South East Asia


South East Asia Essay, Research Paper

Throughout history there have been many different refugee movements in

Southeast Asia. It is highly important to understand the difference between a

refugee and an immigrant. The Webster?s dictionary defines a refugee as ?one

who flees to a shelter or place of safety.? A refugee flees the country in

which he or she lives in for many different reasons. It can be the fear of

persecution, fleeing from things like natural disasters, or even war. On the

other hand, immigrants are people who voluntarily depart their homelands to seek

a better life. In Vietnam the word ?ty nan? means refugee. ?Ty? means to

run away from something, to escape, and ?nan? means calamity or disaster (Willmott,

1966: 252). The purpose of this essay is to discuss the Vietnamese refugee

movement in Southeast Asia. It will explore why people left their country of

origin and it will also outline their experiences during their journey in the

countries of their first and final refuge.

The period between 1965 and 1975, was considered to be the ten most violent

years in Vietnam. In the south, almost two million people were killed or wounded

because of immense physical destruction of the countryside (Brainard and

Zaharlick, 1987: 330). According to Brainard and Zaharlick, refugees from

Vietnam were ?primarily farmers from war-torn villages who fled the poverty

and hunger in boats in the years that followed? (Brainard and Zaharlick, 1982:


Typically, refugees from Vietnam were thought of as ?the boat people.?

However, most of these people left Vietnam by crossing the Chinese boarder and

not by boat. They were also ethnic Chinese, except that they had lived in

Vietnam for generations (Willmott, 1966: 252). According to Willmott these

ethnic Chinese ?suffered increasing discrimination and prejudice and

eventually were asked to leave? (Willmott, 1966: 253). After being given no

alternative option these individuals resettled in places like Guangxi and

Guangdong, in and around Southern China and some in Hong Kong (Willmott, 1966:

256). In an interview with a young man Willmott quotes him as saying ?my

family lived in Vietnam for seven generations . . . I would prefer; along with

many others to remain in Vietnam but I was forced to leave my Vietnamese wife

and children, along with the country? (Willmott, 1966: 267).

The people of Chinese origin were forced to leave due to a shift in world

politics. There were many tensions between the resident Chinese and Vietnamese.

During the Vietnam War, there was a fear of Chinese dominance and it was

revitalized in 1945 and 1946 by looting during the Chinese occupation. This

forced Hanoi to send Chinese troops on to Vietnamese territory. (Wurfel, 1980:


On the other hand, the Chinese that were referred to as ?the boat people?

were forced to flee for completely different reasons. These included economic

hardship, the worst of natural disasters and the United States refusal to

provide the reconstruction aid it had promised in the Geneva Agreement. It was

in this Geneva Agreement that the United States promised to pay three point

seven billion to Vietnam to help them overcome ?the destruction by defoliants,

block buster bombs and napalm that had rained down on the countryside of Vietnam

for so many years? (Willmott, 1966: 254). Due to the vast amounts of natural

disasters Vietnamese government decided to force the Chinese into the

countryside and out of urban areas. However, they did not want to become

pheasants. It was here in the countryside that many Chinese found ?the work

was hard and the food was scarce? (Willmott, 1966: 254).

The second factor occurred in 1977 and 1978, when the Vietnamese economy

began to drastically change and there was an economic crisis. ?The Vietnamese

Communists suddenly nationalized commerce in March of 1978, thus expropriating

many Chinese businessmen in Ho Chi Minh City? (Willmott, 1966: 257). At this

time the Chinese were forced to go to ?new economic zones.? Some of these

Chinese decided to embark on a journey on the South China Sea. This was due to

the ?blatant discrimination? that was occuring in Vietnam around 1978. Many,

if not all Chinese, were removed from their jobs, their children were denyed

schooling and the Vietnamese even removed their ration cards (Willmott, 1966:


?Boat people? who survived the seas were believed to be less than half

the number who fled. It was estimated that just over ?20,000 Boat people are

buried in the South China Sea? (Adelman, 1982: 19). This was due to the fact

that many countries did not want to accept all of these refugees. Many of them

were said to be ?lost at sea? meaning they were attacked by pirates or

drowned. Some refugees had no choice and headed straight to refugee camps.

However, their situation did not improve here.

?Packed by thousands into warehouses and into government

yards in Hong Kong?s Canton Road, refugees lined up for

hours to use the only washing facility-outside taps . . . On the

makeshift slums on Malaysia?s Pulau Bidong Island, precious

dollars were battered for plastic sheets to be used as rooftops.

. . Plain white rice was the only food available . . . and for some

the end of months of fear and false hopes was the South China

Sea where their bodies were stripped of all semblance of

humanity by pirates, exposure, and sharks? (Adelman, 1982: 25).

An official visited the area and also stated that ?there is simply no worse

place these

people could be. There is no food and no medicine. The people there are

living in truly wretched conditions and it is quite possible there will be a

disaster with them? (Adelman, 1982: 25). After hearing about these horrid

conditions Canada decided to take in refugees.

Some of these ?boat people? resettled in Canada. It becomes extremely

difficult for them to adapt for many of the following reasons. First of all,

they were forced to leave their country of origin and they were essentially

opposed to coming to Canada but were given no choice. These people are thus

unwilling immigrants. Secondly, many of these ethnic Chinese were a minority in

their own country, and ?being forced to leave, they see themselves being

condemned to live as refugees, totally unprepared and unequipped, in an alien

cultural environment? (Suh, 1980: 212). As well as, racial and linguistic

differences corroborate to adaptation and integration into Canada?s culture (Suh,

1980: 213). Thus, Vietnamese refugees suffered drastic economic, psychosocial

and medical problems both before and after their resettlement in Canada (Zaharlick

and Brainard, 1982: 357). Once settled in Canada many young adult males had

employment problems and the females experienced high birth rates. All in all, it

is difficult to examine everything these individuals went through (Burton, 1979:

720). It is equally important to note that it is extremely challenging to ?understand

the refugee adaptation to the dramatic sociocultural changes they experienced?

(Burton, 1979: 704).

In conclusion, many ethnic Chinese were forced by the masses to leave Vietnam

in seek of refuge. Just to recap according to the United Nations a refugee is

?Any person who is outside any country of such person?s

nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality,

is outside any country in which such person last habitually

resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to, and

unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the

protection of that country because of persecution or a well-

founded fear of persecution on the account of race, religion,

nationality, (or) membership in a particular group of political

opinion? (Goza, 1987: 7).

There are many reasons why these ethnic Chinese were forced to leave Vietnam.

Some of which included fear of persecution, war, and force. This essay only

touches upon a few issues concerning Vietnamese refugees. It looks at the

reasons why people left their country of origin and it outlines their

experiences during their flight. However, in order to get a full understanding

of the refugee movement in Vietnam one would have to take into account all of

Southeast Asia, including it?s culture of war, culture of people, religion,

social structures, and its historical and political background.

Adelman, Howard. Canada and the Indochinese Refugees. Canadian Cataloguing in

Publication Data: Regina, 1982.

Brainard, Jean and Zaharlick, Amy. ?Demographic Characteristics, Ethnicity

and the resettlement of Southeast Asian Refugees in the United States,? Urban

Anthropology 16 (1987):327-370.

Burton, Bruce. ?Contending Explanations of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War,?

International Journal 34 (1979): 699-722.

Goza, Franklin William. Adjustment and Adaptation among Southeast Asian

Refugees in the United States. University Microfilms International: Michigan,


Tepper, Elliot L., ed. Southeast Asian Exodus From Tradition to Resettlement.

Suh, Matthew and David Wurfel. Canadian Cataloguing in Publishing data: Ottawa,


Willmott, W.E. ?The Chinese in Southeast Asia,? Australian Outlook 20

(1966): 252-62.

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