Governments and relief workers are watching to see if thousands of Vietnamese "boat people" will follow last year's pattern of seeking refuge abroad. Despite rumors, there is no sign Vietnam's government is about to again collaborate with large-scale "exporters" who evacuate thousands of refugees in rusty, "syndicate-owned" freighters.
There are signs, however, that the number of small refugee-bearing fishing boats is growing despite tightened naval and police control, reporters and other visitors to Vietnam report. There does not seem to be any large-scale bribe-taking.
The exodus of smaller boats appears to be growing in part because of improved sea and weather conditions. "Boat people" arriving in other Southeast Asian countries reached more than 5,000 in March, double the previous month.
Increasingly, boatloads of as many as 150 refugees are landing Hong Kong. And Malaysia's Foreign Minister Tengku Ahmad Rithauddeen has warned that the number of illegal departures is rising. So far, however, all indications are that Vietnam has prevented a resumed large-scale exodus -- partly to improve relations with its noncommunist Southeast Asian neighbors.
Any massive refugee increase would quash the opening diplomatic dialoque begun last month by the visit of Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach to Malaysia and Thailand. Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines -- fear that the often largely ethnic Chinese refugees that land on their shores might produce economic burdens and racial friction.