More than 300 chanting, flag-waving local Vietnamese residents gathered in front of the State Department yesterday in a noontime protest over a recent Thai government decision to interdict vessels carrying Vietnamese boat people and push them out to sea.
The protesters said they were hoping to persuade U.S. officials to put pressure on the Thai government to stop the interdiction.
Several weeks ago, Thai government officials announced that their Navy, with the help of deputized fishermen, would form a blockade along Thailand's southeastern coast to interdict the boat people.
As a result, about 100 of an estimated 1,000 refugees who have been pushed back to sea have died through drownings and other accidents, according to refugee officials and local Vietnamese leaders.
The Thai government's response to the plight of the Vietnamese refugees is the latest in a saga that began in the late 1970s when thousands of Vietnamese began risking their lives to flee their country in leaky boats, only to be turned away by some surrounding countries or accepted temporarily by others.
Today there are about 110,000 refugees, including 15,000 Vietnamese, living in resettlement camps in Thailand and waiting to be accepted permanently by other countries, officials said. An additional 26,000 Vietnamese refugees are in other Southeast Asian camps.
An emergency hearing into the situation scheduled for yesterday before the House subcommittee on Asian and Pacific affairs was postponed until next Wednesday so the panel could hear from members of a group that recently went to Thailand to interview some of the interdicted refugees.
As the protesters stood in an orderly line in front of the State Department, carrying banners and signs that said "Intervention not Interdiction" and "Mr. Shultz, please don't ignore the boat people," six local Vietnamese leaders met across the street with Jonathan Moore, U.S. coordinator for refugee affairs.
There are 25,000 to 28,000 Vietnamese refugees living in the D.C. area, local Vietnamese leaders said. Some protesters said yesterday some local Vietnamese fear they may have family members on the interdicted boats.
The protest leaders, including a former Vietnamese ambassador to the United States, told Moore they oppose a proposed State Department plan to transfer some of the 29,500 slots slated for Southeast Asians who want to legally immigrate here to accommodate Soviet refugees.