Representatives of more than 60 nations will meet in Geneva Friday and Saturday to discuss the plight of Indochinese refugees against a backdrop of broad disagreement among Asian countries and demands that Western powers accept more responsibility for solving the problem.
Fundamental differences persist about what should be discussed, let alone what should be done, for the rescue and resettlement of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who are pouring out of Indochina or who may pour out in the future.
Interviews with Asian diplomats in recent days reveal little common ground, although some expressed optimism that a concensus might be worked out once the U.N.-sponsored conference begins.
Getting Vietnam to come was the first hurdle. It now is expected to show up, but on its own terms. Vietnam insisted that the conference discuss only "humanitarian" aspects of the refugee problem, not the "political" ones.
That means Vietnam could reject the conference if other nations criticize Hanoi for systematically expelling thousands of people in small boats during the past year. Vietnam also does not want the war in Cambodia, which has sent thousands more fleeing overland into Thailand, to be raised as an issue.
Vietnamese Premier Pham Van Dong has promised that Vietnam would attend a conference limited to humanitarian relief and reiterated his country's claim that the flow of refugees is a legacy of American imperialism and Chinese expansionism.
Nevertheless, pillorying Vietnam, both for the boat people exodus and for its troops in Cambodia, is what several Southeast Asian nations have in mind.
Foreign ministers of the five countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations recently concluded that Vietnam "is responsible for the unending exodus" of refugees and declared the problem could be solved only at the "source." That will be their message at Geneva.
More than 350,000 Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees are awaiting resettlement in Southeast Asia. Some officials believe another 1 million Vietnamese will eventually come out if permitted. And thousands more Cambodians may come fleeing into Thailand if a feared famine develops this fall.
Assuring places for them - first in temporary centers and eventually in third countries - is seen as the immediate key to saving lives. Malaysia, having taken in more than 78,000 refugees, will continue to refuse asylum for new ones until there are iron-clad pledges that all ultimately will be taken from its shores.
Thailand, which already has accepted more than 173,000 refugees, recently thrust back 42,000 Cambodians in one push and will force more to return unless it receives solid assurances of relief. Indonesia, which has permitted nearly 50,000 to wash up onto its islands without much fuss, may begin turning new refugees away any day.
In its latest statement, Hanoi has linked a reduction of its refugee exodus with more foreign aid to help rebuild its economy.
"Any solution to the refugee question without concrete actions to help Vietnam overcome its economic difficulties would not settle the problem thoroughly," the official Vietnamese News Agency said Tuesday.
In an apparent maneuver to defuse $&(WORD ILLEGIBLE expected criticism at the Geneva conference, Vietnam has curbed refugee departures from the southern part of the country, according to reports from Hong Kong.
Other Southeast Asian nations were also taking more moderate lines in evident anticipation of the conference.
A Chinese vice foreign minister said today his country would "cooperate with other countries to do everything possible within our means to share the burden of this problem." He said China had already received more than 240,000 refugees from Vietnam.
A joint statement issued in the Philippines by President Ferdinand Marcos and visiting Indonesian President Suharto, expressed "grave concern" about the exodus and called on Vietnam to "contribute to a lasting solution of the problem by regulating and eventually stopping the flow of refugees."
Malaysia has called on participating countries to avoid "looking for a scapegoat" in Geneva for the refugee problem, but some nations continue to bitterly blame Vietnam - even to the point of charging that Hanoi is deliberately trying to undermine noncommunist governments in the area.
Thai Foreign Minister Uppadis Pachariyangkun said the flow of thousands of "land people" into his country stems exclusively from the war in Cambodia and that no solution would work unless Vietnamese troops are withdrawn from that country, a solution Vietnam refuses to discuss.
If the conference survives the opening statements, it will find much higher hurdles in differences on potential solutions. In the past few days, Vietnam's statements have emphasized it cares only to discuss a seven-point program worked out but not yet implemented with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
That seven-point program calls for certain designated types of Vietnamese who want to leave to be admitted into U.N. established camps within Vietnam while they are awaiting permanent resettlement elsewhere.
Without rejecting that idea outright, the United States has been cool, asserting in private comments that its human rights policy prohibits limiting the numbers of recognized refugees. Anyone who wants out should be allowed out, it contends. Besides, some U.S. refugee officials argue, thousands not recognized would still attempt to escape illegally, leaving a "boat-people" problem nearly as large as that which now exists.
Malaysia is groping toward a solution not very different from Vietnam's seven-point program. It wants several U.N.-supervised camps established in Vietnam and a commitment that Vietnam will admit anyone to those camps who steps forward. "Illegals" who continued to escape by boat would be picked up and returned to the camps. No other country could permanently accept refugees that came out of Vietnam any other way.
Malaysia also thinks that objections from the United States and other Western countries to such a plan are merely efforts to escape the responsibility of accepting refugees. Malaysia's home affairs minister, Mohammed Ghazali Shafle, said in a recent interview that he will press the point firmly at Geneva.
"I will expose the hyprocisies if they don't accept my proposal," he said. "I will say, "don't lecture me about the humanitarian principle anymore."" CAPTION: Map, U.S. State Department figures. By Dave Cook - The Washington Post; Picture, Ferdinand Marcos...concerned over refugees