Little chance for boat people who flee Vietnam
By EDDIE ADAMS
AP Special Correspondent
KHLONG YAI, Thailand (AP) — "I will die! I will die! I will die!" screamed the aged Vietnamese woman aboard the boat of no smiles.
Forty-nine other sick or hungry refugees, half of them children, sat in silence or wept uncontrollably on the deck of the weatherbeaten 30-foot fishing boat that had brought them from Phuquoc, off the west coast of Vietnam, through the dangerous waters off Cambodia.
They thought they had reached freedom that hot November day when they entered the snug harbor of Khlong Yai, a tiny fishing village within shouting distance of the Cambodian border.
But Thai marine police, armed with M-16 rifles, refused them permission to come ashore and towed the crammed fishing boat three hours back out into the Gulf of Siam.
Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries that have more than 100,000 refugees from Indochina on their hands are becoming increasingly hostile to new arrivals from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
U.N. and U.S. Embassy sources estimate that those who flee Vietnam by boat — the boat people — have a 30 percent to 50 percent chance of survival.
The Cambodian Communists may shoot up the small boats as they travel along the coast. Sea bandits have been known to seize refugee boats and kill everyone aboard for their valuables.
The Vietnamese usually escape in small fishing boats not built to withstand the dangers of the open sea. They generally leave home short of food and fuel. Some are lost at sea.
If they do reach Thailand or Malaysia, the police or the navy send them back to sea. The last boat allowed to dock in Thailand arrived Nov. 19 with 16 persons aboard. The Thais arrested them all. The U.S. Embassy helped get them freed, and they are reported emigrating to the United States.
A few days later the boat of no smiles was turned away from Khlong Yai.
Naked children were crawling about the small cabin, and an infant fed at its mother's breast.
The only other space protected from the punishing rays of the sun, the chill night fogs and the soaking waves was a tiny hold for fish. Three people were trying to sleep in it.
All the others were on deck, using rags and towels as cover against the sun. They were wearing the only clothes they had brought with them.
A 6-year-old boy had pneumonia. A Thai fishing boat gave some medicine to him.
Not a pair of shoes was to be seen. The refugees' feet were swollen, lacerated and blistered because they hid in the woods until they made their break at 8 o'clock one night, barefoot and dressed in rags so as not to attract attention.
The oldest person aboard was a woman in her late 70s. The youngest was a girl born Nov. 24 in the fish hold to Nguyen Na's 20-year-old wife, Ti. The 21-year-old father had been a medical corpsman in the South Vietnamese navy, trained by the U.S. Navy at San Diego, Calif. He delivered the baby.
The young couple said they wanted to name their daughter Freedom — if the voyage ended in freedom for the family.
Most of the 14 men, 11 women and 25 children aboard broke into tears when Thai officials ordered them back to sea.
Their fuel was used up on the five-day voyage and they had also run out of food. After buying them supplies, this correspondent tried to go aboard. The Thai officials would not allow it at first, then relented.
The Vietnamese asked for maps and directions to Australia, more than 3,000 miles to the south. The police told them they had no maps for them but pointed in the general direction.
After the police had towed the boat out to sea for three hours, they took in their 300-foot tow rope and prepared to return to Khlong Yai. The Vietnamese shut off their engine and told the police it had broken down.
The police told them to get moving because the Cambodian Communists patrolled the area. They warned that if they tried to return to Thailand, police guns would be waiting.
"If we must die, we must," said a young woman as the police pulled away. "It's better than to live under communism. If we return to Vietnam, we would all be killed."
She added that she had never thought anything could be so horrible and ugly as life in Vietnam today.
Half an hour later, the police returned with orders from Bangkok to remove me for my own safety. Under no circumstances was I to remain.
A Vietnamese woman was disappointed. She felt that if I stayed aboard, some country might accept the boat.
A former Vietnamese navy seaman aboard said they had no compass or map.
"The stars and the sun have guided us this far," he said. "We don't know how long our luck will hold, but this is only the beginning. More and more will escape no matter what it costs. Only the very rich can survive now in Vietnam."
Then the boat moved away, its meager supply of water and fuel in a few rusty cans. A white shirt was tied to the bow by the sleeves as a flag of truce.
I rode for several hours with the marine police. We returned to the general area in which we had seen the boat last. We heard what sounded like machine-gun fire, but there was no sign of the refugees or their boat.