Jon Swain - writer and foreign correspondent

The last voyage of the damned; Vietnamese boat people

Jon Swain, Ban Thad

The Sunday Times, 23 October 1988

THE desperation and grief of the Vietnamese boat people seeking asylum in the West is reflected in the lighted candle 16-year-old La Kieu Ly offers up each Sunday at a makeshift Catholic church in this dead-end refugee camp near the Kampuchean border. It is in remembrance of her sister Kim who, though barely 10 years old, was raped repeatedly by pirates and is presumed drowned.

Horror echoes through Ly's account of her dangerous journey from the Ca Mau peninsula in Vietnam to Thailand in which she, too, was repeatedly raped and narrowly escaped death.

Ly is all that remains of a boatload of refugees raided by pirates during their 400-mile crossing to Thailand. It is five months since she slipped out of the Vietnamese fishing village of An Giang in a 24ft fishing boat with 21 other people tucked out of sight below decks, including her aunt, aged 21, and younger sister. She is still haunted by the nightmare of that journey.

Her ordeal is typical of the hazards undergone by the boat people at a time when such southeast Asian nations as Thailand have grown hostile to the refugee influx and are taking tough measures to deter them from seeking temporary asylum.

Although an international anti-piracy programme began six years ago, Thai pirates still exact a savage toll on refugee boats from Vietnam, sailing through the waters of the Gulf of Thailand. In September more refugees fleeing Vietnam went missing as a result of pirate attacks at sea than in 1985 and 1986 put together. Rapes and abductions of Vietnamese women have doubled in the first nine months of this year.

These latest piracy statistics have come as a shock to embassy officials, refugee field workers and legal staff working on the $2.4m anti-piracy programme which the United States and 10 other nations, including Britain, have financed since world attention first focused on the refugees' tragedy.

The brutality of the fishermen-pirates who prey on the boat people in the Gulf of Thailand has risen sharply just as officials thought they were getting on top of the problem. With rammings and sinkings of boats increasing, some experts consider the Gulf has seldom been more perilous since South Vietnam fell to the communists 13 years ago. The boat people affected are all from the south of the country. Northerners flee in a different direction east towards Hong Kong.

Nothing better captures the heartbreak of the southern boat people than the story recounted by Ly. A few hours out of An Giang on May 10, her boat met a Vietnamese fishing vessel, which confiscated the refugees' money and gold in return for allowing them to proceed. Thirty-six hours later they met a Thai fishing boat, which threw them canned fish and sweets. But a few hours afterwards they were attacked.

Thai pirates rammed the boat twice until it sank. They plucked six girls, including Ly and her aunt and Kim, out of the sea but drove off the Vietnamese men with knives. The men drowned.

Then the terror began. The girls became the pirates' playthings, repeatedly raped and terrorised with fists, hammers and knives. After tiring of them the pirates threw the three older girls overboard. Later they beat Ly and threw her into the sea because she struggled so hard to stop them raping her.

Her sister Kim had been raped by three fishermen, and Ly's last memory of the little girl is of a sobbing, painwracked little bundle of humanity, pleading with the pirates for her life. No trace of Kim has been found.

Naked but for a pirate's shirt and a shawl, Ly kept afloat for nine hours until another fishing boat rescued her. She said the immense generosity of these Thai fishermen matched the immense cruelty of the pirates. They nursed her back to life, and when they landed at the southern Thai port of Nakhon Si Thammarat at the beginning of June they handed her over to the police, who sent her on to Ban Thad.

Since the communist victories in neighbouring IndoChina in 1975, Thailand has borne the brunt of refugees from Vietnam, Kampuchea and Laos. The Vietnamese, in particular, have never been held in high regard in Thailand and little sympathy for them remains, especially as the West has been taking fewer and fewer of them to ease the pressure in Thailand.

Last January, faced with a sudden upsurge of boat refugees, Thailand drastically changed its policy to stem the influx. It instituted a push-off policy, turning refugees seeking asylum back to sea. In some cases the marine police deputised fishing boats to turn away the refugees.

Those that did get through, like Ly, were sent to Ban Thad on the Kampuchean border. As Thailand does not class them as victims of communist persecution they are not eligible for resettlement and could spend years in the camp and even be sent home.

In the face of widespread condemnation, Thai officials have since said the push-off policy has ended. But there is evidence of it still being carried out 10 months later in some parts of the country's long southern coastline.

Some Thai officials are known to have become uneasy about pushing off helpless refugees, who inevitably are attacked by the pirates congregated in fishing boats outside territorial waters. But others are known to have been more brutal.

In any event, the hardening of Thailand's attitude has worked, as the message has got back to Vietnam. The number of boat arrivals on the Thai coast dropped from 1,100 in 1987 to 300 in the first nine months of this year.

Most refugees, aware of the hostility, now avoid Thailand if they can and head for Malaysia, where temporary asylum is still granted. But the risk of being stripped of their possessions, molested and killed by pirates remains high.

For several years, Vietnam has adopted a UN-sponsored programme of orderly departures by air of refugees who want to leave. But there are still thousands prepared to take their chances in a boat. Officially, tough laws are in force for anyone caught organising an escape, but bribing communist officials usually solves that problem and the boatloads keep on coming, each a sad reflection of Vietnam's disenchanted postwar society.

There are former soldiers of the defeated South Vietnamese army, farmers, shopkeepers and girls like Ly who, deprived of a university education because her father was a Saigon soldier, sank her life savings in her boat passage to try to reach her sister in America. For the Thais, of course, she is not fleeing communist persecution but is an economic opportunist.

The anti-piracy programme is run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Since it began, an impressive number of Thai fishermen have been jailed, some for up to 24 years on charges of rape and robbery. However, concerned officials have begun to voice the fear that Thailand's policy of deterring the boat people by pushing them out to sea undoes the anti-piracy programme by giving notice to the fishermen, who form the bulk of the pirates, that it is ``open season'' on the Vietnamese.

The suffering of the boat people consumes anyone who comes in contact with them. Some give the impression of having come to terms with the horror of their flight and can talk dispassionately about their ordeals.

But last week I met one mother who has virtually lost the will to live since a policeman pulled her by the hair from the hold of a boat where she was hiding and threw her baby son into the water to drown when she resisted. On past form, the southeast Asian region could be facing a fresh upsurge in refugees leaving Vietnam at any moment. For the southwest monsoon, which whips the waters of the Gulf of Thailand into mountainous seas, is blowing itself out, making weather conditions more favourable.

(c) Times Newspapers Ltd. 1988