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General

June 28, 2005 18:21 PM  

Former 'Boat People' Plead To Malaysia Not To Destroy Bidong Memorial

By Salmy Hashim

WASHINGTON, June 28 (Bernama) -- Overseas Vietnamese, who fled the communist regime after the fall of Saigon in 1975 in boats or "the Boat People" as they were called, are pleading to the Malaysian government not to destroy the memorial they set up on Pulau Bidong in Terengganu to commemorate their comrades who perished in their quest for freedom.

There is a vigorous online chatter out there among the millions of overseas Vietnamese calling for a collective action to stop the move by Malaysia.

Letters have been written to the Malaysian Foreign Affairs Ministry pleading their case.

Vietnamese Americans in California are threatening a massive protest in front of the Malaysian Consulate in Los Angeles to call for a halt to the destruction of the memorial.

There are an estimated 2.6 million to 3.0 million Vietnamese in the United States.

Derrick Nguyen, 41, who arrived in Pulau Bidong in 1980 with just his shirt on his back, and now a Civil Litigation lawyer in Los Angeles, California, said, "the Vietnamese government pressured the Indonesian government to destroy the memorial set up in Pulau Galang, which they did, and now they are pressuring the Malaysian government to do the same with Bidong."

Malaysian Tourism Minister, Datuk Leo Michael Toyad, at a press conference to promote Malaysia in the US, said in Los Angeles that the Malaysian government were "good friends with the Vietnamese government" and "would look for a solution."

Nguyen, now an American citizen, who was in Malaysia in March, said, "I had goosebumps and I cried with many others when I revisited Pulau Bidong. The memorial reminded me of the hundreds of thousands who died at sea in seeking their freedom.

"I was so touched by the warm welcome we received from the Menteri Besar and the people of Terengganu. We will never forget their kindness when we needed it then."

"I remember how the Malaysians, especially people in Terengganu had helped rescued us, and gave a proper burial for those who died at sea," said Nguyen who himself was rescued by a Terengganu fisherman.

About 850,000 people died on their voyages in little boats while traversing the South China Sea in the 70's and 80's in search of refuge after South Vietnam capitulated to North Vietnam, which marked the end of Vietnam War in 1975.

Nguyen said, when he returned to Los Angeles, many of his friends and former boat people who are now part of the community, asked many questions about Pulau Bidong, the changes there, and the abandoned refugee camps.

Last year, President George Bush appointed Nguyen, for a two-year term as Commissioner of the President's Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific islanders.

"We go around the US to help poor communities assimilate into the American mainstream, write a report and advise the president on the Asian community here," he said.

Meanwhile, Pulau Bidong is an unlikely tourist spot for many, but overseas Vietnamese are planning yearly "pilgrimages" to the island they now regard as "sacred" to pay respect to families and friends who did not make the freedom journey.

An estimated 500 former refugees in the US are planning to visit the island before the end of the year.

The former boat people who settled and had children in America, Australia and elsewhere are now taking their children and grandchildren on a memory trip for them to gain an insight on the hardship they went through before they were finally settled in third countries.

"Bidong was our first stop towards freedom and the message from the minister (Toyad) is very encouraging." said Nguyen

-- BERNAMA

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