Inside Story

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After the exodus

29 January 2009

The latest release of cabinet papers is a reminder of the political stresses triggered by the arrival of Indochinese boat people in the mid 1970s. Bruce Grant, author of The Boat People, looks at those events and their implications


Australian government officials with two Vietnamese boys, Darwin, November 1977. Michael Jenson/National Library of Australia

Australian government officials with two Vietnamese boys, Darwin, November 1977. Michael Jenson/National Library of Australia

THE TWENTY-SIXTH of April 1976 was a typically hot, northern Australian day as a decrepit wooden fishing boat, with five young men aboard, its three pumps working to keep water in the hull from rising, chugged around the flat, uninviting landscape of Bathurst Island, off Darwin. The boat was the Kein Giang, registered in Vietnam as KG 4435.

Several other craft dotted the blue waters off the mainland as the twenty-five-year-old captain, Lam Binh, steered his leaky twenty-metre boat along the coast. Nobody took any notice. At sunset KG 4435 dropped anchor about a kilometre off the Darwin suburb of Night Cliff. Across the still water, the five men could hear the laughter of drinkers and see the lights of the open bar in Lim’s Hotel on the foreshore. Lam Binh, who had begun planning to leave South Vietnam after the fall of Saigon a year before, was sure they were off Darwin, but did not know where to land. For the past sixteen days, since leaving Timor, he had navigated from a page torn from a school atlas. The page included Timor but not Darwin. Each day he had taken their bearings from an arrow on the map pointing in Darwin’s direction.

His seventeen-year-old brother, Lan Tac Tam, and their three friends aged sixteen, seventeen and twenty-five, were excited but prepared to wait out the night. They had food, water and fuel to last another four days, and $100. That night the five men slept on the bare boards in the cabin as they had done every night since they had left South Vietnam two months before.

At first light, Lam Binh decided to head back the way they had come the previous evening, towards a flashing navigation light. But there was nothing but a buoy in the water, so they turned south-east. Thus, without knowing it, they entered the broad expanse of Darwin harbour and followed the cost to the small settlement of Mandorah. There was no wharf, so Lam Binh turned his boat across the harbour, following the shoreline for a couple of hours. Still no one noticed them. He rounded the point and saw Stokes Hill wharf, the busy centre of the port of Darwin. He brought KG 4435 alongside about midday. Lam Binh then caught the attention of a fisherman working on a boat nearby. “Where immigration people?” Lam Binh asked. “We from South Vietnam.” The fisherman told them to stay where they were and drove off. As the wharf was crowded, Lam Binh anchored KG 4435 about fifty metres away. Immigration officials arrived in a pilot boat and stepped on board. Lam Binh, taking a deep breath, made a speech he had rehearsed many times: “Welcome on my boat. My name is Lam Binh and these are my friends from South Vietnam and we would like permission to stay in Australia.”

These were the first of the boat people to travel through Southeast Asia as far as Australia.

THOSE ARE THE opening paragraphs of The Boat People, published by Penguin Books in 1979, which detailed the events and controversy surrounding the hazardous journey of Lam Binh and his successors – tens of thousands of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos – and the efforts of countries like Australia to deal with the broader flow of Indochinese.

As the “mastermind” of that book, I was aware, like everyone else, of the general political tension over the exodus from Vietnam. The numbers had been steadily growing from a few hundred in 1975, when the war in Vietnam ended, until the figure jumped to 106,489 in 1978 and 292,315 by the middle of 1979. Australia was taking only a small proportion (about ten per cent) but a national poll by the Age in June 1979 showed that Australians had, at best, mixed feelings about the new arrivals. Only one-third responded positively, while two-thirds thought either fewer, or no more, should be accepted. In political and intellectual circles, the boat people were a reminder that, although the war in Vietnam had ended, the debate to settle the rights and the wrongs of it was still going on.

I was not aware, however, of the precise divisions of opinion within federal cabinet at the time. The 1978 Australian cabinet documents, released early this month under the thirty-year rule, include a joint submission of the ministers for immigration (Michael MacKellar) and foreign affairs (Andrew Peacock) warning of “public disquiet” and suggesting that the flow of boats to Australia could be checked by the use of “unattractive reception” facilities. Their proposal, the papers show, was opposed by the prime minister Malcolm Fraser and his department. In the words of Fraser, speaking thirty years later, it was given “short shrift” as barbaric and racist.

It is hard for an outsider to know whether the position taken in cabinet by the prime minister in 1978 was on a genuine issue of principle or whether it was influenced by the ongoing leadership rivalry between himself and Peacock. But, on the surface, the cabinet papers support the view of Malcolm Fraser as a Liberal in the “liberal” tradition he has promoted so assiduously since losing office. He has pointed to his government’s multicultural credentials in setting up SBS television and his interest in relations with the Third World. It was he who first drew Australia’s attention to the stature of Nelson Mandela, when Mandela was still a prisoner in South Africa. But it was his criticism of his Liberal successors, especially John Howard, that caught public attention. Emerging as a commentator on contemporary affairs, Fraser drew attention to a movement away from “liberalism” in conservative politics in Australia, becoming a trenchant critic of the Howard government’s “Pacific Solution” for refugees and its support of the American “global war on terror” in Iraq.

In 1978, Fraser’s role in the political and constitutional crisis of 1975 was still fresh in public memory. He was the architect of the political assassination of Gough Whitlam, although the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, loaded the gun and the people of Australia, in the elections of 1975 and 1977, pulled the trigger. He was, in the caricature of the day, “born to rule,” considered to be a Tory on the right of the party. Peacock and MacKellar, meanwhile, were seen as representing the “liberal” tradition. In a Cold War context of hawks and doves, they were part of the strand of thinking in the Liberal Party that accepted it was not enough to bomb Hanoi and target cruise missiles on the Soviet Union; it was also necessary to win the “hearts and minds” of the people of Australia’s neighbourhood. Fraser was seen as an anticommunist hawk, having taken a strong stand on Vietnam.

The context is important. Thirty years ago, the Cold War was at a critical stage. The collapse of the French and then the American military offensive in Vietnam had revived the “domino theory,” which argued that the “fall” of Vietnam would set off a cascade in Southeast Asia, threatening Australia. The United States was licking its wounds. The revival of conservative confidence under Ronald Reagan had yet to occur. The thirty-ninth US president, Jimmy Carter, who would lose to Reagan in 1980, was having a hard time. In November 1979, ten months after the Shah was forced to flee Iran, militant students seized the buildings and staff of the US embassy in Teheran and Carter was unable to force or negotiate their release. In 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan (and Fraser was among the strongest voices calling for a western response).

The main political divisions in Australia over the issue of the boat people were essentially derivative of the Cold War. On the left, the traditional suspicion that immigration was a source of cheap labour for employers had been heightened by opposition to the Vietnam war. The boat people were just another consequence of a mistaken American strategy. The Australian left had been upset by the way the United States had commandeered the rhetoric of the Cold War, changing the ideological equation from the second world war, when democrats and communists had fought successfully against fascism. The Australian left had constructed from the war a satisfactory intellectual position: fascists were racist, nationalist and politically reactionary, believing in the cleansing quality of war, while communists and democrats shared elements of a reform agenda based on peace and human progress. Once the United States took over leadership of the West from Britain after the Suez fiasco in 1956, it changed the ideological equation to suit its own perception of the relationship between liberty and the state and the public and private sectors. Democrats were now opposed to communists, who were indistinguishable from fascists in their disposition to tyranny. A distinction was later made between totalitarian (left-wing) and authoritarian (right-wing) regimes to the detriment of the left-wing regimes, which were regarded as incorrigible, while right-wing regimes were thought to be redeemable.

Essentially the Cold War arrayed the American version of liberal democracy and its indispensable ally, capitalism, against the Russian version of communism and its essential ally, the state. The Australian Labor Party split in 1955 on the issue of whether communism was an ally or an enemy and was out of office for twenty-three years. The ascendancy of Gough Whitlam had broken that drought, restoring Labor’s relations with the United States, turning the party into an instrument of reform on immigration, and claiming the credit for ending the White Australia Policy (although the reform had begun under Harold Holt). But in 1979, the Labor Party was still smarting from the Dismissal and digesting the implications of the American failure in Vietnam and the unification of the country under communist rule.

On the conservative side, racial politics had always been active on the extreme right, especially in country electorates. The Australian League of Rights distributed a pamphlet protesting against admitting Asians on the same grounds as Europeans. “Why should loyal Australians, including many who risked their lives to defend the nation,” it asked, “be smeared as racist and undesirable because they protest against an immigration policy which, if continued, must ruin Australia as it is ruining other countries?” Conservatives in the hallowed tradition of Robert Menzies (who died in 1978) were not keen to dilute the British stock on which Australia had been sturdily built. They pined after the old “white” Commonwealth. Some argued that if Vietnamese fleeing from communism were to be freely admitted as refugees, white South Africans and Rhodesians fleeing from black governments should also be welcomed. But the Cold War – including the leadership of the United States, which was itself what was beginning to be called a “multicultural society” – had begun bringing about a change in conservative Australian thinking. If the strategy was not just to overwhelm the communist powers with superior military might but to keep the moral high ground, ordinary men and women, especially in the Third World, had to be treated as human beings when they sought sanctuary as refugees.

Australian politics, both left and right, has tended to lag at a respectful distance behind politics in “our great and powerful friends.” The Republican revival under Reagan, victory in the Cold War and the subsequent global triumph of democracy and free-market capitalism set the stage in Australia for more than a decade of hard-headed prosperity and hard-hearted national interest under John Howard. Now, in a reversal of fashion, the Rudd government has a year’s lead on the Obama administration, both facing huge challenges from a financial, perhaps economic, crisis and climate change that together put the issue of refugee policy into perspective, but also give it another edge.

THE PUBLICATION of The Boat People was itself an event. My memory of its genesis is that the publishing director at Penguin Books, Brian Johns, had the idea for the book, which he discussed separately with Michael Davie, editor of the Age, and myself. Michael then pursued the idea at length with me. He wanted someone to “mastermind” (his word) the book, to write its policy and analysis, and he also wanted to get the story right, to establish what was actually happening, so that the comment and analysis would be soundly based. The boat people were a new phenomenon; coverage had been spotty. We were not clear ourselves what was happening. As he later wrote in the preface: “When the first wave of boat people sailed quietly over the horizon, few observers in the western world realised what these brave and mysterious voyages portended… A newspaper can report the day-to-day manifestations of an international development on this scale, but in the nature of things cannot explore at length its causes and repercussions… Most of us learned a great deal about the subject as we went along. The book brings together a lot of material that was known and scattered, and a lot besides that was not known of the whole ominous story.”

It was agreed that the Age would enlist its correspondents in the region and around the world. I had no authority to direct these busy people to do what I wanted for the book, so they received instructions and guidance from the editor or the foreign editor, Cameron Forbes. It helped that I had previous associations with the paper and knew many of those asked to contribute, but I found myself working at one stage removed from the detailed reports that were pouring in. I had to read them carefully and edit them if they were useful, but my main job was trying to construct a framework for the reporting of the phenomenon and an explanation of it. The result was an intricate literary operation and, from a publishing point of view, a unique kind of book. There were few arguments, partly because everyone was occupied with more urgent matters and partly because I was the only one who had the full picture in my head.

I had recently returned from a period with the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, doing research on security in South-East Asia. I was also in various stages of three other quite different books, Cherry Bloom, a novel set in Singapore which would be published in 1980, Gods and Politicians, an account of my diplomatic appointment in India, published in 1982 and The Australian Dilemma, a study of Australian political culture and society, published in 1983. Looking at my diary, I notice that I was also working with Erwin Rado on a film script of the dismissal of the Whitlam government, chairman of the Australian Dance Theatre and on the council at Deakin University. I was not in need of additional work, especially as this would be work under pressure: the idea was to complete the manuscript within three months, deliver to Penguin in October and launch in November.

I doubt that I would have undertaken it, had Michael Davie not happened to be in the editor’s chair. Formerly of the Observer in London, he was an old friend from my days as a foreign correspondent. In the murky politics of the Cold War, we had learned to trust each other. In particular, we knew from experience that much reporting of international politics relied on the ready (but not disinterested) resources of the intelligence agencies. Scholars, too, were targeted by these agencies, but scholars had the benefits of time and collegiality; they had the leisure to check and discuss with their peers what they were doing. Journalists had deadlines and the need to protect their sources. We agreed that in making whatever judgements had to be made about the responsibility of governments for the phenomenon of the boat people, we would rely on our own resources. I cannot speak for every correspondent around the world who contributed to the book, but I can say that, so far as I am aware, only public sources were used.

Initially, in thinking about what kind of book we were making, I found myself between the defiant humanism of Brian Johns and the English pragmatism of Michael Davie. Brian was interested in the universal morality of the boat people’s predicament. I think it was he who alerted me to a statement by Jean-Paul Sartre, launching an appeal for aid for the boat people: “Some of them have not always been on our side, but for the moment we are not interested in their politics, but in saving their lives. It’s a moral issue, a question of morality between human beings.” For his part, Michael had been a student of Martin Wight, with a worldview based on the activity, sometimes prudent, sometimes expedient, of powerful states. He was interested in my knowledge of politics and military strategies in Southeast Asia and the roles of former and current great powers in bringing peace or conflict to the region. Both push and pull factors were evident in the exodus from Vietnam; some were attracted to conditions in the West, southerners were fleeing from northerners and Hanoi was using the opportunity to expel Chinese. I shared something of his view of history and something of Brian’s search for justice and equity, but I was also keenly aware of Australia’s distinctive geopolitical position. As a foreign correspondent and diplomat I had learned that geography mattered. History was important, but the values it created were inevitably tested in the crucible of here-and-now, where geography was dominant.

I did not fit readily into the ideological divisions of the Cold War. My position was best summed up by a friend, Hedley Bull, in his seminal book The Anarchical Society. He accepted that the international system was anarchic (that is, the sovereign states did not accept any authority outside themselves, despite the ambition of the United Nations) but not that it was chaotic nor necessarily brutal. He glimpsed elements of order in the international system and upon that order based his idea of an emerging “international society,” which had as its objective the preservation of order. The sovereign state system was a reality likely to persist. What he looked for was not a borderless world, with one human community, or a bipolar world, with two opposed communities, but linkages among the states, such as rules for mutual benefit (like postal deliveries), trade, a common diplomatic language, cooperation on the growing number of issues beyond the competence of any one state. Through these linkages, he argued that the world’s independent states were forming an international society in the sense that they regarded themselves as having common interests and being bound by a set of rules agreed upon to promote those common interests.

Bull’s position, sitting with neither the realist–pragmatists nor the idealist–utopians, is associated with the “natural law” school, especially the writings of Hugo Grotius (1583–1645). A Dutch jurist, Grotius is regarded as the father of international law. His impact on international life can be gauged from the fact that The Hague, the de facto capital of his homeland, has become the global centre for international legal institutions. Grotius lived in exile most of his life in Paris, after being sentenced to life imprisonment for his writings on religious tolerance (he was a Protestant). In his work and life he was both citizen of the state and international citizen. (At one time the Swedish government appointed him ambassador to France.)

I was not a scholar of international relations as Hedley was, but, looking back, I can see that I tried in The Boat People to absorb the ideological debate of the Cold War in a Grotian study of great power prudence and expedience and, from the point of view of the boat people themselves, imperatives of morality and law. The reviews of the book suggested a degree of success. The general reception was grateful and generous. The vivid reporting of the story of the boat people captured attention. Sartre’s quotation was often used by reviewers as a theme of the book itself. Attempts to disentangle the legal complexities of “migrant” and “refugee” were appreciated. Scholars thought the Cold War power struggle in Southeast Asia had been honestly described.

I was scarified, however, by the left for “playing down or ignoring both the motivations of the Australian government in welcoming the boat people and the responsibility of the American government for creating the whole situation” (Karen Throssell of the Labor Resource Centre). And I was taken to task by the right for a “cleverly edited, extremely well written but deeply flawed book” that offered excuses for Hanoi in its “bland, liberal-progressive” setting of the scene (Geoffrey Fairbairn in Australian Book Review).

WHAT of the future? We may be entering another global period of unrest, with terrorism, global warming and a financial crisis creating in their different ways conditions from which people will want to flee, in some cases taking to small and leaky boats in the hope of finishing up on a beach in northern Australia. Afghanistan and Iraq are currently countries in turmoil, providing boat people, but if economic conditions worsen the exodus could be more broadly based.

Boat people are a reminder that Australia is adjacent to Southeast Asia, which is not only the home of many millions of people of every religious, political and economic complexion but also a thoroughfare between the Indian and Pacific oceans. It is a waterway in the form of an archipelago, offering free passage to pirates, submarines and anyone wanting to float undetected until they can turn up on an Australian beach claiming, under various international conventions, to have a “well-founded fear” of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a political group or political opinion if they are returned to their country of origin.

Revisiting the The Boat People should give us confidence, however. What stands out thirty years later is the fact that the dire prospects foreshadowed in the book did not eventuate. Southeast Asia did not become a cockpit of great power rivalry. Vietnam, resurgent and reunified after its stunning victory over the world’s first superpower, did not try to impose itself on its neighbours. The region of Southeast Asia, now defined by ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, has been stable and increasingly prosperous for thirty years. Slowly, Vietnam and the United States have resumed something like a normal relationship.

ASEAN’s ten member countries have adopted a consultative approach, including non-interference in each other’s affairs and agreement not to allow external powers to create military proxies. Its success has been more negative than positive and sometimes, as in the case of Myanmar, it has been forced to bend over backwards not to intervene. A rescue operation (with Australia in the forefront) had to be launched to get Cambodia back to reasonable political health. But the perception thirty years ago that the region was likely to be unstable has turned out to be wrong. Is it too bold to suggest that what has proved viable and productive for a region as volatile and riven as Southeast Asia once was – a combination of local resilience (as shown in ASEAN itself) and the disavowal of power politics (especially the use of military proxies) by the external powers – could be now applied to other regions of the world, such as the Middle East?

The world has changed for the better over those thirty years. Human rights, always under the surface, has come to the top of the international agenda; international law, earlier considered to be the disappearing point of law, has strengthened. The International Court of Justice, established in 1913, recognised only states. The recently opened International Criminal Court, also at The Hague, recognises individuals as well as states. The trial of Slobodan Milosevic and other political leaders is a cautionary tale for heads of state and government who think that going to war gives them immunity from prosecution for human rights abuses.

The then secretary general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, set the scene ten years ago when he announced to the UN General Assembly that the world had now to deal with two forms of sovereignty – the sovereignty of the state and the sovereignty of the individual. State sovereignty needed to be redefined, he said: “States are now widely understood to be instruments at the service of their people, and not vice versa.” Individual sovereignty, by which he meant the fundamental freedom of each person, was at the core of the UN charter and subsequent international treaties. “When we read the charter today, we are more than ever conscious that its aim is to protect individual human beings, not to protect those who abuse them.” The world – and therefore the United Nations – could not stand aside when gross and systematic violations of human rights were taking place and the task now was to see that intervention was based on legitimate and universal principles. He tackled the need to redefine not just “sovereignty” but “national interest,” “vital interest” and “common interest,” terms that have been used glibly, as if we all understood what they meant.

He might have been foreshadowing the first New World Order of the twenty-first century. It has a long journey ahead of it on a booby-trapped road, but it is significant that an official of the United Nations, in which the sovereignty of states and the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of those states has been strong, should make such a statement. The idea of two sovereignties, individual and state, underlines a new organising principle of world politics, which is that the individual has a relationship with the state, and the state has a relationship with the international system. It is not too extravagant to predict that the ability of governments and peoples to bring these two sovereignties into equilibrium will determine the course of the twenty-first century. The treatment of refugees will be a crucial test.

The distinctive Australian view that emerged in The Boat People was not an accident. Its cover was global, with emphasis on the region of Southeast Asia, but naturally enough, as most of its contributors and myself were Australian, its perspective was Australian. We have a distinctive, even odd, national identity in our region, no longer the odd man out, but certainly, as has been said, the odd man in. We are not a great power; we cannot subdue our neighbourhood. We can only continue to encourage it to develop peacefully, as it has been doing.

But we have a military alliance with the United States, which has shown an inclination to use the power it possesses. Australia needs a foreign policy that does not, as in the past, draw us into conflicts, like Vietnam and Iraq, initiated by the United States, but instead draws the US into using its power in ways that suit our long term security interests. The combination of a Rudd government in Australia, which has shown that it is aware of the new institutions and groupings of global diplomacy, and the Obama administration in the United States, which is anxious to show the world that the unilateral military nationalism of the last eight years is no longer the mood and inclination of Washington, is the best prospect yet for Australian–American relations, and perhaps for global peace, in my experience. •

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