The Jakarta Post, 20 Jun 2005

Vietnam boat people's plaque torn down

Fadli, The Jakarta Post, Batam

The Batam Industrial Development Authority (BIDA) has removed a large stone plaque erected by former Vietnamese refugees at their one-time camp on Galang island, Riau Islands province. The monument was dismantled at the request of the Vietnamese president on the grounds that it was offensive to Vietnam.

 The 3 meter by 1 meter plaque was dedicated on March 24 during a reunion of 150 of the former Vietnamese refugees, who are now residing in various countries, including Australia, the United States, Canada, Switzerland and France. The reunion and the erection of the monument were the initiatives of BIDA and Singaporean firm Bold Express, which acted in a liaison capacity between the former refugees and BIDA.

A The Jakarta Post source, who requested anonymity, has said that the destruction of the plaque was carried out on the orders of President Susilo, as conveyed through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at the request of the Vietnamese government. 

The Vietnamese government took the view that the wording on the plaque denigrated the dignity of Vietnam.

"This involves government to government relations, and I've no right to comment. As far as I know, the plaque was dismantled after the Vietnamese government addressed a complaint to President Susilo," said the government source. 

Meanwhile, the concrete frame in which of the stone plaque was embedded is still standing. The marble tiles at the base have been removed, however. 

A number of visitors to the park and park workers expressed surprise at the removal of the plaque. A maintenance worker at the former camp, Mursidi, told the Post that he and three other workers were abruptly ordered to pull down the plaque. However, Mursidi, who is almost 60 years old, said he had forgotten the exact date on which they carried out the order. 

"It was around the end of May when we were asked to take down the plaque. It was already late afternoon and raining hard. But my supervisor told us that it had to be dismantled immediately, so we erected a tent over the monument so as to be able do so despite the rain," said Mursidi, who has been working at the site since the days when the camp was still open. 

Mursidi added that he was asked by his superior in BIDA headquarters in Batam to record the wording on the plaque before it was dismantled. 

The wording read as follows: In commemoration of the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people who perished on the way to freedom (1975-1996). Though they died of hunger or thirst, or being raped, or exhaustion or any other causes, we pray that they may now enjoy lasting peace. Their sacrifice will never be forgotten. - OVERSEAS VIETNAMESE COMMUNITIES 2005.

The reverse side of the plaque read: In appreciation of the efforts of UNHCR, the Red Cross and the Indonesian Red Crescent Society and other world relief organizations, the Indonesian government and people, as well as all countries of first asylum and resettlement. We also express our gratitude to the thousands of individuals who worked hard in helping the Vietnamese refugees. - OVERSEAS VIETNAMESE COMMUNITIES 2005. 

"They said that the instruction to remove the plaque came from Pak Ismeth Abdullah (former BIDA chairman), as it was he who encouraged the reunion to go ahead. I don't know what the actual reason behind the plaque's removal was. I'm just an ordinary person," said Mursidi. 

Meanwhile, Ismeth Abdullah, when contacted by phone, expressed incredulity and anger upon learning that he was being blamed for ordering the plaque's removal. 

"That's pure slander. We spent a lot of money on helping to make the reunion a success. How dare they accuse me of destroying the plaque. It's not true," said Ismeth. 

Bold Express's Project coordinator, Anne Oh, said that the Vietnamese government had not only requested the removal of the plaque on Galang Island, but also a similar plaque at the former Vietnamese boat people's camp on Bidong island in the Malaysian state of Trengganu. The request was still being hotly debated in Malaysia, she said.