Words can be more powerful than events. “We will be harsh with them. Being humane has not paid off for us at all.” With terrible calm, Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamid announced recently that his country would be shipping out to sea its burden of 76,000 Vietnamese refugees now jammed in camps along its coast. Worse, Malaysia would enact legislation to “shoot on sight” any new refugees. Streaming out by the hundreds of thousands since the Communists came to power in South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, refugees had been washing up like jetsam on Malaysia’s shores for months. But it took this shocking message to force the West last week into facing up to the human tragedy many observers have for some time been describing as the Asian Holocaust; Canada and the U.S. in particular had been forced to face up to an ageless dilemma, caught between a desire to help and increasing helplessness. This time, though, unlike the horror of Second World War Europe, there could be no soothing escape into ignorance. The plight of the persecuted may beggar description but not perception.
Packed by the thousands into warehouses in the government dockyards on Hong Kong’s Canton Road, refugees lined up for hours to use the only washing facilities—outside taps—and then returned patiently to the end of the queues to wait again. In the makeshift
slums on Malaysia’s Pulau Bidong island, precious dollars were bartered for plastic sheets used as rooftops in the monsoon rains. Plain white rice was the only food available. For the lucky, sardines could be supplied by local Malays—for a price. And for some, the end of months of fear and false hopes was the South China Sea where their bodies were stripped of all semblance of humanity by pirates, exposure and sharks.
Most recent figures say close to 350,000 men, women and children are now in temporary camps in Southeast Asian countries and the numbers increase by more than 10,000 a week. U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Reston has pointed to “the incontravertible evidence” that the Vietnamese government is organizing the brutal expulsion of civilians. “This is a case of genocide,” said Canada’s Immigration Minister Ron Atkey. British Minister of State Peter Blaker called it “a frightening and critical problem.” England’s Margaret Thatcher renewed her earlier proposal for yet another international conference on the problem in spite of the dismal failure of the recent Jakarta meeting on precisely the same subject. U.S. President Jimmy Carter was expected to bring up the problem at this week’s Tokyo summit and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance will raise the topic at next week’s meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian countries in Bali. In short, there was no shortage of talk. Only actions seemed in meagre supply.
Canada did announce it would take
3.000 more refugees, but that only brought the total to 8,000 East Asians this year. Japan, which has managed to grant one-year renewable residence visas to six Vietnamese so far, upped its quota to 500. Still, Malaysia backed down from its threat of “shooting on sight,” maintaining the right to take “stern measures” to prevent an influx of new refugees. For a week the world seemed to breathe a small sigh of relief and content itself with the thought that the Malaysian threats had been designed primarily to elicit some response from the West—and had done so. Thailand continued to repatriate Cambodians at gunpoint (approximately
50.000 have been marched back over the border) but that raised few objections, probably due to the bewildering nature of Cambodian politics where supporters of ousted Premier Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge continue to battle the Vietnamese-backed forces of new Cambodian President Heng Semrin— and show an alarming tendency to drag their war into officially neutral Thai-
land. Malaysia continued to tow new boat-people back out to international waters (13,000 last May alone) before they could make it to the official safety of the camps but UN officials pointed out that, technically, such people couldn’t be counted as “expelled” since they hadn’t landed in the first place.
But by the end of last week, evidence of hardening attitudes by Malaysia began to increase. Thousands of the people turned away were suspected to have drowned. Guests in a luxurious hotel on the Malay peninsula were reported to have had their afternoon session of long, cool drinks on the palm-shaded patio interrupted by troops firing on a small wooden boat filled with refugees 50 yards down the beach from the Kuantan Merlin Hotel. The boat fled down the coast, pitching in the rolling surf. At the same time, Malaysian patrols were busy herding what were described as “dangerously overloaded” boats jammed with hundreds of men, women and children out to international waters. And last Friday, U.S. im-
migration officials reported they had been refused permission to interview a group of Vietnam refugees believed eligible for U.S. visas but fenced off by barbed wire and guards.
German author Heinrich Boll described our time as “the century of refugees.” As the Southeast Asian nations brace themselves for what experts believe will be close to another 1.2 million people still to come from Indo-China, the painful accuracy of his phrase is evident. Concentrated in Africa, the Middle East and the Far East (see map) the current number of homeless eking out a miserable existence in camps is estimated by the UN at close to 10 million. Nothing illustrates the human and political dimensions of the problem more precisely than the tragedy of the Asian boat-people.
They call them “the Jews of the East” and Phung Quoc Ngu Yen, 24, is one of them. He sits in his third-floor room in Toronto and points to the kitchenette filled with empty cans and fast food. “Cowboy cooking,” he nods hopefully, “yes?” Phung belongs to the estimated 70 per cent of Vietnam refugees who are ethnic Chinese. Of Vietnam’s 47.8 million, about three million are of ethnic Chinese descent. Physically, most are indistinguishable from the Vietnamese. By now, many have only one Chinese grandparent. But, besides Vietnamese, they often speak Chinese and are a cohesive, tight-knit community. Some observers claim China’s 1,051-year rule over Vietnam (until 939 AD) is the reason for the Vietnamese emnity toward their ethnic Chinese community. But since this conflict was more than 40 generations ago, more likely reasons are the cultural values and drive that steer the ethnic Chinese toward selfemployment and white-collar work.
They are traditionally the businessmen of Indo-China. Of course, that does not necessarily make them rich by Western standards. Phung worked on his sister’s “farm,” a one-acre plot that somehow bred 20,000 chickens.
It cost his family $1,020 U.S. to get Phung and his 14-year-old brother out of Vietnam. Phung’s duty is to earn the money to support himself and his brother and to buy the freedom of his two sisters and parents in Vietnam. His maroon, striped pajamas hang loosely on his 120-pound frame. He works nights cooking in Scott’s Kentucky Fried Chicken and has sent $20 from his first pay cheque back to his mother. He has no idea if she will receive it—only hope. “No friends, yet,” he says, “but peace here. And no draft.”
For Vietnam’s ethnic Chinese facing the extra harassment of special curfews, disentitlement to rations and constant searches for the caches of gold they may have saved, the draft is the last straw. Reports that boys as young as 15 are being sent to fight in Cambodia have sent the community into a panic. Sons are being shipped out. The
ethnic Chinese are Vietnam’s newest source of hard currency. The going rate for the privilege to leave is 10 taels of gold—worth about $3,000—considerably more than Phung’s bargain fare. Though the government officially denies organizing the expulsion, the mass flight is a triple blessing: the elimination of a traditionally disliked people, extra income and, most important, a weapon to be used against the stability of the fragile, non-Communist regimes of the area.
In Indonesia and Malaysia, ethnic tensions run high. Affirmative action
programs are rigorously enforced in order to help the Malays and Indonesians catch up to the economic achievements of the minority ethnic Chinese. Racial violence is not uncommon. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese suddenly added into the mix are a frightening prospect for small nations whose racial harmony balances on the head of a pin.
But the problem is not merely race. In Hong Kong, there is no racial conflict but the situation is chaotic. Monsoons have changed the paths of many boats headed for Malaysia and sent them on to the British Crown colony. Hong Kong’s boat-people population is already 47,000, with another 100,000 illegal refugees coming from mainland China, many in makeshift skis that skim across the mud borders. Officials estimate that Hong Kong’s intake from Vietnam and China could reach the 500,000 mark this year—the equivalent of Canada’s taking in about 2.3 million refugees. Social resources—and spaceare stretched to the limit.
Still, the focus of all attention remains the Malaysian island Pulau Bidong, the largest refugee camp (42,000 people) crammed into one square mile. The twoand three-storey wooden huts have turned the island into a shanty slum. When Vietnamese English teacher Nguyen Thi Lan, 29, and her exassistant magistrate husband, Ly Van Be, 29, found they could not emigrate as Vietnamese, they took a popular solution among would-be refugees—they claimed to be ethnic Chinese. That did not entirely solve their problems: their boat broke down, they were attacked
five times by pirates, and left behind them all family members—aunts, brothers and sisters. Now they perch on the second storey of a “hutment” surrounded by the stench of an island without sanitation and the despair of a people who believe that the world may have forgotten them. “We do have a nagging feeling,” said Lan, “whether anyone wants us.”
Though Canada is doing more than anyone else—except the U.S.—it is not enough to make a dent, in spite of External Affairs Minister Flora MacDonald’s post-cabinet appointment euphoria in which she volunteered that “the refugee issue is really uppermost on my mind.” Canada’s 1979 quota of 8,000 refugees doesn’t even cover one day’s boat-land at present exodus rates.
But in fairness to MacDonald, it makes little difference (except in immediate human terms) whether Canada absorbs 8,000 or 16,000 refugees. Except for the West, the rest of the world is not able or not willing to help. The West can accommodate at the cost of some inconvenience tens of thousands and, at the cost of considerable disruption, even hundreds of thousands of refugees. It cannot accommodate millions upon millions in a short space of time without possibly fatal damage—yet when it comes to the current world refugee problem, these are the numbers in which we are forced to think.
In spite of the wellmeant protestations by petitioners ranging from singer Joan Baez (“the facts form a grim mosaic”) to UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, it seems evident that, having acquired power, the regimes of such countries as Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam no longer find it necessary to be moved by world opinion or humanitarian considerations. The long-term solution ultimately lies not in finding new countries for the homeless but making it possible for them to live in their own homes. In the case of the Vietnamese, that, as the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian countries have pointed out, means pressuring the Soviet Union to change the policies of its client-countries, Laos and Vietnam. The alternative is to let millions of men, women and children drown in the South China Sea.
With correspondents' files from Malaysia, Hony Kony, Geneva, London and New York.
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