Hoang Co Minh was born in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 1935. He studied mathematics at the University of Hanoi. In 1954, he was among the tide of northerners who went south to avoid communism. The following year, he joined the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) where he was a decorated officer. He was known as an incorruptible leader and was the youngest Rear Admiral in the Republic of Vietnam Navy.
After the Fall of Saigon in 1975, Hoang Co Minh established the foundations for a long-term democracy movement against the Hanoi communist regime. In 1982 he founded Viet Tan (Vietnam Reform Party) along the Thai-Lao border and was elected as the first Chairman.
Hoang Co Minh gave his life in August 1987 while attempting to enter Vietnam.
Hoang Co Minh graduated from the South Vietnamese Naval Academy at Nha Trang and studied at the U.S. Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, California. He quickly rose as a commander in the South Vietnamese riverine forces.
From 1964-65, he served as defense attache in the Republic of Vietnam embassy in Seoul, where he was instrumental in securing the diplomatic and military support of South Korea. Following his return to Vietnam, he held a series of naval commands. He was widely respected for his battlefield success and incorruptibility.
In 1974, he was promoted to Rear Admiral, becoming one of the youngest flag officers in the ARVN. As North Vietnamese forces entered Saigon on April 30, 1975, Hoang Co Minh’s final act as a military officer was to lead a South Vietnamese naval flotilla out to sea to escort the first wave of ‘boat people’ to freedom and to prevent the warships from falling into communist hands.
From political refugee to movement leader
Hoang Co Minh and his family resettled in the Washington DC area. Like most Vietnamese refugees in 1975, he was sponsored by an American family. Hoang Co Minh’s family was taken in by James Kelly, a Vietnam veteran and later senior national security official in the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush administrations.
For the next several years, Hoang Co Minh worked as a house painter during the day and focused his energies on organizing among the diaspora. He cofounded several political organizations aiming to promote freedom in Vietnam. From this network of overseas Vietnamese, a political movement took shape. It coalesced into Viet Tan with the mission of undertaking a revolutionary struggle to end dictatorship and reform the country.
Hoang Co Minh advocated a self-reliant struggle based on the power of the Vietnamese people with the ultimate goal of rebuilding and modernizing the country. This ran contrary to much of the sentiment in the diaspora then which believed that outside support was absolutely essential for changing Vietnam and narrowly defined the struggle as overthrowing communism. The name of Viet Tan is based on the fusion of Viet Nam and Canh Tan, which means comprehensive reform.
In 1981, Hoang Co Minh met with Thai government officials and received their agreement to open offices along the Thai-Lao border. From these operating bases, Vietnamese from the diaspora linked up with compatriots inside the country to build a pro-democracy movement on the ground. At Viet Tan’s founding political conference in September 1982, Hoang Co Minh was elected chairman. He spent most of his time in the malaria-infested jungle where he could be close to Vietnam and lead the movement.
The period of the 1980s was a challenging time for Vietnamese activists. The country was sealed off from the world and Vietnamese communist troops occupied both Laos and Cambodia. To travel to and from Vietnam, people would have to travel through the killing fields of Indochina. It was in that environment that Viet Tan members from the diaspora tried to link up with activists on the ground.
In summer 1987, Hoang Co Minh led a group of 200 activists from Thailand to Vietnam. They were ambushed by communist troops along the way. Hoang Co Minh died on August 28, 1987, less than 20 kilometers from Vietnam.
Inspired by the vision of Hoang Co Minh and his sacrifice for the movement, Viet Tan continues to this day as the leading Vietnamese pro-democracy opposition party.
Updated August 24, 2012