While the plight of Vietnamese "boat people" has aroused worldwide attention, hundreds of their compatriots have braved a perilous overland journey through Cambodia as they flee to refugee camps in Thailand.
During their 12-day journey across Cambodia, one small band of Vietnamese was stopped in Battambang Province by sentries who shouted questions in Khmer to see if they spoke the language. They did not. Fortunately, the Chinese Cambodian guiding the group proffered a small piece of gold, and the soldiers let them pass.
Having ridden in cars, rice trucks and on the backs of motorcycles and having walked more than 60 miles, the nine Vietnamese finally arrived at Camp 204, a ramshackle refugee settlement on the Thai-Cambodian border. They made contact with the Red Cross and were trucked off to the U.N.-sponsored camp at Khao i Dang.
They were the latest "wheel people," a term coined by refugee officials here for Vietnamese who make the dangerous trek through Cambodia. More than 1,600 have come out this way this year, compared to about 3,000 by boat.
Evidence suggests that the overland flow will continue, perhaps with the tacit approval of Hanoi, which still wants to rid Vietnam of its ethnic Chinese minority. Last year, Vietnam drew condemnation as hundreds of thousands of refugees reached Southeast Asian beaches in old freighters and fishing boats. After an international conference on refugees convened in Geneva last year, Hanoi choked off the flow. In recent months, however, refugee workers have noted a gradual rise in boat cases.
When the first wheel people arrived at the border camps last year, they told of traveling through a strange and terrifying country entirely on their own. They risked death or robbery at the hands of civilians and guerrillas who harbor traditional hatred of the Vietnamese. Another danger was arrest by Vietnamese troops that are in Cambodia to support the Hanoi-backed Heng Samrin government.
Increasingly, however, the Cambodian route is being commercialized. In Vietnam, refugees make contact with guides, many apparently members of Chinese underworld groups. Payment is made in gold and often only when the refugee has reached Thailand safely. The guides make repeated trips across Cambodia and may well pay off soldiers and officials in advance.
People who have completed the trip safely say the price is three to four ounces of gold, worth at least $1,800. But the price is considerably cheaper, they said, than passage abroad by boat.
Nghia, 31, an ethnic Chinese who served in the American-supported South Vietnamese Army, left Ho Chi Minh City on Feb. 10. Eighteen days later, he was interviewed at Khao i Dang as he waited to board yet another vehicle, this one a bus taking him to a camp where the Thai Army is concentrating the new arrivals from Vietnam.
Nghia had worked for an Army newspaper and following the communist victory in 1975 was sent off for three weeks of reeducation.
"After that I couldn't get any work," he said. "They said I was a reactionary." He explained in halting English that for five years he led a life of idleness, living off food provided by relatives.
Vietnam began clamping down on the Chinese minority in 1978, and Nghia said two of his sisters escaped overland into China. They spent two years there, gained entry to Hong Kong and eventually arrived in the United States. He said they are in Dallas with a brother who has lived in the United States since the early 1970s.
Earlier this year Nghia decided to try to join them. His family made contact with a Chinese Cambodian broker who agreed to take him out overland. The price was three ounces of gold, to be paid by Nghia's parents on receiving word that he had reached the Thai border safely.
Eight other refugees gathered together and departed Feb. 10. The first leg of the trip was by car, to the Vietnamese provincial town of Moc Hoa, near the Parrot's Beak salient of Cambodia, scene of the U.S. cross-border incursion in 1970.
From there he walked toward the Cambodian town of Svay Rieng, about 30 miles away. They passed through an official border control point, but were not checked closely -- evidence that their guide may have made arrangements beforehand.
In Svay Rieng, their guide put them aboard a truck bound for Phnom Penh. "I stayed there three days, waiting for a Cambodian vehicle to leave for Battambang," Nghia said. "That part of the trip took another three days."
Dressed as Cambodian peasants, they rode a truck that was carrying rice up Route 5, frequently passing Vietnamese soldiers.
From Battambang to Sisophon, a small market town close to the Thai border, transport was on the back of Honda motorbikes. In Sisophon, the group again was checked by guards -- Cambodians loyal to the Heng Samrin government -- and were allowed to go only after the guide bribed them with gold.
The journey ended after a 30-mile walk to Camp 204, a refugee steelement run by right-wing Khmer Serei guerrillas. All told, the refugees covered more than 400 miles, and everyone had come through safely. The guide took a signature from Nghia and began the journey back to Vietnam to collect payment.
"I would like to study English. After that I hope I can be a reporter again," Nghia said shortly before his name was called from a checklist to board a bus leaving Khao i Dang. Later he and close to 1,000 other wheel people rode to the camp at Si Khiu, where the Thai military is housing most of the new Vietnamese.
Nghia's future is by no means settled. The fact that he has brothers and sisters in Dallas normally would give him priority for a place in U.S. refugee quotas. However, current Thai and U.N. policy is that the newcomers should proceed extremely slowly.
U.N. officials believe that slow resettlement will encourage most of the 400,000 Cambodians in Thai camps on the border to return home voluntarily. Because of their mode of exit, the Vietnamese have been caught up in this delay, too. Thailand already holds several hundred deserters from Vietnamese Army units in Cambodia, and, suspicious of Vietnamese in general appears undecided about the civilian refugees' fate.
Some refugee workers, however, say some Vietnamese have got on resettlement lists by sneaking into a section of Si Khiu Camp, which houses people who qualify to go overseas.
Khao i Dang holds about 110,000 people, most of them Cambodians. When buses take the Vietnamese away, Cambodians often assume that they are all getting special treatment for resettlement.
Thus, there results the strange phenomenon of Cambodians trying to pass themselves off as Vietnamese, normally their despised enemies. Refugee officials say some Cambodians have sneaked out of Khao i Dang at night, returned to the border camps and tried to bribe Vietnamese refugees gathering there to attest that they are fellow countrymen.
The morning Nghia left Khao i Dang, one young man in his mid-twenties was barred by Thai soldiers from boarding the bus.Although he protested at great length in Vietnamese, the Vietnamese man acting as the group's leader shook his head. He was not a native, he said. The young man grudgingly returned to his quarters at Khao i Dang as the buses pulled away.