Indochinese Refugee Resettlement: Causes of the Exodus
Part II of IV: 1975-1978 Refugees from Cambodia and Laos
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 In addition to killing and expelling the Vietnamese and Chinese, Muslim Chan and other minorities that originally made up 15% of the Cambodian population were persecuted.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The program was quickly superseded when the government decided to increase the commitment to 5,000 Indochinese in Dec. 1978 under the first Annual Refugee Plan.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
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
On the Genesis of Operation Lifeline
[Part 1: The Backstory}
for delivery at the conference
“Indochinese Refugee Movement and the Private Sponsorship Program 1975-80″
22 November 2013.
After two initial sections outlining the back story of the Indochinese refugee movement and exploring the alternative explanations for Canada’s exceptional response, the paper will cover the origins of Operation Lifeline, its timing and organizational structure; I will knit into my discussion the role of the media in both the formation of Operation Lifeline and the encouragement of private sponsorship dealt with in the previous panel. I will then zero in on two crises that emerged in the development of Operation Lifeline with respect to two major policy issues: a) Operation Intellectual Kneecapping dealing with pre-empting a backlash, and b) the so-called reneging on the matching formula. I will then tie both into revisiting which, if any, of the various explanations outlined earlier best account for the generosity exhibited by civil society. I will then draw some general conclusions.
The private sponsorship of Indochinese refugees into Canada in partnership with government initiatives is correctly viewed as the pinnacle of a humanitarian response to refugees into Canada unequalled before or since. So a question naturally arises: why did that moment in history create in Canada the culmination of any effort before or since to develop an outstanding humanitarian agenda on behalf of refugees in need, a moment that subsequently earned for Canada the award of the Nansen Medal by the UNHCR? Since the national outpouring was complemented by significant actions and initiatives by other western countries, the explanation for what happened should integrate both local and transnational factors.
I The Back Story
The back story in the creation of Operation Lifeline is easily told. In 1967, Canada broke through its legislative racist-based immigration policies when the Immigration Act was revised to be based on an abstract point system rather than favouring specific countries of origin. This was the beginning of the large scale arrival of so-called “visible minorities” to Canada. The first major influx was that of the Ugandan Asians when Idi Amin, then President of Uganda, on 4 August 1972 ordered the expulsion of the Indian and Pakistani populations of Uganda within 90 days. Of the up to 70,000 ethnically cleansed Ugandan Asians, Canada took in 7,000, the highest number for resettlement anywhere except Britain which took in almost 30,000 who were formally “British protected persons”. (Cf. M. Mamdani (1976). Politics and Class Formation in Uganda, New York: Monthly Review Press and C. Pereira, B. Adams, and M. Bristow (1978) Canadian beliefs and policy regarding the admission of Uganda Asians to Canada. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 1,(3), 354-366.)
In 1975, after the termination of the Vietnam War, dubbed by the Vietnamese as the “American War”, as the In Memoriam short video demonstrated, Americans felt a special obligation to assist Vietnamese who had been associated with the American side in the conflict. The USA put pressure on its allies to assist in the humanitarian endeavour, including Canada which, unlike Australia, had remained aloof for any military involvement in Vietnam. Canada offered a token response and took in 5,608 Vietnamese humanitarian immigrants in 1975 (3100) and 1976 (2500). Prior to that, there were only 1500 Vietnamese living in Canada, the vast majority in Quebec, usually students and graduates (and, in some case, their children and families) at Canadian French-speaking universities. The numbers taken in were only token in comparison to the huge numbers the United States admitted following the immediate termination of the Vietnam War. Given that the general Canadian attitude was an assignation of blame to the United States for the responsibility for both the war and the refugees resulting from that war, this number was considered more than sufficient to demonstrate Canada’s humanitarianism without identifying the problem as a Canadian one.
The situation changed in 1978. The Hoa or Chinese Vietnamese, like the Indo and Pakistani Asians in Uganda, disproportionately dominated the South Vietnamese business and economic sector as well as its educated and upper class; they controlled an estimated 75% of the South Vietnam economy before the fall of Saigon in 1975. Once before in 1956, the Diem government had tried to break the dominant ethnic Chinese control of the Vietnamese economy but failed. (The Ngo Dinh Diem regime in 1955 decreed that all Chinese born in Vietnam would automatically become Vietnamese citizens and in 1956 issued a decree nationalizing all categories of trade. Further, non-ethnic Vietnamese were excluded as butchers and fish mongers, rice or grain traders, in the trade of fuel (coal, charcoal, fuel oil), and from the textile industry at both the wholesale and retail levels. However, the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam circumvented these decrees most frequently by taking on Vietnamese “partners” rather than becoming citizens.) Further, by 1961, in spite of Diem’s “forced nationalization” program, only 2,000 of approximately one million ethnic Chinese in South Vietnam had become Vietnamese citizens. Nevertheless, in 1976 Hanoi demanded that the ethnic Chinese register for the elections of the National Assembly. At the time, business for the ethnic Chinese seemed to flourish as usual in spite of Hanoi’s introduction of currency reforms to break the control of the Hoa on the economy as the businessmen managed to use bribes on the Vietnamese communist cadres to allow their businesses to continue. The maintenance of the status quo was also helped by the utility of these businessmen to the Vietnam government in fostering regional trade. The Hanoi government efforts initially seemed to follow Diem’s failed footsteps.
The crucial turning point was political rather than economic, though the economic crisis of 1977 as a result of crop failures that year and general economic mismanagement did not help. Hanoi’s initiatives were pushed by relations with both the Khmer Rouge Cambodian regime on one side and China on the other. Between 1975 and 1978, there had been occasional clashes along the border between the two communist regimes, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and Democratic Kampuchea, punctuated in 1975 by the Cambodian attack on the Vietnamese island of Phú Quȭc and a second major attack in April of 1977against the Vietnamese provinces of An Gang and Chāu Dȭc, killing over one hundred Vietnamese civilians. This coincided with a Communist Party of Kampuchea Central Committee directive instructing local officials to arrest all ethnic Vietnamese, all Khmer who spoke Vietnamese and even Khmer who had Vietnamese friends. The Pol Pot genocide began with the mass murder of the vast majority of those who had been arrested in the effort to purify Kampuchea of Vietnamese influences and to reclaim lost Khmer lands in Vietnam, primarily in the Mekong Delta. (Cf. Kanika Mak (2004) “Genocide Irredentism under Democratic Kampuchea (1975-79), Yale Center for International and Area Studies, Working Paper 23.) China, given its traditional rivalry with Vietnam over influence on Kampuchea, seemed to side with Cambodia. Hanoi began to fear the emergence of a fifth column and pressure was exerted on the ethnic Chinese in what had been North Vietnam. In February 1978, China accused Hanoi of forcing an exodus of ethnic Chinese, especially in the border area as tens of thousands streamed into China.