Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Long Escapes That Came Up Short Vietnamese Boat People Who Languished for Years in Southeast Asian Camps Are Forced to Start Life over Again - Back Home

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Long Escapes That Came Up Short Vietnamese Boat People Who Languished for Years in Southeast Asian Camps Are Forced to Start Life over Again - Back Home

Article excerpt

Thach Seri shifted uncomfortably on the bright-red plastic chair in the airport departure lounge. He wasn't used to the chill from the airconditioning or to the hard glare of the neon lights. But after six years in Sikhiu refugee camp, 125 miles west of Bangkok, Mr. Thach did at least seem cautiously happy about one thing: He was going home.

One of 109 boat people who returned voluntarily last month to Vietnam, Thach had ended his dream of joining other members of his family in the United States.

Instead Thach, who lost his right eye fighting the Communist North Vietnamese near Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) during the Vietnam War, has returned into the arms of a regime he bitterly opposed. He must also accept that the past six years of waiting and hoping have been in vain. Thach is one among many thousands of Vietnamese boat people all over Asia that once were the focus of an unprecedented surge of international compassion. After the fall of Saigon to Communist forces in 1975, more than 839,000 Vietnamese fled overseas, mostly in flimsy, overcrowded boats. Many perished at sea. Shocked by their suffering - and in the case of the US keen to try to help their anticommunist allies - the West, led by the US, has taken in some 755,000 boat people. But slowly the boat people have been pushed into the shadows by newer tragedies and the fact that Vietnam is no longer seen as a pariah state. Those who remain in camps in Asia now face a difficult choice: Go home voluntarily or be forced onto a plane as part of the euphemistically entitled Orderly Repatriation Program. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Bangkok, more than 89,000 boat people have already returned to Vietnam voluntarily. In 1989, 30 countries drew up a plan aimed at stemming the continuing flood of boat people. The plan ended the boat people's automatic right to refugee status and resettlement by defining them as "economic migrants." For Thach, who knew nothing of the policy change when he left Vietnam in 1990, it effectively ended his hopes of traveling to the West. Conditions have changed in Vietnam, too. Though still firmly in control, Vietnam's Communist rulers now advocate a market economy. An "open door" investment policy has drawn swarms of international companies and prompted the US to end its investment embargo. In July 1995, Vietnam won international respectability when it became a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which ironically had been founded as a bulwark against the advance of communism. Though many boat people worry that they will be persecuted upon returning to Vietnam, their fears appear at odds with a Vietnam that is set on taking its place in Asia's political and economic mainstream. …

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