Mixed fate for camp returnees

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 January, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 January, 1997, 12:00am

Returnee boatpeople couple Ha and Son have progressed from nervous witnesses in a Hong Kong murder trial to highly successful traders in Hanoi's tiny private sector.

Their tale marks a rare returnee success story, a thriving little business selling gourmet chocolates, cheeses and wines to Hanoi's burgeoning upper classes, fuelling a lifestyle that most returnees from Hong Kong can only dream about.

But as the money rolls in, their days are marked by constant fear. The couple witnessed a fatal machete attack on inmate Dang Chong Anh at Whitehead detention centre in June 1991.

Evidence from the pair was instrumental in the convictions three years later of two teenaged cousins, both named Tran Duc Cuong. Both remain in prison in Hong Kong serving life sentences for murder but the couple fear reprisals from the killers' family and friends still in Vietnam, knowing the considerable network of links between Hanoi and Hong Kong's camps.

On one occasion an armed gang of young relatives turned up outside their house in central Hanoi but were swiftly rounded up by local police.

'Our business is going extremely well for us now,' said Mr Son, 40, who asked for his real name not to be used.

'We have managed to put everything behind us and we don't talk about the past to anyone. None of our neighbours or fellow shopkeepers know, and we just want to look ahead. The police have promised to watch out for us. I think we will be alright.

'For small business people like us, Vietnam is the best place we can be,' he said, arranging a display of top-of-the-line cognacs.

The couple display all the trappings of new-found Hanoi wealth - chunky gold jewellery, imported jeans and big quilted jackets.

They married before fleeing for Hong Kong in July 1988, fuelled by entrepreneurial dreams. They claim to have lost more than US$50,000 (HK$385,000) in gold - an old family fortune - to gangsters on the way, returning with little after the court sentencing six years later.

'Our families have helped us a little,' says Mr Son. 'The rest is hard work. We are confident we will be able to provide a good life for our two sons. Eventually we would like to travel outside of Vietnam - but this time as tourists with passports. We hope nothing will upset our dreams.' Officials involved in the return of the final 6,000 boatpeople from Hong Kong worry about a different class of returning criminals - those who committed crimes before they fled. Vietnam has an acknowledged right to jail returnees for crimes committed before departure, apart from the act of fleeing itself, and officials warn several hundred could still remain in Hong Kong.

In the 1980s, Vietnam's courts allowed convicted offenders to stay with their families for a few days before starting jail - a factor which boosted the flood to Hong Kong.

'Even at this late stage, no one is sure how many criminals will face jail on their return,' said Catherine Bertrand, Vietnam chief for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

'We hope it will not raise a tricky issue in the coming months as they start to return. We can assume that many of the criminals will want to avoid jail at all costs. They will be the hard core, and now proportionally, a significant part of the camps.' The UNHCR has recently completed its most comprehensive review yet of some 50 boatpeople jailed on return, aided by access to Interior Ministry jails.

Ms Bertrand said all were found to have been jailed legitimately, with a few having been sentenced in absentia - denying them the right of appeal.