Thailand: The Gulf Pirates

The boat people face robbery, abduction, and rape at the hands of the Thai pirates

THE NARROW ISTHMUS of South Thailand stretches 800 miles from the bright lights of Bangkok to the wild Malaysian border; it is a region of palm-covered mountains, green rice fields, and alabaster beaches. Flanked by the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, South Thailand, a part of the Malay Peninsula, is sparsely populated by a variety of peoples—Thai, Malay, and Chinese—and though their relations with one another are sometimes tense, they are generally warm and open and friendly to outsiders. Yet, beneath the friendliness and the torpid calm of South Thailand lies a menacing undercurrent: the turquoise waters of the Gulf and the picturesque harbor towns of the coast are among the last strongholds of sea piracy in the twentieth century.

Piracy has been rife in Asia since the advent of seagoing craft. Western records of sea gangs in the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea date back to the journals of the early British explorers and traders who sailed these waters, beginning in the late sixteenth century. Operating from bases in China, Singapore, Malaysia, and what is now South Thailand, the region’s pirates attacked merchant and passenger vessels alike. Ships were confiscated and their passengers held for ransom.

According to Western officials in Thailand, today’s pirates operate in radarand sonar-equipped fishing trawlers. Armed with automatic rifles, they rob fishermen and also smuggle electronics, tin, and drugs. The professional pirates are said to be joined by impoverished fishermen-turned-bandits. Since Thailand’s navy is the size of a small coast guard, and the country’s limited defense budget is taken up with combating serious national-security problems on its borders, the Thai government has until very recently viewed the piracy problem as no more than a nuisance and has left its solution in the hands of the provincial authorities.

Overshadowed by the wars and insurgencies that have kept the region in turmoil since the Second World War, piracy was generally ignored by the international community until the fall of South Vietnam, in 1975. Since then, however, thousands of desperate refugees fleeing Vietnam in boats have become the most vulnerable prey on the Gulf. The boat people tend to lack sailing experience and to be crowded into less-than-seaworthy craft; up to half of them are said to have perished at sea. Of the more than 500,000 who have landed on foreign shores, large numbers were robbed or beaten or raped or had loved ones murdered or abducted by the Gulf pirates. Last September, after visiting boat-refugee camps in Asia, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, Poul Hartling, called the piracy “a horrible, appalling situation—one of the most violent acts against people seeking asylum in history.”

Songkhla, a provincial capital and one of Thailand’s largest fishing ports, lies fifty miles north of the Malaysian border. Its white resort beaches are lined with pine and casuarina trees; its harbor shelters hundreds of colorful trawlers. Nearby, in the center of the town, stand the ancient cannons and stone walls of the fortress that protected the powerful Chinese pirates who once dominated Songkhla’s waters. Ten kilometers down the beach, which is dotted with the skeletons of Vietnamese rivercraft, is a poignant sight: the temporary shelter where boat people are officially received into Thailand, thence to be transported to the prisonlike holding center up country, at Sikhiu.

At Songkhla, not long ago, I met a group of Vietnamese girls, aged fourteen to nineteen, who, according to the UN officials who run the shelter, had endured weeks of captivity at the hands of Gulf pirates. They were the only survivors from two refugee boats that had been attacked in international waters. A total of 115 men, women, and children had been lost at sea. The girls joined the melancholy ranks of the more than 50,000 Vietnamese boat refugees in Southeast Asia, increasingly unwanted by host countries like Thailand and, because of refugee quotas, which were recently lowered, unable to gain admittance to the United States. Yet still they come: in 1983, an average of 2,800 a month arrived in Thailand.

Anxiety turns to desolation as the refugees wait months or years, in overcrowded confinement behind barbed wire, for resettlement. The survivors are tormented by the psychological and physical scars of the lost war and the repressive communist regime that followed it. And, according to one estimate, two thirds of them bear the scars of violence encountered at sea.

ON SEPTEMBER 26, two Vietnamese girls, Duon Thi An and Kim Thi Linh, were deposited on a beach near the Malaysian border. I met them when they arrived at the Songkhla camp after a week of medical treatment and questioning by the police. In their gentleness and innocence they reminded me of many other girls I had met years ago, in farm villages in southern Vietnam, when I was a soldier in the U.S. Army.

Sitting at a table in the camp’s reception center with the translator employed by the United Nations, the girls told me their story. It was similar to others I heard during my six weeks in Thailand.

An’s and Linh’s parents—farmers in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta—arranged for their escape by paying four ounces of gold (equal to $1,000 on Vietnam’s black market) to an entrepreneur who organizes such departures, providing a boat and bribing the local police. To put that $1,000 in context: the average Vietnamese farmer makes only $10 to $15 a month.

The organizer assured An’s and Linh’s mothers that the boat would avoid dangerous Thai waters and sail directly to Malaysia. Captained by a schoolteacher with no sailing experience, the thirtyfoot craft set sail on the night of August 26. The forty-five passengers shivered and their stomachs heaved as a furious wind and rough waves rocked the small boat. They prayed to their ancestors for protection from Vietnamese naval coastal patrols, who shoot escaping boats out of the water. By daybreak they had drifted into the Gulf.

After two days, they were running out of food and potable water. The sun had burned them, and the children, packed tightly on the small deck, were in a frenzy of thirst and restlessness. On the morning of the third day, seven fishing trawlers surrounded the drifting craft. Muscular crewmen, brandishing hammers, knives, and steel pipes, fell upon the refugees, ransacking their clothes and their belongings for gold.

The pirates savagely beat anyone who resisted their commands, which were in an alien language. They dragged Linh, An, An’s sister, and three other young women onto two other trawlers, and then cut the refugee craft adrift. Foulsmelling men forced An and Linh to the floor of the deck and beat them until they submitted to rape.

The other abductee on this boat was a twenty-year-old new mother. Hysterical at being separated from her husband and baby, she tried to make a suicidal leap into the sea. Linh grabbed her. “I tried to prevent her, because I thought, her child is so small and needs a mother. But the pirates took her from me. We never saw her again,” Linh recalled.

For ten days and nights, An and Linh were repeatedly raped. An contemplated suicide but decided against it, in deference to the Vietnamese tradition that a child should not die before her parents. In a trembling voice, she told me: “I decided to try to reach Malaysia. I didn’t know what the pirates would do. They never spoke to us.” Then another group of boats appeared, and their captors gave the girls to this new gang; An and Linh were put on separate boats.

An said, “For three days we were raped all the time at night. I was physically ill. ... I could not eat or drink. I was so scared I couldn’t sleep. After three days I couldn’t stop crying, so the pirates put me on the same boat with Linh. For seven more days we received the same treatment.”

Then, one night, the pirates pushed them overboard with only a plastic fuel container to buoy them. Linh said, “We did not know how to swim. But we knew if we did not do something we would die. So we flapped our hands up and down in the water and I grabbed onto An to stay afloat. We were so scared . . . when big waves hit us and got into our nose and mouth, we almost choked.”

At daybreak, there was no land in sight, but they could see boats in the distance, too far to hear their calls. Struggling to stay alive, they managed to hold their heads above water for an incredible fifteen hours. In midafternoon they were rescued by a friendly fishing crew and given food and medicine. A week later, when the boat reached Thailand, the fishermen left the girls on the beach at Songkhla.

An and Linh are among nearly 500 abductees known to have turned up on Thai beaches in the past two years. Doctors at the refugee camp estimate that about a thousand are still missing at sea, including An’s sister and the three other girls. Many other refugees are raped but not abducted.

Of 173 refugee boats that landed in Thailand in the year ending last May, ninety-eight had been attacked, an average of two and a half times each. Substantial numbers of boats continue to leave Vietnam every month. Last fall, refugees on a boat arriving in Indonesia reported having been attacked eighteen times during their journey. Twentythree of the twenty-five females aboard said they had been raped repeatedly.

Refugees are not the pirates’ only victims. An Australian yachtsman’s hand was hacked off by a pirate sword when he tried to rescue a Danish tourist who was being molested by a sea gang. Jack Bailey, of Operation Rescue, has estimated in congressional testimony that 500 Thai fishermen have been killed over the past two years and that five fishing boats a month are lost. But the attacks on refugees stand out for their viciousness.

This savagery can be explained in part by a traditional enmity between the Thais and the Vietnamese. With the Vietnamese army occupying neighboring Cambodia and Laos, and periodically attacking Thai villages, some Thais see the refugees as part of a Vietnamese invasion. Most of the pirate bosses are of Chinese heritage, which adds to the ethnic malice toward the Vietnamese.

SINCE 1979, WHEN the flow of refugees intensified, the Thais have apprehended only fifty-three pirates and convicted only twenty-seven. According to UN officials and local fishermen, many pirates are both protected and controlled by powerful regional crime syndicates, which flourish in the remote frontier area, bribing local officials, extorting protection money from the smaller fishing fleets, and virtually directing coastal trade and commerce. Even though the booty from hard-pressed refugees must be meager indeed, the syndicates dabble in piracy. It at least enables them to pay off their hirelings among the local fishermen with pocket money and refugee women.

After a series of particularly infamous attacks in 1979 and 1980, in which more than 100 refugees were murdered on a pirate-controlled island, the State Department donated funds to the Thai navy to initiate an anti-piracy program. The program has been moderately successful in deterring attacks in Thai coastal waters. This year, Thailand will receive $2.7 million from the United Nations and $5 million from the United States to combat piracy. However, the Thai government claims that $34 million is needed—for manpower and new equipment—to do the job properly. Today, the anti-piracy program has three small patrol craft and two propeller-driven aircraft. The Thais need at least three larger and faster patrol craft with transparency from pirate radar and sonar, potent CB-radio intercept, and strong firepower. Moreover, since many pirate attacks occur at night, the Thai navy needs at least two more aircraft with night-flying capability. And they, too, must be armed. At present, the UN opposes arming the planes because that might result in the shooting of refugees. Refugees have told me that while they were being attacked they saw airplanes fly over their boats, unable to come to their rescue. The spotter planes’ responsibility is to report acts of piracy to naval headquarters, at Songkhla, which is a ten-hour boat ride from the far reaches of Thai territorial waters. As soon as the planes leave the scene of the attack, the pirates return, knowing that it will be hours before the Thai navy arrives. Though it might pose a risk to the refugees, arming the planes would greatly increase the risks run by the pirates.

Since the pirates use CB radios to coordinate their attacks and to arrange for the transfer of abducted women, the anti-piracy program needs a powerful radio-intercept station on land. In fact, the Thai Post and Telegraph Department already has such a station, but bureaucratic rivalries prevent its use by the anti-piracy program.

Thai law restricts naval jurisdiction to cases in which the pirates are caught in the act. And there are other jurisdictional problems. The Thai navy is forbidden to operate on the mainland, and the marine police are confined to harbor areas. Law enforcement is left to district officials, many of whom have been bribed by syndicate bosses, owe them favors, or are fearful of them (with good reason: in some of the wilder districts the local police are outgunned a hundred to one by syndicate hoodlums). With the local authorities helpless, it is up to the Thai national government to find a way to pressure the crime bosses into getting out of the piracy business. But the government does not have the resources to police the frontier regions. And it has other urgent problems: the Vietnamese have more ground troops (between 180,000 and 200,000) in Cambodia alone than Thailand has in its entire army. Clearly, the Thais are stretched thin.

For now, the Thai program is the best way to combat piracy in the Gulf of Thailand. But only a third of the Gulf’s expanse—including less than half of the area to which currents tend to carry refugee boats—is Thai territory. It has been estimated that 75 percent of pirate attacks take place in Vietnamese, Malaysian, and international Gulf waters, where the Thais are not allowed to make arrests.

IN WASHINGTON, Mark Hatfield, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is one of the few advocates of refugee protection. He believes that though more money will help, the solution to the problem hinges on our resettling refugees. The U.S. worldwide refugee quota, which was raised to 217,500 in 1981, after the plight of the boat people had received widespread attention, has been lowered again, to 72,000 for 1984. The 1983 decision to reduce our intake of Indochinese refugees was met by an angry appeal from the Thai government, which now bears the burden of 150,000 refugees on Thai soil. Another 250,000 are on the Cambodian border, and more arrive daily from Vietnam.

The United States is trying to limit the number of refugee boats by encouraging the Orderly Departure Program (ODP), the UN-sanctioned legal exodus of Vietnamese emigrants from Ho Chi Minh City. This program, however, has three basic flaws: (1) although approximately a thousand people leave each month through the ODP, more than 510,000 others are now on the waiting list; (2) rather than release re-educationcamp inmates and former U.S. associates, the Vietnamese are using the ODP to rid themselves of ethnic Chinese and to collect secret exit fees and confiscate the property of the wealthier people who wish to leave; and (3) as the U.S. annual refugee quota decreases, the ODP works against Thailand’s and other first-asylum countries’ needs, because its participants are granted priority in the U.S. refugee quota over people now in refugee camps.

In Thailand, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which reviews individual cases for the U.S. resettlement program, disqualifies thousands of potential refugees by giving them seemingly arbitrary classifications like “economic migrant.” In addition, the State Department discourages the acceptance of refugees who do not have immediate-family members already living in the United States. Thus, abductees like An and Linh have no hope of resettlement here. In order to ease the burden on first-asylum countries, the UN High Commission for Refugees has suggested sending many refugees back where they came from, beginning with unaccompanied minors. Thus far, both the refugees and the governments of Vietnam and Cambodia have balked at the idea. In every known instance of “voluntary repatriation” to these countries, returnees have met with either imprisonment or death.

The Indochinese refugees differ from economic migrants in one important respect. They have abandoned the homeland of their ancestors not because they couldn’t feed themselves or find jobs but because the political tyranny of the Vietnamese Communists—taking the forms of religious persecution, efforts to eradicate traditional Vietnamese culture, and forced labor in “new economic zones”—has made their lives intolerable.

In recent congressional hearings on refugee affairs, Senator Hatfield said, “If the U.S. public really saw these refugees as people, whose families have been gutted and whose lives have been scarred by persecution and war, we would be reaching out our hands to help them. If we fail to provide hope to those who are not free, then we have failed history and failed ourselves.”

—Al Santoli