On the second day of his visit to the U.S., Pope Francis stopped his motorcade and picked up a five-year-old Mexican American girl who tried to give him a letter and T-shirt. Seeing it in evening news reminded me of another pontiff that visited a refugee camp and picked up a little girl from the ground. It was John Paul II at the Phanat Nikhom Refugee Camp during his papal visit to Thailand in May 1984.
At the time, Phanat Nikhom held thousands of refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Among the Vietnamese were “boat people” as well as “land refugees,” that is, they left over land rather than sea. International and media focus on post-1975 Vietnamese refugees was typically on the “boat people.” But there were many that left by other means, including crossing through the land mass of southern Vietnam and Cambodia to reach the borders of Thailand.
I remember seeing a photo of this visit years ago in the Virginia-based ethnic Vietnamese magazine Văn Nghệ Tiền Phong (The Vanguard Arts), that showed the Pope speaking to Vietnamese women wearing the national long dress áo dài. But I haven’t been able to locate any photos of the visit on the Internet. Luckily, there is a documentary on YouTube about the event!
The narration is Thai but there are English subtitles. The visit occurred on the second day of his only papal visit to Thailand, and the clip on the refugee camp begins at 6:50. Click at two or three seconds before the eight-minute mark, and you can see several women in áo dài making the sign of the cross. The end of the clip shows the Pope reach to the ground and raise up a little girl wearing yellow for a moment before letting her down.
From the perspective of the refugees and former refugees at the time, the Pope’s visit was important because Thailand was generally considered the worst of temporary refuges in the region. It was true among Vietnamese, if not Cambodians and Laotians. The primary reason was Thai piracy. A number of boats in the late 1970s encountered pirates, but piracy was more isolated and not yet organized into a large scale.
By the early 1980s, however, piracy had shifted from amateur to professional. One statistic, for instance, shows that in 1981 alone some 77% of boats that arrived to Thailand had been attacked by pirates at least once. Many were attacked three times, resulting in at least 545 people killed, 571 women were raped, and 228 people abducted by pirates.
These numbers were merely a small part of countless stories of trauma and horror. Like the Laotian and especially Cambodian refugees, the Vietnamese “land refugees” encountered many hardships and horrors, including violence and rape by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and near the Thai borders.
Survivors also had to deal with the uncertainty of the future. Most Cambodian refugees were expected to return to their country while the Vietnamese eventually settled in a third country, usually the U.S. There was more hope by the time they reached one of the eleven refugee camps in Thailand, but it was still bleak in many ways.
Given this background, John Paul’s visit was extraordinarily moving, at least in the eyes of Vietnamese refugees – and not only Catholics – and former refugees already settled in a third country. I want you to know of my love, he said in the speech at the camp,,
We are truly brothers and sisters, members of the same human family, sons and daughters of the same loving Father. I wish to share with you your sufferings, your hardships, your pain, so that you may know that someone cares for you, sympathizes with your plight, and works to help you find relief, comfort and a reason for hope.
The next part of the threefold message:
Have faith in yourselves. Never forget your identity as free people who have a rightful place in this world. Never lose your personality as a people! Remain firmly rooted in your respective cultures, from which the world can learn much and come to appreciate you in your uniqueness.
Then the last:
Have hope in the future. Our world is in full development. It needs you and your contributions. Take every opportunity offered you to study a language and perfect a skill, in order to be able to adapt socially to the country which will open its doors to you and be enriched by your presence.
There is much about this visit and especially the wider experience at Phanat Nikhom, Sikiew, and other refugee camps in Thailand for historians to retrieve and shift through and analyze and interpret. For the time being, let the late pontiff’s words, basically a modern re-formulation of the Christian triptych faith-hope-love, sink in for a minute before we get back to our daily routine. That he took the time to visit this camp, where most people were assuredly not Christian, bespeaks of the humanity regarding the large issue of refugees in this earth since at least World War II.
Cited statistics come from Bruce A. Elleman, “The Looting and Rape of Vietnamese Boat People,” Piracy and Maritime Crime: Historical and Modern Case Studies (Naval War College Press, 2010).