Last year we wrote a post about one of our projects with Boat People, SOS, an organization that does incredible work in the Vietnamese community in the United States and abroad. They gave us the opportunity to go through the many boxes of archived letters and documents from Vietnamese refugees, many of whom are seeking asylum or family reunification. These primary sources are so incredible because they provide us with more clear and nuanced insight into the refugee application process, the appeal process, life in camp, the perception of refugees by local communities, the details of the journey to the refugee camp, and more.
We are excited to begin sharing with you some of the documents and their respective translations, the first of which can be found below, in our new collection, #fromthearchives. Again, we are deeply grateful to BPSOS, especially the Youth Program Coordinator, Trung Nguyen, for allowing us to have access to these archives, and to the Vietnamese Studies Students at Southeast Asian Studies Summer Institute of University of Wisconsin-Madison (SEASII) for helping us translate some of the documents that didn't come with official translations.
The following is a letter written on September 4th, 1995 by Phạm Việt Mạnh to various organizations detailing the unjust treatment of the refugees at the Sungei Besi Refugee Camp in Malaysia by the local police force. It also sheds light onto the reality that a refugee's hardship did not necessarily end once he or she arrived at a refugee camp, but more often than not, ushered in a different set of obstacles. It is important to note that at this time, tensions were exceptionally high due to changes in the policy for determination of refugee status coupled with (often forced) repatriation proceedings.
To Mr. Nguyen Dinh Thang (Esq.)
My name is Pham Viet Manh. ME 526028, ID 167246, a Vietnamese boat person living in Sungai Besi camp in Malaysia. Today I’m writing this letter to you because there are a number of legal issues I need your help with. As you also know, in the Sungibesi camp, a non-violent demonstration to demand political asylum broke out on the 23rd of January, 1995, due to the aspirations of all the refugee compatriots in Sungibesi, under the name of “the Unified Council of Asylum-seeking Refugees.” I am also one among the 2705 boat people that signed a petition letter to send to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and responsible authorities for them to consider and resolve our problems. (The petition was sent on the 25th of February, 1995).
After that and throughout the process of the nonviolent struggle while awaiting a satisfactory response to our petition, at the break of dawn on 5 June, 1995, the local government brought a special police force called FRU into the camp and attacked us with tear gas, fire trucks spraying water mixed with chemicals, attack dogs and billy clubs. Facing oppression like that, a group of us compatriots along with a group of members of organizations such as the Human Rights Defense Campaign, the Association of Former Government and Military Personnel), and the New Vietnamese Democracy Party, we breached the fence to get onto the highway leading to the capital, Kuala Lumpur, in order to ask Malaysian people to come to our rescue. On the afternoon of that day, the local government once again used violence to oppress us ruthlessly with billy clubs and tear gas. During this event, there were hundreds of people that were seriously injured and there were 20 arrested (among those there were people who had gone back inside the camp to go to the hospital for treatment were also arrested), causing confusion
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this petition and hand it over on our behalf.
Sir, throughout the entirety of this time when we have been awaiting a satisfactory response from the humanitarian organizations and those with the power to resolve our problems, we have always stuck to the principle of fighting for our rights peacefully and without violence. We only sit praying and hunger striking in on location. At 3:30 in the morning on 10 August, 1995, once again the local government brought in a special police force (FRU), around 4000 well-equipped police members swarmed the camp and beat us with unmatched ferocity, although at the time we were empty-handed and had no choice but to kneel down and pray – while some were in the process of hunger-striking! This event caused injuries to to hundreds of people including women and children, among those 16 were seriously injured and a number had head trauma.
After they had used violence to oppress our movement, they herded back to our own separate areas and after that they erected fences of interlacing barbed wire to divide us up into isolated areas. Now we are confined behind rows of barbed wire fences like caged animals. After the initial rows of barbed wire fences were erected, we went on hunger strike to protest the incidents described above involving our brutal oppression at the hands of the High Commissioner and the local government. At the same time we’ve sent a protest letter to the UNHCR, the Malaysian government and the International Red Crescent Society to protest these serious inhumane acts violating human rights at the hands of the Malaysian government. Sir, above are just a few sketches of the essential details about our situation and the occurrences from the 23rd of January, 1995, until now.
Cynthia Joseph LEO -
46 Jalan 1/7 Taman Kinrara
7 ½ Miles Puchong 58200 .
We are only asking you if you send mail to this address in Malaysia, please don’t put your organization’s name (on the envelope) just put some other normal-sounding address and ask them to hand it to me then I’ll be able to get it. I hope you will sympathize and understand the need for this subtlety.
In closing, I pray to God to bestow blessings on you. If you need pictures or anything related to this then let us know and we will try to send them to you. We really look forward to receiving your response.
From Sungai Besi, 04 September, 1995
Pham Viet Manh