For the lucky ones -- those who sneak past Vietnamese police, navigate the South China Sea in leaky little boats, escape the Thai pirates and survive hostile receptions -- the great exodus from Vietnam leads to places like Pulau Besar, an island on Malaysia's east coast.

Vo Van Ngon, 51, made it in a small fishing boat crammed with 57 refugees below deck. They were robbed by Thai pirates on the way but landed safely near here last July.

Than Nam Long made it out of Vietnam with 48 friends. But just as their boat stopped to pick up his wife and three children, Vietnamese police showed up and began shooting. The family was left behind.

Tran Tan brought out 20 children and grandchildren on a 50-foot boat packed with refugees from Rachgia Province on the southern coast of Vietnam. Angry Malaysians refused to let them land at first and their boat began to break apart. Just when it seemed all would drown within sight of land, the natives relented and Tran led his troop ashore.

Their battered boats now litter Malaysia's coastline and home is this 2 1/2-square-mile sandy island turned into a makeshift refugee camp. More than 3,000 live in shacks made of logs and palm fronds and are not permitted to cross a narrow inlet to shore. They built a school, library, Roman Catholic church and Buddhist temple. They play soccer in the sand or checkers in their shacks and listen at night to shortwave radio broadcasts for news that might mean they will be taken to some other country.

Some have been here 14 months and are losing confidence. Le Thanh Huong, 30, the camp leader, is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley who had become an economic planner in precommunist Vietnam. He has been in Pulau Besar since January.

"My mind is rusting," he says with disgust. "I am forgetting everything I ever learned."

The 3,100 at Pulau Besar are a fragment of the great exodus from Vietnam, a gigantic migration that has dumped tens of thousands of refugees on Malaysia's shores. About 17,000 have been accepted in other countries, mostly the United States and Australia. But 46,000 remain in primitive coastal camps like Pulau Besar and most have been rejected by several countries.

In the past two months, the exodus has grown to staggering proportions. More than 14,000 arrived in November in Malaysia alone. For a few days, 1,000 refugees a day were coming ashore. Last week the human tide subsided, perhaps because of rough seas, but it is expected to resume after the monsoon. Estimates of the numbers still to come are only vague guesses but range as high as 500,000.

The flow has left Malaysia, a small country with monumental poverty problems of its own, in a state of near panic. Angry east coast natives have attacked some boatloads of refugee and the govenment has called up two reserve army battalions to keep peace. There are pressures on the government to refuse shelter to any new arrivals.

"We are bombarded by this influx of people," said Home Minister Muhammad Ghazail Shafle. "We in Malaysia have had this problem since the fall of Saigon [in 1975] but the dimensions have changed."

Although the United Nations provides goods for the refugees, Malaysia pays for policing and transporting them. Malaysia cannot accept them permanently, Ghazali says. About 60 percent are ethnic Chinese and would be an impossible burden in a country already racially divided between Chinese, Indians and Malays, he contends.

"It is difficult enough to integrate... races together and now this is added," he says. "They are people of no assets. How would they live?"

Ghazali believes the United States must bear most responsibility for resettling the refugees and is bitterly critical of U.S. efforts so far. He complains that the Carter adminstration plan to accept 22,500 more from throughout Southeast Asia is insufficient and accuses American officials of selecting only the talented and educated for immigration.

The United States has these fixed criteria and the immigration people come and pick up the ones they want," he said in an interview. "It seems they are taking only the better educated ones. What will happen to the residue? There will be 40,000 of them left because no one wants them.

"They will take away the cream and leave us the crumbs."

Specifically, Ghazali wants the United States or a combination of countries to designate a Pacific island, preferably Guam, as a staging and processing point for resettling all the refugees. Those countries would fix a limit -- two or three years -- within which every refugee would be guaranteed a new home.

"It must be a firm commitment that there will be no residue" left in Malaysia, he insists.

The migration to Malaysia began as a trickle in 1975, soon after the fall of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. That year only about 1,400 made the voyage here and more than a thousand were resettled in other countries.

Then the tide began to swell. Last August it started to become a flood. Instead of small boats with 40 or 50 refugees, there were larger vessels crammed with 500 or more. Last month, the Hai Hong came in with 2,500 refugees who had paid their fares. For many Malaysians that was proof that syndicates were organizing mass escapes that would inundate their country with impoverished, unwanted Vietnamese.

There also are suspicions that the Vietnamese government may be encouraging the latest departures, or at least not trying to halt them. Many refugees are former officials of the previous governmemt or ethnic Chinese merchants whose businesses were confiscated this year. Both classes are politically suspect in Vietnam these days. Letting the Chineseorigin refugees slip away may be part of Vietnam's way of dealing with unwanted citizens who are a source of friction between Vietnam and China.

"The early ones were just frightened people, but these newcomers are Chinese and merchants and they just don't fit in Vietnam," said Ghazali. "They don't want to go into communes and farms and they can't trade under that socialist system. Because they have money, they can get out."

"Apparently the government does not object," he added. "It does precious little to stop them."

The issue was discussed with Vietnamese Premier Pham Van Dong on a recent visit here, but no results were visible. "We took it up with Pham Van Dong and all I have seen is an increase in refugees," says Ghazali.

The refugees at Pulau Besar said they fled secretly in considerable peril from Vietnam and did not believe the government was simply looking the other way. Many of their friends were captured by police. Some had bribed petty officials but most had escaped using their own skill and shrewd planning.

Usually, they rowed out in small groups to a waiting fishing boat in the night, bringing with them money and stores of fish and rice.

But all of those here were early arrivals and know nothing of the many thousands who have come out in recent months. They suspect there may be some connivance by the government now because the boats are larger and the human loads bigger.

"It would be difficult to organize a group as big as 300 and get out without the government knowing," said one refugee.

Those now here left home fearing persecution, many believing they were scheduled to be sent to Vietnam's "education centers" or labor camps. Many came out with gold bars and American dollars hoarded from war days.

Some who had worked for Americans or the old government feared they would be singled out for persecution as spies.

"They just keep squeezing you every day," said Tran Nam Long, who had been a policeman in the old days. "I was in one of their education centers. It was really a concentration camp."

Tran Nam Long left from a city in the Mekong Delta in an old river boat that he knew officials would not suspect of being used for an ocean crossing. He navigated for three days using only an old army compass. The boat was forced to remain off Malaysia's coast for eight days before authorities let it land.

Vo Van Ngon was suspect back in Vietnam because he had been a government official for i0 years. He and his friends escaped by rowing out to a fishing boat one drak night in small groups of three and four. Once at sea, the boat was boarded by Thai pirates who robbed the passengers of all their jewles and money, even raincoats and sunglasses, then inexplicably set them free with fresh supplies of food and water.

Their life in Pulau Besar is a well ordered communal existence with plenty of schooling and assigned jobs. The refugees run their own police force to keep order. There are daily health checks and few have required hospitalization. They are given food and other supplies by the Malaysian humanitarian organization, Red Crescent, using U.N. funds. The population of Pulau Besar has dwindled from 6,500 last summer to only 3,100 today.

More recent arrivals usually are sent to Pulau Bidong, an island farther out to sea, apparently to diminish friction with natives on the coast. The government will not permit reporters to visit there, but accounts suggest life is tougher than on Pulau Besar. About 21,000 refugees are crammed into Pulau Bidong and water is harder to find, according to reports of some who have been allowed on that island.

Boredom and uncertainty are the biggest problems on Pulau Besar. Most of those here have been screened and rejected by the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries. To those who remain, the reasons for rejection are unclear. They learned of the American rules, which give preference to refugees with families already in the United States, only by shortwave radio.

"The Americans don't tell us anything," complained Le Thanh Huong, the camp leader.

Many of the makeshift homes are empty now. There are rumors that the camp on Pulau Besar will be shut down completely, with remaining refugees packing into the crowded camp at Pulau Bidong. Some here suffer the added hurt of having been accepted by other countries but never knowing when they can leave.

"You never know," said one man who has been accepted by the United States. "You never know until one day the man shows up and calls your name."

NEXT: Region's Mass Migrations