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AMERICAN WAS OUSTED BY THAIS FOR HIS EFFORTS

By Michael Dorgan Mercury News Staff Writer

SONGKHLA, Thailand -- The story of piracy against Vietnamese boat people has many victims and villains but few heroes.

One of the few is Ted Schweitzer, a 44-year-old American who, by his own count, rescued more than 1,200 refugees from pirates -- and was banned by the Thai government for his trouble. Some of Schweitzer's heroics are difficult to document because those who witnessed them were either pirates or refugees who have since disappeared into the anonymity of new lives in far away places. But interviews with people who worked with Schweitzer or were helped by him revealed nothing that contradicts the assessment of Nguyen Huu Xuong, director of the Boat People SOS Committee in San Diego: "He's a fantastic man."

"He's a great man," said Nhat Tien, one of the most revered novelists in the Vietnamese language. "He rescued a lot of people."

TURBULENT YEAR Nhat Tien was among those that Schweitzer saved during his turbulent 12-month assignments as a United Nations field officer in Songkhla seven years ago. Like many of the others, he was rescued from Ko Kra Island, a 100-acre swatch of jungle and rocks about 30 miles off the Thai coast.

Pirates sometimes towed entire boatloads of refugees to Ko-Kra, where they conducted thorough searches for valuables and selected women to rape. When the original captors left, other fishing boats -- sometimes dozens of them -- dropped by to let their crews take turns with the women.

"I've seen women who were literally raped to death," Schweitzer said.

Some survivors were not much better off than the dead. Schweitzer said he broke down and cried after finding one young woman who had hidden from pirates for 18 days by standing waist-deep in water in a rocky cave. Sea crabs had feasted on her legs.

TRAPPED ON ISLAND

That woman was one of 157 refugees trapped on Ko Kra when Nhat Tien was there.

They had been brutalized for weeks by various bands of pirates. One man's head was split open with an ax. Another's gold-filled teeth were pried from his mouth with a knife. A woman's back was badly scorched when pirates set fire to the brush where she was hiding.

Then one day a helicopter flew over. Two days later, it returned. The pilot, who worked for an oil company with gas rigs in the gulf, had spotted the refugees and notified Schweitzer, who then talked the pilot into taking him to the island. They dropped off food and medicine, and then Schweitzer went directly to the Thai navy and demanded that a patrol boat take him to the island to rescue the refugees.

Nhat Tien, who now lives in Orange County, said he is convinced that the 157 people on the island owe their lives to Schweitzer. "If he didn't do anything, everybody would have died," he said. "We had no food left."

DOZENS OF TRIPS

For Schweitzer, that trip to Ko Kra was the first of dozens. On dove from a rented fishing boat that couldn't beach because of high seas and swam alone to the island to rescue dozens of women whose screams he could no longer bear to hear. Dressed only in his shorts he tried to scared 50 sea- toughened pirates into running away by warning them that they were about to be arrested. The pirates beat him so ferociously that they broke a rib and a collar bone and so severely injured a kidney that he still requires medical treatment.

That was one of two serious beatings he received, Schweitzer said; he was threatened more times than he can recall.

He even heard that a contract had been put out on his life by the relatives of some the seven Thai pirates he captured - which was seven more than the Thai navy arrested during the same period.

When Schweitzer's rescue missions began to attract extensive press coverage, Thai officials notified the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that he was no longer welcome to serve in Thailand.

VISITS FREQUENTLY

He is still permitted to visit Thailand and has done so frequently. Those visits, he said, have made him skeptical of UyN. statistics that show an apparent decline in the percentage of refugee boats being attacked by pirates. There is, he said, a "bullshit factor" built into the statistics by Thai and Western Bureaucrats eager to show progress against piracy.

"They just keep telling their lies," he said. "It just washes the blood off their hands a little bit."

Schweitzer, who lives in St. Augustine Beach, Fla., and operates the non-profit SEA Rescue Foundation, attributes much of the piracy on the gulf to the large number of fishermen and the small number of marine police. To correct that imbalance, he hopes to establish a network of ships on the gulf that would pick up refugees before they are attacked.

"When you fly over the gulf at night, it looks like a city -- there are lights everywhere," he said. "When a refugee boat putts through that city of Thai fishermen, sooner or late they are going to get raped. What would happen in any city of 200,000 in the United States without any policemen?"

CONCEPT OF KARMA

Exacerbating the treatment of women, he said, is the concept of karma held by many of the fishermen.

"A lot of people believe that Vietnam is getting what it deserves, that there must be a reason it has gone through 40 years of warfare," said Schweitzer, who speaks Thai fluently and is married to a Thai. "When a bunch of Thai fishermen are hanging around and along comes a boat load of virgins, they think, "It's karma."

For all his empathy for the refugees, Schweitzer said there ultimately is only one solution to piracy: The Vietnamese should stay in Vietnam.

"That's their country," he said. "They should stay there and do what needs to be done to make that the great country they want it to be -- not just get on a plane and fly to L.Ay"

"If I was Vietnamese, I'd stay and fight."


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Last modified: Friday June 10, 2005.