Manage episode 315553817 series 2659594
This week, we look at Vietnamese ‘boat people’ and the Boliano 52 – a group of refugees left without aid in the South China Sea.
Disclaimer: This episode was recorded prior to the announcement in December 2021 of an amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill to provide the RNLI with legal protection in the case of rescuing refugees at sea. However, we feel the sentiments expressed in this episode surrounding the bill still merit inclusion.
Written, hosted and produced by Alix Penn and Carmella Lowkis.
Theme music by Daniel Wackett. Find him on Twitter @ds_wack and Soundcloud as Daniel Wackett.
Logo by Riley. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @tallestfriend.
Casting Lots is part of the Morbid Audio Podcast Network. Network sting by Mikaela Moody. Find her on Bandcamp as mikaelamoody1.
- Associated Press. (2008). ‘Dominican migrant: We ate flesh to survive’, NBC News, 4 November. Available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna27531105
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- Gourevitch, P. (2015). ‘Search and Rescue’, New Yorker, 26 April. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/05/04/search-and-rescue
- ‘Government minister ‘hopes’ cannibalism at sea no longer needed thanks to new technology’. (2021). Sky News, 22 June. Available at: https://news.sky.com/story/government-minister-hopes-cannibalism-at-sea-no-longer-needed-thanks-to-new-technology-12339438
- Kamm, H. (1981). ‘A Vietnamese Orphan Tells of Killings and Cannibalism in 52-Day Sea Escare’, New York Times, 13 August. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1981/08/13/world/a-vietnamese-orphan-tells-of-killings-and-cannibalism-in-52-day-sea-escare.html
- KQED. (2008). Vietnamese American Journey: Bolinao 52. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqqIIOSTj2U&ab_channel=KQED
- Liu, S. (2015). ‘Duc Nguyen, Boat Person Refugee and Documentary Filmmaker of Bolinao 52 (2007) and Stateless (2015)’, Break the Silence. Available at: https://soundcloud.com/breakthesilence_uci/ducs-interview-copy
- Los Angeles Times. (1988). ‘Cannibalism on the High Seas Vietnamese Watched the Killing Begin With His Friend, Cousin’, Orlando Sentinel, 13 November. Available at: https://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/os-xpm-1988-11-13-0080230074-story.html
- Lung, H. (2006). Lost Fighting Arts of Vietnam. New York, NY: Citadel Press. Available at: https://archive.org/stream/lost_fighting_arts_of_vietnam/lost_fighting_arts_of_vietnam_djvu.txt
- McKenzie, S. (2000). ‘Vietnam’s boat people: 25 years of fears, hopes and dreams’, CNN. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20030405185711/http://edition.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2000/vietnam/story/boat.people/
- Nguyen Mang, T. (2021). Vietnamese Boat People. Available at: https://www.vietnameseboatpeople.org/
- ‘Officer’s action probed.’ (1988). New Castle News, 11 August, p. 1. Available at: https://newspaperarchive.com/new-castle-news-aug-11-1988-p-1/
- Quang, T. et al. (2009). ‘Boat People ‘Ate Their Relatives’’, Radio Free Asia, 11 May. Available at: https://www.rfa.org/english/women/food-05112009123100.html
- Richburg, K.B. (1988). ‘Vietnamese Refugees Report Cannibalism on Voyage’, Washington Post, 10 August. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1988/08/10/vietnamese-refugees-report-cannibalism-on-voyage/a914a8c6-b50a-434c-adda-ac93dff1eef2/
- Right Here in My Pocket. (n.d.). Bolinao 52 Story. Available at: https://www.rhimp.com/bolinao52/story.html
- Right Here in My Pocket. (2007). Bolinao 52 Trailer. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EcUFFaWoydQ&ab_channel=RightHereinMyPocket
- Suarez, M. (1989). ‘U.S. Captain Convicted In Cannibalism Case, Given Reprimand’, AP News, 24 February. Available at: https://apnews.com/article/3f237384445ccad8fd5da3d045e637cc
- Swain, J. (1988). ‘Cannibalism: the chilling secret of lost boat people’, Sunday Times, 20 November. Available at: http://www.jonswain.org/articles/articles/articles/article1.html
- ‘Vietnamese boat people’. (2021). Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnamese_boat_people
- ‘Vietnamese boat people under investigation for cannibalism’. (1988). UPI, 9 August. Available at: https://www.upi.com/Archives/1988/08/09/Vietnamese-boat-people-under-investigation-for-cannibalism/5712587102400/
- ‘Vietnamese refugees forced to cannibalism for survival’. (1987). UPI, 12 August. Available at: https://www.upi.com/Archives/1987/08/12/Vietnamese-refugees-forced-to-cannibalism-for-survival/8126555739200/
Alix: Have you ever been really, really hungry?
Carmella: You’re listening to Casting Lots: A Survival Cannibalism Podcast.
A: I’m Alix.
C: I’m Carmella.
A: And now let’s tuck into the gruesome history of this ultimate taboo…
[Intro Music – Daniel Wackett]
C: Welcome to Episode Nine, the Bolinao 52.
[Intro music continues]
C: We like to joke here at Casting Lots that Alix does all of the serious episodes, and I do all of the silly ones. So, I’m afraid that we’re breaking with tradition today: this one’s quite depressing, guys. Buckle up.
A: It’s the rigor mortis smile on your face as you say it. Oooh, yeah this is gonna be a [insincerely] ‘fun’ one.
C: With that said, Alix, would you like to hear about the Bolinao 52?
A: I’m not sure that I do, but let’s go ahead anyway.
C: For some background, we’re in Vietnam. It’s the end of the Vietnam War. 1975. US troops have lost Saigon to the North Vietnamese Army and are now withdrawing.
A: This feels very topical, considering the same thing happened in Afghanistan.
C: Yeah, I was thinking that when I was researching this episode. Following the withdrawal, the Vietnamese allies remaining in the South are now suddenly exposed to the danger of political persecution under the new regime for their allegiance for the US, and what follows is the largest mass departure of asylum seekers by sea in modern history: a migration which causes a humanitarian crisis.
A: The boat people.
C: That’s the one. So, between 1957 and 1992, somewhere around a million Vietnamese people are estimated to have fled the country in small boats. These refugees for the most part head to Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand as a first step in their journey, and then go off around the globe. All over, basically. The boats were often manned by unscrupulous traffickers and were unsuited to a sea passage. Passengers had to content with storms, diseases, starvation, dehydration and lots of piracy, depressingly.
A: Everything that you’d expect from a tragic sea journey. Add on to that, fleeing from a war. Add onto that, people taking advantage of their situation.
C: Oh yeah. It’s estimated that around 800,000 people in total made it safely to new locations by boat, whereas somewhere around 200,000-400,000 perished at sea, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
A: [Wincing] Ooh.
C: Which are horrific odds. So, yeah, enjoy this episode…
A: You can tell this episode is serious, because I am not making any references to Miss Saigon.
C: I was wondering when you were going to make that reference. I think good to get it out your system now.
A: There we go. The reference is not making a reference.
C: Cool. One of the most well-known groups of ‘boat people’ were the Bolinao 52, whose ordeal was picked up by the international press as something of a horror story, for reasons that you can probably guess, given the name of this podcast.
A: We all know what’s coming. You know what’s coming when it’s an episode of Casting Lots; doesn’t make it any easier.
C: 110 refugees set out on 22 May 1988, from the port of Ben Tre in southern Vietnam, aboard a wooden junk which is 45 feet long and already leaking.
A: Oh, fabulous. Sorry, how many? 100?
C: Ish. It’s crowded.
C: Apparently, according to one of the survivors, they’d been told that there would be only 60 people aboard, and instead it’s 110 men, women and children, just crammed in.
A: So pretty much double what they were told?
C: They are headed for Malaysia, where a refugee camp promises the hope of moving on to the US and being rehomed there, and the journey is expected to take six days. Cost of passage? One ounce of gold per person. [Pause] Don’t make me start doing that ‘how many eggs is an ounce?’ thing.
C: An ounce of gold’s a lot, I think. Gold’s heavy.
A: Is it?
C: Gold’s not heavy.
A: I thought gold was quite light.
C: Gold’s light.
A: But if you’re fleeing a war…
C: Yeah, where are you getting your gold from?
C: After three days at sea, a storm hits. The junk’s engine breaks down and the existing leak becomes way worse. They are now stuck drifting in the South China Sea. There is no mechanic on board who knows how to fix the engine, and they are sort of in two minds about what to do next. Some of them want to turn back, others want to continue on. It all seems a bit academic, because they don’t have any propulsion or steering, so, whichever way they decide, they can’t really do anything about it.
A: Are there the people smugglers on board, or is it just the refugees?
C: At the moment, they do have a captain on board. Let’s see what happens to him later… They don’t currently have a sail, but they manage to rig a makeshift one, and the agreement is made to continue on. But as I said, that doesn’t really mean much when you can’t choose which direction you’re headed.
A: To attempt to journey on with a makeshift sail on a junk that’s meant to have an engine.
C: Yeah, exactly. After the fifth day, their fresh food and water runs out. Like I said, it’s a six day voyage. They were maybe a bit under-provisioned, considering they were expecting fewer passengers – wouldn’t have been an issue if they hadn’t got stuck.
A: Or if there had, in fact, been 60 passengers.
C: Very true. After about a week, one of their number, a man named Phung Quang Minh, takes charge of the vessel. Minh’s a 32-year-old former air force officer. Some reports say that he was a paratrooper in a South Vietnamese infantry unit known as the Red Berets, but Minh later says that he’d never actually been in combat, and was a student in a school for officers at the end of the war. So, either-or – military-ish or adjacent, is his background. This is his tenth attempt to escape Vietnam.
A: [Sympathetically] Oof.
C: He’s already spent four years in prison for two of those escape attempts. And aboard the boat, he takes charge: he makes himself responsible for rationing out the rainwater, for organising crews to bail out the bilge; and everyone welcomes that leadership initially, because it seems like the captain’s doing nothing. And it’s useful to have some kind of organisation, right?
A: It’s useful to have someone taking charge and making decisions.
C: Yeah. The boat’s original captain leaves Minh fully in charge when he, to quote, “‘went insane and left aboard a plywood raft” with some of his relatives. I couldn’t find a record of what happened to them, but I think we can guess.
A: I can make quite an educated guess as to what happens.
C: We know how rafts go down in Casting Lots history.
A: I wish you hadn’t phrased it like that, because I just want to make a comment about rafts going down at sea.
C: Oh. Yeah, literally, ugh. No pun intended. According to the survivors, they often see ships passing by – apparently up to around 100 – but none of them stop to help. Whenever they see a ship, they write an SOS in toothpaste on a piece of wood and hold it up to try and signal one down, and at night they set their clothes alight to keep a signal fire going.
A: [Wincing] Ooh.
C: Tung Trinh, one of the survivors, and the subject of a 2007 documentary film, Bolinao 52, describes how, “Day by day on the boat, I always thought, I [will] never die like this. Every day, I think ‘I will survive.’”
A: Sometimes, as we’ve covered, you really do just need that determination to survive, that idea that you will make it through.
C: Otherwise you’re just going to lose all hope really.
A: Exactly. And, not to predict the ending, but considering she’s in the documentary, I’m going to assume that does pay off for her?
C: Exactly. On day ten, the refugees spot a Japanese freighter. It comes within 100 yards, but doesn’t stop when they try to hail it. Around twelve people jump overboard in an attempt to swim out to it, but it leaves them behind to drown.
A: That… [Stunned silence] Wow.
C: You think that’s bad, Alix? Wait to hear about the next people who stop to help them!
A: Is there confirmation that that freighter did see them?
C: I don’t believe so, but 100 yards… It’s kind of hard to believe that no one would notice. But maybe. I don’t know what time of day it was, I guess it could have been at night.
A: It’s almost trying to give the benefit of the doubt, but we have seen people just nope out of helping. But I’m really not looking forward to what comes next.
C: On the fourteenth day, a 22-year-old man dies of thirst, making the first person to die of on-drowning reasons aboard. The following day, a total of seven children die. One of those was the four-year-old daughter of Vo Thi Bach Yen. In a later interview, Yen describes how, “She did not say anything. She just stopped breathing. The next day I asked two passengers in the boat to help me to put her little body into the sea,” and after that, “I sat there without emotion and left everything to fate.” Yen also alleged that Minh “beat [her] about the head” to prevent her from giving drinking water to the dying children. Minh denies that, but clearly conditions aboard…
A: Are tense?
C: Tense! That’s the word I’m looking for. Over the following days, people drink urine and seawater out of thirst. Some go overboard and swim away, mistakenly thinking that land’s within reach.
C: On 9 June, however – so this is day 19.
A: Oh gosh, that’s… both longer and shorter than I thought it would have been.
C: Another ship is spotted. Is this salvation at last?
A: I’m going to assume not.
C: They hope it will be, of course. It’s the USS Dubuque, under the command of Captain Alexander Balian. Trinh Than Xuan, a former lieutenant colonel in the South Vietnamese Army Rangers, is not deterred by what happened to the people who swam out to the Japanese ship, and goes out to swim out to it with two other men. He recalls: “When the US ship was about 200 yards away, I jumped in and swam for it, but when we reached the ship, an American sailor waved us away and motioned for us to return to our boat.” The Americans threw down three light jackets to help them get back, however, Tung Trinh’s brother drowned trying to get back aboard. She remembers: “My brother climbed on the thing on the […] ship and they shake him. [He] dropped down. So they said come back. But my brother [was] too weak.” Also speaking in the Bolinao 52 documentary, one of the sailors aboard, Bill Cloonan, said: “I saw one Vietnamese drown. He was trying to hold onto a line coming off the ship. Somebody was told on the ship to shake the line and not let that guy get aboard. I was quite distressed about it. It was not the right thing to do. It was terrible.”
A: [Outraged] Yeah, it was not the right thing to do! Jesus!
C: Yeah, insightful, Cloonan. The Dubuque sent out two rubber launches carrying food and water to help the boat. According to the survivors, this was about six cases of canned meat, and two plastic bags, each containing about six gallons of water. They’re also given a map with directions to the Philippines, although no other navigational equipment.
A: And no way of getting there.
C: Exactly. The Dubuque men do not offer to help repair the engine, or go aboard to assess the shape of the ship. Although the survivors say that the US men were made very aware that the engine was broken.
A: Considering that the British government is currently sort of picking an argument with the RNLI about whether or not you rescue people at sea, the idea is, that is the most basic thing you can do, which is to offer help and to not leave people to die. Not actually offering succinct help and just being like ‘Oh, here, have this, you’re on your own’ doesn’t really seem to fit the spirit of it.
C: [Sarcastically] Well, the Americans do have a really good reason, though, Alix.
A: [Disbelieving] Sure…
C: One of the Americans who can speak a bit of Vietnamese tells the refugees that the Dubuque cannot help them, because it’s on a secret mission in dangerous waters. The details of this, which they didn’t reveal at the time–
A: Obviously, they were secret.
C: Were that they were heading from Sasebo in Japan to the Persian Gulf, to escort the Vincennes, an American warship, which would a few weeks later mistakenly shoot down an Iranian civilian airliner, killing all 290 people aboard. Just as a fun extra bit of history and context around this case.
A: [Sarcastically] Nice one, US military.
C: The American sailor apparently promised that another ship would arrive in two days. Now, it’s unclear whether that’s a definite promise or an estimate.
A: Or a lie.
C: The survivors on the boat take it as a promise. They understand that the Dubuque men have radioed for help and that a boat will be arriving in two days, whereas US officials claim that they never made that promise. With the benefit of doubt, it could have been something that was lost in translation – perhaps he didn’t speak Vietnamese particularly well and had been misunderstood. But, either way, the people on the boat believe that in two days, another ship sent by the US is going to come and save them.
A: Maybe he was assuming that this was a route in which in at least two days there will be another passing ship. Whether or not they’re willing to help you is an entirely different matter.
A: But that’s not what the survivors hear.
C: Exactly. The encounter with the Dubuque lasts two hours in total, and then the Americans move on on their secret mission.
A: You’d think they’d at least take some of the children.
C: Well, they’re going into dangerous waters… I guess I can understand the thinking of ‘if we get bombed, those children will die.’ But equally if we leave the children on the boat, they’ll die. So, yeah – no, you’re right.
A: It is fair to say that everyone in this situation is already in dangerous waters.
C: Very true. Cloonan told the documentary team, “I felt very badly about what we had just done. We did not save them[…] We left people to their own devices, and as we found out later, those devices were not good.”
A: No shit, Sherlock.
C: The survivors later claimed that one of their number died of hunger during the encounter with the Dubuque, a 22-year-old man traveling with his wife and two children. His body was thrown overboard, and the American sailors not only saw it, but photographed the body in the water to prove it had happened – meaning that they definitely knew that the people on the boat were starving to death. “They knew we were all dying, but they just turned and sailed away,” said one of the survivors in an anonymous interview. Once they are abandoned–
C: Minh again takes charge to put an end to any fighting over the provisions, and the boat people ration out the food and water given to them by the Dubuque. However, remember, they’ve been promised help in two days.
A: So they don’t need to ration too heavily, especially considering they’re starving, because someone will be there in 48 hours.
C: Exactly. After a week, the provisions run out, and there’s still no sign of this rescue ship. According to some accounts, Minh’s leadership style was very harsh. You’ve heard already the claims that he beat people to prevent them from giving water to dying children. He and his posse, which reportedly included several officers of the South Vietnamese Army, forced weak and starving people to bail water, threatening them with knives and sticks if they didn’t work. People continued to die of dehydration and starvation, at the rate of two a day. On 18 June, according to Minh, in a later interview, the refugees decided ‘to use the dying to help the living[…] The people in the boat came to me. All of the people in the boat agreed with this idea. It was June 18, and we decided to use this date to remember the dying in the boat […] I did not want to do the wrong thing. There were so many people. All of these people believed in me and asked me to keep discipline in the boat, and when they decided to use the dying, they asked me to do it.” So in Minh’s later account, it’s clear that it’s a unanimous decision and he’s been elected as the person to do the dirty work, basically.
A: It does take the responsibility away from him, he has given it to the people – whether or not I believe that, I don’t necessarily know. But we definitely have covered in multiple accounts that people do come to this decision rationally, so I don’t think there’s anything nefarious going on.
C: Yeah. Logically – but unfortunately for the people on the boat – all of the bodies so far have been cast overboard, so there aren’t any corpses around currently to eat now that they’ve made this decision.
A: We’ve also encountered with rafts and ships before that bodies make really good fishing bait.
C: Yeha. It is stormy weather, which makes it harder to fish, so could be that.
A: I don’t think it’s been considered. Which is fair – most people are not us, and your immediate thought isn’t ‘how can I use this body to get more food?’
C: Dao Cuong, aged 30, was already dying of starvation and dehydration. Minh, or the entire group, depending on who you believe, reached a decision that Cuong should be killed to feed the others. Some sources even say that this was based on a lottery. So, casting lots.
A: [With no enthusiasm] Eyy.
C: That’s a really unenthusiastic name drop.
C: ‘Cause of how depressing the situation is.
A: If that was via casting lots, that was a rigged lottery.
A: Granted, everyone on this junk is starving to death, but the ‘this man just happens to be starving to death and is near death anyway; oops, he’s lost the lottery.’ I’m not sure I believe it.
C: I think more likely that he was intentionally selected, whether by Minh or by multiple people.
A: Notably, it doesn’t appear that he offered up himself.
C: No. In fact – sorry – Cuong’s friend and travel companion, Dinh Thuong Hai, tried to defend him from Minh’s group. “I said, ‘No, Cuong is still alive. I cannot let you kill and eat him. You can use him if he dies.’” And Cuong allegedly overhears, and says that he doesn’t want to die. He asks, “Why not wait until I starve to death?” But they don’t wait.
C: In Hai’s account, “When I saw the two men grab Cuong by the feet and realised they were about to kill him, I asked them to allow us a few minutes in private. Cuong had told me before we had left Vietnam he wanted to be a Catholic. I scooped up some sea water, poured it over his head and read the Bible.” Which is an interesting callback to a lot of other examples of these kind of stories that we’ve had in the past. It seems that people report that they’ve turned to religion in the last minutes before the casting lots ceremony is complete, right? And it’s always hard to tell whether that’s a very, sort of, a very human desperation, or whether it’s the survivors trying to remember the deceased as having salvation in the afterlife. I don’t know.
A: The idea that, despite the horrific end, that they did have that moment of peace following.
A: And, as we have covered in various other episodes, of all of the Christian sects, the Catholics are quite down with cannibalism… Although, that said, there’s something about someone having their baptism and last rites with bailed seawater that sort of gets to me.
C: You have to make use of what you have.
A: It’s very human. Oh, here we go, Alix is off about how survival cannibalism makes people human again.
C: No, I do think that this is one of those episodes that brings that out. Certainly, watching the interviews from Bolinao 52 with the survivors, I really felt that myself.
A: You had your Alive! moment.
C: I did! I did.
A: The beautiful horror of survival cannibalism, and how it reveals… I’m here all week.
C: Tung Trinh in particular, her interviews are really heart-wrenching and so human and evocative. I will link the ones that are available on YouTube in the show notes bibliography.
A: Because I know we do a lot of these stories – if you hadn’t got it by now, it’s sort of the gist of the whole podcast thing.
C: Yeah, yeah, it’s our thing.
A: But there is something about how brutal, but also how almost unbelievable survival cannibalism situations are, that really throws into sharp relief the fact that all of these people, whether this is a story that happened in, you know, 1650 or the 1980s – when exactly is this story taking place, again?
C: This is May 1988.
A: 1988. It really throws into sharp relief that all of the players are people who have full lives, and, I know this is certainly something that I’ve found with doing Flight 571, but when you have interviews, it really does help to remind you that this is a real situation that, what is it, ‘but for the grace of God go I’?
C: Following this moment to read the Bible, Minh’s “men allegedly held Cuong by the feet and submerged his head under the water until he drowned. He was then cut up, boiled and fed to the other passengers.”
A: [Wincing] Ooh.
C: He was then cut up, boiled, and fed to the other passengers. All of the survivors consumed Cuong’s flesh. Hai says, “We were told we had to eat to stay strong, and if we didn’t we would be next.” Can’t tell whether that’s a threat, or an attempt to be reassuring of ‘you have to eat to survive, or this’ll be–’
A: It could be either, but considering a man who didn’t want to die was murdered, there’s a definite aura of threat.
C: Yeah. According to most accounts, two more passengers were also killed for food, and three passengers died of starvation and were also eaten. The numbers vary a little bit between who’s telling the story; it’s roughly in that region. Tung Trinh said, “We had one before he died, he said just take him like food. He told [us], ‘just take me’, so beginning from that day, from that moment, and after that, we have some from the dead people. That […] still makes me very, very sad.” It sounds like from her version of events, the first person to die gave his permission to be eaten, so again we’ve got some fuddling of exactly what went down, and how.
A: Considering how traumatising I’m going to make an educated guess that it was, I’m going to say a bit of variation in narrative and chronology is to be expected.
C: Exactly. And, like I said, this documentary where Tung Trinh’s being interviewed was in 2007, so, what, that’s 30 years on?
C: You’re not gonna remember it moment by moment necessarily. Among those who were eaten were a 22-year-old woman and a 13-year-old boy, who was, in fact, the cousin of Hai, whose friend Cuong had already been killed and eaten. So you can see why Hai, perhaps, has a very negative memory of Minh in particular, if he blames him.
A: Which he probably does.
C: Yeah. Minh later claimed that the decision to kill for food had been by consensus. “Because of the other people on the boat, I did this thing and I hoped God blessed me. I am a Christian. I killed this man on the boat to help the living. Personally, I think it’s wrong, but so many people needed to eat.”
A: When he says it’s by ‘consensus’, that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s everyone.
C: Yeah, doesn’t mean it’s unanimous, that’s true. And not everyone corroborates that story. For example, we’ve already had Yen, whose daughter died of thirst, and she said that the cannibalism was not a group decision: “It was horrible, but we did not have the strength to stop him.” Minh said the others had turned on him later, because they didn’t want to accept the blame for what they’d all done – so he’s a convenient scapegoat. But equally, the others are a convenient scapegoat if he doesn’t want to accept the blame for what he’s done, so I don’t really know there. A lot of different accounts.
A: I feel the absence of a definitive agreement will go a long way in that confusion, as it were. Because you can inherently personally, internally disagree, but not speak up and say ‘no’.
C: [In agreement] Mmm.
A: Which means that both there is consensus, and there is not consensus at the same time, and how you feel doesn’t necessarily denote what you do.
C: Yeah. If, as Yen’s saying, people are too afraid to speak up, then to Minh that could sound like no one disagrees.
A: And also, someone does have to make a call, and Minh has already been – I don’t want to say ‘elected’ – but he has become the de facto leader.
A: The buck has to stop somewhere, and someone has to make a decision.
C: And it’s very true that, in making that decision, he did cause the remaining people to survive, so…
A: Apart from the ones that he had killed.
C: Well, yeah, there’s that. Finally, on 28 June, which is the day after that younger boy’s been killed, the boat people are finally found and rescued by a Filipino fishing vessel from the town of Bolinao in the Philippines. 58 had died during the journey, making 52 survivors – hence the name ‘Bolinao 52.’
A: That is quite impressive, actually, considering the odds of survival and some of the survival rates that we’ve had in previous accounts. I’m actually quite impressed.
C: So that’s over a month at sea, and there was that brief interlude with some extra provisions form the US, but in total, yeah.
A: When you say an ‘interlude’, you mean two hours.
C: Well, a week in which they had food from it.
C: But yeah, very brief. The survivors were taken to a refugee camp on Palawan island in the southwestern Philippines. Seven of them, including Minh, were separated for investigation on the charge of murder.
A: I’m going to assume Minh and his posse?
C: Yeah, exactly. In the refugee camp, rumours of the murder-cannibalism were met with outrage by the Vietnamese community already there. Minh had to be placed under protective custody. The names of the others under investigation were withheld for the same reason. Whether or not to prosecute was a bit of a head-scratcher for the Philippine authorities. As the Sunday Times of 20 November 1988 put it: “Nearly everyone agrees that these killings are not a normal case of murder[…] Lawyers argue that desperate circumstances raise complex legal questions which are compounded by the refugee status of the Vietnamese and the fact that the deaths occurred at sea.”
A: This sounds a little bit like a certain legal case: Dudley and Stephens vs the Crown.
C: It does indeed. I’d say it’s almost exactly the same. However, eventually the decision is made not to prosecute. Firstly, because of the necessity defence. And also because it seems like everyone’s a bit confused about who has jurisdiction in international waters. Sure, I mean, yeah if you can’t be bothered to figure out who’s responsible…
A: And also who would do the, er, prosecuting.
C: The other detainees were released, but Minh had to remain in protective custody a while longer. “We feared a bit that he might be mauled,” said a field officer for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Minh was reportedly most distressed that his own mother, a resident of California in the US, had rejected him after seeing a newspaper article about the case.
A: That’s harsh, but also makes me think that perhaps the case hasn’t been reported on particularly sensitively. Because we’ve come across so many other cases where people’s families are completely understanding – or that it’s the families of the victims, rather than the survivors, who quite understandably hold some reservations about forgiveness.
C: Yes, most of the contemporary newspaper accounts that I read from 1988 do not have Minh’s side of the story; they are the interviews with Hai and the other survivors who blame Minh for what happened. So you’re exactly right, they’ve very strongly biased in that direction.
A: Who also probably have survivor’s guilt.
A: For being the ones who were not killed and eaten,
C: But, I think you’ll be pleased to hear that it’s not only Minh and his crew who face potential legal repercussions. Remember Captain Alexander Balian of the Dubuque?
A: Oh, thank goodness.
C: Yes, he is held to account! He’s suspended from command, facing court martial on 28 charges of negligent homicide. Interviewed shortly after the events, he claimed he stood by his decision, calling the encounter a “tragedy of errors”, caused by poor interpretation and inaccurate information relayed to him at the bridge. He claimed that his crew had told him that the refugees were in good shape and that their boat was sea-worthy, so they would be fine with just the supplies, which Balian claimed were larger than the survivors reported – so more water and more food.
A: What about the photograph that your own men took of someone who starved to death in the two hours you were there?
C: That’s a really good observation. Lieutenant Commander Raymond H. Carlson, prosecuting the case later, said–
A: Sorry, can we have this in an American accent, please?
C: We can have this one in an American accent.
A: [Laughing] I have been very sensitive about what I’m asking for an accent for.
C: [In an American accent] “Only a fool could think that this vessel could effectively sail anywhere. Captain Balian is no fool.”
C: It’s like a real back-handed compliment that’s also a ‘you’re going to-’
A: ‘You’re going to prison.’
C: Yeah! Although the survivors disagree with Balian’s account – as in, they think that he has abandoned them – they don’t actually want to see him punished. 20 of them sign a petition saying as much.
C: Former Lieutenant Colonel Trinh Than Xuan said, “This captain was good enough to stop to give us food and water. We saw between 40 and 50 ships during our 37 days at sea – both before and after the Dubuque – and not one of the others stopped even for that.” Which sounds like a really low bar, there, had been set.
A: Like, the bare minimum. Ignoring the fact that he actually gave a direct order that led to one of the survivors drowning.
A: They’re better people than I am.
C: Despite this, on 24 February, Balian was convicted of dereliction of duty for failing to conduct and adequate inspection of the refugee boat; to determine whether its sail was adequate; to conduct appropriate medical examinations of visibly dehydrated refugees; to provide necessary navigational equipment; to provide adequate water and clothing to the naked; and take refugees aboard or see to it they were taken aboard or assisted by a Navy supply ship in the area. So a long list of crimes there.
A: And they definitely, then, didn’t call someone else to come have a look, otherwise he wouldn’t have been done for that final dereliction of duty for not calling another supply ship.
C: Exactly. Prosecutor Carlson said: “Providing humanitarian assistance is a mission of the Navy, clearly and unequivocally. On the 9th of June he was not concerned, as he should have been, with the humanitarian assistance mission of the United States Navy.”
A: Go and give some money to the RNLI.
C: Balian claimed that he’d been made a scapegoat by the Navy, in a situation that was “politically messy for the Navy because no matter how you look at it, the Navy was embarrassed.” He said that four of his crew members, in fact, should be investigated for court martial for their conduct, having given him false information.
A: Here’s the thing, mate, once you’re the captain–
C: The captain’s responsible for the actions of his men.
A: Exactly. Like, you have responsibility for the ship; that means you get all the praise, but also it means you can’t pass off ‘oh, it was actually their fault.’
C: And that is, ultimately, how the decision’s made. He won’t give the name of the four men – I guess either ‘cause he’s making it up, or out of not wanting to get them in trouble – but, either way, the decision is that ‘you’re in charge, you’re to blame.’
A: ‘You’re the one that fucked up.’
C: No charges are pressed against any of the crew members. Balian also calls for justice against Minh: “I don’t feel that enough emphasis was placed on the conduct of the tyrant on that boat” or “on what really happened on that junk, why two young children were allowed to die and why three were murdered and all five eaten. Where is the accountability for that?” Well, Balian, it’s with you! Right?
A: It’s either with you, or with the people smugglers.
C: Yeah, that too. Very good point.
A: It’s like, do I think Minh made all of the right decisions throughout this entire, disastrous– it’s not even an expedition, it’s just a–
C: Escape attempt?
A: Escape attempt, I think! But he didn’t choose it.
C: [In agreement] Mmm.
A: He was also fleeing.
C: You’re between a rock and a hard place, right?
A: Better than me saying ‘frying pan and the fire’.
A: But yes, true responsibility is either with the people at the very beginning who caused this – whether you would like to say that’s the people smugglers, or, in fact, the Americans (and Vietnam), or whatever on that side of the waters, or with the American officers who stepped in and could have saved everyone, but didn’t. Once you are on the junk and everything has already gone to hell, there’s only so much that one individual in that situation can do.
C: I’m afraid to say that this was not the first or the last case of survival cannibalism for Vietnamese boat people. For example, in a 2009 interview, Kim Chi, who left Saigon on a boat in 1979, described similar experiences: “Everybody was hungry. One person said this before he died: ‘Why not eat human flesh to survive?’ He then died, and his flesh was the first to be eaten by his wife and his children for them to survive. The idea started from there. After that other people saw it, and they began […] The truth is, it was horrible. When people were starving, perhaps their thinking was clouded and their judgment was impaired.” Kim Chi’s boat was at sea for around 65 days, after the propeller got caught on a net and was broken. They drifted and ran aground on a sandbar, where they were stuck until a ship stopped to rescue them. However, unluckily for Kim Chi’s boat, the fishermen who rescued them were not, in fact, heroes. Instead, they extorted more gold per person out of the survivors, then pretended to sail back to Taiwan for 17 days, in fact dragging things out so they could charge daily for the amount of food consumed by the people rescued. And, counter-intuitively, the refugees on board the ship were only saved when something exploded, because the captain was so frightened that he called the authorities in Taipei to help.
A: This is one of the situations where we are not, in fact, bringing out the best of people.
C: Yeah, exactly. In another case from 1981, 15-year-old orphan Dao Van Cu flet Vietnam with a group of fishermen. He recounted to the New York Times a series of fatal arguments over food, culminating in a group of older men deciding to kill and eat him. He was pinned to the deck and beaten over the head with an iron bar. “They wanted to eat me and put a large pot of water up to boil. I waited for them to cut my throat.” However, another youth on the boat died first, giving the boy a brief reprieve.
A: Well, a complete reprieve, in fact.
C: Well, yeah, he was rescued before they got round to him again, very true. His older companions denied those allegations, claiming that they’d done no cannibalism whatsoever.
A: I’m torn with this, mostly because of the pot of boiling water part of the story.
A: Like, I completely believe in survival cannibalism at sea; I completely believe that people will and do murder; I completely believe that you will even be cruel enough because it’s very important to drink their blood (that sounds weird): I’m not sure about the big, evil boiling pot of water.
C: It sounds like something out of the more racist Tintin comics, doesn’t it?
A: Yes. But then, we have had someone’s head being boiled in a soup can before, so, at this point, I don’t think I should question anything.
C: What we can see from this picture is that vulnerable people put out to sea on these boats were, throughout that entire period, at risk of various atrocities, including having to turn to survival cannibalism. And finally, to end up this episode of joys, I would like to skip forwards to this century. Because although the Vietnamese boat people phenomenon is over, refugees are still frequently setting out on dangerous boat journeys. Tung Trinh, one of the Bolinao 52 survivors, described her reaction to images of refugee boats from the 2000s: “I just feel the same, when I saw their faces. Just the same as us before. I hope now someone can help and someone can give them a hand, because they still have the same red blood like us.” As recently as 2008, a group of 27 migrants in a boat from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico made international news. After both their boat’s engines died, they were left bobbing at sea with no food and only rain and seawater to drink. Their numbers dwindled, until the decision was made to eat one of the dead to survive. Gregorio Maria Marizan, a fisherman, told the Associated Press: “Imagine, 15 days without food, without water. I’m a sailor, a fisherman – they were all yelling at me to do something[…] I always try to be prepared, so I had brought my knife along. We hadn’t brought food because it was supposed to be a quick trip. We had nothing to eat. We had to eat him, to save our own lives.” The next day, the remaining survivors – only five of them, including Maria Marizan – were picked up by a US Coast Guard helicopter and taken back to the Dominican Republic… of course.
A: Annoyed, angry silence really isn’t a useful podcast reaction, but considering this episode, what else can there be?
C: Finally, 2021. Anyone who follows our Twitter may remember that in June 2021, Alix got very excited that survival cannibalism was mentioned in the House of Lords.
A: For our non-UK listeners, that’s the unelected part of our Parliament. Don’t ask: it’s all a bit weird.
C: [Sarcastically] People should be allowed to have power over the law, as long as they’re rich enough and from a long lineage of noble families, or whatever.
A: Or bishops.
C: [Laughing] Or bishops. Or just, I dunno, you can be made a Lord, can’t you?
A: What, like Andrew ‘Lord’ Webber?
C: He’s Lloyd Webber!
A: Lloyd Webber, yeah.
C: Yes, for example, Mr Phantom of the Opera. Anyway, in a discussion in the House of Lords about human rights at sea, the Department for Transport minister, Charlotte, Baroness Vere of Norbiton – that’s a UK name, huh? – said that these days, “Shipwrecked seafarers would be rescued long before any decisions would need to be taken on who to eat.”
A: Would they, now?
C: “Modern-day search and rescue services are equipped with an astonishing range of technologies which aid both in the alerting of the rescue services that there is an issue, but also in terms of the location of persons in distress or potential distress.” So, yeah, maybe that’s the case for official craft, but what about refugee boats? And even if the technology says they’re in distress, who’s stopping to help them?
A: And, as I’ve referenced a few very subtle times in this episode so far – and we are now completely accepting that we have a bit of a political leftist slant here at Casting Lots–
C: [In mock surprise] Never!
A: Everyone are people, who’d of thought it? This year, 2021, an attempt to change the Nationality and Borders Bill by our Home Secretary, Priti Patel, which would basically make it illegal for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution volunteers to help drowning refugees or asylum seekers, as suddenly any attempt to help asylum seekers or refugees in international waters gain entry – even if that was not for personal gain, aka just to save their lives – would be illegal. It’s not a question of whether lives at sea can be saved, it’s who’s allowed to be saved. And that is, frankly, disgusting.
C: Yeah! The Bolinao 52 case is still taught at the US Naval Academy as part of its ethics course for ship’s commanders, and perhaps we should send Priti Patel on that course.
A: Yes, I think that’s a very good idea. Although are they actually teaching them to pick them up, or just not– just to go the other way?
A: I don’t trust any institution. Apart from the RNLI.
C: End of episode?
A: End of episode.
[Outro Music – Daniel Wackett]
A: Thank you for listening to today’s episode on the Bolinao 52. I know we’re often quite light-hearted here, but the refugee crisis is a real and serious one across the world, so support where you can.
C: Join us next time for Lord of the Flies, with an unexpected twist.
[Outro music continues]
A: Casting Lots Podcast can be found on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr as @CastingLotsPod, and on Facebook as Casting Lots Podcast.
C: If you enjoyed this episode and want to hear more, don’t forget to subscribe to us on iTunes, Google Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts, and please rate, review and share to bring more people to the table.
A: Casting Lots: A Survival Cannibalism Podcast, is researched, written and recorded by Alix and Carmella, with post-production and editing also by Carmella and Alix. Art and logo design by Riley – @Tallestfriend on Twitter and Instagram – with audio and music by Daniel Wackett – Daniel Wackett on SoundCloud and @ds_wack on Twitter. Casting Lots is part of the Morbid Audio Podcast Network – search #MorbidAudio on Twitter – and the network’s music is provided by Mikaela Moody – mikaelamoody1 on Bandcamp.
[Morbid Audio Sting – Mikaela Moody]