The world has bee seeking a villain ever since the boat people were first photographed landing their craft on Southeast Asian beaches. These refugees were obviously victims; the question became who was to blame for their plight. The immediate candidates were: communism Vietnamese-style; the legacy left behind by American war policies; racism; and the callous attitudes of neighboring Asian countries. Soon parallels were drawn between the boat people and the Jews, the Cubans who migrated here in the '60s, and less frequently, the Palestinians.
Such wholesale comparisons are rejected in "The Boat People." The authors pointedly refuse to condemn one nation or ideology for the tragedy of more than 300,000 Vietnamese and Sino-Vietnamese who became the boat people. Instead, they spread blame around to most of the countries involved.
The United States is criticized for creating in southern Vietnam a society so spoiled and artificial that its people could not accept rigors of a far poorer postwar life. Peking is faulted for spreading rumors that helped instigate the panicked flight of ethnic Chinese from northern Vietnam. Thailand and Malaysia are brought to task for pushing boatloads of the refugees back to sea. And so on.
The book becomes a sophisticated journey through the politics of contemporary Southeast Asia, the problems besetting postwar Indochina, and the West's response to it all. The refugees themselves are treated as messengers of political strife -- of the economic and social upheavals following the Vietnamese revolution, the Sino-Vietnam conflict and the racial tensions in industrial societies where they resettled. Politics and economics, more than the human dimensions behind the tragedy, take precedence.
By adopting this approach, the authors attempt to explore the intricate major power conflicts and nationalistic disputes that seem to make Indochina "the vortex of all that is wrong with mankind." But, at the same time, they ultimately avoid coming to grips with Vietnam's responsibility for the tragedy. Without assessing the cost, they take for granted that a socialist revolution leads to the exodus of thousands of refugees, that a "refugee crisis follows revolution," And they do not seriously question whether the ethnic Chinese had to be expelled from northern Vietnam once war or the threat of war with China set in.
Instead, the responsiblity is shifted to regional instability. "The flood of refugees into South-East Asia exposed an unstable situation . . . . Neither within South-East Asia nor among the major powers in their agreement on what is required to give governments and people in the region a reasonable expectation of stability and security."
That is a debatable point and a not too subtle circumvention of Vietnam's leadership shaped a postwar policy that built up its military at the expense of the economy. And it is no accident that Vietnam warred with two of its neighbors and has troops stationed in the territory of the third. At times the book becomes an apology for Hanoi.
It is important to note that the authors, for the most part, are Australians: editors and journalists from the Melbourne Age newspaper who, together with writer Bruce Grant, compiled this comprehensive book in less than one year. The perspective is neither Asian nor Western and, as such, is unique. Indochina more directly affects Australia than the West. Austrialia, in fact, is becoming a center for Indochinese studies where a number of talented scholars -- including some from the United States -- have found positions after the West seemed to lose interest with the end of the Second Indochina War.
At the same time, as Australians, these authors exhibit a natural skepticism toward the use and misuse of American power. The United States did wage a devastating war that left Vietnam shattered by 1975. But though the authors acknowledged a "vein of criticism of the United States, intended and justified," their accurate reading of U.S. responsibility for the refugees, in particular the American abandonment of their Vietnamese employes just before the communist victory, is weakened by over-extending that responsibility. Whatever fault one might find with U.S. opolicy toward Vietnam today, it is not the "mounting madness" described in this book.
Like many writers who could understand and champion the cause of Third World countries fighting against colonial or neocolonial powers, Grant and his fellow authors now find it difficult to criticize those same Third World leaders when they make their own mistakes, and tragic ones, jeopardizing thousands of lives.