1975-1978 Refugees from Cambodia and Laos

Indochinese Refugee Resettlement: Causes of the Exodus

Part II of IV: 1975-1978 Refugees from Cambodia and Laos

by

Howard Adelman

In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge had targeted minorities as well as intellectuals, professionals and middle class urban dwellers for extinction. Vietnam expelled its Chinese minority; the Khmer Rouge killed them. Although Pol Pot himself was of mixed Chinese and Khmer ancestry, the ethnic Chinese were targeted for extinction even though China was an ally and supporter of the Khmer Rouge in opposition to the Vietnamese government. Chinese businessmen, as in Vietnam, played a disproportionate role in the Cambodian economy as they did in the Vietnamese one, but all ethnic Chinese were branded as exploiters and moneylenders who took advantage of the Khmer people. In 1978, tens of thousands of ethnic Chinese in Cambodia were rounded up by the Khmer Rouge government ostensibly to be resettled, but were slaughtered instead. In addition to killing and expelling the Vietnamese and Chinese, Muslim Chan and other minorities that originally made up 15% of the Cambodian population were persecuted. In Kampong Cham Province alone, 40,000 Cham were killed. The Khmer Rouge government had guaranteed that Canada and Western countries were spared resettling two million Cambodian citizens by murdering the country’s own citizens.

But many escaped. In June of 1978, Bud Cullen, Canada’s Minister of Immigration, announced a plan focused to take 20 Thailand Overland Refugee (TOR) families a month in June 1978 which  was an addition to the Jan. 1978 decision to take 50 Small Boat Escapee (SBE) families a month. That brought the regional commitment to 70 families a month. The 20 families were to start arriving in late 1978 after the opening of a visa office in Thailand in November 1978. This so called “metered approach”(so many families each month), small though it was, kept Canada in the game at a time when the traditional refugee advocates in Canada had no interest in the Indochinese.

The program was quickly superseded when the government decided to increase the commitment to 5,000 Indochinese in Dec. 1978 under the first Annual Refugee Plan. The Hai Hong (Nov 1978) and the Geneva consultation (Dec 1978) provided the impetus to move away from the token involvement that characterized the movement between late 1975 until October 1978. Though modest in retrospect, the commitment to 5,000 meant the beginning of substantial increase in the intake and a new commitment to the Indochinese refugees involving new government money to cover operational and settlement costs for the first time since 1975. Though Ron Atkey, Joe Clarke’s Minister of Immigration appointed in June 1979, claimed that Trudeau was reluctant to go beyond 5,000 with an election looming, the Cabinet debate and decision indicated otherwise; the Liberal government envisioned the 5,000 as a first step since it directed Cullen to report if he believed more effort was needed and to come back to Cabinet regardless in June. Ron Atkey, a Tory, thankfully, inherited and enhanced the Liberal commitment.

Overseas events influenced both the Liberal and Conservative Parties in their approach to the Indochinese refugees. On 25 December 1978, Vietnam launched a full-scale invasion of Cambodia with 150,000 troops, captured Phnom Penh and overthrew the Khmer Rouge government in just two weeks, replacing it with the Vietnamese puppet government of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea.

In the new year, the Sino-Vietnamese War ensued. Cambodia was an ally of China. China, also seeing Russian expansionism via Vietnam as its proxy, invaded Vietnam. On 6 March, after six weeks, China withdrew, declaring that their punitive mission had been achieved and that they had tickled the buttocks of the “tiger” (the USSR) without any response by the Soviet Union in spite of a mutual defence treaty signed between Hanoi and Moscow a month before the invasion. Severe concessions re the ownership of disputed islands and other border areas were extracted. China was just beginning to stretch its wings and joined the IOC in April. By November, China was re-admitted to the Olympics. Against this background of regional inter-state and domestic ethnic and economic conflicts, by June of 1979, over 200,000 refugees were waiting for resettlement in various camps in Southeast Asia and the numbers continued to grow.

In Laos, the unity government of royalists and Pathet Lao began to dissolve as the royalists saw the writing on the wall when Saigon fell and the Pathet Lao forces on the Plain of Jars began advancing westward even before Saigon fell. The royalists chose acquiescence to the inevitable and royalist politicians and royalist military officers began to desert the government and flee to Thailand, quickly followed by officials and members of the business class. A totally separate exodus took place among Hmong who had fought as CIA-backed units on the Royalist side in the Laotian civil war. With the victory of the Pathet Lao on 5 May 1975, the U.S. evacuated Hmong officers of Vang Pao from Long Tieng after the Prime Minister, Souvanna Phouma, ordered the Hmong to cooperate with the Pathet Lao. Four days after, the communists vowed to exterminate the Hmong.

3,500 leaders and their families were at serious risk of execution by the Pathet Lao. The airlift evacuation, using three American planes, but without markings and flown by civilian pilots, began on 13 May 1975 in multiple forays back and forth. However, the Americans were forced to leave many behind as the Pathet Lao closed in on 14 May ending the airlift. Then General Vang Pao led thousands of his fighters across the Mekong River into Thailand. By the end of 1975, 40,000 Hmong had reached Thailand. Eventually, as many as 200,000 Hmong went into exile there. The vast majority ended up in the US. Other Hmong fighters hid in mountains of Xianghouang Province for years, with a remnant emerging from the jungle only in 2003.

After the Pathet Lao took over the country in 1975, the conflict continued in isolated pockets. By August, when the Pathet Lao arrived in Vientiane, they entered a virtually deserted city and initially kept in place the shell of the coalition government. By 2 December 1975, this façade ended and the king abdicated. By 1977, the regime promised to hunt down “American collaborators” and their families “to the last root”. The exodus from Laos consisted of three groups, Laotians associated with the Royalist regime, Hmong refugees and ethnic Chinese originating in Laos.

By the end of 1980, 7,500 refugees, whose last country of residence had been Laos, entered Canada. 7,100 from Cambodia also arrived. These were distinct from the 59,000 individuals who came from Vietnam. About 60% of the latter were ethnic Vietnamese, the remainder Chinese or Khmer Vietnamese.

The Indochinese refugees are referred to loosely as the “Boat People” because that was the most dramatic form of flight, though those who fled by sea constituted only 75,000 of the 500,000 refugees from Indochina. Further, traveling by sea was the most risky form of escape since the UNHCR at the time estimated that 40% who fled by sea did not survive. Of 112,500 who left in mostly unseaworthy craft, 45,000 were drowned or killed. In several weeks in November 1978 alone, 350 perished and the number fleeing by boat was increasing very rapidly in the last few months of 1978. For example, the number in flight in the spring of 1978 was estimated to be 1,500; by October, 10,000 were fleeing per month and the number was expected to rise to 20,000 per month by the spring of 1979.

From 1975 to 1978, 425,000 fled to the west and 75,000 went into China. In the Fall of 1978, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, National Director of the American Jewish Committee’s Office of Interreligious Affairs in the U.S., traveled to Southeast Asia with two other non-Jewish clergy as part of the Citizens Commission on Indochinese Refugees aided by the International Rescue Committee. At the time, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in the United States had committed itself to take almost as many Indochinese refugees as the whole of Canada, with a target of 5% of the total admitted. In an American background memorandum entitled, “The Southeast Asian Refugees,” dated 7 December 1978, the Interreligious Citizens Commission estimated the breakdown of the 450-500,000 of Indochinese refugees from 1975 to 1978 to be:

132,000 Vietnamese after the collapse of Saigon to the U.S.

50,000 additional 1975-November 1978 to the U.S.

43,817 to France

13.347 to Australia

7,550 to Canada

665 to New Zealand

644 to Britain

225 to Italy

    204 to the Netherlands

248,452 TOTAL

Therefore, rounded up, there were 250,000 Indochinese refugees granted asylum in the U.S. and other Western states. There were still 40,000 Indochinese refugees in transit camps in Malaysia and 136,000 in transit camps in Thailand.

In April 1978, the U.S. government was committed to admitting 15,000 per month, that is, 180,000 per year, half boat people from Vietnamese and half Cambodians and Laotians. Canada was committed to taking in only 5,000; Canada’s normal percentage would have been 36,000. Further, on 29 November 1978, U.S. Attorney General Bell announced that, by the end of April 1979, he was planning to admit an additional 21,875 Indochinese refugees, about three-quarters of them Vietnamese “boat people,” and the rest Cambodians.

In the Fall of 1978, as referred to above, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced that it would  convene a meeting in Geneva on December 11-12 of more than 30 countries to seek international action on the Southeast Asian refugee problem.

To be continued: 1979-1980

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