Pirates continue to rape and murder Vietnamese refugees
By Michael Dorgan Mercury News Staff Writer
SURAT THANI, Thailand - Cam-Nhung's face showed no emotion as she described for the first time how 20 Thai's pirates raped her for 20 hours in the Gulf of Thailand.
Only her eyes revealed the pain and rage that clung to her as tightly as her tiny daughter, who had looked on in uncomprehending terror a week earlier as her mother paid what is often the price of passage for women who flee Vietnam.
More than a decade after refugees began flowing like blood into the vast gulf and the South China Sea, 20,000 Vietnamese a year continue to squeeze into small boats to sail for freedom in Foreign lands. And despite claims of success for a five-year-old anti-piracy program, hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of those refugees will fall prey this year to the fishermen-turned-pirates who have robbed, raped and murdered thousands since 1975.
The United Nations, which oversees a $15-million anti-piracy program funded by the United States and 10 other countries, says increased patrols at sea and police investigations on land have increased the number of pirate arrests and drastically reduced the number of attacks. That claim is repeated by many UyõS. officials, one of whom asserted that the anti-piracy effort "is working beautifully."
But others who work closely with refugees say the official tally of attacks reflects just a fraction of the carnage. Furthermore, they claim that the anti-piracy effort has been subverted by uncaring and corrupt officials who squander funds on unused equipment and in some cases, send innocent men to jail.
Those responsible for combating piracy -- Thai, UyõN. and UyõS. officials -- almost uniformly downplay the extent of the problem and resist independent efforts to gauge the effectiveness of the anti-piracy program.
Nobody likes to admit that piracy is still going on, "said Ted Schweitzer, a former field worker in Thailand for the United Nations. "They'd rather hide their heads in the sand."
The officials who would speak almost always did so on the condition that their names not be used. But dozens of interviews with officials, private refugee workers, Thai fishermen and Vietnamese refugees across central and southern Thailand as well as in the United States revealed horror of a breadth and depth that stuns the imagination.
Robberies The simplest attacks are robberies in which rogue fishermen strip refugees of wrist watches, boat motors and sometimes the shirts off their backs. Some refugees are robbed two, three, or even a dozen times by different pirate crews.
Those victims are the lucky ones. Others are beaten and raped, sometimes by entire crews, often as their families look on. Women are pulled from the arms of their children and passed as sex slaves from fishing boat to fishing boat, then tossed overboard like trash. Men are kicked into the sea or brutally beaten.
Girls as young as 10 have been sexually assaulted. Men have been slaughtered for trying to stop the raping of their wives or daughters. On several occasions, entire boat loads of refugees have been dumped into the gulf and left to drown when pirates rammed and shattered their fragile vessels.
Those who survive may wait for years in crowded, Spartan refugee camps while agencies and governments bicker over their fate. And even those who eventually find new homes in friendly lands -- including thousands in San Jose and other Bay Area communities -- still carry crippling emotional scars.
Lynn, a 23-year-old San Jose student, who fled Saigon in 1980, was pulled onto a pirate boat and raped for three hours by 15 men. Months later, after finally achieving her hard-earned dream of reaching America, she tried to commit suicide.
Charting the incidence of violence on the gulf is a daunting task, almost impossible to do with precision.
Last year, there were an average of three documented, attacks per week on refugee boats bound for Thailand and Malaysia, according to statistics compiled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The 141 attacks left 132 people either dead or missing and presumed dead, according to UyõN. officials. In addition, 142 women were raped and 64 were abducted; only 14 of them have been recovered.
However, some refugee's workers say the UyõN. figures are seriously flawed. Because the Thai government has a poor reputation for prosecuting piracy, ------ fewer than 70 pirates have been convicted over the past 10 years -- and because refugees fear that their resettlement in another country may be delayed if they become involved in lengthy court cases, many crimes go unreported, these workers say.
Especially under reported is rape, they say, a crime that often leaves Vietnamese women with deep feelings of shame and that sometimes results in their rejection by Vietnamese men.
"When a Vietnamese woman is raped, her life is ruined, especially if she is young," said Le Thi Que-Huong, a spokeswoman for the San Jose based Vietnamese Women's Association. "Virginity is prized. To lose it is to suffer great humiliation."
Dr. Nguyet Mehlert, a San Jose physician who in 1980 set up a clinic in Thailand to provide counseling and medical care to refugee rape victims, estimates that at that time about 60 percent of all boat women between ages nine and 56 were sexually assaulted while on the gulf.
Father Joe Devlin, a Jesuit priest who spent seven years in Thailand helping Vietnamese refugees before returning to the United States a few months ago, says the same holds true today.
"In fact, I think 60 percent is a very conservative figure," he said.
DIFFERENCES OF OPINION
As with rape, there are also sharp differences of opinion on how many refugees die in storms or at the hands of pirates without leaving a mark on anyone's tally sheet.
Most refugees plot their escapes in great secrecy -- if caught, they can be sentenced to long terms in re-education camps. Once under way, it is easy for entire boatloads of people to vanish in the vastness of the gulf.
Last year's figures would have contained 40 fewer names in the "missing" category and nine fewer in the "abducted" coulumn had not a 14 year-old girl been picked up by a fishing boat after spending a night and a day floating helplessly in the sea.
Nguyen Thi Kim Loan told authorities that five Thai fishing boats simultaneously attacked their group of 49 refugees about two weeks before her rescue in early February. Armed with clubs and knives, the fishermen searched the refugees and took all valuables, then pulled nine women and girls onto various boats, she said. The only refugee aboard the boat that took her. Kim-Loan was raped repeatedly for five days and then passed to another fishing boat, where she was kept five more days and raped several more times. She finally escaped by jumping overboard one afternoon as the crewmembers dozed. Kim-Loan, who now faces an uncertain future behind locked gates at the Phanat Nikhom refugee camp near Bangkok, is apparently the only survivor of the attack. All 48 of her fellow passengers have disappeared. Robin Bickley, a New Zealander who until last month headed the United nation's three-member anti-piracy unit in Bangkok, estimates that no more than 10 percent of the people who flee Vietnam by boat vanish without being recorded in UyõN. statistics.
Even if he is right, the number of unrecorded deaths could be close to60,00 60,000, since nearly 600,000 people have successfully fled Vietnam by boat.
But Nguyen Huu Xuong, director of the non-profit San Diego based Boat People SOS Committee, says that even 60,000 deaths would be a gross underestimate. Xuong says his contacts with refugee organizations throughout the world lead him to believe that as many as 250,000 refugees have died at sea.
MURDERS HAVE INCREASED
Some knowledgeable observers, including Father Devlin, said they think the percentage of refugees murdered after being robbed or raped by pirates has actually increased in response to stepped-up enforcement.
"The Thai pirates are as clever in their field as anyone else is in his field," Devlin said. "Two or three years ago I said the enforcement effort, would only make things worse, and I've seen nothing to prove me wrong."
One statistic tends to back him up: From the end of 1985 to the end of 1986, a period in which there were more arrests for piracy than during all previous years put together, the percentage of women recovered after being abducted off the coast of southern Thailand fell from 54 percent to 24 percent.
"Sure, we've worried a lot about pirates killing off witnesses," said one Western anti-piracy official. "But what are we supposed to do -- nothing?"
Even if piracy could be curbed, refugees would continue to perish by the hundreds, if not thousands. Nature may claim even more victims than pirates.
Many boat people schedule their escapes during the winter monsoon, when strong northeasterly winds help push their puny, under powered craft toward Thailand or Malaysia. But the helpful winds can turn treacherous and churn the sea into raging storms.
Or, becalmed, the refugees may drift aimlessly. Sixteen boat people who landed in Malaysia early in February told authorities that after 20 days at sea without food, they ate the flesh of a dead companion to survive.
REASONS TO LEAVE
But regardless of the horrors that await them, refugees continue to pour out of Vietnam. Interviews with dozens of boat peopel who have recently washed up on the southern shores of Thailand indicate that most are ware of the dangers but willing to risk degradation and even death for a chance at a new life.
Cam-Nhung said she undertook the voyage in the hope of joining her husband, who made his way to the United States in 1986 and now lives in Michigan.
The six men and five women on her boat - which also carried five children - had many peeling reasons to leave Vietnam. Some said they feared being drafted into the army and sent to Cambodia to fight the Khmer rebels who continue to resist the Vietnamese occupation. Others said they had been blacklisted from jobs because of affiliations with the United States during the Vietnam War. Still others said they no longer could tolerate the absence of freedom under their country's Communist government.
The group slipped out of the southern city of Camau in a 30-foot riverboat in the dead of night on January 19. They had no map, no navigational equipment, no specific destination.
"I didn't think where to go," said Thach Thi Phung, a spirited 34-year-old woman who served as captain. "I just wanted to leave Vietnam."
At 10 a.m. the day after their departure, a Thai trawler stopped them by firing two shots over their boat.
After the trawler pulled along side, two of its 24 crew members stood guard with an M-16 and a shotgun as four others boarded the refugee boat and searched for valuables. They found only a watch and a jade bracelet.
The fishermen then ordered all of the women and two small girls onto the trawler. Two of the women cried in fear but were beaten into silence and taken with the others into the cabin of the boat. There, the women were raped repeatedly for the next 20 hours.
GIVEN FOOD, DIRECTIONS
Then the pirates returned the women and children to their boat, gave the refugees water, milk and biscuits, and pointed the way to Thailand.
Now, Nhung, Phung and the others sit in a three-walled shed on the grounds of the Surat Thani Chinese Foundation, awaiting transport to the huge refugee camp at Phanat Nikhom. Once there, they will begin the increasingly difficult search for a new country.
Most countries already have as many Vietnamese refugees as they want. And most, including the United States, have gradually reduced the number they will accept. A survey last year found that of 33,000 Vietnamese refugees in UyõN. camps in Southeast Asia, 10,000 had been in a camp for three years or longer.
But for many Vietnamese, even a dim prospect of resettlement is better than staying in Vietnam.