118. Intelligence Memorandum Prepared in the Central Intelligence Agency1



Developing Third World nations—generally those most affected by large numbers of refugees—are concerned about attempts by developed Western nations, and the US in particular, to guarantee the legal and civil rights of refugees by tying international financial and resettlement assistance to a country’s acceptance and treatment of refugees. Such a policy, the developing nations believe, would seriously impair their ability to resolve the difficult domestic problems that refugees pose. One region where Western emphasis on the human rights of refugees has become a major issue in US-developing world relations is Southeast Asia, where concern is mounting among the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) over the growing influx of Vietnamese refugees into their countries.

For domestic political, economic, and security reasons, and also out of concern over harming relations with Vietnam, all five states (Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines) are reluctant to accept Vietnamese refugees. In addition, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia have adopted hard-line tactics to discourage new refugees and put pressure on the US and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to take immediate and long-term steps to resettle them outside the region. Out of fear of being swamped by refugees turned away by their neighbors, Singapore and the Philippines will probably ultimately adopt similar anti-refugee policies—which in effect deny even temporary asylum. Thus far the individual ASEAN nations have dealt with the problem largely in the context of bilateral relations with the US and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Recent pronouncements, however, could indicate a growing inclination among the ASEAN nations to act in concert in order to strengthen their collective hand. This article examines the refugee policies of the ASEAN states, with particular regard to the Vietnamese “boat cases,” and the implications of these policies for the broader issues of human rights and ASEAN-US relations.

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The five ASEAN nations have been affected in varying degrees—depending on their geographic proximity to Vietnam—by the growing number of “boat cases.” There are some 9,500 “boat cases”—Vietnamese who escaped by boat and are in temporary asylum—4400 in Malaysia, 3800 in Thailand, 1150 in the Philippines, 100 in Indonesia, and 50 in Singapore. During 1977, refugees have been arriving on Southeast Asian shores at the rate of 200–500 a month.2

Contrary to earlier indications that the number of fleeing Vietnamese would remain stable or decline toward the end of 1977, there has been a sharp increase in boat cases despite adverse seasonal weather conditions and increased Vietnamese security patrols. Poor economic conditions (including food shortages), conscription for the armed forces, and government economic and security policies (such as forced resettlement of urban dwellers in new economic zones) are cited among the most compelling reasons for taking the risk of setting out to sea in small, dilapidated boats. In addition, it is possible that many Vietnamese who were considering flight were encouraged by the announcement in late summer (broadcast by international radio) that the US would accept more “boat case” refugees.3

Domestic and Diplomatic Concerns

Throughout Southeast Asia there is a longstanding and intense ethnic animosity toward the Vietnamese, which makes it difficult for the individual ASEAN governments to offer more than temporary humanitarian assistance to the refugees. The ASEAN nations, moreover, are concerned with their internal security and are worried that Communist agents, posing as refugees, might stimulate Communist and dissident movements in their countries. The present Thai government has made clear that it will not attempt to resettle any Vietnamese, although it has planned a program to absorb Lao and Cambodian refugees in its northern provinces. The Malaysian government has found many Chinese among the Vietnamese refugees4 and fears that the presence of both ethnic groups would exacerbate existing communal tension between Chinese and Malays. The Indonesians dislike the Vietnamese almost as much as their own Chinese minority, who they treat largely as unwelcome resident aliens.

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The ASEAN governments are also concerned about the economic problems that any increase of refugees would pose. The financial burden for Thailand has been especially heavy, and the government has been criticized by farmers who believe that the refugees are receiving better treatment than they and are consuming scarce development funds. Malaysian authorities cite the social and economic problems they face with the growing refugee influx. Although not a financial burden, the care of large numbers of refugees strains local government manpower and facilities in several Malaysian states. Both Thailand and Malaysia claim that the newest refugees appear to be unskilled farmers, motivated by monetary factors, who would compete for land with local farmers.5 Indeed, the status and cost of the refugees may become a political issue in the forthcoming Malaysian general elections.

Faced with serious problems of overpopulation, food shortages, and unemployment, the Indonesian government finds it difficult to justify offering even temporary asylum to refugees and has turned away many attempting to land. The Philippine government has sought to capitalize on the presence of the small number of refugees in its borders by widely publicizing—primarily for US consumption—its humanitarian aid. Faced with a serious armed rebellion in its southern province, however, the Marcos government is not likely to extend more than temporary asylum and may, in the future, find the prospect of additional refugees intolerable. Singapore has felt that it cannot offer even temporary asylum because of its small size and dense population. It has no room for a separate camp and has housed its few refugees either in a prison or in a fishing village.

In the wake of the Communist victories in Indochina and a reduced US role in Southeast Asia, the non-Communist ASEAN nations have been very sensitive to maintaining Vietnamese good will. All the ASEAN nations have been careful to inform the Vietnam government of their policies with regard to accepting, even temporarily, refugees. Thailand and Malaysia have unofficially raised the idea of repatriation with Vietnam.

The Vietnamese government continues to equivocate, however, on the subject of repatriation. Although it has stated that “political” refugees will not be taken back, the broader issue of repatriating the Vietnamese in Thailand has been under discussion with the Thai. For the most part, Vietnam has not made an issue of the refugees in its bilateral relations with the other four ASEAN nations. Diplomatic considera[Page 412]tions are secondary, however, to the common ASEAN concern with domestic dislocations.

Refugee Policies

Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines have agreed to accept Vietnamese refugees for temporary asylum until arrangements are made by the US and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for them to leave the country. Singapore, thus far, has been unwilling to grant even temporary asylum, although it is currently negotiating an agreement with the UNHCR. None has offered to resettle—i.e., give permanent asylum to—any Vietnamese, and several are beginning to impose tougher measures denying temporary asylum in many cases.

Critical of the slow pace of US and UNHCR efforts to resettle refugees in other regions and of the absence of any concrete, long-term US or UNHCR program to bear the burden of future refugees, the ASEAN nations have begun to discuss concerted measures to deal with the refugee situation. The issue was raised at the ASEAN summit conference in August and again at the recent standing committee meeting,6 where it was discussed in terms of urging the UNHCR to accelerate efforts to resettle Indochinese refugees in third countries.

In November, Thailand and Malaysia announced policies aimed at discouraging new refugees and encouraging the international community to take effective steps to grant permanent asylum to the refugees and reduce the number presently in camps in the ASEAN nations. The new Thai and Malaysian policies involve treating all refugees as illegal immigrants; classifying them into “political” and “economic” categories and forcing repatriation of those determined to be motivated by purely economic factors; and turning away those attempting to land by boat.

Indonesia already has such guidelines, and it is likely that Singapore and the Philippines will ultimately adopt similar policies to avoid being swamped by refugees turned away from neighboring countries. Unpublicized negotiations between the UNHCR and Singapore over the latter’s offer to designate an island for temporary asylum may be adversely affected by the announcement of the Thai and Malaysian policies. The Singapore government has already placed stringent conditions on an agreement—an ironclad written guarantee that refugees will be moved out at a reasonable rate and under no circumstances be permitted to remain permanently—and may find it necessary to reconsider its offer.

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Implications for ASEAN-US Relations

The strict policies announced recently by Thailand and Malaysia are strongly opposed in principle by the US and the UNHCR, which argue that enforcement of the measures, especially turning away boats, could violate human rights and, thus, both tarnish the countries’ international image and jeopardize the willingness of third countries and the UNHCR to provide further financial and resettlement assistance.7 Nevertheless, the ASEAN nations—Thailand and Malaysia in particular—will weigh their concerns over domestic dislocations and relations with Vietnam against the possibility of international disapproval and will probably decide to enforce, at least on a case-by-case basis, tougher anti-refugee measures. Despite objections on the grounds of violating human rights, these policies—including forced repatriation and return to sea—will probably be enforced when the number of refugees in camps is high in order to induce the US and UNHCR to reduce the numbers immediately and implement serious follow-on programs. Tactically, the ASEAN governments probably believe that they can shift the blame for any violations of human rights onto the US and the international community and apply moral pressure on them to accelerate resettlement programs.8

In so doing, the ASEAN nations will argue that the situation is not of their making, that they have carried more than their share of the burden, and that the US and UNHCR are ultimately responsible (by written guarantee) for resettling the Vietnamese elsewhere. From the ASEAN nations’ point of view, the only viable long-term solution will be permanent resettlement of the Vietnamese refugees in other, non-ASEAN countries. Consequently, they are not likely to consider suggestions that they attempt to share the burden among themselves or offer permanent asylum and resettlement.

The ASEAN nations will probably also seek other means of solving the refugee problem. They may reach an understanding with Vietnam and the UNHCR that would provide for repatriation of some refugees (under UNHCR supervision), and they may privately encourage Vietnam to tighten its border patrols and prevent people from leaving.

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Finally, in the councils of the UNHCR, they will oppose measures to give refugees legal rights, and they will seek to lobby in developing nation caucuses to influence the choice of a new UN High Commissioner for Refugees. ASEAN nations (along with many other developing nations) will seek to insure that the commissioner and deputy commissioner will be sympathetic to their particular situations and points of view and not have the “Western preoccupation with human rights.”9

  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, Office of Support Services (DI), Job 85T00287R: Production Case Files, Box 3, Folder 149: Refugees and Human Rights: An Issue in US-ASEAN Relations. Confidential; [handling restriction not declassified]. Prepared in the National Foreign Assessment Center. A note on the first page indicates the memorandum was prepared by the International Issues Division of the Office of Regional and Political Analysis.
  2. A record 1,271 boat cases arrived in Malaysia in October. There are an additional 85,000 Lao and Cambodian refugees who crossed river and land borders into Thailand. [Footnote in the original.]
  3. See Document 113.
  4. Most of those fleeing Vietnam are from urban, not rural, areas, and many are Chinese with enough money to provision boats and bribe Vietnamese patrols. [Footnote in the original.]
  5. This has not been substantiated. If true, there has been a significant change in the reasons for leaving Vietnam. [Footnote in the original.]
  6. The second ASEAN Summit was held in Kuala Lumpur August 4–5. The ASEAN Standing Committee met in Singapore November 23–24.
  7. The UNHCR, through its representative in Southeast Asia, has assumed the responsibility of providing financial support for refugee relief efforts by ASEAN governments and of persuading third countries to take refugees. [Footnote in the original.]
  8. For instance, in southern Thailand some 400 refugees arriving in seaworthy boats were reprovisioned and towed back to sea, while some 500 in unseaworthy boats were forced into a detention center. Later boat cases were allowed to land at the urging of the US and the UNHCR and in response to US promises to speed up processing and to take all boat cases out of the camps, if not the country, by the end of 1977. Malaysia has similarly been mollified temporarily by US promises to reduce the number of refugees in camps by the end of the year. [Footnote in the original.]
  9. The European nominee, Poul Hartling, was recently elected as commissioner. He is under pressure from the developing nations to replace the incumbent deputy—an American—with an African. [Footnote in the original.]