August 06, 1979 12:00 PM

Last week a special U.N. conference was held in Geneva to deal with the plight of the Boat People—the tens of thousands of refugees who have fled Communist Vietnam across the South China Sea. At that meeting Vice-President Walter Mondale announced that four U.S. Navy ships would help refugees found adrift on that hot and treacherous ocean. Up to now such humanitarianism has been left largely to private rescue ships like Seasweep, a 1,500-ton converted freighter owned by World Vision International, an interdenominational Christian organization based in Monrovia, Calif. When Sea-sweep comes upon any refugees, they are taken on board, given water, food, medical treatment, blankets and—if requested—Bibles. They are then transported to a safe harbor like Singapore. There the Boat People wait for a sympathetic nation to allow them to emigrate. World Vision International, founded in 1950 to care for Korean war orphans, has been headed since 1969 by Stan Mooneyham, 53. A sharecropper’s son from Houston, Miss., he graduated from Oklahoma Baptist University in 1950 with a degree in journalism. He wrote obituaries for the Shawnee, Okla. News-Star, but soon took over the pulpit in a small local church. Eventually Mooneyham was ordained by the evangelical Free Will Baptist Church. In 1964 he joined Billy Graham’s crusade as a special assistant. He was working in Singapore as Graham’s vice-president for international affairs when he was asked to become president of World Vision. Mooneyham spends three-fourths of his time traveling the globe, and this year has already visited World Vision medical and agricultural projects in Uganda, Kenya, Guatemala and the Philippines. There is probably no individual in the world with more understanding of and experience with refugees than Mooneyham. A few hours after he returned to the U.S. from four weeks in Southeast Asia, he discussed the plight of the Boat People with Sally Koris for PEOPLE. For what readers can do to help them, see page 83.

What do you think of the Administration’s promise to send Navy ships to aid the Boat People?

I’m delighted—this is something I asked for 18 months ago. I’m sorry the action is coming so late. Tens of thousands have already died.

Who are the people being expelled from Vietnam and why?

They are mostly of Chinese origin. There are two basic reasons for leaving. One is racism. The Vietnamese do not trust the Chinese because they don’t assimilate easily—they retain their ethnic groupings even after four generations in Vietnam. The second reason is that the Vietnamese are trying to create a new Communist society. The Chinese are the modest capitalists, entrepreneurs and owners of small shops—a potential threat. I think the Vietnamese are happy to see them leave, particularly when they can make money from the exodus.

How do the Chinese get out?

They buy their way out with between $2,000 and $4,000 in gold or hard currency. Then they chip in with other refugees for a boat or pay a syndicate to transport them. The syndicates are run by Chinese businessmen from other parts of Asia who come to Vietnam in large ships looking for passengers. Sometimes the Vietnamese authorities escort the emigrants out to the ships and check off their names on a travel manifest. It’s that well organized. The only other way out is to sneak out.

Do refugees have time to prepare?

Sometimes they know in advance when they’ll be leaving, but often it is a hasty exodus. In any case, they can take very little because the boats are either crowded or too small. If they manage to take anything valuable, they often get robbed on the seas.

Who robs them?

One of the most lucrative rackets in Southeast Asia is run by Thai pirates. They are really 20th-century professionals, with radar and modern weapons. After robbing a boat, the Thais sometimes simply turn their guns on it and sink it. There is no concerted effort to stop piracy.

Do refugees ever manage to keep anything?

Seasweep picked up a boatload of 93 persons, originally part of a larger group of 289 people who left Vietnam. Soon after leaving, they were robbed by Thai pirates of everything except a few personal belongings like rings or earrings. When they reached Malaysia, the Malay army tried to turn them away. The refugees got to the beach and begged on their knees to stay. They pulled off what little jewelry remained and gave it to the Malay soldiers.

Why do they risk so much to leave Vietnam?

Many refugees tell me they know they have no more than a 50 percent chance of reaching freedom, but they would rather die and have their families perish than have to live in what they consider slavery. They start out hopeful, enthusiastic. But when they are treated brutally in Malaysia or some other place, they understand quickly that they are the unwanted people of Southeast Asia. They begin to despair. A 9-year-old girl said, “I thought I would die and I prayed my death would be quick and merciful.”

How many are leaving?

There are about 380,000 Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees, and that could double by the end of the year. I’m very skeptical of Hanoi’s announcement in Geneva that they will stop the exodus. They may have to build another Berlin Wall. About 65,000 ethnic Chinese leave Vietnam each month. It’s generally conceded that up to 50 percent of them drown.

Why aren’t the nations of Southeast Asia accepting the Boat People?

They are already poor countries and their social and economic fabric can’t absorb a stream of new impoverished immigrants. They are afraid of upsetting their already delicate national ethnic balance. Then there is an age-old suspicion of the Chinese; governments are afraid the immigrants could become a fifth column.

What happens in Malaysia?

It has created a naval blockade to keep Boat People out. If they manage to land, they are kept onshore in barbed-wire enclosures with no shelter. The Malays buy patched-up fishing boats, load the people in and tow them out to sea. Malaysia has gotten rid of more than 55,000 people this way since January 1. One group we found had been told by the Malays they would be taken to a nice island in the South where they would be very happy. They were put on four small boats and given only 2.5 gallons of diesel fuel each and no water. They were then towed by a gunboat for 20 hours at high speed and cut loose.

What happened then?

The boat we rescued had lost its engine and drifted, even though they put up a makeshift sail. We found the boat only 120 miles from Vietnam. If the people had lived long enough, they would have drifted right back to Vietnam.

What are the camps like?

They are bad because the government’s policy is to make life difficult for the refugees. It built a camp on a rocky island called Pulau Bidong. The Malays thought they might put 5,000 persons there but they now have 45,000. Water supplies are polluted because there is no sanitation. The camps in northern Thailand are crammed with Laotian and Cambodian refugees but are reasonably well organized and supplied. The problem there is different. After four years, a hopelessness sets in.

Last February you went on board the refugee ship Tung An in Manila Harbor. What were conditions like?

The ship had been sitting in Manila Harbor for over two months with 2,200 people who were literally hanging off the masts. A thousand people were in the hold on top of a load of cattle feed that had gotten wet. It had soured and was hatching bugs and worms by the millions. The peoples’ torment was unimaginable. The sight of suffering is not new to me, but I had to be physically steadied when I came topside.

How did you first get involved with the Boat People?

A preacher friend shoved a picture in my face of a Vietnamese mother being pushed away from a boat and asked me what I was going to do. I tried to evade the responsibility, but it haunted me. I approached five governments in Southeast Asia, the U.S. and the U.N. with the idea of a mercy ship early last year, and all officially discouraged me. One Australian official said of the Boat People, “Don’t give them enough gas to get here.” It took us four months to obtain registration for Seasweep because no nation wanted us to fly under its flag. Then our ship’s captain and crew were told in Singapore that if they brought refugees back, they would be stranded on the boat along with the refugees. That proved to be untrue.

Now that the Administration has promised to send ships to the area and doubled the U.S. quota from 7,000 to 14,000 a month, is this country doing enough?

The only significant question is how long it will take the ships to get there. If it’s six months, then it will be counterproductive—just one more promise these people do not see fulfilled. The U.S. has a larger responsibility to the refugees of Vietnam than to any other nation. They are the driftwood of our war. We created in them a desire for freedom.

What is the solution?

It is twofold. The world must continue to put pressure on Vietnam to treat its citizens with compassion and fairness. Economic aid should be cut off. They ought to be hit in the pocketbook. Secondly, we should get more involved in the resettlement effort. The nations of Southeast Asia must be given guarantees that they won’t be left with unwanted refugees, so they will let us use their uninhabited islands as processing centers.

Where is the religious evangelism in efforts on behalf of the Boat People?

We put evangelism first and last in our work, but we don’t stamp “Jesus Saves” on every vitamin pill. We simply try to demonstrate Christian love in tangible ways.

You May Like