The Khmer Rouge – the regime formerly holding power in the neighboring Cambodia – sent troops to land on Tho Chu Island in the southwest of Vietnam and kidnapped all 513 inhabitants there in May, 1975.
Although the killings have rarely been mentioned in documents because there were no survivors, Tuoi Tre found a couple who were living on the island and luckily escaped the massacre.
The aforementioned couple are Tu Si and his wife. They were not officially informed of the massacre until January 7, 1979 when a radio channel aired an announcement that Vietnamese troops helped Cambodian liberation forces free the capital, Phnom Penh.
“Then I hoped that my neighbors who were taken away in May 1975 by the Khmer Rouge would be returned and I would have the chance to meet them,” Si recalled. “I was wrong. Later I knew that they were all killed when they were taken to Koh Tang Island of Cambodia.”
Tu Si and his family are now living on Mau Islet of the island commune Nam Du, Kien Hai District, Kien Giang Province.
Si stated that he witnessed the last naval soldiers of the regime leaving Tho Chu and the Khmer Rouge sending troops to land on the island, 200kms from the mainland in May, one month after the South of Vietnam collapsed on April 30, 1975.
“I left for Tho Chu in 1971 when young men were conscripted into the army of the Saigon regime. We left our two children in Hon Mau and headed towards Tho Chu on a one-ton boat,” he recalled.
Tho Chu was then sparsely inhabited and the couple reclaimed a hectare farm, he added that, “Then the island had my wife and I and five other families. The life there was good as people did farming and kept tortoises for sale on the mainland.”
In early 1974, the South of Vietnam sent hundreds of other families to Tho Chu and established the administration of it. However, the administration only existed for a year.
When the South Vietnam soldiers left, the island was under an anarchy but not in disorder since the April of 1975. A short time later, the Khmer Rouge sent two war ships to Tho Chu. Khmer Rouge soldiers introduced themselves as ‘the brothers of Vietnamese liberation forces [North Vietnam]’ and initially treated islanders well.
They even donated 10kg of rice to each household. However, they began forcing locals to carry materials and build fortifications around the island.
On May, 23, 1975, they threatened the islanders with guns and forced them to leave their houses and gather on the Ngu beach of Tho Chu, where two big fishing boats were anchored.
A steersman of one of the boats told Tu Si that the Khmer Rouge were going to force all people to board the boats and head to another island. That man advised Si not to board the boats but to prepare petrol and food on his own boat and go with them. The steersman asked Si to keep it secret.
At 8:00pm, the two fishing boats were packed with over 500 people. Three small boats, including Tu Si’s boat, were towed after them.
They were all carried to Koh Tang island, not too far from the mainland of Cambodia and all of the people were put under hard labor and later killed.
Tu Si and his family luckily escaped, saying, “I will never forget the merit of the steersman. He helped us survive.
“At around 3 or 4:00am when it was totally dark at sea. I heard that the rope connecting my boat to the tower was cut. I floated freely for a while before filling the engine with fuel and heading back to Mau Islet to reunite with my children, I knew that the steersman had cut the rope.
“He was clearly trying to rescue us from the killings that I had never thought of.”
Tu Si and his family were not the only survivors of the massacre. His friend, Mr. Le Van Anh fled the island on the night that the Khmer Rouge forced locals to board their boats.
“I pretended to be collecting bird eggs on the beaches of Tho Chu and took a turn to steer my boat towards the Mau Islet in the night. I then reported that Tho Chu inhabitants had been kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge.
The information was late and all 513 people aboard the two fishing boats of the Khmer Rouge were later confirmed to have all been killed in Koh Tang.
To be continued