Isle of Light: A Look Back at the Boat People and the European Left

We were sitting in a cafe on the Left Bank in Paris in November 1978 when the news broke that two thousand five hundred and sixty-four Vietnamese were stranded off the coast of Malaysia on a rusty cargo ship, the Hai Hong. They had fled Vietnam in a desperate attempt to seek freedom and asylum overseas. After sixteen days on the South China seas, buffeted by storms, crushed by the heat, with no more food or water, they had arrived on the shores of Indonesia, then Malaysia, only to be pushed back by the coast guards. They had nowhere to land, and the ship could go no further. Stranded and helpless, starving and totally dehydrated, they were dying before our eyes as they unfurled a makeshift banner in English across the side of the ship: “UN please save us.”

They were not the first to undertake a desperate journey by sea to escape from Vietnam. Since 1975, when the South was “liberated” by Hanoi at the end of the Vietnam War, more than one million people had risked their lives in ramshackle crafts to escape repression. More than half of them had died—drowned, eaten by sharks, or murdered by pirates in the Gulf of Thailand. So far, this exodus had gone virtually unnoticed by the international media, which had washed its hands of Vietnam. But the Hai Hong brought this massive human tragedy into people’s living rooms. The euphemism “boat people” became a household word.

These Vietnamese could have left during the frantic days of the US withdrawal, but they had stayed on. Many had opposed the military regime of General Thieu in South Vietnam, and hoped against hope that they could help rebuild and remake the country. After all, the war was over, and the communists were first and foremost Vietnamese. Hanoi had signed the Paris Peace Accords pledging to refrain from reprisals. They might treat their enemies with implacable ferocity, but they would surely look differently on their own brothers and sisters.

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But those who allowed themselves to be swayed by this illusion, who believed that there would be room for them in a country reunified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam under Hanoi’s rule, could not have been more mistaken. The communist authorities immediately divided the South Vietnamese into three categories: reactionary military personnel, reactionary administrative personnel, and reactionary citizens. In brief, the whole population was “reactionary.” In the months following the occupation, a vast network of “reeducation camps”—in reality forced labor camps, similar to the Chinese laogai—were set up throughout the South. Beginning with officers and soldiers from the former South Vietnamese Army, soon followed by writers, artists, academics, journalists, trade unionists, teachers, students, and farmers, people from all walks of life were summoned for “reeducation.” They were told to bring enough clothes and food for two weeks. Many would never return. Others would spend up to twenty years in these camps, released only when their health was broken and they were ready to die.

Although no definitive statistics have ever been published, Hanoi has admitted that more than two and a half million people were detained in reeducation camps between 1975 and 1985. Some one hundred thousand were summarily executed, and hundreds of thousands perished from hunger, exhaustion, and illness in these Vietnamese gulags. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of civilians were forcibly relocated to New Economic Zones where they served as human buffers along the Sino-Vietnamese or Cambodian border. Those who refused to go were arrested for breaching national security.

In the cafe that evening in 1978, a Vietnamese friend of mine and I argued that the people on the Hai Hong were not economic refugees, but people seeking freedom from totalitarianism, and that this exodus was unprecedented. Throughout our four-thousand-year history, even in the worst times of famine or war, we Vietnamese had never left the land of our ancestors. But now the boat people were voting with their feet in order to survive.

Among our group were Claudie and Jacques Broyelle, sinologists and former Maoists who had just returned from China, deeply disillusioned with the evolution of the Chinese regime; Alain Geismar, former leader of the 1968 student “revolution” that rocked the de Gaulle government in France; and André Glucksmann, a writer and acclaimed “new philosopher.” These friends were all passionate idealists, all from far left-wing backgrounds, but all with no illusions about life under communist regimes. Their decision was rapid and unanimous. We had to do something to save the boat people.


In the 1970s, Paris was a haven of refuge for dissidents from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In 1976, when I founded Que Me (“homeland” in Vietnamese), a samizdat magazine publicizing a movement for democracy and human rights, the dissidents were the first to support our cause. Russian poet Natalya Gorbanevskaya, Ukrainian mathematician Leonid Plyushch, and Vladimir Bukovsky were involved in our campaigns. They needed no convincing. As Romanian dissident Paul Goma would write in Que Me magazine in 1978: “Even the street-sweepers in Bucharest knew better than Western politicians what would happen in Vietnam, and they were right. In four years, communism has wreaked more destruction than thirty years of war.”

But while the dissidents had embraced our cause, it was much harder to convince the Western public, especially people of the left. During the Vietnam War, thousands of people in Paris, Berlin, Washington, Tokyo, and elsewhere had taken to the streets to denounce US intervention in Vietnam and call for an end to the killings. But these same people remained silent as thousands of Vietnamese died in reeducation camps or drowned on the South China seas. The antiwar left could not admit that the “heroic” freedom fighters of yore had turned into tyrants, and the “henchmen of US imperialists” were now the victims. With our campaign for the boat people, the spontaneous and wholehearted engagement of many French intellectuals would not only save thousands of people in distress, but also break these stereotypes and deeply impact the thinking of sectors of the French and European left.

In our first meeting that November in Paris, we pledged to build a movement around the issue of the boat people. The next evening, we met in the flat of the historian Ilios Yannakakis, on the Boulevard Saint-Michel, to make this pledge reality. Initially, we decided to launch a petition for the Hai Hong with as many signatures as we could raise. But I urged our friends to go further and point out that the Hai Hong was not an isolated incident. There were thousands of similar cases, and people drowning every day. The writer Bernard-Henri Lévy suggested massive street riots or an attack on the Vietnamese Embassy in Paris. Then suddenly the idea emerged—why not charter a ship and rescue the boat people at sea? A committee was formed with Claudie Broyelle at the head, and the project of “A Boat for Vietnam” was afloat.

On November 17th, we sent out a press release:

Every day, make-shift craft and thousands of Vietnamese brave the storms of the South China seas seeking escape in order to survive. Yet half of them drown before ever reaching the shore and all are at the mercy of extortionists and pirates. We must look for countries of asylum in Europe, America, and Asia, but first of all, we must go and rescue them. If we had a ship patrolling the South China seas, we could locate and pick up many who would otherwise die. So we need money to provide a ship and pay for a crew; we also need countries willing to offer the refugees a home.

By the time the “Boat for Vietnam” Committee was officially launched on November 27, 1978, more than one hundred and sixty prominent personalities signed on to the appeal. The list included films stars, artists, writers, musicians, journalists, trade unionists, and politicians from across the whole political spectrum—it read like a veritable Who’s Who of Parisian culture: Yves Montand, Brigitte Bardot, Simone Signoret, Simone de Beauvoir, Mstislav Rostropovich, Eugene Ionesco, Lionel Jospin, Michel Rocard, Jean Lacouture (Ho Chi Minh’s biographer), Michel Foucault, Claude Mauriac, Olivier Todd, Jean-François Revel, Bernard Kouchner . . .

For the very first time, two archenemies and philosophical giants—the liberal Raymond Aron and Jean-Paul Sartre, a sometime apologist for Stalinism—joined in this appeal for the victims of Hanoi’s totalitarian regime. At a historic press conference hosted by the “Boat” Committee some months later, the two men sat together—the first time they had been in the same room in three decades. Sartre, who had been a vocal opponent of the US intervention in Vietnam and supporter of the communist-led National Liberation Front, spoke of the “moral duty” and the “imperative of human rights to save fellow human beings in danger,” even if they were not your friends. His words had an enormous impact. The popularity of Sartre, the man who refused the Nobel Prize in literature, could be measured by a phrase in vogue in left-wing Parisian circles in those days: “It’s better to be wrong with Sartre than right with Aron.” The “Boat for Vietnam” suggested that it was possible to be right with both.


The sense of urgency was real. In November 1978, the month we came together, fifty-five people were landing every hour on the coast of Malaysia alone, and the numbers were growing. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, some one and a half million boat people had fled Vietnam by then, nearly half of them dying in the effort. The refugee camps in Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Hong Kong were full to bursting. Suddenly, Malaysian Vice President Mahathir Mohamad announced he would accept no more and gave orders to push seventy-six thousand boat people back out to sea. A law was adopted authorizing police to shoot on sight those who tried to return. Those who destroyed their boats in a last desperate effort to gain asylum would be left to drown.

Against this backdrop, we accelerated our efforts to launch our “boat” at all costs. Olivier Todd, then editor in chief of the weekly magazine L’Express, mobilized the support of the media. Almost all major French newspapers gave free publicity to our appeal, including the popular Télé 7 Jours, which had a print run of seven million copies per week. Money poured in, along with offers of homes, jobs, clothes, food, furniture, everything. Five hundred letters arrived each day at Que Me’s office in Gennevilliers, the “Boat for Vietnam” headquarters. Because Gennevilliers was a Communist municipality, part of the “red belt” of communes that surrounded Paris, the mayor of Gennevilliers was not happy to play host, and repeatedly threatened to expel Que Me from his town. But for the time being he had to bow to the solidarity our appeal generated.

One of the first people to support the campaign was Irving Brown, head of the European office of the US labor movement’s AFL-CIO. We had met him a year earlier, in 1977, when we organized an international press conference on the prison system in Vietnam with firsthand testimony from an ex–student leader and political prisoner, Doan Van Toai, who had just escaped from the South. This was the first time a former opponent of the South Vietnamese military regime publicly denounced the horrors of Vietnam’s reeducation camps. Brown was quick to see the significance of Doan’s testimony, and immediately offered his help.

Not only did he sign the appeal, but he also brought the signature of the AFL-CIO’s president, George Meany, and that of Paul Hall, president of the US Seafarers International Union, who happened to be in Paris. I had never seen a “seafarer” before, but Hall definitely fit my image of such a person. With his silver hair and stern manner, he was obviously used to being in command, and clearly took us for a bunch of amateurs. “You don’t say boat, you say ship,” he once interrupted me with irritation. But he soon warmed to our cause. At the end of our meeting, I jubilantly called the committee to announce the incredible news: “We don’t have a ship yet, but the AFL-CIO will provide us with a crew free of charge!”

Irving Brown proposed expanding the campaign by organizing an international conference on boat people in Paris. With a few phone calls, he got emblematic personalities such as Leo Cherne, head of the International Rescue Committee, and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin to speak. But regrettably this conference would never take place due to conflicting opinions within our group. Bernard Kouchner and some others were somewhat embarrassed by the AFL-CIO’s involvement, feeling that its strong and engaged anti-communism would be polarizing. They argued that the “Boat for Vietnam” should be purely apolitical. It would not be a rescue ship saving people from communism, but an “ambulance of the sea,” a floating hospital moored off the coasts of Southeast Asia. For others such as Alain Geismar, the political aspect was essential. The boat people were risking their lives to bring a message to the world about the nature of the communist regime. It was our duty not only to save them, but also to give echo to their voice. Much later, swayed by public opinion, Kouchner would change his mind. But Brown had sensed the rift, and did not press forward with the plan.

Although funds poured in, we were spending some 20,000 francs a day (about $2,000) on food and medical supplies, and our treasury was still insufficient to put the “Boat for Vietnam” afloat. As discouragement was setting in, events took an unexpected turn. A TV crew from Holland came to Que Me’s office to interview me. The journalist was a socialist, and, like many Dutch people, had been a strong supporter of the peace movement during the Vietnam War. When I described our rescue campaign, he asked suddenly: “But why are you saving these South Vietnamese? They supported a corrupt military regime, they are pimps, profiteers, they deserve what they got. Why should you—why should we—help them?” I answered quite simply: “If you walked along a canal in Amsterdam and saw someone fall into the water, what would your reaction be? Would you stop to ask, ‘Are you left-wing or right-wing?’—or would you naturally just reach out to save them?”

It was just before Christmas, 1978, when the interview was shown repeatedly on Dutch TV. Within one week, Dutch viewers had donated $1 million for our appeal (I remember asking dazedly, “How many zeros?”). It was a fantastic financial boost, and also brought an international dimension to the campaign. (By the time our boat took to the seas, there were ten other rescue vessels patrolling the South China seas, chartered by committees in Norway, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere.)

The money was there, but a seemingly unsolvable problem remained—we still had no ship. We needed a vessel flying the French flag to ensure that our refugees could resettle in France. All ships in the country were under the aegis of one central agency. Unfortunately, it was manned by the French Communist trade union, the Confédération générale du travail (CGT). At that time, the Communist Party was very strong—more than a quarter of the population voted Communist in France. The CGT was extremely powerful, a veritable state within a state, capable of staging strikes that literally paralyzed the whole country in a flash. When the union learned that our ship would rescue Vietnamese boat people, it blocked all efforts to arrange a charter. As the weeks dragged, the French press began to jibe at our campaign. The extreme-right newspaper Minute ran stories under the headline “The Phantom Ship,” and the Communist Party daily L’Humanité multiplied its attacks.

Salvation came out of the blue. One evening, a reader of Que Me, the Vietnamese magazine I launched in Paris, called me from Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia, a collection of islands between Australia and Fiji. Her husband was French and he had a ship, an eighty-five-meter coaster, which sailed under French flag. She had told him about Vietnam, the camps, the sufferings of the boat people in their flight for freedom. He was ready to help. The ship had a miraculous name—Île de Lumière—island of light. It seemed like destiny. Our ship would be an island of light on the ocean of the boat people’s darkness and despair.

The Île de Lumière set sail in April 1979 carrying a team of volunteer doctors and nurses. It anchored off the island of Pulau Bidong, in Malaysia, and provided vital medical treatment to some thirty-six thousand Vietnamese boat people cramped in a space fit for two thousand. When the Malaysian government began pushing the refugees out to sea in June 1979, our ship went to their rescue, and saved thousands who otherwise would have died. We obtained the French government’s guarantee that all those we saved would be granted safe haven in France.


In the months that followed, the boat people arrived and told their stories to the media. Their words demonstrated that they were not generals or corrupt politicians or war criminals: most of those had fled the country before the fall of Saigon with their pockets full of gold. These were ordinary people whose extraordinary stories shocked and moved French people. Schoolteachers described the humiliation of being forced to sell noodles to their pupils (the children of rich Communist cadres) in order to survive. Buddhist monks, Catholic priests, Protestants, and Hoa Hao and Cao Dai followers beaten and detained simply for practicing their faith. Wives of political prisoners struggling desperately to raise their children and bring tiny food parcels to their husbands to keep them alive. The Kafkaesque tribulations of the writer working in the censorship bureau, forced to reclassify as “reactionary foreign authors” writers such as Pearl S. Buck and Victor Hugo, and the arrest and internment of many other writers who had merely cited their works.

Descriptions of the camps were horrendous. Those who refused to be “reeducated” were locked in metal containers, or “connex,” hot as ovens in the daytime, freezing at night, to make them confess their crimes. The prisoners were permanently hungry, and the line between starvation and survival was thin. “Everything that moves is protein,” they would say, not hesitating to fight each other over a cockroach, a spider, an emaciated mouse . . .

These simple stories swayed public opinion as no political speech ever could. The boat people forever changed the thinking of the European left, and stalled the momentum of the Communist Party in France, Italy, and other European countries. (In France alone, the communist electorate has plummeted from almost twenty-five percent then to less
than seven percent today.)

The “Boat for Vietnam” was an incredible adventure for us all, and I have only one small regret. Jean-Paul Sartre proposed that we have a dialogue. He was unable to throw off his revolutionary sympathies and was deeply perplexed that the Hanoi regime, which he thought had waged such a valiant struggle for independence, could now become the “bourreau” (butcher) of its people. How could this happen? As a Buddhist, arrested and tortured at the age of eleven for participating in the resistance against French colonial rule, I had seen Vietnamese communism close-up before I left Vietnam to campaign for a non-communist Third Force during the Vietnam War and was forced into exile in Paris. I would have loved to debate the question of communism and “revolution” with this singular man. Sadly, Sartre’s appearance at our 1979 press conference was one of his last public acts. He was by then almost blind, and would die of pulmonary edema on April 15, 1980.

Vo Van Ai is a Vietnamese writer, poet, and human rights defender living in Paris. He is the founder and chair of the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights and Que Me: Action for Democracy in Vietnam.

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