Saturday, December 03, 2005

Greg Ansley: Australian tale born of tragedy

Nguyen Tuong Van, the 25-year-old former Melbourne salesman and heroin smuggler who was hanged at dawn yesterday in Singapore, was a modern Australian tragedy, the product of a string of other tragedies that have scarred the nation.

He was also a modern nightmare: a young man of previous good character trapped fatally in the drug underworld and caught by a state that has no mercy for his kind; and a diplomatic agony for a country whose powerful convictions clash impossibly with those of its closest, and most sensitive, neighbours.

Above all, Nguyen was the son of a devoted mother who had already seen more than her share of grief, and whose agony as she held her boy's hand for the last time as he waited to be led to the gallows can barely be imagined.

Nguyen was raised in Melbourne because of the Vietnam war and Australia's still bitterly debated part in it.

His mother, Kim, became pregnant with Nguyen and his twin brother Khoa in a brief and failed marriage as South Vietnam fell to the communists.

Her father and an uncle were arrested and imprisoned. Five years later, Kim Nguyen joined the flood of refugees pouring into overcrowded camps in Thailand, where her sons were born.

This was the time of the great Vietnamese diaspora. Canberra felt a deep obligation to the exiled supporters of its former ally and, after the first refugee boats began arriving, opened its doors.

In the decade after the fall of Saigon in 1975, about 88,000 Vietnamese arrived in Australia, mainly rescued from the abominable conditions of the border camps and founding a community that now numbers about 170,000. But the diaspora also brought with it the evil that ultimately trapped Nguyen.

By the early 1990s Vietnamese crime gangs had become significant players in heroin trafficking, extortion and illegal gambling, frequently in association with Chinese Triads and other Asian syndicates.

Inevitably, their own communities were infected with a plague that had already taken a tragic number of Australia's youth.

The Nguyen family's early years in Melbourne were hard, as they are for most refugees, living in a city block of Housing Commission flats.

Kim married a Vietnamese-Australian man whom she left after he began violently striking her sons.

Later the family moved to Chadstone, a blue-collar suburb in the city's southwest, where Kim worked two jobs to support her sons in a three-bedroom home.

Nguyen by all accounts was a good son, steeped in the Vietnamese tradition of responsibility.

Kim told the Sydney Morning Herald her twins had been delivered by caesarean and, because she did not know which one was born first, picked Van as the elder because he was larger than Khoa.

Nguyen reportedly took the responsibility of elder son seriously. He joined the Scouts, worked hard at school, took a night job at McDonald's and tried to keep Khoa out of trouble.

This became increasingly difficult, and ultimately lethal. His twin was expelled from school, turned to heroin and was busted for dealing the drug. Last year, Khoa was given a three-month suspended sentence for brutally assaulting another man.

Both boys fell into heavy debt. But it was the A$30,000 ($31,544) owed by Khoa that most worried Nguyen. Desperate to help his brother, he accepted a commission from a Vietnamese man in Sydney to take a parcel from Cambodia to Australia. He told his mother he was taking a holiday.

Nguyen, his statements to police reveal, was under no illusions. He was sure he was being asked to smuggle drugs. In Phnom Penh he realised how much trouble he was in: the suppliers forced him to smoke heroin, and threatened him with death if he tried to pull out.

He milled blocks of heroin with a coffee grinder and taped 396.2g of the powdered drug in two plastic bags to his body. At Changi Airport in Singapore, where possession of 15g of heroin carries an automatic death penalty, his mobile phone set off the security alarms.

When he was stopped and searched, Nguyen reportedly pulled off the two bags himself, handed them to police and said: "It's heroin, sir."

For Australia, the admission and the inevitable execution has sparked an outpouring of grief and anger, even in a country that shares Singapore's loathing of drugs and in which polls show opinion to be divided on whether he should have been hanged.

Australia executed its last prisoner, Robert Ryam, at Melbourne's Pentridge jail in 1967, and has opposed the death penalty ever since. In 1986, Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke severely strained relations with Malaysia with his outspoken but fruitless efforts to save drug traffickers Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers from the noose.

Howard's Government stepped up its equally fruitless efforts to save Nguyen after growing criticism of inadequate action.

Nguyen himself appeared to have accepted his fate. In letters published in Australian newspapers he told of a newfound belief in God and his regrets for the lives he would have scarred with his shipment.

"In a place ravaged by fear and haunts I have found hope," he wrote in one letter published in Sydney's Sun-Herald. "I have discovered purpose. I have begun to learn the true meaning of life."

In the dark of a Singapore dawn yesterday, as vigils were held around Australia, that life ended.

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