Indochinese Refugee Resettlement: Causes of the Exodus: Part III of IV: 1979-1980

Indochinese Refugee Resettlement: Causes of the Exodus

Part III of IV: 1979-1980

by

Howard Adelman

In September 1979, China claimed that more than 230,000 Chinese ethnic refugees from Vietnam had been driven across the border, though some also arrived by sea. However, in the West, the exodus all took place by sea and “Boat People” became the prevailing designation for all the Indochinese refugees, though Cambodian and Laotian refugees had crossed into Thailand by land. The name was reinforced by the predominant imagery of rickety overstuffed boats of desperate people with many of the boats capsizing, running out of fuel and water, attacked by pirates and being shoved back out to sea by Malaysian authorities. If it was not enough to suffer oppression and expulsion, the refugees also soon encountered rejection by others. Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in 1938 immediately came to mind. The identification of the Indochinese with the Jews fostered guilt among Western countries that had failed to come to the rescue of those Jews who managed to flee by boat in 1938, forty years before.

Though most passing ships under the International Law of the Sea rescued the human cargo lest they drown, many ships passed without offering aid. Many of those that rescued refugees, tried to offload their passengers at nearby countries which then prevented the ships from landing.

Hence the crisis! Pushed out from their countries of origin, rejected by countries of first asylum, a more systematic policy was needed if the adjacent countries were to allow the refugees to land. (Hong Kong was the exception and never pushed back the “Boat People”.) Barry Wain in his article, “The Indochina Refugee Crisis” in the Fall 1979 issue of Foreign Affairs summarized the causes very succinctly.

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 neighbouring 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.

There is, however, a complementary thesis, one which puts part of the blame on the sixties protesters against the war in Vietnam. The Vietnamese political scientist, Ton That Thien, blamed Western and Vietnamese intellectuals for their mindblindness and refusal to recognize that the Viet Cong, South Vietnam’s National Liberation Front, was not the expression of an indigenous nationalism confronting corruption in government in Saigon, but a puppet of Hanoi. Further, Hanoi and its ideology were determined to wreck havoc with the traditional Vietnamese culture. The chickens were now coming home to roost and those chickens were the Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian refugees who had to be settled in the West if the West was to avoid a wider geo-political crisis in the region. The West had made the basic error, not in fighting the war, but through false analysis and failing to win it, thereby setting off the exodus. The interpretive conflict is much more about evaluation rather than about factual disagreements.

In May 1979, the first longer-term refugee camp for Cambodian refugees was set up in Thailand. Different camps were dominated by various Cambodian warlords and the Khmer Rouge now in exile. The Nong Samet, Mak Mun and Nong Chan refugee camps were just inside the Thai border and within a few miles of one another. It is always difficult to obtain accurate figures of refugees in camps because some refugees leave to seek local work and return, particularly on census days. When camps are controlled by the military, accurate figures are almost impossible to obtain since the military use a plethora of measures to enhance the numbers. They do so in order for more rations to come into the camp that can be re-sold in local markets and, thereby, finance the support of the military and their plan to re-conquer, in this case, Cambodia. That is why the military control the census as well as the food distribution within the camps. The military also use the base for rest and recreation after they return from a raid back into Cambodia. Refugee camp inhabitants are also a source of recruits for the counter-revolutionary forces.

This meant that refugee camps posed a security danger to Thailand because of reprisal raids by the Vietnamese-dominated government in Cambodia and the close proximity of the camps  to the border. The existence of camps controlled by the military also enhanced the security problem because the camps were a source of funds for the militants. On the 5th of October, the military warlords established the Angkor National Liberation Movement, Khmer Angkor for short, and, as an example, informed the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) that the population of the largest camp, Nong Sanet, totalled 200,000.

The international community suspected exaggeration and cut the figure by 10% and only provided aid for 180,000. But a 10% hype was the normal enhancement of UNHCR-run camps in contrast to military-run camps as those who came and went in UNHCR- controlled camps returned for census days once a year. From our studies in Goma in the Congo, the exaggeration in numbers was probably enhanced by at least 25% not 10% when the military control a camp and do not permit a proper census. There were probably no more than 150,000 in the camps controlled by military forces. Smuggling and black markets flourished as other sources of funds for the military in addition to stealing humanitarian rations.

Further, as most camps were near the border, there were many landmines. Another source of insecurity was not between the camps and the new Vietnamese puppet regime in Cambodia, but within each camp and among the camps themselves as different warlords tried to consolidate or expand the areas under their control. The situation was similar to rivalries between biker gangs who fight to control the drug trade. As recently took place in Texas, that rivalry frequently became violent. The most dangerous source of violence remained the Khmer Rouge, ironically still backed as the official government of Cambodia by both the U.S. and China. For example, on 4 January 1980, from its base in Phnom Chat, the Khmer Rouge attacked In-Sakhan’s controlled camp, Nong Samet, and overran it. But the refugees had fled and an empty camp was of no use to the Khmer Rouge. Under pressure, the latter retreated and the refugees returned, once more under the control of ex-Royalist military officers. An effort in January 1980 by UNICEF and ICRC to bypass the military and distribute rations to the camp’s population, now estimated at 60,000 was a failure. As a consequence, a month later the UNHCR cut off aid, but subsequent follow-up inspections revealed a high rate of malnutrition. So aid was resumed without an accurate census, an impossible effort in itself given the volatility of the situation, the fighting among the camps and the flight of camp populations from one camp to another.

The problem was only resolved when the Thai military became involved between March and July and took temporary control of the camps, in strict terms, a violation of international humanitarian norms. The Thai army redistributed the camp populations into more controllable numbers in each camp, and the remaining population of Nong Samet Camp was moved to a swampy area next to Prasaht Sdok Kok Thom Camp. The only long-term result was that the Khmer Rouge was able to take control and Thou Thon, a puppet of the Khmer Rouge, became chief administrator. However, although the camp remained a recruiting ground as well as a place for rest and recreation for insurgent forces, the camp soon became the model of a well-run and clean camp, but still with exaggerated census figures. Official corruption and theft of rations were tolerated because the Khmer Rouge kept order in the camp. The Khmer Rouge had become the de facto state with a monopoly of control of violence, thereby squelching the sources of interpersonal insecurity that was once an everyday part of camp life.

In contrast to the Cambodian situation where camp life and militant responses co-existed, the Laotian Civil War had ended.  Of the approximately 22,000 Laotians in Canada in the 2011 census, 12,793 arrived as refugees, almost all from camps in Thailand after 1978. Canada also took in a small number of Hmong; the majority of those Hmong re-migrated to the U.S., mostly to Washington and Oregon where the Hmong brought over by the Americans after 1975 had settled in fairly large numbers. There are a large group of ethnic Chinese from Laos in the Kitchener area primarily because of their sponsorship by the Mennonite community. 53% of the Indochinese refugees sponsored by the Mennonite Central Committee were Laotian, whereas Laotians only made up 16% of the total Canadian intake. Laotians not converted to Catholicism when the French ruled Laos, and who did not convert to Protestantism in gratitude to their Christian sponsors, practice the Theravada branch of Buddhism. Their facilities are often exquisitely beautiful: the Wat Lao temple in Edmonton, Alberta and, the most beautiful of all, the Monastère Bouddhiste de Tam Bao Son in Harrington, Laurentides, Québec.

In sum, the largest resettlement effort for refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia took place between 1979 and the end of 1980, but the ground for the exodus belonged in the prior period except for the camps in Thailand. There, the situation on the ground, the political and military in-fighting among the ex-Cambodian leadership, and the intervention of the Thai military influenced both the humanitarian effort within Thailand and the process of resettlement.

Part IV tomorrow: 1981-1988

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