Boat People rescue operation and memory. Interview with Anh Tuan Dinh-Xuan, a Franco-Vietnamese medical doctor at Parisian Cochin Hospital

Anh Tuan Dinh-Xuan is a French-Vietnamese medical doctor, who currently heads a clinical unit at Cochin Hospital and teaches medicine at the University of Paris. Born in Saigon in 1958, he left Vietnam at the age of 11 with his father, a former Counsellor of the Embassy of the Republic of Vietnam in Morocco and Tunisia, before arriving in Paris in 1973. There he has stayed, studied, and worked till now. He was the first French doctor of Vietnamese origin to take part in the Boat People rescue operations and is still very engaged in the Vietnamese cause through associations such as ‘Fils Rouges Vietnam’.

I left Vietnam with my family in 1969 at the age of 11 because my father went to North Africa to work for the Embassy of the Republic of (South) Vietnam. In 1973, at the end of his four-year mandate, my father had to go back to Vietnam, and my mother and younger sister also went back with him. But they decided to leave me in Paris to finish my high school and start studying medicine in France after the Baccalauréat. I completed my medical studies in Paris. I am not a part of the Boat People, since these events began in 1975, with the reunification of the country for some, and the defeat for others. As all my family went back to Vietnam in 1973, they could have been Boat People. This probably partly explains my commitment towards Médecins du Monde, an NGO with which I participated in Boat People rescue missions from the end of my medical studies, starting in 1982 and ending in 1988.

The rescue missions were launched almost at the same time in 1979 by two independent NGOs: the French NGO Médecins du Mondeunder the lead of Dr Bernard Kouchner, and the German NGO Cap Anamur.[1]It was in this context that ‘Ile de Lumière’ (‘Island of Light’) was created, which was essentially a hospital ship going to the China Sea to provide medical care to the 18,000 Boat People living in Pulau Bidong, a tiny island not larger than a soccer field. The following missions were called ‘Ile de Lumière’ 1, 2, 3 and so on. These boats rescued the Boat People and provided medical care to them on the spot, but did not stay there. At that time, Boat People had a preferential sea route. It consisted of crossing the Gulf of Thailand, a very calm region from a maritime point of view with a very low risk of typhoons. Hence, it presented little risk of sinking. Later, this itinerary became very dangerous with the arrival of pirates, who very soon became aware of such easy prey, who then became easy targets for robberies, rapes, abductions, and murders. In 1979, the pirates were not carrying out attacks because they were not aware of the presence of the Boat People. The Boat People were heading to Malaysia or Thailand. As these countries could not welcome them, the refugees were taken to the island of Pulau Bidong, which had a surface of less than 1 km2. At the peak of the Boat People crisis, there were 40,000 on the island. The greatest risk was epidemics, as they spread very rapidly over the island. It was to contain the risk and cure the sick that ‘Ile de Lumiere’ went to Pulau Bidong in 1979.

Médecins du Mondeoperated solely with private funds. ‘Ile de Lumiere’ had to cease functioning after six months because the funds ran out. The second boat was only launched in June 1982, when there were enough funds available to mobilize a second boat. Television broadcasts were very important to generate awareness among the French and attract donations. I was fortunate to be part of this mission. I had asked Bernard Kouchner, a doctor in the hospital where I was doing my training, to be part of the rescue missions from 1979. He had rightly refused as I was not yet a doctor at that time. I had to wait until 1982, when I had almost finished medical school; it was then that I was allowed to join the rescue team with my first mission on the Ile de Lumière 2 aka the Goelo[2]From 1982 to 1988, Médecins du Mondesent five boats. During the same period, Cap Anamurmanaged to send boats, alternating with Médecins du Monde, to ensure an almost permanent presence in the China Sea, or at the same time (as in 1987).

It was a real humanitarian drama at that time, which reminds us a bit of what is happening in recent years in the Mediterranean Sea, but with probably a much higher rate of deaths because of the length of the sea journey, weather conditions, and attacks from pirates who committed unbearable crimes in the Gulf of Siam at that time. The pirates took everything people had and raped women and girls. In case of resistance by the male relatives (husbands, fathers, or bothers) of the victims, the pirates then did not hesitate to beat and kill their opponents. People learned about it quickly. As a result, the Boat People avoided taking the roads beset by pirates and sailed overseas to the Philippines. The route was three or four times longer, and the sea far more turbulent (as compared to the Gulf of Siam) and the fragile boats frequently sank; even when some of them eventually reached the Philippines, the youngest (babies) and oldest passengers often died or were severely ill from exhaustion. Because the Boat People knew that the risks of sinking were much greater, they aimed to reach, half-way to the Philippines, an axis that was called the ‘rail’, a maritime route taken by many merchant navy ships traveling from Singapore to Hong Kong. At first, Boat People were rescued that way. However, the merchant sailors helping them arrive in Hong Kong not only were not allowed to disembark the rescued Boat People, the ship’s crew and its passengers were quarantined for one or two weeks. This put the companies out of business, which eventually stopped rescuing the Boat People. If some of the merchant sailors continued to provide Boat People who crossed their roads with food, a majority of them became accustomed to the situation, and a few deliberately ignored the presence of the frail boats they came across. During our missions, we tried to rescue the Boat People before they reached this axis. To this end, we had to define the maritime area in which we had the best chance of intercepting them and rescuing them before it was too late—when the boats were at risk of sinking, or when the migrants’ dying of hunger became a reality.

Beside the tens of thousands of deaths, few people talk about the fact that Boat People were forced to practise cannibalism. To get an idea of ​​the number, one should ask the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The agency has figures, but they are relatively confidential. The few people surviving from this terrible condition I met in the camps were naturally completely shocked. All of them first had to witness the loss of their family and even some of them were forced to commit this atrocious act to survive, though only a very few actually admitted it.

Coming back to more practical matters, a couple of factors limited the rescue missions. The first was financial. The second was that we could only disembark these people when their departure to a third country was guaranteed. The guarantee was the existence of visas. Before each operation, the NGOs (i.e. Médecins du Monde and its President, Dr Bernard Kouchner, and Cap Anamur and Dr Rupert Neudeck) tried to obtain a certain number of visas from mostly European governments, at least enough to start the mission. If France granted 300 visas, we were able to disembark 300 boat people in the refugee camps. We brought the castaways in the camps knowing that they would be able to come to France, either as a country of first choice, or because they did not have the possibility to go elsewhere. If the migrants could emigrate to other countries such as the USA or Australia because their relatives were already there, the entry visas to France could then be allocated to other people who were qualified to come to France (e.g. French-speaking Vietnamese). Médecins du Mondewas not responsible for the selection; it was the French Embassy which was. People who spoke French or had studied in France were given priority. For all countries, the first selection criterion was family reunification. The closer the family was, the greater were the chances of getting a visa. Subsequently, it was only personal history that mattered. There were individual approaches, but also agreements between governments, especially at the European level.

Apart from the NGO Cap Anamur, we collaborated with the Vietnamese community living in the United States. In 1985, the third mission of ‘Ile de Lumiere 3’ (a recue ship called Jean Charcot[3]) received extraordinary media coverage because rescue missions took place almost every day during a week. After this episode, we noticed a growing disinterest by the French population in the cause of the Boat People. We were asking ourselves many questions, because we did not feel able to raise as much funding as in the past to carry out a mission in 1986. By chance, I had a scholarship to do an internship at the University of California in San Francisco (USA) just after the 1985 mission. In the United States, I met the founders of an association named Boat People SOS Committee.[4]It brought together Vietnamese doctors and academics who had been trying to find associations rescuing the Boat People for two years. We were in the 1980s; the internet did not exist, and everything that happened in France was not known in the United States. When I arrived, I talked about the cooperation between Médecins du Mondeand Cap Anamurto Boat People SOS Committee. They were directly interested, and I was able to put the three associations in touch. The money, that was previously lacking, was brought in by the Vietnamese community living in the United States. This allowed our initiative to go around the world.

The Vietnamese community living in the United States was much more involved with the Boat People than the Vietnamese community living in France. This difference is first explained by the numerical factor, because the Vietnamese living in France are far less numerous than the Vietnamese living in the United States. The second reason is the stratification of the French Vietnamese community between people with different sociological and political backgrounds. In contrast to the numerous waves of Vietnamese who arrived in France from the end of the First World War, the vast majority of Vietnamese immigrants arrived In the United States after 1975. This community is, therefore, much more linked to the Boat People, because it simply would not exist without the events of 1975. Most of its members left Vietnam because they refused to live under the new regime. In France, the Vietnamese community opposing the regime is less numerous as compared to that in the USA. Museums related to Boat People are, therefore, quite modest. There is, for example, one in Brittany, where a boatoperated byMédecins du Mondedocked with 84 Boat People on board in 1982. In the United States, or in Australia, memory initiatives are carried out with much more resources.

The memory work of the Boat People tragedy remains very sensitive. As in all events of this type, there is a post-traumatic period during which people prefer not to talk about their experience. That is what I witnessed in the case of the Boat People, and is still the case today. Boat People’s children, who were too young or not yet born at that time, want to know what happened, but parents still have trouble narrating their story. It brings back memories that are too painful.

I think that we need to revisit this part of the history with a more clinical and less emotional approach. It is necessary to focus on the reasons for the departure of these populations, on the prices to be paid on departure, and to obtain figures that are as close to reality as possible. It has been said that one million people have died at sea. In my opinion, this figure is probably overestimated, but who knows? Maybe I am wrong. Having said that, even if the real number only approaches half or a third of the aforementioned one, this is still too high the price to pay for those thousands of unnecessary and mostly premature deaths, not mentioning the painful post-traumatic stress left for all those who survived.[5]An important historian’s work must also be performed to define the berths of the different boats. There were camps, but there were also lesser known places where boats arrived with 10 people, while originally 100 people were on board. It is also a question of retracing the history of the castaways. Young girls were raped, kidnapped, and sold in brothels in Bangkok. It is in particular from the history of the Ko Kra island, on which Boat People were made prisoners and abused,[6]that the boat ‘Ile de Lumière’ was created. There is also no mention of the ‘Land People’, who escaped from Vietnam through Cambodia. The probability of their survival was much lower than by sea.

From what I know, no government has taken official action for the memory work of the Boat People. In my opinion, the reason is not political. The French, at least the government, think that it is not up to it to do this work. Based on the publications of professional historians, I think that it is up to the Vietnamese communities to lobby effectively to trace the events accurately and allow the memory work to be done. What we know about this period of history is more about anecdotes than real documents, because French historians specializing in Vietnam are more interested in the events prior to the Boat People movement. It would be very helpful if a foundation could support this memory work.

The memory work has begun to be carried out by the younger Vietnamese generations of immigrant background through initiatives like the Fils Rouges Vietnam(‘Vietnam Red Wires’). The leaders of the movement are between 25 and 35 years old. They aim to convey the story of the Boat People to the new generations to prevent this period from being forgotten. Before talking about this generation, it is also necessary to talk about their parents. Because they have fled the country and have kept the memory of the Vietnam they knew alive, the parents tend to have a somewhat biased vision of the current Vietnam, which has evolved from the past, with new challenges and needs that are different from the Vietnam they knew.

Vietnam today is no longer what it was in the 1980s: the population no longer seeks to flee the country. This does not mean that the problems do no longer exist, but they are different. For parents, Vietnam remains a country in which no freedom exists. Young people do not have the same vision, probably because they do not share the same vision and concept of what they call freedom. In any case, I have the impression that a majority of Vietnamese born after 1975 do not have the vision (or the memory) of a country that has been subjected to a terrible fratricidal conflict, which had torn families and individuals for almost three decades. I frequently travel to Vietnam, where I can see that the Boat People era is definitively a part of the past now. This is understandable because the events did not happen during the life of most of the population.[7]There is some confusion over history. Vietnamese living in Vietnam sometimes confuse the American period with the French one. For young Vietnamese in France or in the United States, I think that Vietnam is perceived as the country of their parents. Those who are interested learn about Vietnam in a disconnected way, and probably without critical tools. It is for this reason that the testimonies of those who have lived through the events are always important.

There is very little intergenerational dialogue within the French Vietnamese community. I hosted a conference in the presence of Vietnamese who arrived in France during the Second World War. We listened to them but found a clear lack of intergenerational links. Everyone has their own view, which is determined by personal history. Vietnamese coming from North and South do not have the same vision at all. It is, therefore, necessary to trace the exact history of Vietnam. Understanding is very important because once you understand, you can put yourself in another person’s shoes, understand the decisions that have been made, and accept them. In the case of the Boat People, children blame their parents for having left Vietnam because the price was too high. And now, 35 years later, I think that it is not too late to do this memory work. It may even be a little too early.

Interview conducted by Julie Wagner on July 2, 2018 in Paris, under the direction of Ann-Sophie Schoepfel.


[1]Cap Anamuris a German NGO created in 1979 by Christel and Rupert Neudeck in response to the Boat People crisis. Rescue missions led by the association have helped rescue more than 10,000 people. The NGO continues to lead actions in crisis areas.

[2]https://video-streaming.orange.fr/actu-politique/medecins-du-monde-CNT00000196mSF.html

[3]https://www.colsbleus.fr/articles/2695

[4]https://www.amazon.com/Vot-Nguoi-Bien-Dong-Vietnamese/dp/1718618905/ref=sr_1_1?qid=1572098503&refinements=p_27%3APhan+L%E1%BA%A1c+Ti%E1%BA%BFp&s=books&sr=1-1&text=Phan+L%E1%BA%A1c+Ti%E1%BA%BFp

[5]https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4841542/

[6]http://www.reninc.org/bookshelf/pirates_in_the_gulf_of_siam.pdf

[7]In 2019, it is estimated that 35% of the Vietnamese population is under 25 years old. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/vm.html

Vietnamese democratic struggle and memory making in Liège. Interview with Le Huu Dao, President of the Vietnamese Community of Liège

Huu Dao was born in Hai-Phong. He and his family moved to Saigon in 1954, when the Communists took over the north of Vietnam. He moved to Liège in 1970 to pursue his studies. He never returned to his country of origin. Since his arrival, he has been involved in various Belgian and European associations campaigning for democracy in Vietnam. He is the President of the Vietnamese Community of Liège since 2005.

When I arrived in Liège in 1970, I held conferences on Vietnam for the Lions and Rotary Clubs. There was always someone who questioned me about my choice to move to Belgium. At first, I said that I had studied at the French high school Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Saigon, and that I had the choice between four French-speaking countries to continue my studies. Switzerland was too expensive, Canada was too far and too cold, and it was impossible to go to France. In 1968, France refused to welcome students from north and south Vietnam out of a concern for neutrality. The only country remaining was Belgium, which I knew because the NATO headquarters were located there. This version was not very flattering, as it presented Belgium as a default choice. I reflected, discussed with my comrades, and explained my choice to come to Belgium in the following way: the Belgian ambassador to Vietnam was the only one to receive Vietnamese students himself, and to encourage them to study in Belgium. This act led me to choose this country (this was my first ‘lesson in communication…’).

The Vietnamese community of Liège was formed at the end of the 1960s, with the arrival of many students from Vietnam. Most of them arrived between 1968 and 1973, a period during which Liège welcomed up to 1,000 Vietnamese students. Of the 1,000, 400 used their Belgian residence cards to go to France. They preferred to study and live in France. For years, we were close to 600 Vietnamese students in Liège. We had to meet several criteria, including academic excellence. We were supposed to go back to Vietnam after our studies. We did not want to stay in Belgium anyway. We were here only for the quality of the training. We wanted to return to Vietnam to build the country. This is the reason why the Vietnamese government sent students to Belgium during the Vietnam War. Just under the heading ‘Kingdom of Belgium’, it was written ‘Ban on staying after studies’ on our residence card. On my identity card, it was noted that my name was ‘Le Huu Dao’, and that ‘masc’ for ‘masculine’ was my first name. In fact, my name is ‘Le’, and my two first names are ‘Huu’ and ‘Dao’. All the girls had the same first name—‘fem’ for ‘feminine’. The Belgian government did not consider it necessary to specify our surnames because we were supposed to return to Vietnam.

There was an association of Vietnamese students in Liège, but the president was pro-communist. In response to this first association, some students and I created the Ligue des étudiants vietnamiens anticommunistes(‘League of Vietnamese Anti-Communist Students’). The two associations coexisted in Liege for a while. We were children and did not realize that the name was not the wisest. If I were to create a similar movement today, I would give a name such as the ‘Free Democrats’. I would not use the word ‘anti’ because it is a negative term. As a matter of fact, the Ligue des étudiants vietnamiens anticommunisteshas been renamed the Communauté Belgo-Vietnamienne(‘Belgian-Vietnamese Community’).

Following the Fall of Saigon in 1975, many families arrived in Belgium through family reunification. My family was one of the first in Liège. In 1975, thousands of Vietnamese fled by sea and tried to reach American ships. The communist regime bombed the boats, which ended up immobilized under the weight of the corpses. The sea was red with blood. The media have never really reported this part of the story. Family arrivals intensified from 1978, with the Boat People wave. After three years under the communist regime, the population was trying to flee the country. Departures were organized by networks of smugglers and were very expensive in addition to being very dangerous. The Pacific Ocean has become the largest Vietnamese cemetery on the planet. A total of around 20 Boat People were welcomed in Liège.

Today, the Vietnamese community of Liegeis organized like a dome. It includes several associations, each operating in a specific area: Communauté Belgo-Vietnamienne, Association des vietnamiens libres de Liège, the Catholic Community, the Bouddist Association with a pagoda, the Vovinam-Viet Vo Dao association, the Viet Tân Party). The VietnameseCommunityof Liègeconducts, for example, many cultural actions—which are, of course, anti-communist. Every year, all these associations gather and propose seven activities: the commemoration of Trần Văn Bá on January 8, the Vietnamese New Year at the end of January/beginning of February, the Hung Kings Festival in April, the commemoration of the Fall of Saigon on April 30 in Brussels, the Mid-Autumn Festival in September, an evening to raise funds for pro-democracy dissidents in Vietnam in October, and the Human Rights Day in Brussels on the December 10. We have our own flag, which is yellow with red stripes.[1]The functioning of the Vietnamese community of Liège is unique.

Let us now look at the European level. Before the Fall of Saigon, there was an association called the Congrès des Etudiants Vietnamiens en Europe (‘Congress of Vietnamese Students in Europe’), which in 1976 was renamed Congrès des Vietnamiens en Europe (‘Congress of Vietnamese in Europe’). This association only dealt with the organization of the Vietnamese Olympic Games. They oppose the Vietnamese communities of several cities. At that time, it was very difficult to be in contact because mobile phones and the internet did not exist. Personally, I had to use the student’s home phone. Trần Văn Bá was president of the Association Générale des Etudiants Vietnamiens de Paris. I knew him but we did not see each other a lot. At the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, he contacted me with the will to reshape the European Vietnamese community in the light of the recent events. On May 7, 1975, the first meeting of the Congrès des Etudiants Vietnamiens en Europe was held in Darmstadt. Seven Vietnamese associations were present. The second meeting took place in October in Liège. We were determined to continue our fight against the communist regime. We formed a unique network on the planet. It ceased activities after 2001 because there was no real succession. Potential successors were instrumentalized by Vietnamese political parties, which were more structured and organized than us. The Vietnamese community in Europe continues its fight for democracy in Vietnam but is not organized into political parties. It rather supports existing political parties.

The rest of the world, aside from the United States, has not hosted as many Vietnamese students as Europe. This explains the specificity of the European Vietnamese community. The Vietnamese community living in the United States is very important numerically but structured in a different way. It was formed with the tragedy of the Boat People, who were older and already trained when they arrived in the United States. They were quickly able to rebuild their lives.

In parallel with this community opposing the regime, there is also a community that left the country after 1975 and is still under the influence of the regime. Its members must renew their visas each year. This community is smaller and less visible because it has no struggle to carry out. Every April 30, the Vietnamese embassies celebrate the victory of Saigon. The pro-regime community does not go there, just as it does not attend our events. In Liege, few people claim to be communists. However, some Vietnamese refuse to participate in meetings of the Vietnamese community of Liège. They fear the consequences this could have for their relatives and for themselves, starting with a visa refusal to travel to Vietnam. In reality, they affirm their neutrality. They have no interest in taking a stand because they want to return to Vietnam to visit family and friends.

There are always students from Vietnam who come to study in Belgium, because the quality of education is high. They come for just one or two semesters, not for a whole cycle as before. The dialogue between them and students of Vietnamese origin who have always lived in Belgium is complicated. There is always some discomfort. We do not know whether they are afraid, or simply oppose our political views. All these students are selected and watched by the regime. The young Vietnamese generation is usually not interested in politics. That is the reason why young people can leave the country. They still have to pay a deposit in order to leave the territory, which is a guarantee for their return. When they are in Belgium, it is rare to meet them alone. In appearance, the Vietnamese regime is moving in the right direction. We need to delve further to see if the situation has really improved.

When I began to carry out actions criticizing the communist regime, many people reproached me for doing so, accusing me of political ambition. I accepted these accusations with a smile because it had nothing to do with reality. I wanted to go back to Vietnam; my fiancée was still living there. Ultimately, I never went back, and my fiancée married another man. At the end of 2018, the Vietnamese police rummaged in the affairs of one of my nephews when he mentioned my last name. We do not have the same last name and he has a very Belgian name. Once a month, I send an email announcing the next activities of the Vietnamese community of Liège. The email does not directly criticize the regime, but the organized activities are obviously against it. My recipients are in three cities, including Hanoi. I send this email to all politicians as well as to major industrialists. I am aware that it is the secretary and not the person in charge who will read my email, but it is precisely this part of the population that we are trying to reach.

If I want to go back to Vietnam, there are many ways. The first would be to go to the Vietnam Embassy in Brussels and apply for a visa. My file would be sent to the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry, which would make a decision. The answer would surely be ‘no’, because my presence in Vietnam would be embarrassing for the Vietnamese government. The second possibility would be to enter Vietnam with a false passport. The third would be to cross the Cambodian border. In both cases, I could act as a tourist without problems, but would not be able to participate in any demonstration or initiative for democracy. If I get arrested, I would be in a very problematic situation.

The current regime is authoritarian and corrupt. There are many videos on YouTube in which the Vietnamese people revolt against state officials, such as police officers. The internet is the only way to do journalism in Vietnam because all the media are controlled by the regime, which directly appoints the chief editors. Whether in the north or in the south, people are no longer afraid. Of course, there are different mentalities, since the north has always been under the communist regime, which is not the case of a whole generation in the south. The south also remembers the cleansing carried by the regime after 1975. Hundreds of thousands of people have been tortured and sent to re-education camps. This fear is rather hatred in the north, because the population feels betrayed. It has lived under the communist regime for several decades and has finally begun to open its eyes, partly thanks to the internet. It is very difficult, however, to explain something to someone who has no perspective or tools to build his own critical vision. Living under a dictatorial or democratic regime means nothing to the people of the north, since they have always lived under the same regime and have no element of comparison. There is also a difference between hearing about a situation and living it.

Today, no direct criticism of the regime is tolerated in Vietnam. It censors many things and has recently put in place a law controlling the internet. The pro-democracy activists arrested are sent to prison, where they are tortured. Associations for the defence of human rights are mobilizing across the planet to put an end to these abuses. Along with the arrests, the relatives of the prisoners lose their jobs.

The Vietnamese community of Liege regularly sends money to the families of these activists because they are completely excluded from society and live in precarious conditions. Currently, more than 100 people are imprisoned, but the figure is much higher if we take into account all those who have not yet been tried or who have already been in prison. People released from prison are under house arrest and cannot work. It is impossible to know the exact number of people incarcerated because the government does not provide any information. For people residing outside Vietnam, the only way to get information is to communicate with relatives still living under the regime. With new technologies, like Facebook, it has nevertheless become easier to obtain information. The regime cannot censor everything, and more and more people can dare to express their political views despite the repression. The new generation of Vietnamese immigrants has also begun to make its voice heard. These young people have never lived in Vietnam but can understand and express themselves in Vietnamese. It is necessary that they have these bases, because Vietnam will need competent personnel to rebuild the country the day we win the revolution.

In parallel with its political struggle, the Vietnamese community of Liège is committed to the memory work of the history of Vietnam. We have notably inaugurated a stele in memory of the Boat People in the Avroy Park in 2006. This stele is the result of an initiative led by the European Vietnamese communities. Each community has contacted the authorities of its own city to request the installation of a stele commemorating the Boat People. In the end, only Geneva and Liège succeeded, because it is a question of public relations. A few years ago, the mayor of Paris had accepted the installation of a plaque in memory of Trần Văn Bá in the 13th arrondissement. The Vietnamese embassy intervened with the French authorities, who eventually renounced the plate. In Liège, the installation of a stele was made possible thanks to the support of the political party cdH, with whom we have good relations. The stele was inaugurated on June 30, 2006, three months after Geneva, even though both requests were made at the same time. The explanation is again political. In Liège, municipal elections are held every six years in October. Three months before the elections, the parties are not allowed to organize demonstrations that are likely to bring them votes. The cdH, therefore, had to ensure that the stele was installed before the three-month deadline, but also as close as possible to the deadline.

We promoted the stele, which has been positively welcomed in Liège, and more broadly in Belgium. Local and national newspapers such as Le Soir,La Libre Belgique, and La Meusehave published articles on this subject as well as on the Boat People. From now on, we organize a commemorative ceremony around the stele every 10 years. Protests arose about the foreseen location of the stele. We wanted to place it next to the stele in memory of the destruction of Guernica. We finally had to place it further in the park. It was not possible to mix the different events.

The stele has a memorial function. It has the shape of a boat. We asked our friends in Geneva if it was possible to copy the shape of their stele. We have also adopted the same text, replacing ‘Switzerland’ with ‘Liège’ and ‘Belgium’ (‘Vietnamese refugees thank Liege, Belgium and the host countries’). We added an engraving representing the Boat People carrying an SOS flag. There are Boat People in Liège because Belgium welcomed 3,000 of them following the Geneva conference in July 1979. They were split between Brussels and Liège, two large French-speaking cities where Vietnamese students were already studying. These students served as guides and coaches for the Boat People, as about 90% did not speak French. At the beginning of the Boat People crisis, people fleeing Vietnam were fishermen with their own boats, not people from the upper classes. People in the city were reluctant to leave because their families were scattered, while fishermen lived in small villages and could directly leave the country with their entire family. People tend to overlook these events because it was a very hard time for the Boat People. It is impossible to forget, but they prefer to avoid talking about it in their daily life. In addition to the stele of the Boat People, Liège has a stele in memory of Trần Văn Bá, located on the Park Street. He was an anti-communist militant who returned to the bush and was shot. This stele has a connotation and a political goal, which is to overthrow the current regime. We wish to continue Trần Văn Bá’s fight year after year.

Interview conducted by Julie Wagner on July 4, 2018, in Liège, under the direction of Ann-Sophie Schoepfel.


[1]Flag of the Republic of Vietnam, which existed from 1955 to 1975.