Piracy, violence develop between Vietnamese refugees, Thai fishers

On one side are Vietnamese refugee vessels armed with rusty automatic rifles and pistols. On the other are well-armed Thai trawlers. As the two make contact in the Gulf of Siam, there is an explosion of violence that leaves creaking wood hulls sinking in the deep.

This scenario hasn't been played out yet. But some naval experts are concerned that a major confrontation could occur between Vietnamese refugee boats seeking aid from the Thai trawlers, who are growing more wary all the time.

To date most of the violence has been inflicted by Thai and Malaysian pirates who have stalked often-helpless refugees to steal their valuables and rape the women. Vietnamese refugees have responded by carrying arms to be used, they claimed, for their own defense.

Now there are signs that armed refugees may stalk Thai fisherman to seize their well- fueled vessels for a better chance of reaching shore. Naval experts fear that Thai fishermen will become reluctant to help refugees in need.

Last week a Thai Navy spokesman warned fishermen to be alert because of acts of piracy by refugees. The warning followed two weeks during which four Thai vessels were illegally seized by refugees.

Thai fishermen's associations are pressing the Thai Navy to increase protection. The question of piracy has always been a sensitive one in Thailand. And the problem has continued despite American and international efforts to help the overstretched Thai Navy handle the problem by providing additional equipment.

Now all would-be refugees in Vietnam know by shortwave radio and other means of the danger they face once cast off into the Gulf of Siam. According to aid workers, this means they are much more likely to arm themselves before leaving.

Only a small handful of refugees are causing the problem, but now a kind of arms race appears to be devleoping between refugees and Thai fishermen.

Some 12,000 to 20,000 Thai fishing vessels cruise the Gulf of Siam. Many of these are honest fishermen. But some occasionally turn to privacy either out of sheer greed or because of declining living standards caused by rising diesel prices and increasingly fished-out seas. Many of these already carried arms but the prospect now is that even more may do so. "Any way you l ook at it, there could be more violence," said one observer.

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