Manila, Philippines – During a sweltering May evening in 1988, a 20-year-old Kieu Phung and five members of her family escaped from Vietnam. Kieu’s father, a doctor for the South Vietnamese army, had just been released from prison, where he had been held since the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war in 1975.
Being on the “losing side” of the war, Kieu’s family was on the communist government’s blacklist, and was frequently harassed by the police. She and her siblings were even barred from attending university, she said. Her family had little choice but to leave their homeland.
Kieu, now a medical doctor and wife of Denmark’s ambassador to the Philippines, recounted her family’s story, as she expressed misgivings over the treatment of thousands of refugees who fled Myanmar and Bangladesh in recent weeks, and are still lost at sea.
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She said the ongoing ordeal faced by the Rohingya brings back memories of her own family’s experience, when Vietnamese refugees were “pushed back into the sea”.
As leaders of the Asia-Pacific region met on Friday in Thailand to discuss the Rohingya migrant crisis, Kieu is adding her voice to the call to save the lives of the refugees.
“I can understand how desperate these refugees feel,” she said in an interview with Al Jazeera. “It’s a matter of life and death.”
Kieu said other countries in the Asia Pacific region can learn from the example of the Philippines.
“I think it is our obligation to save their lives first. It is not acceptable to push them back to sea to die.”
‘Not destined to die’
On the night Kieu’s family escaped, they were joined by 46 other migrants as they crammed into a 12-metre long cargo boat operated by smugglers. The deck was so crowded that there was only enough space to sit, Kieu said. One pregnant woman was allowed to lie down, she reminisces.
During the first day of their journey, they had a bowl of rice to eat, but that did not go far and they were forced to subsist on candies and lemons. Water was rationed, and each passenger got one sip each day from a container that smelled of gasoline. Every day that passed by drifting at sea, they became more desperate, Kieu said.
“We had many children in the boat. My sister, who was 13, had a fever and she was severely dehydrated. We were so thirsty, so we took the [salt] water from the sea just to cool off our mouth.”
Throughout the trip, many large ships that passed by rejected their cries for help, Kieu said. But somehow, she did not lose hope, and she felt that she “was not destined to die”.
Like Kieu’s family, John Vien The Nguyen, a reverend, and his family also left Vietnam, during the “original exodus” in 1975, when the war in Vietnam was still raging.
As they were leaving the country, Nguyen, then 11 years old, remembered that the propeller of the boat they were on, got snagged in steel cable, and took “hours” to untangle.
“Meanwhile the shelling was all around us, and there were a lot of people killed. I remember the waves were pretty bad, and I went to the front of the ship just to feel the waves, although I didn’t know how to swim,” he said.
After three days in the rough seas, a barge, already carrying “thousands” of people, rescued them. That barge was then towed to a US ship, where they joined thousands of other rescued refugees.
“When we arrived, the first thing I recalled was eating one fourth of an apple, and taking a shower from a faucet,” said Nguyen, whose family were sheltered at the US naval base in Subic in northern Philippines, before they were transferred to Guam and finally resettled in the US mainland.
Later, as a student for Catholic priesthood in the US, Nguyen would return to the Philippines to volunteer at a Vietnamese refugee camp in island of Palawan between 1983 and 1984. And for the last three years, he has been back in the same island, serving as a priest to do a “partial repayment of the kindness” the Philippines showed to the Vietnamese refugees.
Nguyen said that he was “extremely happy” to learn that the Philippine government said it would not turn away Rohingya refugees, if they made it to the Philippine shores.
It was also at the Palawan refugee camp, where Kieu Phung’s family disembarked, as they awaited for their asylum papers to Canada. By then, it was only the Philippines that allowed entry of Vietnamese refugees.
Kieu said that despite the number of refugees, the camp in Palawan was well maintained. While there, she studied English with her Filipino teachers, and learned how to use a typewriter and to sew clothes. She also volunteered at the local office of the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR).
“We had no problem with the local people. We can go to the local market, and there’s even a little Vietnamese bakery. I think that was something that the Vietnamese refugees who stayed here were very grateful,” she said, adding that Vietnamese refugees who went through Palawan would affectionately refer to themselves as “Palawanese”.
Danish Ambassador to the Philippines Jan Top Christensen, served as the UNHCR head at the Palawan camp from 1987 to 1990. He said Philippine authorities worked closely with the Vietnamese refugees in making them responsible in running the camp.
“In many circumstances, they really showed compassion and human charity, and I think this is a good example that I wish many other countries would follow, particularly in this time when you see so many, tragic situations,” Christensen told Al Jazeera.
But not all who tried to escape Vietnam made it out alive. Two of Kieu’s friends, for instance, vanished without a trace. One boat turned over as it was approaching the shores of Palawan, drowning four or five members of one family, said Christensen. And there was the story of Group 52 Bolinao, Vietnamese refugees who survived at sea for weeks, but had turned into cannibalism.
‘Act of kindness’
In all, about half a million Vietnamese made it to the Philippine refugee camp in Palawan from 1979 to 1993, according to a website chronicling the camp’s history.
After staying for a year in Palawan, Kieu and her family made it to Canada in 1989. Like her father, she pursued medicine, graduating at McGill Medical School in Montreal in 1997. In the same year she married Christensen, who would become a diplomat after working for UNHCR. Now they are back in the Philippines.
“My husband waited for me during all these years,” said Kieu, who is now doing research on dementia at Manila’s University of Santo Tomas, while her husband is serving as Denmark’s top diplomat here.
For Philippine-based human rights lawyers Anna Nguyen, VyHanh Nguyen and Hoi Trinh, whose parents were all Vietnamese refugees, the ordeal of the Rohingyas also “seems too familiar”.
Anna Nguyen, an Australian lawyer of Vietnamese roots, said that countries often view refugees like the Rohingyas as a burden.
“Just because my parents were refugees it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to be a burden. I’m an example of that.”