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HELPING THE WORLD'S HOMELESS; Waves of humanity wash across Southeast Asia

* In sprawling shack-and-tent "towns" along the steamy Thai-Cambodia border hundreds of thousands of uprooted Cambodians eke out a life in limbo. they dare not go back; they are unwanted where they are; they risk doubtful reception or outright rejection if they try to move on to new lands and new homes. Their ancient Khmer culture faces extinction. . .m

* Along the mountainous Thai-Laotian border opium-addicted refugees struggle to break their drug habits -- an essential first step in any onward journey to resettlement in the West. And they must go forward. The Laos they and their fellow refugees once knew no longer exists. . .m

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* Across the shores of Southeast Asia's non-communist countries lie the rotting bones of innumerable Vietnamese fishing boats. Weighed down by a human flotsam fleeing communist repression, the little boats have floated a new tide of refugees into makeshift "holding centers" from Malaysia to Macao. And still they come. . .m

An end to the saga of Indo-China's multitudes of evicted and homeless remains cruelly beyond grasp.

More than 1 million have fled Indo-China since the communist takeover in 1975 . And unless a political solution can be found soon, the refugee flood is likely to further destabilize the whole region -- as well as present the West with a massive aid and resettlement problem.

The height of the exodus from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia came last year. A tragic plethora of humanity escaping persecution, famine, and war swamped Southeast Asian camps, straining to the limits the ability of "first asylum" countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, and Hong Kong to cope with them.

It required remarkable resettlement efforts by an array of mainly Western nations -- notably the United States, Australia, Canada, and France -- to substantially reduce the burden on them.

According to officials of the United Nations Office of High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over the past five years some 40 nations have accepted for resettlement:

* The great majority (over 300,000) of the 370,000 "boat people" who have fled Vietnam so far.

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* About half of the 300,000 or so Laotians who have abandoned their homeland.

* A tiny proportion (about 18,000) of the roughly 300,000 Cambodians, or "Khmers," who have sought safety and food in neighboring Thailand. About half of the remaining Khmers are scattered in the border areas and are not at present even classified as refugees.

The permanent resettling of so many thousands of homeless people is a considerable achievement. But an estimated 350,000 Indo- Chinese still are awaiting a durable solution to their plight.

The governments of first asylum nations such as Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore vigorously resist any permanent refugee resettlement on their own soil for fear of domestic instability. These governments see themselves as hard pressed enough by ethnic and population pressures, as well as by growing public resentment against the inrush of refugees.

Hence, relief officials explain, these governments have agreed to tolerate the refugees only on a temporary basis -- as long as the international community continues to foot the massive aid bill and assumes the responsibility of taking them away.

But even as officials debate resettlement options, frightened and exhausted men, women, and children continue to arrive aboard cramped small boats, by foot along jungle mountain paths, or on bicycles through combat-ridden zones.

"They just never stop coming and will continue to do so until the political atmosphere changes," commented a French official at a refugee processing center in Bangkok.

On the diplomatic front, there appears to be little, if any, progress toward an encompassing political solution that would permit repatriation of refugees to their homelands.Yet refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia interviewed by this reporter made it obstinately clear that, although they would like to return home more than anything else, they could only do so if communism in its present repressive form was ended.

The first significant group of refugees to seek asylum in Thailand were the Laotians. As many as 1/10 of Laos's 3 million inhabitants are reported to have fled since the communist takeover in 1975 by the Pathet Lao. Mainly Hmong hill tribesmen, but also intellectuals, civil servants, and military personnel, they crossed the Mekong River or made their way along hidden trails into Thailand.

They give numerous reasons for fleeing. Political oppression, military conscription, and economic hardship are the principle ones.Former government officials, for instance, feel they have no future under the present regime. Others say they were forced to attend political re-education "seminars" in which many people were killed or died of starvation.

The Pathet Lao have ruthlessly persecuted the minority Hmong in particular. Considered "guilty" of having "collaborated" at first with the French and then with the Americans (notably the CIA) since World War II, they have been literally condemned to outright genocide by the Vientiane regime.

Thousands of these stocky, Montagnard farmers, who have resisted assimilation with the Chinese, Vietnamese, and Europeans for the past 3,000 years, have reportedly been killed in massacres, bombings, and attacks in the last five years.

In eastern Thailand the situation among the Khmer refugees also looks bleak. It will likely remain so as long as there is no political compromise on Cambodia between the Vietnamese-backed Heng Samrin regime and the ASEAN-supported Khmer Rouge. (Most of the refugees support neither faction.)

The refugee dilemma was seriously aggravated by the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in January 1979. The camps in Thailand already bulging with Khmers who fled Pol Pot's atrocities and famine. Now the Thai government refused to recognize the sudden surge of new arrivals as refugees. In June of last year, it forcibly repatriated half of them. Thousands died from starvation. Many others were killed by the warring Cambodian factions.

It was only when the famine and fighting in Cambodia grew to grotesque proportions that the Bangkok regime agreed to let them remain.

The Vietnamese "boat people," for their part, seem to have little choice between repression at home or expulsion, which is what their exodus amounts to. "Hanoi has shown that it cares precious little whether refugees live or die," says a UNHCR official. "It's a convenient way of getting rid of unwanted citizens."

Seeking to restructure its society in 1978, the Hanoi regime began pressuring populations to move from the crowded urban areas to so-called "new economic zones" in the countryside. This new form of repression was aimed in particular at the 1.5 million ethnic Chinese, or Hoa, living in Vietnam, who the Vietnamese have claimed serve as a fifth column for Peking.

But the new measures were also directed against other "bourgeois elements." Lawyers, for instance, were forbidden to practice independently.As a result, although the majority of the "boat people" have been Hoa, more and more ethnic Vietnamese are now fleeing the country, too.

Prior to a July 1979 conference in Geneva, when the Vietnamese were pressured into restricting departures, many refugees fled in freighters jammed to the gunwales. Their numbers testified to the connivance of the Hanoi regime. Today , through the help of fishermen, an average of 12,000 asylum seekers manage to survive the hazardous seas every month.

Despite official denials, refugees say the Hanoi regime continues to take advantage of those who flee. Government intermediaries charge people up to $3, 000 in hard currency or gold for the right to leave.

Ethnic Vietnamese find it even more difficult to get out. Many buy false Chinese identification papers to obtain places on boats. A group of mainly young South Vietnamese in a Macao hospital told this reporter that government soldiers had shot at them as they headed for the open sea last July. Three were killed and four injured.

How many actually perish from drowning or the ravage of pirates during the treacherous voyages is not known. Relief officials suggest that up to 60 percent never make it.

By one estimate, 300,000 to 400,000 may have perished during attempted escapes. The UNHCR is particularly concerned about the increasing incidence of piracy off the coasts of Thailand and Malaysia. Field surveys indicate that half of all recent arrivals have been raped, murdered, or abducted.

"There are still over a million ethnic Chinese left in Vietnam," said one relief official in Geneva. "Not all of them necessarily want to leave. But we still haven't seen the end of it. The situation could drag on for years and the West might be faced with hundreds of thousands more refugees."

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