Indochina is bleeding. Vietnam, Laos and Kampuchea discharge a massive flow of apparently permanent refugees, on a scale the world has not experienced since World War II. No end is in sight to the flow nor is any political solution visible.

There is more to the outflow than the aftermath of war-prolonged, bitter and bloody as the 1960-75 conflict was. Of the more than one million persons who have fled or been forced out of Indochina since communist governments took over in 1975, by far the greatest number have left in the last 18 months. Behind the upheaval is Hanoi's determination not only to bring Kampuchea into line and free Laos of dissidents, but to rid its own territory of unwanted elements and carry out the socialist transformation of unified Vietnam without delay. Anti-Chinese feeling is a major factor; Hanoi's approach includes forcing out of Vietnam hundreds of thousands of people considered undesirable in the new society, many of them ethnic Chinese, and in the process exploiting their financial resources to its own benefit. If the policies behind this exodus should be resumed-after the short breathing space apparently gained by the July 1979 Geneva conference-another million or more inhabitants of Vietnam might seek refuge abroad.

Already the refugees have saddled neighboring non-communist nations with serious political, economic, social and security problems. Their presence is potentially explosive in several countries, notably Malaysia and Indonesia, which have Chinese minorities and delicate racial balances. Altogether, the stability of Southeast Asia is threatened. But the implications go much further: for the Soviet Union, Vietnam's main supporter, which shows no inclination to curb Hanoi's present course; for China, whose hostility to Vietnam may have helped swell the refugee tide it now piously condemns; and for the United States, the only country capable of taking the lead in fashioning a solution and whose handling of the situation will determine its standing in the region in the immediate future.

Slow to recognize the human tragedy unfolding in Indochina, the West has yet to formulate an adequate response to it. After an unseemly display of indifference and buck-passing, the international community is at last starting to treat the symptoms: saving refugee lives and finding permanent homes for them. But it has yet to find a lasting cure for the disease. The fact is that Vietnam has discovered a powerful political weapon in the refugees and is unlikely to stop employing it until Hanoi sees some worthwhile diplomatic gains.

A number of nations have reacted to Hanoi's refugee policies and military action against Kampuchea by suspending aid and otherwise ostracizing the Vietnamese. The United States, consistent with this approach, has frozen moves to normalize relations with its former battlefield adversary. But Hanoi is proving almost as impervious to diplomatic pressure as it once was to carpet bombing. At the same time, such pressures could prove counterproductive, particularly for the refugees. Ultimately, the answer to the growing refugee crisis in Southeast Asia may lie in the opposite direction-bringing Vietnam in from the cold while trying to moderate its more extremist tendencies.


Before South Vietnam fell to the communist onslaught on April 30, 1975, President Gerald Ford and many others had predicted an immediate bloodbath in that event. By most accounts those directly associated with the old regime have indeed been treated fairly harshly by Western standards. But there was in the first postwar years nothing resembling the wholesale massacres and reprisals originally predicted, encouraging the belief that there was room for just about everyone in the new order, provided they accepted its ways.

Thus, the first flow of "boat people" from Vietnam was only a trickle. In Malaysia, from a handful of 77 in 1975, the total mounted to 1,080 in 1976 and 5,817 in 1977. Small numbers turned up in southern Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong and even distant Japan and Australia.

These first boat people generally gave a similar explanation for leaving: deteriorating conditions at home. Food was scarce and rationed, the shortage aggravated by severe drought in 1977 that was followed by damaging floods and typhoons in 1978. Life in New Economic Zones, rural areas opened by the government to encourage productive employment in the countryside and help resettle bloated city populations, was becoming less and less tolerable, especially to former urban dwellers. In addition, a widening draft was snaring men for border clashes that were rapidly turning into outright war with Pol Pot's Kampuchea.

In Laos and Kampuchea, the story was different from the beginning. Thousands of refugees started to pour across the Mekong River into Thailand as soon as the Pathet Lao took charge in Vientiane in May 1975. They were mostly hill-tribe groups, predominantly Hmong, also known as Meo, who had fought the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao for more than a decade in close cooperation with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. But the tribal minorities were soon joined by sizable numbers of lowland Lao, the largest single group in the country, often with urban backgrounds. The movement did not abate-rather, it picked up. In the first two years of the Lao People's Democratic Republic, proclaimed in December 1975, an estimated 150,000 Laotians crossed into Thailand.

The dislodgment from Democratic Kampuchea, as the country was renamed in 1975, also began immediately after Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge guerrillas set up government and started forcibly emptying Phnom Penh and other cities. Tens of thousands, mainly ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese but including some Khmer, fled-most to Vietnam, a few to Thailand. A larger group, predominantly Khmer, followed in late 1977 and early 1978, coinciding with purges in the Kampuchean armed forces and administration and with border clashes between Vietnamese and Kampuchean forces (supported by Chinese arms). In all, about 330,000 arrived in Vietnam by late 1978, those of Vietnamese extraction-just over half the total-being treated by Hanoi as returning countrymen rather than refugees.

Then, in late 1978, Vietnamese military forces moved into Kampuchea in earnest and ousted the Pol Pot government. Hanoi's invasion, and its determination to eliminate the last pockets of Khmer Rouge resistance to its puppet Heng Samrin administration in Phnom Penh, have had dire consequences for village life. Already stunned by three and a half years of barbaric Marxist reforms instituted by Pol Pot, Kampuchean peasants have not been able to avoid the fighting that has swept across the entire country.

At the same time, Hanoi intensified its support for the Pathet Lao in operations against the hill tribes of northern and central Laos, with the apparent aim (judging from the state of refugees reaching Thailand and those dying in the attempt) of annihilating the Meo in particular.

The resulting 1978-79 wave of refugees from Laos and Kampuchea overtaxed the patience and resources of the Thai government, already burdened with caring for 150,000 refugees. It decided to repatriate forcibly half of the more than 80,000 new Kampuchean arrivals, all of whom it termed "illegal immigrants." They were herded back across the border, many to certain death. All told, the post-1975 total of refugees from Laos and Kampuchea (excluding the movement to Vietnam) is now on the order of 300,000, of whom roughly two-thirds remain in Thailand, with a few in camps in other Southeast Asian countries. About 75,000 have been permanently resettled, in the United States and France for the most part.

But ghastly as the plight of these refugees remains, it is the second wave of "boat people" from Vietnam itself that now claims by far the greatest share of attention and effort. (Indeed, for reasons of focus and also to avoid political controversy over which is the legitimate government of Kampuchea, Laos and Kampuchea were not even invited to the July conference in Geneva.)

The first signs of a new and different refugee flow from Vietnam emerged around mid-1978. In July of that year, 6,232 Vietnamese landed in neighboring countries, more than had made the perilous voyage during the entire previous year. No longer were most of the refugees ethnic Vietnamese from coastal fishing villages. Before long, ethnic Chinese, called Hoa by the Vietnamese government, became a majority, despite the fact that they constituted only about three percent of the total population of roughly 50 million. And they ventured in larger boats, each carrying between 150 and 600 passengers crammed into slots little bigger than their bodies. Concurrently, in the summer of 1978, some 160,000 Hoa, many of them from the northern border areas, streamed into China overland.

What lay behind both these movements is a matter of acute controversy, especially between China and Vietnam. Unquestionably, a major factor was Hanoi's decision in March 1978 to abolish "all trade and business operations of bourgeois tradesmen"-in effect, to do away with the private trading and commercial activities that had for generations been the principal occupations of the 80 percent of the Hoa clustered in the cities of the south, especially in the old Cholon area of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). Abruptly, more than 30,000 of the larger private businesses, a big proportion run by Sino-Vietnamese, were closed; their stocks were purchased by the state. The owners and their families were asked to return to their native villages or transfer to New Economic Zones. Some traders had to switch their capital to "productive activities": handicrafts, or agricultural ventures. In a follow-up to the clampdown in May, a new currency was introduced-the second such reform since 1975-in a move against the hoarding of cash.

Whether or not the decision was actually taken from basic ideological rather than anti-Chinese reasons-one observer called it at the time the end of Hanoi's "soft-pedal approach to Socialist transformation"-Peking took up the cause of the Hoa and protested their treatment vigorously through the spring and summer of 1978, setting off a vitriolic verbal duel. At the same time, tensions between the two countries over Kampuchea were rising, as a result of stepped-up border incidents which ended with Vietnamese forces controlling the old Parrot's Beak area.1

By summer, Hanoi was definitely starting to tilt toward the Soviet Union, instead of keeping its relations with the two communist giants in careful balance as it had done for years. In late June Vietnam joined the Soviet-centered COMECON group, and shortly thereafter China stopped all foreign aid to Vietnam, suspended work on all its technical assistance projects in the country, withdrew its specialists, and closed three Vietnamese consulates in southern China.

In such an atmosphere, many Hoa must have felt that however they might behave, their future in Vietnam was uncertain. And to the outside world the overland crossings into China appeared voluntary. Indeed their warm welcome by the Chinese rang alarm bells in other Southeast Asian countries containing large Chinese communities, and lent color to Hanoi's claim that Peking agents were stirring up the flow.2

But there were disturbing signs that more was involved in the boat traffic. Refugees told of bribing government officials to leave, booking passages in advance, having land transport provided, being assigned to vessels, and meeting no opposition from security patrols on departure. In addition to the rural ethnic Vietnamese traveling in groups of 30-40, the larger boat loads of Hoa now contained some urban ethnic Vietnamese, mostly officials of the former government or those associated with U.S. and other foreign companies, with a sprinkling of intellectuals and the formerly wealthy.

The voyage of the Hai Hong confirmed the worst fears of Southeast Asian governments, Western refugee officials and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. An aging 1,580-ton coastal freighter, sailing under temporary Panamanian registration, the Hai Hong turned up in Indonesian waters late last October packed with more than 2,500 Vietnamese, three-quarters of them ethnic Chinese. The captain claimed they had swarmed aboard from smaller boats while his ship was disabled at sea. The story put together by investigators was quite different. The vessel had been acquired by a Hong Kong syndicate specifically to collect the refugees from the southern Vietnamese port of Vung Tau. The passengers had paid a total of around five million dollars in gold and U.S. dollars for their one-way tickets, or roughly $2,500 per head.

The Hai Hong opened a new chapter in the Indochina refugee story. Inquiries revealed it was not the first large foreign vessel explicitly chartered to go to Vietnam and pick up refugees. That doubtful honor went to the Southern Cross, a 900-ton Honduras-registered, uninsured rust bucket that had beached itself in Indonesia the previous month. The 1,252 Vietnamese on board were accepted as normal refugees by unsuspecting Indonesian authorities, who believed the captain's innocent explanation of their rescue at sea. But it was the Hai Hong which established that departures from Vietnam were being organized. It also indicated that the outflow could reach massive proportions.

It has. According to U.N. figures, October recorded 12,266, November 22,202, December 13,730. The new exodus has since passed through various phases, influenced by different events, including political developments at home and abroad and the weather in the South China Sea. For instance, large freighters were abandoned when three more of them after the Hai Hong, transporting over 8,100 refugees from Vietnam like cattle, encountered resistance at established refugee receiving points in the region. But, with fluctuations, the numbers leaving Vietnam have continued to escalate sharply. This year, after a two-month lull and in the wake of the Chinese "punitive expedition" into Vietnam, arrivals of boat people soared from 13,423 in March to 26,602 in April, 51,139 in May, and 56,941 in June. A large majority of these were Hoa.

Most recently, in the summer of 1979, indications have been reported that, while the total dropped sharply in July (after the Geneva conference was set), the proportion of ethnic Vietnamese has been rising. The racial composition has fluctuated periodically, but the overall proportion of ethnic Chinese, or Hoa, in the grand total of 600,000 now estimated to have left Vietnam since 1975, is still reckoned at 60-70 percent.

The overall result is what Poul Hartling, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, calls "an appalling human tragedy." Refugees starve to death on the banks of the Mekong in Laos, are cut down in cross fire in Kampuchea, perish of thirst in Vietnamese waters, are raped, plundered and murdered by Thai pirates, and drown by the hundreds farther out to sea. Casualties are particularly high among the boat people. No accurate figures exist, but the most informed estimates (by those who deal constantly with arriving refugees and get their stories of lives lost or other groups departing) put the loss at up to 10 percent of all departures, or as many as 30,000 deaths of boat people in the past four years. With resettlement efforts overwhelmed by arrivals, swelling refugee camps blight the landscape in East Asia. They have been described accurately as "hotels of humiliation, degradation and despair."

This was the Indochina refugee picture at mid-1979, principally from U.N. sources:

-Malaysia was host to 74,408 boat people, Hong Kong 66,065, Indonesia 44,247, the Philippines 4,938, Macao 3,211, Singapore 821, Japan 557, and South Korea 42.

-Thailand was providing camp shelter for 169,167 land refugees from all three Indochina states as well as 7,000 Vietnamese and Kampuchean boat people. In addition, more than 40,000 Kampucheans who arrived this year remained on Thai territory, their fate uncertain.

-China had received around 250,000 persons from Vietnam, most across its land frontier, and they were still arriving at the rate of 10,000 a month. The government had resettled, mainly on farms, about 200,000, though 30,000 were without shelter, more than 10,000 of them at border posts. Peking said 30,000 ethnic Vietnamese among the refugees wanted to settle in third countries.

-Vietnam had taken advantage of Pol Pot's overthrow to repatriate most of the 150,000 non-Vietnamese refugees who had arrived from Kampuchea by mid-1978. About 30,000 refugees remained in Vietnam; most were being encouraged to integrate into the local community, though a limited number continued to emigrate.


Although the root of the Indochina refugee crisis is in Hanoi, the immediate impact is thus being felt throughout Southeast Asia-and much farther afield. Member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations-Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand-which had been patiently trying to build bridges to Hanoi since the end of the Vietnam War, initially were reluctant to criticize the Vietnamese. In September and October 1978, Vietnamese Premier Pham Van Dong made a goodwill trip that included all five ASEAN capitals. Not only did Vietnam respect territorial integrity, he told them, but it wanted to contribute to regional peace and stability. Further, Vietnam appreciated the strains imposed on its neighbors by the Indochina refugees and it would do its best to alleviate them. So anxious were Malaysians, at that time, not to offend Dong that they requested journalists not to question him about refugees at a news conference.

But within three months of delivering these reassurances Vietnam had signed a friendship and cooperation treaty with the Soviet Union, and sent more than 100,000 troops into Kampuchea to crush Pol Pot, and since then its policies have unleashed much vaster refugee flows than before. The resulting sense of betrayal among the ASEAN states blends with acute and specific security concerns.

These are felt most immediately in Thailand. Along the Thai-Kampuchean border, fighting continues, with large concentrations of Vietnamese troops trying to wipe out hard-pressed Khmer Rouge units that have reverted to their former guerrilla tactics. Numbers of these Khmer Rouge were undoubtedly among the more than 80,000 refugees who fled into Thailand; it was their presence, and the resulting fear of a Vietnamese incursion into Thai territory, that led the Thai to push 42,000 of them back across the border (even though some of these had actually been accepted for resettlement in other countries).

The Thai, too, are peculiarly sensitive to the possibility that the new waves may have been "seeded" with subversive agents by Hanoi. While the claim of one Thai official that ten percent of all refugees are such agents is not taken seriously even in Bangkok ruling circles, the lack of information on the background of the refugees is a source of wide concern. It seems far-fetched to suppose that many of the refugees would try to link up with any of the outlawed communist parties in Southeast Asia, which are all pro-Peking, but the squalor, misery and hopelessness inevitable in the present camps-which in Thailand have existed for years-can only make them breeding grounds for trouble.

In addition, of course, the refugees impose a financial and administrative load on the Thai and Malaysian governments that is only partly lightened by international assistance. Social and other strains are showing, in the form of corruption, black marketeering, food shortages, rising prices, and the like. These can be expected to become more visible and acute. For example, more than 33,000 Vietnamese have taken refuge in the remote Anambas Islands northeast of Singapore, outnumbering the Indonesian population three to one and having a calamitous impact on the local community. Only a vast evacuation exercise could reduce the pressures and tensions in that isolated area.

Above all, the arrival of tens and hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese has already started to aggravate racial tensions in the area. The situation is potentially sensitive in Indonesia, and acutely so in Malaysia with its delicate ethnic balance (47 percent Malay, 34 percent Chinese, the rest of varied origin) and with a long-term program to advance the Malay role in the mainstream of economic activity. Vietnamese of any sort, but especially ethnic Chinese, are simply not welcome in Malaysia, as the government has now made clear. And the heavy new burdens of caring for predominantly Chinese refugees, in all the ASEAN countries, are bound to arouse latent anti-Chinese sentiment. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore (of Chinese descent himself) has said: "The more pressures are placed on these countries, the more the balance is upset and the more anti-Chinese and anti-China they become."

Many in ASEAN see the influx as nothing short of an invasion. They feel vulnerable and exposed, even if the reaction is exaggerated at times for domestic political reasons. Reflecting this anxiety, the New Straits Times, a Malaysian daily newspaper, commented in June: "The crux of the issue is that the flow from Vietnam is no longer just a humanitarian problem. It has become as much a weapon of war as a softening-up raid by waves of bombers."

The ASEAN countries have continued to maintain normal diplomatic relations with Hanoi. But by the end of June this year their foreign ministers, meeting in Bali, "agreed that Vietnam is responsible for the unending exodus" of refugees and "has a decisive role to play in resolving the problem at source." They "strongly deplored the fact that Vietnam had not taken any effective measures" to stem the tide. They reiterated that in principle their countries would no longer accept refugees on a "first asylum" basis. And they declared that they would expel refugees already in camps unless these were fairly promptly accepted by resettlement countries or their countries of origin.


If developing Southeast Asia feels uneasy at playing temporary host to hundreds of thousands of unwanted Indochinese, the developed world seemed determined from the start not to get stuck with them permanently. Former Senator Dick Clark, U.S. Coordinator for Refugee Affairs, noted in May that not enough had been done to ease the burden carried by first-asylum countries placed by geography in the refugees' flight path. The inadequacy of resettlement programs constituted a "human crisis" that went far beyond what the international community anticipated, he said. While it is true that the dimensions of the problem were not foreseen, the response of affluent nations for the most part remained selfish, mean and grudging when the tidal wave of human misery broke across the beaches of the region.

The United States, with a special responsibility toward Indochina, took the lead but did not want to get too far ahead of the pack. Japan, the richest nation in Asia and one that profited from the Vietnam War, found permanent homes for a mere handful of refugees. Other countries played a numbers game, imposing small refugee quotas and hiding behind a flurry of dismal statistics on employment, growth and balance of payments. Between January 1 and June 30, 209,000 refugees were admitted to camps while only 54,000 were moved out to permanent homes.

At the Tokyo summit of industrial nations in late June, the United States initiated a major effort to cope with the humanitarian aspects of the refugee crisis. President Jimmy Carter announced that Washington was doubling its monthly intake of displaced Indochinese to 14,000. Japanese Foreign Minister Sunao Sonoda, meeting his ASEAN counterparts in Bali a few days later, followed up by pledging to foot half the 1979 Indochina budget for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. That will amount to at least $50 million, perhaps as much as $100 million.

Undoubtedly the pressures manifest in Tokyo and Bali played a large part in the convening of a 62-nation Geneva conference on July 20-21 under the chairmanship of U.N. Secretary General Waldheim. Ostensibly, the conference was billed as being concerned solely with common efforts to deal with the humanitarian aspects of the problem. Vietnam (as we shall see) continued to deny responsibility for the outflow, but attended in part as a country of first asylum for refugees from Kampuchea. The upshot, in practice, was that Western countries came up with increased pledges for resettlement, while Vietnam undertook (to Waldheim personally) that "for a reasonable period of time it will make every effort to stop illegal departures."

As the conference closed, Mr. Hartling of the U.N. refugee office was able to announce that the number of resettlement places now offered had been increased to 260,000 (as against 125,000 as of May 31). The bulk of the new places came from the increased U.S. monthly quota of 14,000. All told, the increase would, if effectively fulfilled, just about serve to handle the existing refugee population in the transit camps within a couple of years. U.S.-backed efforts to organize reprocessing centers-regular transit camps to hold refugees for home resettlement, guarantees for which are given in advance-in remote or island areas of Southeast Asia are starting to bear fruit. And, after earlier opposition, Hanoi agreed to hold "concrete discussions" with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees for the establishment of a transit camp within Vietnam itself, a proposal strongly advocated by the ASEAN countries.

It was a better result than had seemed conceivable earlier in the summer. But it is obvious to all that it provides only a temporary solution for the humanitarian needs of the refugees, and no long-term assurance whatever that the flow will not be renewed at a high rate.


In what way can the Western nations and the nations of Southeast Asia best cooperate to deal with the present and prospective flow of refugees from Indochina? How can Hanoi be persuaded to eliminate that flow or at least to reduce it to modest proportions over the long term? And can a lasting reduction be accomplished without condemning minorities (particularly the Hoa) and dissidents in Vietnam to some form of internal "solution" that would be even more brutal than the recent treatment of the overland refugees and boat people from that country and also from Laos and Kampuchea? The three issues involve interlocking questions of humanitarianism and human rights (including the right of free emigration proclaimed in the U.N. Convention on Human Rights) on the one hand, and of practical policy toward Vietnam on the other.

Let us start by reexamining the reasons for the various refugee flows, which as we have noted differ sharply from one wave to another. The ongoing flow of tribal refugees and lowlanders from Laos is, of course, directly related to the Indochina War of 1960-75; these, and the Meo in particular, have a particularly strong claim on the attention of the United States, which backed them during the war and put them in a position where any victorious side emerging from the war might have tried to eliminate them as obvious sources of continued resistance.

The case of the 1975-77 wave from Kampuchea is only slightly different. While chargeable in the direct sense to the genocidal policies of the Pol Pot regime, the fact that extremism in Kampuchea could reach this pitch is surely due in substantial measure to the American invasion of what was then Cambodia in 1970 and subsequent American military actions in Cambodia that made the essentially civil war in that country so bloody and divisive.

The refugees who have sought to flee Kampuchea in the wake of the Vietnamese invasion of late 1978 are a different case. Their plight is due to Hanoi's postwar policy of taking over Kampuchea (and thus the whole of Indochina), a policy which-whatever the horrors of the Pol Pot regime-has been widely condemned by the ASEAN countries and by world opinion generally as a case of clear-cut aggression against a regime which, while provocative, was not a real threat to Vietnam.

The fourth category are the political refugees from Vietnam. In this group the ethnic Vietnamese who have found their own way out despite Hanoi's tight controls deserve the same kind of sympathy as the refugees of 1975 whom the United States accepted in large numbers. And while Hanoi may be condemned for its New Economic Zone policies and the brutality involved in moving potential dissidents and urban dwellers to harsh rural lives (sometimes to their deaths), a degree of painful adjustment was inevitable as Hanoi sought to bring into line with the austere north what had become, in the years of American occupation of the south, a corrupted consumer society. There is a strong measure of self-justification and exaggeration in Hanoi's repeated claim that it inherited, in what had been South Vietnam, three million unemployed, several hundred thousand prostitutes and drug addicts, thousands of gangsters and criminals, one million people with tuberculosis, several hundred thousand with venereal disease and four million illiterates. But there is a measure of truth in the overall claim made by one Vietnamese publication: "One had to rebuild not only a country that had been ruined materially, but also a society that had been completely perverted and turned upside down."

But the vast majority leaving recently have a different motivation. With a few exceptions, Sino-Vietnamese and other minorities and dissidents tell of hardship and deprivation, of being advised to leave, of being forced out when they hesitate, or having their property confiscated and their possessions sold. The practice varies from time to time and in different parts of the country. Ethnic Vietnamese often risk severe punishment if caught trying to escape. But so open and approved is the departure of Hoa that ethnic Vietnamese planning to leave often acquire false documents bearing fictitious Chinese names and learn to count in Cantonese.

Only the well-off can afford to go. A passage usually costs the gold equivalent of between $2,000 and $3,000, half price for children. The refugees hand over the gold pieces directly to Public Security Bureau officials, or to authorized collecting agents. A large slice of each fare, amounting to a departure tax, goes to the government. Middlemen and boat owners also get a share.

Refugees, of course, are not always the most reliable witnesses, though there is a compelling consistency with which they relate their experiences-be it after being rescued at sea, in a processing center, or safely resettled in the United States. Other evidence exists to support their accounts. The Hai Hong, for a start, established the Vietnamese government connection; the ship's officers and crew dealt with officials of several Vietnamese agencies while anchored off Vung Tau. Later investigations by the Singapore government also yielded a statement by Allan Ross, a 36-year-old Singapore businessman, who had been aboard the Southern Cross when it made its run in August last year. He disclosed that the Southern Cross was guided to a wharf in Ho Chi Minh City by a Vietnamese pilot who boarded from a launch. The ship was guarded by troops at the berth, loaded with refugees being escorted by soldiers and guided by the pilot back out to sea while it flew the Vietnamese flag. It encountered no Vietnamese patrol boats, he said. Charles Freeman, Deputy U.S. Coordinator for Refugee Affairs, has testified before a congressional subcommittee that Vietnam set up a boat-building industry specifically to help refugees leave the country. Hanoi's takings from the refugee traffic are unofficially estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars.

All this has been enough for major Western nations, including the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, and many others to condemn Vietnam for persecuting its minorities and artificially inducing a refugee crisis. Two Southeast Asian foreign ministers, Carlos Romulo of the Philippines and Singapore's Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, have compared Hanoi's answer to its internal troubles with Hitler's final solution for European Jews. "A poor man's alternative to the gas chambers is the open sea," said Mr. Rajaratnam. For his part, Mr. Romulo referred to "another form of inhumanity, equal in scope and similarly heinous"-the holocaust at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

Against such charges, Hanoi's attempt to blame the United States and especially China, as well as the colonial past, for the exodus is, to put it mildly, unconvincing. China's protests about the March 1978 decree against commercial middlemen may have been accompanied by a degree of encouragement to the Hoa to leave that played some part in the overland refugee flow to China. But the latest Hanoi position, contained in its Those Who Leave pamphlet, that in the case of the boat people there is indeed an organized departure service from the country but that it is the work of "counter-revolutionary" elements established in Vietnam by the Americans, is absurd and self-convicting. Does anyone seriously believe that in a totalitarian state 50,000 people a month can be organized, ticketed, transported to departure points and allocated boats-a major logistical exercise-without the government's knowledge? Does anyone seriously accept that people, given a reasonable choice, opt at the rate of 600,000 a year to risk their lives in vessels that have been described as "floating coffins"?

Nor is Hanoi convincing when it argues that the Hoa in Vietnam were at any time a potential fifth column serving China.3 Whatever isolated acts there may have been, the great bulk of the Hoa have lived in Vietnam for generations; they remain a separate and distinct group, but they have always protected themselves by remaining apolitical and not identifying themselves, for example, with the South Vietnamese government-which never drafted Hoa in significant numbers or made any military use of them even at the high points of mobilization during the war. In this respect, as in others, they have behaved much as other ethnic Chinese minorities have come to do in the other countries of Southeast Asia. A number of these countries have indeed regarded their ethnic Chinese as a potential subversive element-in the Malayan insurrection of 1948-60 the guerrillas were almost all ethnic Chinese and there was a very strong element of ethnic division-but the problems have always been met even in such cases on the spot, and never by wholesale eviction.

No, the root of Hanoi's present actions lies in internal policies instigated by Hanoi that are both rigidly totalitarian and deeply infected with anti-Chinese feeling. The fact that the 1.5 million Hoa in Vietnam-four-fifths of them in the south-played disproportionate roles in the economic life of the country (as elsewhere in Southeast Asia) hardly meant that they were in fact a serious obstacle to Hanoi's socialist plans; in the north, Hoa had for years occupied substantial managerial and technical positions in Hanoi's major industrial and mining enterprises as well as in the government bureaucracy. Rather, as an embattled Hanoi tightened the screws internally in the face of economic difficulties and the burdens of its own expansionary policies in the rest of Indochina, the Hoa became in 1978 a scapegoat. The elimination of their commercial role became in practice a program of deliberate persecution and eviction, capped by the extraction from the Hoa of economic assets amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars in badly needed hard currencies and gold. The parallel to "normal" political refugees from a totalitarian regime breaks down; the Hoa now being evicted from Vietnam are not simply like the middle class that Castro threw out of Cuba, but rather-as Mr. Rajaratnam, Mr. Romulo and now Vice President Mondale have said-on all fours with the Jews evicted by the Nazi government of Germany.

And, in the process of eviction, Hanoi's leaders either had from the beginning, or have now developed, a bonus foreign policy objective that is all too well understood in the rest of Southeast Asia. They see value in disrupting the internal situations of countries with ethnic Chinese minorities and thus sowing division among these countries and between them and the Western countries being asked to provide permanent resettlement of the refugees.

In sum, the policy of evicting the Hoa is serving Hanoi well. Not only is it dispensing with elements judged difficult to assimilate and of doubtful loyalty, but it generates income for a government with extremely meager resources and soaks up considerable quantities of gold that have been buried in backyards since the communist takeover. And, on the political side, the stream of refugees keeps the ASEAN countries off balance, defensive and inclined to bicker among themselves and with their natural allies, the resettlement nations, over who is shouldering a fair share of the burden. Hanoi has shown in the past its capacity to play on the humanitarian concerns of the United States in particular-witness only the bargaining use made of U.S. prisoners in the prolonged peace negotiations of 1968-73. It is well aware of the agonizing dilemmas of principle and practical behavior the refugee flow presents to the West and above all to the United States.


That dilemma is compounded-again as Hanoi well knows-by concern for the alternatives to accepting whatever refugee flow Hanoi chooses to stimulate or allow. Most nations would like to see Hanoi end the deliberate and wholesale export of its people that consigns many of them to a watery grave. But at the same time they fear a reversal of that abhorrent policy might result in widespread repression and other equally repugnant measures against Vietnamese minorities and dissidents. So, for the most part, they settle for a restrained public protest while trying to rescue and rehabilitate the endless flow.

For the time being there is surely no alternative to continuing the rescue effort that has been made ever since 1975. Measures undertaken during the period have been on a limited and inadequate scale, but they were substantially increased at the Geneva conference in July. It will be difficult for the governments which made pledges at Geneva of resettlement spaces to fulfill those commitments; already, in the United States, the Congress is starting to balk at the expense and other burdens involved, while polls suggest that 60 percent of Americans, as of now, oppose a further influx of Southeast Asian refugees.

Moreover, nothing Vietnam has said or done indicates it intends to discontinue its callous policy toward the refugees, once the temporary moratorium has been observed. Vague Vietnamese promises to channel departures through orderly, safe and legal channels rest entirely on a seven-point memorandum of understanding signed on May 30 this year between Hanoi and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. It is an extremely narrow and restrictive agreement, limited to "family reunion and other humanitarian cases."

How many more potential boat people are left in Vietnam is anyone's guess. Vietnamese officials in May estimated that up to 600,000 more Chinese wanted to leave. There are also considerable numbers of ethnic Vietnamese, especially those associated with the former regime, who will leave if given the opportunity.

Some observers believe the flow must inevitably decline before long, if only because of the large numbers who have already fled. But it would be a mistake to make this assumption and become complacent. Those Who Leave, a publication produced by the Vietnamese government, says the "bellicose declarations" of Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping about teaching Vietnam another lesson have caused great anguish within the Vietnamese Hoa community. "So long as Peking's warlike policy continues, it is to be expected that the exodus will go on," the booklet warns.

Another consideration is that Hanoi can simply turn up the heat, or lower the fares, and force more people out whenever it likes. In any event, it would be almost impossible now to stem the flow of ethnic Chinese because they are convinced the government is committed to persecuting and expelling them, not only in Vietnam but in Kampuchea. In these circumstances, informed estimates put the likely number of departures, if unchecked, at around one million over the next year or two. And the immediate problem of widespread famine in Kampuchea could drive "still more hundreds of thousands" across the border into Thailand, as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke testified to a congressional committee in mid-July.


Humanitarian measures, then, must be taken by the Western countries and the other nations of Southeast Asia, in cooperation. Not to deal with the flow, whatever its size, would be not only inconsistent with the basic principles for which all these nations stand, but might put them in the position that Britain, the United States and others were in when the Jews were being evicted from Nazi Germany-of an obduracy that appears to condone Hanoi's very reasons for the evictions.

But this still leaves the practical problem of persuading Hanoi to change the policies that lie behind the refugee flow. Unless one assumes that Hanoi can be pressured by the mass disapproval of "world opinion"-an assumption with little warrant in recent history-only the Soviet Union could possibly dissuade Vietnam from its present course. But Moscow is too busy chalking up points in Hanoi and keeping an ally on China's southern flank to contemplate such a role. When President Carter appealed to Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev to help solve the problem at the Vienna summit in June, he got nowhere. A Soviet official cynically remarked, "The people who are fleeing are Chinese, and we do not consider them refugees."

A number of countries have reacted to the invasion of Kampuchea and the refugee crisis by cutting aid and further isolating the Vietnamese. Some, including a few that were among the first to offer economic assistance to Hanoi in 1975, diverted funds intended for reconstruction to the resettlement of boat people. The United States suspended formal negotiations toward normalization of relations.

These reactions are wholly understandable. To take any other course would, on its face, amount to accepting the Vietnamese takeover of Kampuchea as a fait accompli-a point particularly galling to the ASEAN countries-and also to accepting Hanoi's internal policies whatever their nature and consequences. These are bitter pills to swallow, regardless of one's views on the Indochina War and the extent of U.S. responsibility, in particular, for what has followed in its aftermath.

But the plain fact is that policies of pressuring and ostracizing Vietnam are most unlikely to work. They patently have not worked to bring Vietnam to heel in the past and it is doubtful if they will have any more success in the future. And Hanoi cannot be pressured easily in any case because its links with the non-communist world are limited. Postwar Vietnam has never been fully accepted by the West into the community of nations.

Faced with a hostile China and an uncooperative United States, Hanoi has joined COMECON and moved snugly into Moscow's orbit. Some critics of U.S. foreign policy argue that the Vietnamese were left with little option but to turn to the Soviets because of Washington's refusal to recognize Vietnam within three years of the communist conquest. It follows, they contend, that the present refugee nightmare would not have occurred. The case can be debated endlessly. It serves little point. More important is the need to reexamine current options in Indochina in an effort to work toward a resolution of the refugee crisis and ensure that similar ugly developments do not occur in future.

With its determination to keep "dumping rubbish over the fence," as Malaysian Home Affairs Minister Ghazali Shafie puts it, Vietnam seems to be sending signals both to its non-communist neighbors, who initially receive the refugees, and the Western world, particularly the United States, which resettles them. Its message has yet to be deciphered. But it is no secret that Hanoi wants Western aid for the rehabilitation of its country, ravaged by 30 years of war and recent natural disasters. It also was disappointed not to have obtained nonaggression pacts and other treaties with ASEAN members when Pham Van Dong toured the region last year.

As matters stand, the United States has let its emphasis on normalizing relations with Peking override its earlier intention to recognize Hanoi. It conducts a policy of equidistance from the Soviet Union and China. Equidistance from Vietnam, the world's third largest communist nation with a population of more than 50 million, also would seem desirable.

This is not to suggest that Washington submit to political blackmail and rush into diplomatic ties with Hanoi. But a policy of actively working toward a position of influence would seem to carry possible rewards. As it is, at a time when Washington needs leverage in Vietnam almost desperately, it has none.

There is something disturbingly negative and illogical about existing U.S. attitudes toward Vietnam. Assistant Secretary Holbrooke articulated one glaring contradiction when he testified to a House subcommittee on June 13. He said: "The major reason we had sought to normalize relations [with the Vietnamese] was to enhance regional peace and stability. Since recent events had the opposite effect and endangered regional peace and stability, our caution in not moving further last fall was justified."4

His line of reasoning seems to discount-in retrospect-any possible display of leadership or positive influence by Washington in the events he criticizes. He does not face up to the possibility that if the normalization process had gone forward, Washington might have succeeded in its goal of enhancing regional peace and stability. Given what happened, it is strange to claim vindication of a policy that failed so conspicuously to meet the declared objective.

As of mid-August, it was reported from Washington that, in U.S.-Vietnamese contacts in June and July, the U.S. side had reiterated that normalization was currently impossible. But Mr. Holbrooke did add: "We also said that future movement is not impossible, that this remains the U.S. objective, and that Vietnam's actions will affect it." The issue of evacuating Kampuchea, according to these reports, is a major obstacle.5


To suggest that the United States and other Western nations adopt a policy of dealing with and assisting Vietnam may seem a tall order. In the existing circumstances it amounts to giving in to the crudest kind of blackmail. But on a longer historical perspective one may well ask whether it differs from the long-accepted policies of dealing with the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China as they are, and notwithstanding their continuing wholesale violations of the human rights standards of the West.

As the debate over the Indochina refugee dilemma has intensified over the past year, it has been characterized, understandably, by much emotion and handwringing. It has also been marked by a paucity of diplomatic and other initiatives that might resolve the matter. Most nations have come to the conclusion that the problem must be dealt with "at the source," which they pinpoint as Hanoi. But how to go about tackling the matter leaves them floundering. There obviously is no easy solution. Some government leaders and officials believe there may not be any solution at all-until the refugee flows finally dry up of their own accord.

The United States seems satisfied by what its officials call the "growing international condemnation of Vietnamese policies and practices." But this is surely cold comfort: the diversion of funds previously earmarked for economic development in Vietnam affects the material well-being of the masses as much as the Hanoi leadership, and may contribute to the creation of more refugees in the long run. For its part, ASEAN has not advanced past the stage of asking Hanoi to stop the outflow and end other actions, such as the military occupation of Kampuchea, that are generating more refugees.

But with so much at stake, as we have seen, Hanoi is most unlikely to respond to mere appeals to be more neighborly. The threat by the ASEAN countries, enunciated by their foreign ministers at Bali, to return the refugees to Vietnam, Laos and Kampuchea is positively alarming. Hanoi has demonstrated that it cares little whether they live or die. ASEAN's proposals that returnees be held in U.N.-administered "suitable transit centers" in Indochina thus raises the specter of concentration camps.

In the absence of possible solutions, then, and given Hanoi's adamant refusal to discuss anything but humanitarian aspects of the refugee problem at international conferences, the situation is nothing short of desperate. In these peculiar and complex circumstances, only the United States seems capable of exhibiting the leadership necessary to do what Vice President Mondale at Geneva called "something meaningful, something profound." Neither the American public nor the Congress appears in a mood to contemplate closer relations with Hanoi at present, but alternatives are nonexistent or barren.

The object of the exercise should be for Washington to negotiate a full diplomatic package that would take it step by step along the path to normal relations with Hanoi. Washington would have to take the lead and drop some of the current manifestations of its annoyance with Hanoi, such as its objections to World Bank funds for Vietnam. But the United States is not without bargaining chips. Hanoi's desire for normalization as well as economic assistance should be sufficient for Washington to ensure that the Vietnamese start to behave more responsibly.

The United States, ideally, would move forward gradually as Vietnam made concessions on such key issues as its occupation of Kampuchea, the refugee outflow and perhaps its other internal policies.

A Hanoi that has ties only with the Soviet Union is sure to go on behaving, as it is now doing, as the "rogue nation" of Southeast Asia. Unless the nations of Southeast Asia and the West have some alternative means of dealing with such a nation, they would be better advised to accept reality and make it worthwhile for Hanoi to close its back door. Only then is there a chance that conditions within Vietnam may over time become tolerable for its inhabitants, or that Hanoi will moderate its international behavior.

1 During the war years, the two governments had boasted of being "as close as lips and teeth." But, of course, the historic antagonism runs deep, and after 1975 there had been occasional spats. Nonetheless, the relationship as of late 1977 appeared to be on a fairly even keel.

2 Hanoi claims-and many independent analysts support it-that Peking agents under the direct control of the Chinese embassy in Hanoi started spreading rumors in the Hoa community in late 1977. The message: China would soon go to war with Vietnam; the Vietnamese would start massacring the Chinese; and the Hoa would be well advised to return to China. Hanoi's 40-page pamphlet, Those Who Leave, circulated at the recent Geneva conference, comments: "For the Hoa living in the provinces along the border between the two countries, the situation was a tragic one. To leave Vietnam would mean abandoning their houses, gardens and occupations in order to go and live in China, which most of them hardly knew at all. But to stay would mean running the risk of finding themselves caught in the cross fire in case of armed conflict and facing the necessity of taking up arms one day for one side or the other."

3 See, for example, the article by Hanoi's best known apologist in the West, Wilfred Burchett, "Between Devil and Deep Blue Sea," The Guardian, July 22, 1979.



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  • Barry Wain is the diplomatic correspondent for The Asian Wall Street Journal, based in Kuala Lumpur. He is an Australian who has worked in Southeast Asia for many years.
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