About three weeks ago, a boatload of refugees fleeing Vietnam swept ashore near this Malaysian east coast city at an improbable site -- the beachfront of a resort hotel.
As the exhausted refugees were piling out, a large crowd of Malaysians gathered and shouted angry demands that they pull back out to sea. Finally, the Malaysians began stoning them.
At a different spot, another boatload came gliding in and was greeted by local police who pushed the boat away from a landing. The boat went back toward the open sea, struck a sandbar and capsized, drowning many aboard.
They were victims of a kind of near panic that seized this strip of Malaysia's east coast when the tide of arriving Vietnamese was at its fullest.
Refugees tell stories of being fired on by vigilante groups, of being pushed out to sea, and of being kept stranded offshore for days until their fragile craft began breaking up in the waves, In one case, a group of Malaysians stoned some of their own people who were attempting to rescue survivors of a capsized fishing boat.
"The people here can become fierce when they are stirred up," said one Malaysian woman who had witnessed the stoning incident on the hotel beach. "I don't know what upset them so much. They seemed to think they were being attacked."
The hostility is a major reason why normally hospitable Malaysia clamped down on refugees and began demanding that the rest of the world take notice. Under pressure from local leaders in Kuala Trengganu and an assortment of political groups, Malaysia announced a get-tough policy that would, if actually enforced, have refused landings to any new boats.
The government in Kuala Lumpur is still gripped by the fear that maters in this poverty-ridden state could get out of hand if there is no assurance the refugees eventually will all leave.
"I feel that if the people should suddenly realize their government is ineffectual, the possibility of losing conntrol cannot be ruled out," said Malaysia's menister of home affairs, Mohammad Ghazali Shafie. "So far they are heeding my appeals to be patient. For how long, I don't know."
Ghazali has demanded that the United States and other countries quickly guarantee eventual homes for the 46,000 refugees encamped on this coast and for all others who may come.
In the meantime, two reserve army battalions have been mobilized to keep order along the coast and officials regularly make appeals for calm and patience. Refugee camps are strictly segreated. Most of the recent arrivals are sent to an island off the coast where they cannot be reached by angry citizens.
The area has been calm for a week. In the past six days, only one boatload of refugees has landed. With monsoons sweeping the South China Sea, the Vietnamese either are staying home or not making it across the 250 miles of choppy water. No one here knows which is the case.
Bizarre rumors still flourish. Newspapers report that people here in Kuala Trengganu stopped buying fish after one housewife claimed she had found a human finger in a fish's stomach.
Refugees in a camp a few miles south of here, Pulau Besar, were once permitted to go ashore to shop and mingle with the natives. Their access was shut off in August when the first large waves of refugees landed and began alarming the natives.
"They even started calling us Communists even though they knew we had fled from communism," recalls one refugee.
Along with the stonings and other reprisals, there are also accounts of courtesy and friendliness from the natives. One refugee boat was stranded offshore for eight days on police orders. During that time local fishermen rowed by and offered them fish and fresh water.
But at least five boats have capsized in the coastal waters, most if not all while being kept offshore under orders. It is believed that between 350 and 400 have drowned and the government's statistics show that 226 bodies had been recovered as of last week.
Malaysian authorities in Kuala Lumpur, the capital, say that the people are most angry about inflated prices. When the refugees were allowed to wander ashore from Pulau Besar and spend their savings on building materials and food, prices were driven up.
"Many of the men here brought lots of money and they drove the local prices way up," one refugee acknowledges.
The latest round of inflation, the government says, is due to the high cost of feeding refugees. The Malaysian Red Crescent Society, using U.N. funds, spends $35,000 a day for food, forcing up the prices paid for fish, pork, vegetables and rice.
Local political organizations like the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party, a fundamentalist group, bitterly criticized the government and demanded that refugees be kept out.
Malaysian policy toward refugees at first was friendly -- compared to that of some other Asian nations. Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, this small country had accepted all who came, placed them in camps and awaited their permanent resettlement elsewhere.
That attitude changed sharply, how during October and November when 500 refugees a day came swarming in and domestic pressures grew.
The government announced it would let no more boats land if they were seaworthy or could be repaired to move on to other countries. In practice, most boats have been allowed to come ashore somewhere. Vietnamese learned to cripple their boats near the shoreline so they could not be forced to move on.