her.
Two visits later, “we got married,” said the poem’s author, Ngo, now 47. “I love the way he thinks about our country and our community.”
They moved to Elk Grove in 2002 because Nguyen said Sacramento had good schools, Ngo said. “I’d worked as an accountant in San Jose, but he told me to stay home with the kids because this was a critical time in their lives.”
Nguyen got an information-technology job, and immersed himself in the study of peaceful protest, Ngo said. “He showed us movies about nonviolent struggle. He’s very skinny – I had to push him to eat all the time, and we’d fight about it – and my kids called him a small version of Gandhi.”
On Nov. 9, Nguyen told his family he was going to Thailand and would be back Nov. 29, Ngo said. “I know he works for democracy, but I don’t ask him much about the details.”
She called her husband an idealist who dreamed of returning to Vietnam to become the principal of a rural high school. “He’s very concerned about the educational system there.”
Nguyen is well-known in Vietnamese American circles, said Chan Tran, a host on Sacramento’s TNT Vietnamese radio, which hosted a rally for him last week.
“He’s a wonderful son of Vietnam,” Tran said. “He has a kind heart, he’s very smart, a wonderful storyteller who’s always cracking us up with jokes.”
Tran said Nguyen used to tell his friends: “If one day I’m going back to Vietnam and being arrested, then please don’t fight for just my freedom, but fight for the freedom of others. And in prison or outside, I will never stop fighting for the rights of the people of Vietnam to live in freedom and dignity.”
Jamie Goff, Lungren’s constituent services representative, said the State Department reported Tuesday that Nguyen “appears to be in good health and good spirits.” She’d heard nothing about Nguyen’s alleged fake passport or what, if anything, he’s been charged with. “We really want to know.”
Ngo said that even though she’s Buddhist, she’d love to have her husband home for Christmas. “My sons are very sad,” she said. “Monday night, I heard my oldest son Khoa, 15, tell his friend, ‘You are very lucky you have your dad at home – make sure you love him more.’ “