As attacks on 'boat people' persist, US urged to press Thais for more deterrents
Vietnamese refugees continue to launch into the sea in flimsy boats, Thai pirates continue to attack them, and much of the world no longer seems to care. But the problem of piracy in the Gulf of Thailand has once again drawn public attention because of a new study prepared by a private committee and because of recent reports of refugees drowning after Thai vessels towed them out to sea.
US Rep. Stephen J. Solarz, a Democrat from New York, focused on the issue in recent hearings on foreign aid conducted by the House subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, which he chairs. Mr. Solarz said that reports from Southeast Asia, such as one last month from refugees that 23 of their number drowned after being towed out to sea under orders from Thai authorities, could make it more difficult to secure foreign aid appropriations for Thailand.
It was the first time that any congressman has publicly hinted at a possible link between aid appropriations and criticisms of the Thai authorities for their handling of the Vietnamese refugee problem.
Last week, the United States Committee for Refugees (USCR), a privately financed, nonprofit informations service, in Washington, D.C., issued a 17-page report suggesting that the United States, Thailand, and the United Nations give the piracy problem higher priority. The report charges that violent attacks by Thai pirates on the Vietnamese ''boat people'' continue at an ''alarmingly high level,'' despite bilaterally and internationally supported programs to combat them.
On Feb. 8, the Thai authorities responded to recent allegations of mistreatment of Vietnamese refugees coming from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Prasong Sunsiri, Secretary General of Thailand's national security council, issued the conclusions of a fact-finding mission conducted by senior Thai authorities. It said that the mission found the UNHCR's allegations to be ''at great variance with the facts.''
Mr. Prasong said that investigation of an incident occurring in January of this year showed that local Thai authorities had actually furnished shelter, food, medical treatment, and two wooden vessels to 72 Vietnamese refugees who had landed on Thai shores. He said that Thai vessels escorted the Vietnamese safely out of Thai territorial waters (23 of the Vietnamese were later reported to have drowned). Prasong also pointed out that Thailand has so far accepted more Indochinese refugees than any other country in the region.
The vast, 80,000-square mile Gulf of Thailand is not easy to patrol. But the United States has now committed for a two-year period $10 million for bilateral and international antipiracy programs, and some experts do not think it is getting the results it should be getting.
US State Department spokesmen argue that the antipiracy programs conducted by the Thai government have had a deterrent effect. They note that whereas 77 percent of the boats which left Vietnam and eventually landed in Thailand were attacked, in 1982 and '83 the percentages were 65 and 56 respectively.
But the USCR says in its study that while the trend is downward, ''the viciousness of attacks has not abated.''
''Hundreds of victims have died, having been shot, knifed, beaten, or rammed, '' says the committee's report. ''Some have committed suicide under duress. If victims survive the first attack, a second is virtually certain.''
''Clearly young girls and women are victimized in disproportionate measures, '' says the report, noting that most of the victims who are kidnapped are women who are often simply thrown overboard or sometimes sold into prostitution by their captors.
A State Department spokesman said that the UNHCR has undertaken a new study of the antipiracy program with five governments, including the United States, contributing maritime experts.
The spokesman said that the problem was not a lack of commitment and support but a matter of finding practical solutions.
One solution, some observers argue, is for the program of legal departures from Vietnam to be expanded. But at this point, many Vietnamese do not qualify for legal departure and the number applying to make such a departure runs into the tens of thousands.
But USCR director Roger Winter, who once headed the US government's Office of Refugee Resettlement, charges that top-level commitment is lacking.
''We don't think that the problem is so much one of technical improvements and the logistics of the antipiracy program,'' he says. ''Particularly over the last year, the problem has been studied and restudied.''
Mr. Winter suggests that President Reagan get directly involved and provide political leadership to help resolve the piracy problem.
''The moral outrage about what's happening does not really get translated into good programs, because it comes up against hard sort of geopolitical realities,'' said Winter in an interview.
The USCR report suggests that the UNHCR and other international agencies act more boldly and that Thailand develop more effective registration for fishing boats and strengthen administration procedures.
But the report also notes that given the apparent decline in receptivity to refugees in traditional resettlement countries, ''Thailand may have come to regard Western pressure for improved antipiracy efforts as hollow.''