By Richard Vogel
The Associated Press
WHITTIER, Calif. (AP) — Friends and family of Nguyen Cao Ky gathered in Southern California Sunday to pay their last respects to the former South Vietnamese prime minister.
About 350 mourners filled the Rose Hill Memorial in Whittier, two weeks after Nguyen died in Malaysia at age 80 from complications linked to a lung infection.
Family members solemnly filed past a photo of a young Nguyen in military regalia. They placed flowers and incense near an urn holding his ashes.
A funeral was held last week in Malaysia’s capital city. His ashes were then flown to the United States.
At the time of his death, he was in Malaysia to set up a scholarship for young people to study in the United States.
Nguyen was commander of South Vietnam’s air force in 1965 when he was chosen by his fellow military officers to lead the country as prime minister.
He led his country during two of the most tumultuous years of the Vietnam War and was able to end a disruptive cycle of coups and countercoups.
He developed a ruthless reputation by making a show of cracking down on corruption, executing a businessman accused of war profiteering, suppressing a Buddhist-led uprising, and threatening to kill dissidents and opponents.
In his private life, he was known as a flamboyant playboy often seen wearing purple scarves and flight suits.
From 1967 to 1971, he served as vice president under his bitter rival, Nguyen Van Thieu.
When Thieu’s government in Saigon fell to Communist troops in 1975, Nguyen fled to the United States. He and his family eventually settled in Southern California, where he led a quiet life largely away from politics.
He made headlines in 2004 when he made a controversial homecoming trip to Vietnam, dropping his anti-communist rhetoric and calling for peace and reconciliation. His move was angrily condemned by some Vietnamese immigrant activists, who said the visit bestowed legitimacy on a corrupt government.
Nguyen, however, believed Vietnamese who settled in the United States had the potential to help improve their homeland’s economy and also slowly bring political change. ♦