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THE WASHINGTON POST - Hearing the Cries Of the Boat People

None of the names means much to Americans: Nhat Tien. Duong Phuc. Vu Thanh Thuy.

These are Vietnamese refugees who have been raising their voices in recent months to remind the world -- and especially Americans -- that the boat people in the Gulf of Thailand are still being drowned, murdered, robbed and raped.

These advocates know that their chances of being heard are small. The Vietnamese boat people are a cause whose time has come and gone. Like clothes, humanitarian issues quickly go out of fashion. The boat people are now as forgotten as the starving of the Sahel, the homeless of Uganda and the disappeared of Argentina. If Americans think at all of the earth's outcasts, it is now the turn of the Haitian refugees.

If any reason exists for rejecting the nation's forgetfulness of the Vietnamese boat people, it is the sheer -- and perhaps unparalleled -- barbarity that they continue to suffer at the hands of marauding pirates. According to 1981 piracy statistics compiled by the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, 289 of the 357 boats that arrived in Thailand were attacked on the open seas. After the first attack, the boats averaged at least two more assaults from other pirates. The number of known deaths or murders is 484. Abductions total 199 and identified rape victims, 583.

As always, behind the numbers are the individual stories of unimaginable brutality. Reporters in the Songkhla refugee camp in southern Thailand were told by one 15-year-old of her nearly four-month captivity in the gulf after her boat was sunk. She was gang-raped as often as 30 times a day. She was passed among 14 pirate boats, bartered for fish each time.

Another woman -- a 24-year-old seamstress from Saigon -- described her two dozen rapists as "fat, black people -- almost naked -- more animal than man." In the book "Pirates on the Gulf of Siam" Nhat Tien, Duong Phuc and Vu Thanh Thuy -- who have organized the Boat People SOS Committee in San Diego -- quote a witness to a gang-rape by the pirates: "They gathered around, laughing and joking raucously as they waited their turns... The women screamed in terror. The barbaric debauchery lasted all night until daybreak... In the end, all seven women lay on the deck motionless and unconscious."

A field officer for the United Nations refugee commission, after visiting an island of refugees where the men were murdered, the women raped and babies smashed against rock cliffs, said the inhumanity was something "I would not have believed possible in the 20th century."

Behind the human tragedies are political ones: the inability of the impoverished Thai government to wage an effective anti-piracy campaign, the near indifference of Western nations to the continuing atrocities, and the frustrations of groups like the U.N. refugee commission in rallying international outrage against the piracy.

Six weeks ago, the U.N. group appealed by letter to several developed nations for funds to create a $3.6 million program to help the Thai government police the pirates. But instead of money pouring in, as might be expected considering the documented horrors, such countries as France, West Germany, Australia and Switzerland have given only $2.3 million. The Reagan administration has pledged to come up with only $600,000. It is a shamefaced spectacle of miserliness: the United States, which spent $141 billion on a dommed military solution to Vietnam's problems, is now willing to part with only pennies on a peaceful program to help a few of the war's losers.

Some sympathy is owed the Thai government. It is a geographical accident that Thailand's shores are sought out by the boat people. Many of its fishermen have been helpful to the Vietnamese castaways. The government itself is already beleaguered trying to absorb the much larger hordes of land refugees pouring over the Kampuchean border. In addition, even if the $3.6 million is raised, the anti-piracy program is likely to be inadequate. Should it fail, the Thai government will be set up to take the blame.

In fact, Thai officials play only one of many minor roles in this tragedy. The largest responsibility belongs to the United States. To stop the piracy would be a small payment of the large moral debt we still owe in Southeast Asia.