Employees of a Vietnamese-language magazine based in Arlington said yesterday they believe its political columnist and his wife were gunned down during the weekend because of the biting commentaries he wrote, but they said they refuse to be intimidated by the violence.
"Their activities are unlawful. They are afraid. Not us," Lan Phuong, assistant to the president of the magazine Tien Phong, said about those responsible for the slayings. "Of course we have to take preventive measures, but the killing of Mr. Le will not affect our business."
Phuong said he and other employees doubt there is a connection between the slayings of Triet Le, 61, and his wife, Tuyet Thi Dangtran, 52, outside their Baileys Crossroads home late Saturday and the death last year of another employee, Nhan Trong Do, 56, who was found shot in a car outside his Seven Corners home.
No one has been charged in the Nov. 22 slaying of Do, a layout artist for the magazine.
Fairfax police said yesterday they have not established a motive and have no suspects in the latest shootings, which occurred as the couple pulled into their driveway after attending a barbecue.
"It would be easy to quickly classify it as politically motivated, but we haven't reached a conclusion," said Capt. J.J. Rzewnicki, commander of the police department's major crimes division.
Phuong said he and others among the magazine's five employees believe Le was killed because he wrote about the "failures" of the Vietnamese government. Phuong cited a recent column in which Le criticized the government for exporting rice while the country's citizens are starving.
Phuong said it is doubtful that Do, the magazine's artist, was killed for political reasons because he did not write for the magazine.
Le's writing style was described as damning by those who read him regularly.
"He was like a gadfly," said Nguyen Bich, of Springfield, an activist in the local Vietnamese community. "He never left anybody alone. He attacked many people. Almost anyone of prominence would not have escaped his pen . . . . He would not even spare the religious community, saying things like, 'The Pope has a girlfriend.' . . . He made a lot of people unhappy."
According to Kenneth Conboy, deputy director for Asian studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, Le "criticized everybody and anybody." Police "probably will have a lot of suspects," Conboy said. "This guy lashed out at everybody. He made an awful lot of enemies."
Earlier this year, Le criticized Vietnam's current regime for building a museum in honor of Ho Chi Minh, the late president of North Vietnam.
"What good deeds have been done by Ho to deserve all this?" Le wrote in Tien Phong. "Tens of thousands of people have died under Ho's order. Doesn't the regime feel dirty, or filthy, or obscene to build something like this museum?"
"This guy burned all of his bridges," said Conboy. "He didn't represent any particular faction."
Conboy said that such writing by Vietnamese authors has led to violence against them in recent years.
"His death, if it is related to his writing, is not without precedent," Conboy said.
In some parts of the Vietnamese community in America, which numbers about 1 million people, there are those who "became ingrained in warfare," he said. "Scores are sometimes settled by intimidation."
Jane Werner, a Columbia University expert on Vietnamese politics, said at least two Vietnamese journalists have been murdered on the West Coast in the past eight years.
An editor of a Vietnamese-language magazine in Garden Grove, Calif., died Aug. 9, 1987, when an arson fire swept the magazine's small office, where he also lived. Police said a group calling itself the Vietnamese Party to Exterminate Communists and Restore the Nation claimed responsibility.
"The Vietnamese are a highly literate people," said Werner. "So writers and editors are listened to and respected in the community . . . . They are spreading opinions to a lot of people, so they are a natural target."
In March, the editor of one of the largest Vietnamese-language newspapers in the United States, the Nguoi Daily News in Southern California, received a death threat from a Vietnamese anti-communist group.
The violence against Vietnamese journalists has been aimed mostly at those perceived not to be zealously anti-communist. Le generally criticized the communists, but sometimes attacked their critics as well, Conboy and Nguyen said.
In January 1980, the North Arlington home of Nguyen Tranh Hoang, Tien Phong's publisher, was firebombed while he and his 7-year-old daughter sat in a basement room. Both Hoang and the child escaped without injury, but the firebombing did $125,000 in damage to the house.
Editors of Tien Phong received two letters claiming responsibility for the bombing from a group upset with the magazine's criticism of Buddhist and Catholic organizations working in the Vietnamese community.
After the firebombing, the bimonthly magazine installed an elaborate security system at the red-brick suburban home on North Highland Street where it is produced, according to Phuong.
Even with two television cameras watching the front of the house, and security lights and guard dogs positioned around the house, there was a sense of calm inside yesterday. Typesetters tapped away, preparing the next edition of the magazine.
Determined not to be intimidated, the magazine plans to replace Le, a columnist for eight years, with someone who shares his strong anti-communist views and feisty style, said Phuong, 63.
With 14,000 subscribers, Tien Phong is the largest Vietnamese magazine in the United States or abroad, Phuong said. Le worked for the magazine part time from his home and until recently held a full-time job with Arlington County's water pollution control division, he said.
Le's wife worked at National Airport for a food service company, Phuong said.