A Personal Account of the Rescue at Sea
of the Vietnamese Boat People ©
Written September 2004
by Captain Jay K. Elder, USMM
Edited by Justine Nielsen
Please direct questions for the author to Karen Ngo at (805) 781-0686
This is a true story written from the 1979 log book of Captain
Jay K. Elder,
United States Merchant Marine, on board the Motor Vessel Supply/Tug Challenge
in the South China Sea, February 3rd – November 5th, 1979.
All photos and text © copyright September 2004: Reproduction by Author’s Permission Only
By the time I was twenty-five years old, I had logged more than seven years at sea. I had loved everything about the ocean—fishing, surfing, swimming, and boating—since I was a very small child, and my grandfather took me fishing off a San Diego bay pier. At nine, I was begging my mother to take me down to the pier to go fishing. I was fishing off Southern California sport-fishing boats in the late 1960s. I hung around the piers and the boats as much as I could and would readily volunteer to work or help out on the boats. No doubt, this tenacity in such a young tow-headed beach boy endeared me to the boats’ crews. I was soon hired to clean up after a day’s fishing with little or no compensation other than the joy of “working” aboard a boat, imagining myself a fisherman or sailor.
In 1973, I found my way to the Coast Guard boating license office and, at the age of 18, obtained a captain’s license. I headed to New Orleans to work for an international shipping company servicing the offshore oil industry. Within days, I was given a 95 foot crew boat stationed in the Caribbean to provide supplies to offshore oil rigs. I spent two years in the Caribbean, then upgraded my license and found myself the youngest ship’s captain ever to receive a 300 ton license. Next, I was stationed in Brazil, sailing the South Atlantic Ocean for three years. This was followed by a year in the Mediterranean Sea.
I had no idea that my next assignment, in Singapore, would find me involved in international relations and maritime law. Nor did I expect to become responsible for hundreds of refugees, making life or death decisions for the care of these people. I landed at Singapore International Airport at 0200 hours, Tuesday, January 23, 1979. I had just arrived from California, via Hong Kong, on Pam Am flight #005, a new 747 aircraft. This was my first visit to Asia, and I was looking forward to working here for Offshore Logistics International.
My work over the past six years as a tug boat captain involved mainly the oil patch industry, and was specialized in anchor handling and high seas towing. At 25 years old, I was healthy and looking for an adventure. In just a few short weeks “adventure” would find me and change my whole way of thinking about my fellow man, governments (both foreign and domestic), international and local politics, war, and life itself. All of which forced me to look at my responsibilities as a human being and about doing the right thing.
January 24, 1979, 2210 hours, South China Sea
I am captain of the m/v Monarch, an American-flagged 165 foot tug/supply ship. We depart Singapore, beating into the rough seas with a strong headwind. We take water over the bow, causing a miserable ride for me and my crew. It takes us approximately 30 hours to make the 300-mile run to the offshore oil platforms just off the coast of Vietnam.
We arrived Friday, January 25th, at the oil fields called Tapis, Bekok and Pulai, all operated by the Malaysian Government Oil Company. We are approximately 150 mile south of Viet Nam and approximately 100 miles east of the Malaysian Peninsula in the South China Sea. The only other American on board is the chief engineer. The other ten crew members are from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines.
Through radio communications with the oil rigs and other vessels in the area I was warned to be on the look out for a recent influx of Vietnamese boat people in the area. I did not totally comprehend what was ahead for me. I had heard on the Voice of America broadcast that President Jimmy Carter had ordered all U.S. flag ships in the area to render assistance to any boat people who were found.
We worked the oil field for a few days and returned to Singapore on February 1st. During this time, we did not run across any small boats other than a few fishermen from Thailand and Malaysia. On February 5th, I joined the American-flagged 165 foot tug/supply ship m/v Challenge as its Captain. I had captained this vessel for eight months in 1978 while she was under contract in the Mediterranean Sea. We sailed from Sicily across North Africa and were often in Malta. I had developed a very good relationship with the crew and was glad to be back with them after a few months off in the United States, at my residence in San Luis Obispo, California.
Captain Jay Elder on the Challenge’s bridge deck, June 1979
I felt like I was back home with my old ship and her crew. I was on top of the world and looking forward to getting to know Asia and her people. Over the next few months, we made many trips to the oil field from Singapore without finding any boat people. The weather was good, the crew was in fine shape, and we caught fish near the oil platforms. It was a good place to be, and I eagerly embraced the opportunity to get to know the local culture and customs when we were in port.
I was also intrigued with learning about Buddhism from my chief engineer, Herb Stinson. Herb is ten years older than I am, an American expatriate married to a wonderful Thai woman. Herb and his wife lived in Thailand, and he had converted to Buddhism from his protestant upbringing. Under his guidance, I studied the teachings of Buddha, and we visited many temples during our travels together, including some in Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia. I had many opportunities to talk with the Buddhist monks, to learn more about the practice of meditation, and to be exposed to the readings and teachings of Buddha. I found myself immersed in the culture and practices of Buddhism and soon came to believe in these teachings and way of life.
May 27, 1979, 0645 hours, near the Tapis Oil field - South China Sea
150 miles south of Vietnam
Latitude 5 degrees 30 minutes north, Longitude 105 degrees 10 minutes east
I am awakened by a loud knock on the cabin door and one of my crew yelling, “Capt’n, Capt’n! Refugees, Refugees!” It was Usman, the chief mate. I jump out of my bunk and head to the bridge deck. My eyes widen and my jaw drops at the sight of a small homemade craft along the starboard side the ship. It is overloaded with men, women, and children. My crew is was at the bulwarks chatting excitedly to the craft’s spokesperson in a combination of broken Chinese and basic English. My heart is beating fast; I am half asleep and in need of a cup of coffee.
As I get closer I struggle to comprehend the scene, still not sure I am fully awake. A woman speaks to my crew in broken English, saying, “Engine broke. We want to go on your ship.” My chief mate, Usman, an Indonesian, says that they can not board our vessel by orders from the Malaysian Government Oil Company. I intervene and suggest they try to make it to the oil drilling rig on the horizon, about 10 miles away. She tells me the engine won’t make it that far, that the small craft is taking on water and it is sinking. I look at the waterline on the boat, and say it doesn’t look like it’s taking on water. She becomes very upset and says, “I lie? You say I lie! Okay, I throw myself into the sea and drown myself.”
Her distraught crying seems to agitate the other 300 or so Vietnamese on the boat. I revise my initial assessment and become fearful that they really may be sinking. I consult with the other officers on board, and we agree that it is best to allow the refugees come aboard. When I tell the spokeswoman they can board our vessel, they scramble over the rail like a flood to claim space in the hot sun of the exposed main cargo deck. I am now officially responsible for 394 starving and scared refugees from Vietnam. I radio my employer and report that we will be late delivering our cargo and supplies and that I need instructions on what to do next.
As I peer over the rail at the abandoned boat, I can see that it is not sinking. In their desperation to be rescued the spokeswoman had greatly exaggerated the condition of the boat. I suspect the engine is also working, resulting in my next dilemma. My employer’s directly stated that charter boats such as mine were not to pick up any refugees. On the radio with my employer, I was admonished for my actions and an argument ensued regarding what to do with the boat people. I was threatened with termination but was undeterred both ethically and legally. International maritime law requires that all ships in the vicinity of a sinking boat are to respond to and provide aid to its passengers and crew. At this point I was not concerned about the legal or employment ramifications of my actions. I surveyed the swarm of people overtaking the deck of my cargo ship. I saw people who were hungry, scared, weary, sick, and hopeless. I knew I risked the possibility of losing the job I loved, but could not live with myself knowing I had not done all I could to rescue these tragic survivors. If the vessel did indeed sink, the boat people would be technically reclassified from refugee to “ship-wrecked” or “survivors.” I sent the youngest Vietnamese men back on board the rickety boat with fire axes and ordered that the refugee boat be scuttled. The Malaysian Navy would soon arrive and the boat needed to be sinking by that time. I estimated that we had less than one hour before they would arrive.
I was back at the wheel house awaiting further instructions. A few hours later, we received directions to take our passengers to a German-flagged ship nearby and transfer the refugees to that vessel. The vessel m/v Spitalathour was to take the boat people to a United Nations Refugee Camp on a Malaysian Island southwest of us. I had a load of cargo on board and my boss wanted it delivered immediately. When we arrived at the German ship, I went down on the main deck to help the boat people safely board the new ship. I crossed my fingers and hoped that the German crew would freely and willing assume the role of guardian and protector these unfortunate folks.
That first group of refugees were aboard my ship for only a half day or so, but this experience had a profound effect on me. The terrible condition of these poor unfortunate refugees, scared, hungry, sleep-deprived, some ill, with only the clothes on their back and maybe a small rice bowl. The small babies and children clung to their mothers, frightened and starving, unable to stop sobbing. As the final refugees boarded the German vessel, I was bitterly aware of the circumstances of my birth: I was a healthy, young, white American male, raised in a middle-class family in southern California. The situation of these refugees put into perspective for me some of the deep questions about why we are here on this earth and what really matters. My priorities of surfing and fishing, having fun and traveling the world for adventure were quickly then realigned. At a deep level in my soul, I came to humbly realize that being born in American in the 1950s put me into the elite and small group of people who are the richest and healthiest people on this earth.
The 394 refugees had been at sea for many days and had been attacked by Thai pirates. In a group of 4 to 8 boats, the pirates would wait until dark, then ambush the refugee boat. They would rape the young women and rob the boat people of any valuables they would find—usually gold, jewelry, and money. The attacks occurred nightly once the pirates found the refugee boats to be easy prey.
Many of the young people were in shock, and one small boy had a broken hand. We gave what first aid we could and tended to the most severe of the injured persons. Sanitary facilities aboard the refugee’s small craft were nearly non-existent; the smell of human waste was unbearable. My crew doused handkerchiefs with menthol oil, holding them over their nose and mouth. I wondered if my crew and I could really handle this situation if we were to continually come upon more boat people. At that moment I felt helpless and lost, but I knew that as the captain of the ship I had assumed the responsibility for that boat and the crew—and for whatever happened—the minute we left port.
There were many reports of refugee boats being found in this part of the South China Sea, and I expected this was just the beginning of what was to come. In fact, my crew and I would repeatedly rescue boat people over the next several months. I felt my youthful character become a man mature beyond my years. My life, my spirit, and my way of thinking were going to be challenged beyond anything I could have imagined!
The “legal analysis”—the scuttling of the refugees’ boats—had been developed over the previous few weeks between numerous ships’ captains during our daily morning radio check-in chats. The re-classification of the boat people turned out to be a solid legally defensible strategy for those of us who wanted to help save these displaced souls. I ended up sinking most of the refugee boats we came across, then calling in a lost-at-sea report and reporting having picked up survivors. The Malaysian Navy would come to our location a few hours later to find a sunken hull and a few hundred boat people aboard my vessel. This upset navy command, and on one occasion a 50 caliber deck gun and handheld machine guns were aimed at me while they yelled at me to stop picking up refugees. It was a very tense moment, and I was fearful of possible repercussions. In the end, the Navy boat left, but I could tell they were very angry with me for rescuing these poor Vietnamese boat people.
June 10, 1979, 1620 hours, underway to Singapore - South China Sea
300 miles south of Vietnam, 100 miles east of the Malaysian Coast
Latitude 3 degrees 30 minutes north, Longitude 104 degrees 30 minutes east
We spot a very small boat with refugees who appear to be in very bad shape and have been at sea for many days without water or food. I call the Oil Company and request that we take these 6 men, 11 children, and 8 women on board. Our request is denied, and we are directed to render aid, then depart for Singapore immediately. The Oil Company threatens to revoke our ship’s charter contract, and I would most likely lose my employment if I did not follow these orders. We considered sinking the small boat but had already reported it as a refugee craft, not a shipwreck—a mistake I never made again. I was in tears when we left the boat people in their boat. The mother of an infant looking at us as we steered away. Her milk had dried up, and the infant was in serious condition. I was very upset about not picking up these folks. The Malaysian Navy was supposed to come and pick them up. I still wonder if they ever arrived and if the boat people made it to shore.
June 18, 1979, 1300 hours, near the Tapis Oil field - South China Sea
150 miles south of Vietnam
Latitude 5 degrees 30 minutes north, Longitude 105 degrees 10 minutes east
We received 345 refugees from an exploratory drilling rig, Wodeco II, whose crew was unable to stop the refugees from climbing aboard. At the rig we also take on 150 kilos of rice and some tarps to cover our back deck; the equatorial sun shining on these people is merciless, and it looked like we would have them on board for several days. My cook, Mr. Yuen, fed over 350 people mainly rice with a few greens for the next two weeks. He cooked around the clock with short periods of sleep. A few women from the refugee group were recruited to help. It was quite a sight.
Most importantly we needed to construct a system for waste disposal. We cut holes in pallets and built a screen around them, hanging them over the side of the boat at the bollards posts astern. One side was for the men and the other for the women. No paper or soap was available, so it was a cold saltwater wash when you finished, which was better than nothing and offered a small bit of privacy. At one point, however, I turned the ship cross seas—having forgotten we had this sanitation system set up—and a wave slammed up against the side of the boat, shooting up through the hole in the pallet and washing over an elderly women. As comical as it may sound, I felt really awful that I had steered the ship in a way that resulted in this, and I made slow turns. I surely did not want to add to the misery of my passengers.
June 19, 1979, 0630 hours
The German vessel OSA Jaguar dropped off 18 more refugees to our ship at the orders of my boss. That gave us a total of 363 passengers, with very few resources to care for them. I was dedicated to continuing to rescue people, but was receiving little support or assistance from anyone else. Something on a deeply personal level shifted inside me: I found a deep well of spiritual strength that would allow me to do whatever was necessary to survive any situation in which I found myself and my crew.
June 20, 1979, 1000 hours, United Nations Refugee Camp – Pulau Tengah Island, Malaysia
We receive radio instructions to get to the United Nations Refugee Camp Pulau Tengah Island, approximately 120 miles southwest of our position. Recent news reports indicate that the Malaysian government will no longer accept any refugees, so I’m concerned about what will happened when we arrive at the island.
My crew begins filling 55 gallon drums with fresh water. They instruct the refugees to use the clean water for bathing and drinking only, not for washing clothes. Because we don’t know how long we’ll have the refugees on board, we need to conserve water. The ship’s cook, Mr. Yuen, has again recruited four women to assist him in the galley. They pass out warm milk with flour at 0600 hours, and a 1/5 lb. of rice (porridge) at 1400 hours and again at 1900 hours. With our minimal ship’s stores and the need to ration for an unknown length of time, this is all we can afford to feed these poor people during their stay on board our vessel.
We drop anchor at Pulau Tengah Island refugee camp at 0130 hours June 20, 1979, and await further instructions. The next morning, we have had no word how long this will take and have no idea what is delaying our unloading the refugees. At 0900 hours, United Nations representatives and Malaysian Federal Police board our ship to count the number of refugees. There is a discrepancy during the second count, and we are accused of hiding some boat people. We get into a heated argument and finely find the missing persons showering in the engine room. I request additional food and a doctor to tend the sick, as we are running very low on food and medical supplies. I get no response from the officials, and am getting increasingly upset that we are in a situation that threatens human lives and we’re getting no help from the outside. We are told not to go ashore or leave the vessel, since we have not yet been cleared into the country through customs and immigration.
At 1545 hours, we are still waiting to find out what will happen to the 363 people who have now been on our ship’s back open weather deck for over 24 hours. About this time, I receive a radio request from Rex Clements of Esso Production to return to the oil field to pick up 342 refugees from the drill rig Nedrill. I inform the oil company representative that, regretfully, we have no more room or resources aboard to accommodate additional refugees and that it would take twenty hours for us to pick up the refugees and return to the island. I begin to question whether the oil company headquarters have any idea of the chaos of the situation.
There is a village, Mersing, about nine miles from where we are anchored, and a few crew members and chief engineer Herb Stinson sneak ashore after dark to locate any supplies. They bring back some medicine and food. We were a U.S.-flagged ship with foreign crew on board, and I was concerned what kind of trouble we might find ourselves in if we got caught sneaking ashore without customs clearance.
June 21-22, 1979, On anchor at Pulau Tengah Island, United Nations Refugee Camp
Still no word from the Malaysian Federal Police or United Nations representatives. I wonder why they have not yet responded to our request for medical help and food. I sneak ashore one night and buy a 100 kg bag of rice and more medical supplies. I also buy a piece of gold from a man who wants U.S. dollars. Later, I had the gold and a piece of jade made into a ring, which I keep as a reminder of the boat people, their plight, and the time I spent in Asia during this difficult period of history.
There is yelling on deck, and I run outside to see a young woman’s body being brought on board from the sea. The boatswains mate, Lin, and I move people away and start artificial respiration and CPR. The woman vomits salt water, and she finally starts breathing again on her own. We learn that she tried to commit suicide, because her boyfriend was flirting with another woman. The situation is getting tense.
Many young children are now feverish, and I do not have a supply of medicine—nor do I even know what to give them. It has been forty-eight hours since I requested a doctor and have not heard anything back from the officials. This is becoming unbearable, and I wonder if this is a very bad nightmare or if it really is happening to us. I am not sleeping well and am worried things will get worst before they get better. I learned something very important about life and human beings that day. When you boil life down to the bare essentials, all that really matters is food, shelter, and clothing. Those are the only things you should get stressed out about!
June 23, 1979, 1210 hours
Finally, the Federal Police and United Nations representatives arrive and notify us that they can receive these refugees and will unload them immediately. I am relieved that the sick will get medical attention and that there will be more food on the island. By 1330 hours, we have everyone transferred ashore. The spokeswoman who spoke a little English had re-counted the number of boat people and typed up a list with a final count of 349. I always wondered if, and how, we lost the other 14 people. Did they swim ashore in the dark of night to escape the long and arduous process, while the United Nations considered their request for political amnesty and assigned them to refugee camps or to be sent to an unknown country?
Many refugees were happy to be aboard a U.S.-flagged ship, as it usually guaranteed entry into the United States. The U.N. representatives told us that it could take six to nine months before the refugees were relocated. They were going to live on this godforsaken island for the next six months waiting for their new life. They were smiling and very thankful for our assistance as they got off the ship. I could not help but wonder how truly horrible the conditions must have been in their home-country to require them to flee into such harsh conditions and giving up everything they owned. I was amazed that life was so “cheap,” and that some countries’ governments would be so ruthless in determining the fate of their own citizens. It makes me really appreciate the freedoms we have in the United States.
June 26-28, 1979
We picked up another 344 refugees on the high seas and took them to the U.N. Refugee Camp at Pulau Tengah Island. Federal Police Chief Desu says they will most probably be taken back out to sea in an old boat and turned loose to face an unknown fate. I could not believe that the Malaysian government would do that.
Over the rest of our time in the South China Sea that year, we encountered numerous small boats with refugees aboard. One small craft had only women and children. I asked why they were alone. They told us that pirates had killed the men and some of the women, had robbed them of all their valuables and money, then raped the young women and girls. It was a deeply disturbing thing to see and hear about.
One time, just after we had loaded some boat people on board our ship, four or five pirate ships appeared and started circling us. It was a very chilling experience; my crew became anxious when they saw the pirates had weapons and appeared to be blood-thirsty. Luckily, I had a shotgun aboard for shooting a messenger line to other vessels. I converted the shells to hold ball-bearings out of the engine room. I waved my shotgun in the air and pointed it at the circling pirate boats hoping to intimidate them into leaving. It was successful, but very nerve-wracking. Here I was aiming a gun at another human being, fully prepared to shoot and kill him. I spent many sleepless nights over the next several years thinking about this summer’s events and all that I went through with the refugees. These “adventures” would forever change my way of thinking and how I lived my life. We made many trips back to Pulau Tengah Island and the northern Malaysian refugee camp near Terengganu on Pulau Bidong Island. We ended up saving over 2,700 boat people that summer.
I earned a few gray hairs in the South China Sea and learned what life is really about, how cheap life can be, and that war is very unforgiving. I also learned that human beings can do amazing things when we reach deep within our souls for a previously unknown strength.
I often wonder how my Vietnamese boat people are doing today. When I see people from Asia, I wonder if they might be a person that was on my ship in 1979. I keep the boat people close to my heart and know that they were all given a chance at a far better life. May God continue to bless America and all the disenfranchised people on this earth!
To assist the Vietnamese’s boat people and migrants from Southeast Asia, you may send a donation to the following organization:
Boat People S.O.S.
9550 Bolsa Avenue, Suite 209
Westminster, CA 92683
Phone 714-775-2214 or 714-775-5206
Office Manager: Thuy Nguyen (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com)
Chart of the Oil Field where boat people were picked up.
Singapore (Lat. 1 22 N, Long. 103 48 E) is approximately 300 mile south and not shown in the chart below.
The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2001
boat people (http://www.bartleby.com/65/e-/E-boatpeopl.html)
Term used to describe the Indochinese refugees who fled Communist rule after the Vietnam War (1975) in small boats and the many ethnic Chinese who left Vietnam similarly after China’s invasion of Vietnam in 1979. More than one million people became refugees. Many perished, and others, upon reaching other Southeast Asian countries, discovered they could not remain permanently. The United States, Canada, and other nations accepted most of the refugees in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Although people continued to flee Vietnam into the mid-1990s, nearly all later boat people have been regarded as economic, not political, refugees. In 1996 the United Nations decided to end the financing of the camps holding the remaining 40,000 boat people, and Hong Kong, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines returned most of the remaining refugees to Vietnam. The term boat people has also been used to describe political and economic refugees from other areas, such as Haiti, who fled their homelands by similar means.
Previously published stories of the boat people and the conditions in which they lived
May 3, 1979
Illegal Refugee Exodus Increasing, but Hanoi Denies Encouraging It
By Henry Kamm, Special to The New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/specials/saigon/boatpeople.html)
Songkla, Thailand, May 1 -- Refugees from Vietnam are arriving on Southeast Asian shores in record numbers. Ethnic Chinese are estimated to make up two-thirds to three-quarters of the total despite repeated denials by the Hanoi Government that it is abetting their departure.
And this is happening despite Vietnam's agreement last month, in talks with the United States High Commissioner for Refugees, to facilitate legal emigration to stop the illegal flow.
This illegal flow endangers the lives of the "boat people," creates mounting political problems for Asia's non-Communist countries and strains their relations with Western nations to whom they look for relief from their refugee burden.
indicate there were far more refugees in April than expected. More than 2,000
Vietnamese boat people reached Thailand, the largest monthly total ever. In
Malaysia, the principal
first stop for Vietnamese, more than 10,000 arrived, reversing a three-month decline.
About 100,000 Vietnamese are now in limbo – on land and on ships that no one will let dock. In addition, more than 150,000 Laotian and Cambodian refugees have stolen into Thailand, and about 6,000 more arrive each month.
In addition to the exodus of Chinese, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Vietnamese have secretly left their country since the Communist victory in 1975 because of the continuing war with Cambodia, tension with China and other political, economic and ethnic pressures.
Later this month, representatives of the Southeast Asian nations that receive most of the refugee boats will meet in Jakarta, Indonesia, with the United Nations refugee agency and representatives of the United States and other countries to which Asia looks for a permanent solution.
If the refugees were white, Asians say, the West would have accepted them long ago. A diplomat noted that a ship carrying more than 500 Vietnamese was towed out of Thai waters last week and has not been heard from since. He said that if those aboard were white, they would have become the object of an international search.
Vietnam is also expected to attend the Jarkarta meeting. There are likely to be complaints that it is not living up to its promises to do all it can to reduce the refugee flow. Only last week in Hanoi in the presence of Secretary General Kurt Waldheim of the United Nations, Prime Minister Pham Van Dong reiterated his promises not to burden Vietnam's neighbors with a heavy flow of refugees.
But the burden continues
to increase. A camp for boat people near this town in southern Thailand
was moved earlier this year to a larger site, but its inhabitants have already had to build new shanties. The barracks built when the population was little more than 1,000 are badly over- crowded now that the population is nearing 4,000.
The great majority of refugees from Vietnam head for Malaysia, where nearly 60,000 wait in badly overcrowded island camps for countries to offer them asylum. On the grapevine in Vietnam, which is fed by letters from refugees and by foreign broadcasts, Malaysia is depicted as the best place to go. One reason is the mistaken assumption that departure for permanent asylum is quicker from Malaysia. A more justified reason is the prevalence of pirates in waters near Thailand.
Most of those who land here made an error in navigation, or had mechanical troubles, or were towed in this direction by pirates who robbed them and often raped the women.
Watches are rare among the refugees in Songkla, and jewelry on women is even rarer. The pirates also harvest most of the slim tablets of gold, each worth about $250, that constitute the traditional family savings in Vietnam. Most of the refugee boats have been robbed more than once as they approached Thailand.
The consensus of refugees here, who include a number of highly educated and politically sophisticated men and women, is that the refugee flow will continue at a high rate, that Hanoi will continue to abet the flow of ethnic Chinese and that ethnic Vietnamese will continue to make their escape only at great risk and in defiance of the Government.
One educated refugee from Ca Mau, in southernmost Vietnam, reported seeing 12 to 15 boats under construction near the market in his town. It is generally believed that they are being built specifically for Government-authorized refugees. They have portholes, indicating that they are meant for passengers rather than cargo. The man, who worked for American intelligence organizations for 10 years, said they would probably hold 200 to 300 people each.
The refugees said the ethnic Chinese do not leave in secret. The boats are openly loaded not only with supplies for the trip but also with goods that will be needed in Malaysia. Because in Vietnam it is said that salt and building tools are scarce in Malaysia, sacks of salt and many hammers, saws and nails are loaded.
Why Vietnam Releases Chinese
Often, according to witnesses, relatives of those departing are allowed at pierside with their farewell gifts.
The most politically sophisticated refugees say Vietnam helps the Chinese leave both to acquire their gold and foreign-currency holdings and to relieve the country of an economic class for which there is no further use.
All refugees forfeit their visible belongings, particularly houses and lands, to the state. But the Chinese, a largely landless merchant and artisan class, have put their savings in gold. Vietnam, which is short of convertible currencies, gives the Chinese the choice of leaving for a price or being sent to new economic zones that have infertile land.
The refugees say the richest
Chinese have probably left by now because the price demanded by
Government agents has been dropping. Depending on the region, prices have averaged about seven tablets of gold, sometimes less.
Police and Army Are Rivals
Vietnamese who did not have important positions in the old regime can sometimes buy Chinese identity cards for two tablets of gold, refugees here said. Other Vietnamese benefit from the Chinese exodus by paying relatively small bribes to the security police handling departures.
In addition to the "official" passage money, which is generally believed to go straight to the national treasury, minor officials profit from the trade whenever they can. As a result, according to well-placed sources here, rivalry between the police, who handle the transport, and the army, which has no share in it, is great.
A source said this rivalry has been worsened by the fact that the police also round up young men for the draft. Sometimes this rivalry has led to refugee boats being sent off by the police only to be returned by naval patrols and held up until higher authorities order their release.
Program: CBC Television News Special
Episode: My People Are Dying
Broadcast Date: September 11, 1979
Narrator: Harry Elton
Guest(s): Sir Jack Carter, Ian Hamilton, unidentified
The lucky ones who survive the arduous journey over sea or land then begin an indeterminate stay at a refugee camp. On average, a refugee family spends 12 months in a camp, but some remain for years. In July 1979 there are over 350,000 refugees in crowded camps in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong and the Philippines. During this month, a CBC Television crew visits camps in Hong Kong and Malaysia to see what life is like there.
Hong Kong is considered to have the best refugee camps; Thailand, the worst. Somewhere in the middle of that continuum, Malaysia's main refugee camp, the island of Pulau Bidong, opened in 1975. Sponsored by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), it was originally built to contain 12,000 people. By November 1978, Pulau Bidong was housing more than twice that. And in early July 1979, there are 42,000 refugees crushed between its shores.
Program: Sunday Morning
Episode: Boat People Airlift
Broadcast Date: July 29, 1979
Narrator: Bronwyn Drainie, Patrick Martin
Reporter: Bronwyn Drainie
Guest(s): Dr. Tuan Tran
If life in Vietnam was unbearable, life on the South China Sea was even worse. On CBC Radio, Dr. Tuan Tran describes his harrowing escape from Vietnam, an attack by pirates and his miraculous arrival at a Malaysian refugee camp.
Refugees faced a host of perils: typhoons, overcrowded and often leaky boats, a lack of navigational tools, brutal pirates, starvation, dehydration and illness. An estimated half of the boat people perished at sea. That's 500,000 to 600,000 human lives.
Thai pirates kidnapped, raped, and murdered countless numbers of boat people. Some pirates were professional bandits. Others were poor fishermen. The treasure from one overcrowded refugee boat could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, as refugees often transferred all their assets into gold before leaving Vietnam. Humanitarian aid organizations claimed that South Asian governments allowed the piracy to continue as a deterrent to refugees.
Passing vessels would sometimes stop to save refugees by bringing them on board. But once the ship arrived with its human cargo in Singapore or some other Asian port, they were often turned away. No South Asian country would accept the refugees, many fearing that the influx was a Chinese or Vietnamese plot to upset the racial balance in Asia. The tragedy of so many people with nowhere to go brought the world's attention to the plight of the boat people
The youngest ship’s captain ever to receive a 300 ton license: According to the US Coast Guard Captain of the Port – New Orleans.
Write to Offshore Logistics International at P.O. Box 24, Changi Post Office, Singapore 9150 or P.O. Box 5-C, Lafayette, Louisiana 70505, USA.
The Malaysian Government Oil Company [Petronas, Petroliam Nasional Bhd] operated through Esso Production Malaysia (EPMI) as sub-contractors. Our ship was under contract with the Malaysian Government Oil Company.
May 27, 1979: Of the 394 refugees that day there were 99 men, 126 women, and 169 children.
Please direct questions for the author to Karen Ngo at (805) 781-0686
All photos and text © copyright September 2004: Reproduction by Author’s Permission Only