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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Wary Welcome for Viet Khieu

Wary Welcome for Viet Khieu

HO CHI MINCH CITY, (AP) - They come to help their motherland and to milk it for quick

profits. They come to find their roots and for cheap sex, and some sneak in to plant

bombs and hijack airplanes.

The more than two million overseas Vietnamese-known here as Viet Khieu-are being

officially viewed as both a great potential resource in Vietnam's drive for economic

development and a menace to the existing communist regime.

In turn, some Viet Khieu, most of them refugees from defeated south Vietnam, regard

the Hanoi government as an evil empire to be subverted so the south can rise again.

Others have put the past behind them.

These dichotomies are well-illustrated by two events this year in this city once

called Saigon. Within less than two months, authorities warmly welcomed overseas

Vietnamese at a landmark conference and arrested several Vietnamese-Americans who

allegedly tried to blow up key downtown buildings.

No official word of the would-be bombings last March came. But Vietnam did announce

it had sentenced to 20 years imprisonment a Vietnamese-American who last September

hijacked a Vietnamese airliner and showered Ho Chi Minh City with anti-communist

leaflets.

The former south Vietnamese pilot, Ly Tong, was arrested after parachuting to the

ground. Other Viet Khieu, alleged plotters against the state, also languish in Vietnamese

jails.

Despite such incidents, the currently official view, expressed by prime minister

Vo Van Kiet at the conference, is that the Viet Khieu are "a vital part of the

Vietnamese National Community."

At the February meeting some 130 Viet Khieu professionals, businessmen and artists

from 24 countries exchanged views with high-level officials and tried to find ways

to work together in the future.

Nguyen Ngoc Tran, who heads the national committee for Vietnamese residents abroad,

said five joint committee have been set up to advise the government on everything

from banking to education. The Viet Khieu, he said in an interview in Hanoi, proposed

a bank with 100 percent Viet Khieu capitalization be established in Vietnam along

with a technology transfer center.

"They left at different times and for different reasons but most of them are

still closely linked with relatives and their country," said the French-educated

national assembly member in an interview. "Our policy is to judge everyone according

to their contribution, not their past."

Initially, the "boat people" refugees were regarded as criminals, but in

1986 new reformers who took power in Hanoi decided to allow them back for visits

from their Diaspora in more than 70 countries.

The trickle of cautious returnees, swelled to nearly 100,000 visitors last year.

They include teen-agers with American accents trying to learn about their origins

and young men who, residents here complain, flaunt their dollars and indulge in sex

"just like American GIs used to do."

More are coming to take advantage of Vietnam's now accelerating economic growth and

opening to the world. One Viet Khieu has started Vietnam-Safari, which guides American

veterans to old battlefields. Others have opened some of this city's best restaurants

and cocktail lounges.

Fleeing Vietnam in 1981, Vietnamese-American Sean Nguyen recently returned as the

millionaire owner of two computer companies in Minnesota and eager to set up operations

in his homeland.

Such successes abroad have enabled Vietnamese to send between U.S. $400 million and

U.S. $500 million a year to relatives back home, according to the State Committee

for Co-operation and Investment (SCCI).

Money also comes through illegal channels and for illegal purposes, according to

both Vietnamese officials and foreign consultants. Viet Khieu, they say, have violated

tax and other Vietnamese laws as well as the U.S. trade embargo with Vietnam

Regional anti-narcotics agents are also beginning to detect fledgling, but potentially

strong narcotics connections involving Vietnamese gangs on the west coast of North

America.

Returning Viet Khieu with honest intentions say they are concerned with the lack

of a comprehensive legal system. including laws defining the status of overseas Vietnamese.

many still simply do not trust the communists and others cite death threats from

those in the Viet Khieu community still fighting the Vietnam war.

A senior official of the SCCI, Vu Huy Hoang, said work is under way to strengthen

legal guarantees for the Viet Khieu and convince them the regime is sincere about

wanting their talents and cash.

Hoang said that ultimately the Viet Khieu would prove more valuable for their skills

than their limited financial resources. But he said they could act as effective lobbyists

on behalf of their motherland, convincing big investors in the west and Asia to enter

the market.

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