Hard man of Saigon junta does business with the old enemy

Missing persons No.14 Air Marshal Ky

Nguyen Cao Ky, better known as Air Vice-Marshal Ky, one of the most notorious leaders of the American-backed South Vietnamese government, was in Tokyo yesterday while the 20th anniversary of the fall of Saigon was being celebrated by the Communist government of Vietnam.

Mr Ky, as he is now more modestly known, has travelled far since the days when he served as head of the air force, prime minister and then vice-president of the Republic of Vietnam. Forced into exile in the United States four years before the fall of Saigon, he moved to Orange County in California, where he felt at home with other Vietnamese immigrants and local residents who are famous for their right-wing politics.

For a while he was prominent in Vietnamese migr politics, serving as a leader for those who dreamed of "liberating" Vietnam from the Communists: however, the migr groups were marked by failure.

To be nearer to Vietnam he moved to Hong Kong, where he lives modestly in the bustling Causeway Bay district. Although he has never returned to his home country, he is working as a consultant to the Hong Kong-based Jet Air company, which is developing an investment portfolio in Vietnam. His active participation in building business ties with his home country suggests a form of unspoken rapprochement with the Vietnamese government, a view reinforced by the fact that his wife travels frequently to Vietnam.

This is perhaps surprising in view of Mr Ky's reputation as a ruthless opponent of the Communists. Together with General Nguyen Van Thieu, he mounted a coup in June 1965 to topple the pathetic Khanh government, which had fallen out of favour with its American backers. General Thieu was made head of state, but Air Marshal Ky, who was prime minister, hogged centre stage. He was famous for wearing purple satin jump suits, carrying pearl-handled revolvers and cutting a dashing figure with his hairline moustache.

Official American endorsement of the new regime was bestowed by President Lyndon Johnson at a conference with the new leaders in Honolulu in February 1966. Prime Minister Ky hoodwinked Mr Johnsoninto believing that he was really a democrat who would be working for the development of his country.

A month later a more accurate picture of his intentions began to emerge when he tried to sack General Nguyen Canh Thi, who he felt had too much power in the centre of the country. What followed was a bloodbath and severe political repression in the cities of Hue and Da Nang. This turned the Buddhists into active opponents of the regime, and the quelling of their protests quickly dissipated any remaining goodwill towards the government.

A charade of an election, held in 1967, was supposed to confer legitimacy on the government. It was not the most fraudulent poll in Vietnamese history, but failed in its main aim. Mr Ky, however, emerged as vice-president.

The venality of the regime, its incompetence and its alienation of practically the entire population did not make for a stable partnership among the leadership. Mr Ky fell out with General Thieu and was outmanoeuvred by General Duong Van Minh, "Big Minh", a survivor of many coups and counter- coups, who signed the final surrender 20 years ago. The Americans had also run out of patience with Mr Ky, and willingly offered him exile in California in 1971.

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