The Boat People
By Martin Woollacott
Saturday December 3, 1977
Refugee officials and diplomats call them "the boat people". Some are indeed fishermen, but most are city folk who, before they slipped away from their homes in Saigon and other towns with hearts knocking, and gold and dollars sewn into their clothes, they knew nothing of the ocean or its dangers.
Nobody knows how many have drowned or been murdered by pirates. But more than two years after the fall of Saigon, they are still coming, and in increasing numbers. They run the gauntlet of the pirates to the Thai cost where the Thais, their camps already full of Cambodians and Laotians, are beginning to turn them away. They arrive hopefully off Singapore which, until recently, they have wrongly seen as a haven, to be ordered out - at gun-point if necessary.
A few blunder down into Indonesian waters, and some head for the Philippines or Hong Kong. But for those who go south, there is now one preferred final destination - Australia, where the arrival earlier this week of a modern trawler with 180 people aboard, including seven Vietnamese soldiers who were overpowered and locked up, has caused political consternation and a diplomatic incident.
The lush little island of Tengah, eight miles off the Malaysian coast, could have been the setting for South Pacific and, indeed, a neighbouring island was the location for that film. Now its palm trees and white sand beaches are the scene of a genuine drama, for the Malaysian government has set it aside as a concentration point for Vietnamese refugees.
For anyone who worked in Vietnam, nostalgia is unavoidable. There is the quacking sound of the language. There is the little girl in the pink dress washing her knickers in the sea who giggles, and then hides the giggle with her hand in a gesture that could only be Vietnamese. There is the very Vietnamese fact that refugees are cutting down timber on this Malaysian island and selling it as firewood to Malaysians, and most of all, there is the familiar impact of the Vietnamese ego - sharp, strong, selfish and shrewd, but rarely unmixed with charm and usually compelling respect.
The refugees' stories have a sameness that can be summed up in the word "incompatibility", although they also reflect badly on the Communists' failure to find some role for the old South Vietnamese middle class other than agricultural labour. The elected camp chief, Nguyen Hoang Cuong, is a case in point. A businessman and university lecturer, he was given a job in a firm of which he had been a part owner before the liberation. Then the police took him away. He spent nearly a month in detention on the charge of having assisted a former associate of Air Marshal Ky to leave the country. The charge was true, but it had happened before the fall of Saigon, so he was released. "But it was enough for me", he says in his fluent English. "I realised that people like myself would not have any place, any job, and any future with the regime. Sooner or later I would be taken to a re-education camp. So I was determined to escape." After four attempts, he succeeded.
Malaysia is looking after nearly 5,000 of these "boat people"; Thailand probably has a similar number and there are smaller groups in Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Singapore. None of the South-East Asian countries is prepared to let more than a handful stay permanently, and some, like Singapore, won't even let them stay on a temporary basis. The current American quota of 15,000 for Indo-Chinese refugees falls far short of the total of 80,000, most of them not sea refugees, in camps mainly in Thailand. Thus Australia has become "the last hope", according to Nguyen Hoang Cuong. The Malaysians have not taken away the refugees' boats and, if they want to go on, they are not stopped.
On Tengah, refugees are working now to refurbish four for the long trip to Australia. They are capable of carrying 120 people. They delayed sailing after promises from Australian immigration officials, under urgent instructions from the harried Fraser government in Canberra, that they will be considered as normal migrants. But if the promises are not kept, they vow they will set off.
As the Australian immigration minister said recently: "The potential is there for large numbers of people to reach Australia in small boats now that the trail has been blazed." Nearly 800 refugees, including the latest batch aboard the big trawler, have already reached northern Australia. Given the care with which Vietnamese apparently continue to listen to the BBC, the Voice of America, and Radio Australia, the new "trail" to Australia will already be general knowledge back in Vietnam.
"When will it end?" a Malaysian diplomat asked plaintively, back in Singapore. The answer is almost certainly that it will get worse, and that diplomatic difficulties with Vietnam, largely avoided till now, are going to become a dimension of the problem. The Vietnamese have already demanded the return of the refugees abroad the trawler as "pirates". The Australians have refused. Vietnam has made a similar demand that the Philippines return a cargo vessel they say was hijacked in June. The Philippines government intends instead to try the alleged offenders in Manila.
The almost certain result of the increasing number of sea escapes is that the Vietnamese will intensify security measures. There will be more guards on shore and on the boats and future escapes will inevitably involve more violence and even killing. Where there is violence the question of hijacking arises. Already several governments, including that of Malaysia, have announced that escapees from Vietnam will henceforth be treated as illegal aliens rather than refuges.
One can sense the growing irritation of South-East Asian governments. Why don't these people accept their fate instead of, however heroically, crossing the sea to park themselves in countries that don't want them and can't cope with them? Australia, partly replacing the United States and France was the end of a painful transmission belt, is equally annoyed.
But the refusal of the Vietnamese to accept the inevitable is the characteristic which, on both sides, prolonged their civil war beyond all expectation. And there are reckoned to be some 100,000 boats up and down South Vietnam's long coastline, so this is one problem that is not going to go away.