The suffering of the Vietnamese Boat people


When the Americans lost the Vietnam War there were many who did not wish to stay in Vietnam. Those with influence were airlifted out by the Americans but many had to make do with crowding onto leaky boats and making the journey from Vietnam to the gulf of Thailand. In doing so they unwittingly wrote themselves into modern pirate history.

Conditions were perfect for piracy. The local fishermen were poor and were looking for an easy means to supplement their income. The Vietnamese government did not care about them and the Thai government was not anxious to receive large boatloads of refugees. No one cared about the fate of the boat people so allegations of piracy were often ignored. It was only when the incidents became more shocking that pressure was brought to bear on the Thai government by maritime interests led by the Americans. By then thousands had been robbed, raped and murdered. What follows are some examples:

  • In the early eighties an American, Ted Schweitzer, landed on a pirate island and heard how 238 refugees had been shipwrecked there. Eighty had been killed and the women were raped and forced to dance naked. Schweitzer tried to stop this but was knocked unconscious. He was lucky to live. When he awoke he found dismembered limbs and evidence of cannibalism.

  • Nguyen Phan Thuy booked a passage out of Vietnam with her mother, aunt and younger sister. After ten days at sea the boat was stranded and without food or water. They were attacked by pirates, who shot her aunt. An old man's gold teeth were ripped out of his mouth with pliers and a woman's baby was thrown into the sea. The survivors were made to strip and then landed on the beach and their boat was sunk. The women were lined up and Phan and a girl called Lien were selected and taken on board a fishing boat. Over the next three weeks both girls were repeatedly raped. Lien could not stand it and in the end the pirates could not stand her. She was thrown overboard. Phan was sold to a village brothel - "The Paradise Massage Parlour". She became pregnant but the baby was aborted with a bamboo stick. Eventually she escaped and was handed over to the UN.

  • In 1989 a boatload of 84 refugees were attacked by pirates. The women and children were transferred to the boats and never heard of again. The men were kept in the hold and brought up one by one to be clubbed to death. Eventually they panicked and tried to rush the pirates. The pirates rammed the boat to sink it. Some managed to escape but were pushed under water by poles. Thirteen survivors managed to escape by swimming away under cover of darkness.

  • In April 1989 seven pirates armed with a gun knives and hammers attacked 129 Vietnamese. The women were raped and all of them were slaughtered save one, Pham Ngoc Man Hung (seen pictured identifying the pirates), who survived by clinging onto a raft made out of three bloated corpses.

Eventually the Thai government was forced to take measures. Fishing boats had to be registered with a prominent number displayed on its prow. Boats were also photographed going in and out of port. This deterred many but those pirates who remained became more brutal and ruthless, ensuring there were no witnesses to identify them.

Pirate incidents petered out at the end of the eighties as the number of refugees decreased. It is fashionable nowadays for historians to assume that the barbarity of pirates was overrated and that pirates were basically career criminals. These more recent accounts are almost certainly not exaggerated and so it seems likely that many of those stories in the past were equally true.





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