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"A terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist"?

Vietnam deported an Australian man of Vietnamese ethnicity on Monday on charges of "terrorism." What the Vietnamese meant by this was that Nguyen Van Be, 57, is a member of the Viet Tan Party, a Vietnamese exile group with chapters in the U.S., Australia, France and elsewhere that agitates for a transition from single-party Communist rule in Vietnam to a multi-party democratic system. Viet Tan has networks and contacts with internal Vietnamese dissidents, and under Vietnam's broad laws relating to political dissent, it can certainly be accused of violating Vietnamese law.

Viet Tan grew out of earlier Vietnamese exile groups that really did engage in political violence: Some of its founders were linked to incidents back in the early 1980s of armed groups of South Vietnamese based in the U.S. crossing into Vietnamese territory. But the days when South Vietnamese dead-enders still ran anti-communist guerrilla groups in the Central Highlands have been over for decades. The U.S. government says it has never seen any evidence that Viet Tan engages in or advocates violence, and has declined to put the group on its list of terrorist organizations. If they ever decided to crack down on Viet Tan, they wouldn't have to look far: The group has its headquarters in Washington, D.C., and many of its members come from the large Vietnamese-American community in Alexandria, Virginia. Alexandria Congressman Frank Wolf, a Republican, has been a longtime supporter of Vietnamese exile political groups, and has spoken at Viet Tan-organized events calling for freedom of expression in Vietnam.

This stands in marked contrast to the way the U.S. treats Uighur separatists from China's Xinjiang Province. In 2002, the U.S. acceded to Chinese requests to classify the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, a Uighur separatist group, as a terrorist organization. The U.S. is currently holding 17 Uighurs captured in Pakistan and Afghanistan at its prison in Guantanamo Bay; some have been held for seven years. The Uighurs deny being members of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, and their links to Afghan-based terrorist organizations are thoroughly unclear. They may simply have been living in a camp in the wrong village at the wrong time. But the U.S. says they received some kind of weapons training from an Al Qaeda-affiliated group, and between that and the terrorist classification of the ETIM, it considers the Uighurs terrorists. And so on May 14, Congressman Frank Wolf had this to say about the possibility that some of the Uighurs might be released into the U.S. and placed in Uighur emigre communities in Virginia: "A terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist. ...We don't want these terrorists in Virginia."

One would think that with his close links to the Vietnamese-American community, Wolf would have a greater sense of skepticism about which people and groups Communist countries choose to call "terrorists." Numerous political figures backed by the U.S. (Yitzhak Shamir, Nelson Mandela) have spent time as members of groups others labeled "terrorist." One government's terrorist is another government's freedom fighter, or in some cases just a community activist or unfortunate schlemiel.