The Thachs’ Long Road to Freedom

By Sandra Williams

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    In the humid heat of a Thai morning, Thach Khuong knelt on an old newspaper to protect his knees from the hut’s rough concrete floor. Reverently, he broke the bread and blessed it. Though his tie was old and his white shirt was secondhand, he was grateful to the Lord—not only for the opportunity to participate in a sacrament service, but also for life itself and the blessings he and his family had received during their recent dangerous journey through war-ravaged Vietnam and Cambodia to the freedom and safety of a United Nations refugee camp in Thailand.

    Thach Khuong was born and reared in Vietnam, but he met the missionaries, accepted the gospel, and joined the Church while on a South Vietnamese air force training assignment in Mississippi. On his return to Vietnam some nine months later, his suitcase, which contained a serviceman’s copy—his only copy—of the scriptures, was stolen. At the time, there was a branch of the Church in Vietnam’s capital city, but he wasn’t aware of its existence, so he didn’t attend Church meetings for several years.

    But he had received a twelve-month gift subscription to the Ensign, and he read and reread those twelve copies of the magazine over the next ten years. When the government in Vietnam changed and authorities viewed “foreign” printed materials with suspicion, Brother Thach cherished his copies of the Ensign even more and hid them for safekeeping. They sustained him spiritually throughout those years and throughout the journey on which he and his family would soon embark.

    Thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees attempted to leave Indochina. Many failed. Many died trying. Others paid large amounts of money to be transported in small, overcrowded boats that were often in disrepair, hoping that some friendly vessel would come to their rescue before ocean storms, pirates, starvation, or dehydration overcame them.

    Transportation by boat was too expensive for the Thach family, so Brother Thach contacted a “guide” who agreed to take the family on an overland route from Vietnam through Cambodia to neutral Thailand for one and a half taels of gold—an amount roughly equal to Brother Thach’s entire earnings for eighteen months.

    Brother Thach had worked hard to save the money, accumulating the funds secretly so as not to arouse the authorities’ suspicions. After selling the family’s meager possessions to relatives and friends, Brother Thach, his wife, Minhdan, their three-year-old daughter, Minhvan, and a nephew, eight-year-old Thana, began their journey on a moonless night in March 1981, praying for success in their venture.

    Their prayers were answered. Although they were Vietnamese citizens, Brother Thach and his wife share a Cambodian heritage, and they assumed the identity of Cambodians for their journey. “We were not always successful,” he recalls. “One day we were questioned by someone who wondered why my wife’s sarong looked Vietnamese and not Cambodian.” The two countries share the same cultural background, but there is a difference in the style of the sarongs and in the way they are worn. Nevertheless, Brother Thach and his family were allowed to go on their way.

    Several times they were stopped by soldiers, but each time they were allowed to continue their journey. “One time,” recalls Brother Thach, “we were stopped at a checkpoint where there were two soldiers on guard—one of them Cambodian and the other Vietnamese. For some reason the Vietnamese soldier turned away and didn’t talk to us. The Cambodian soldier asked to see our identification papers.”

    Brother Thach told him the truth—where they were from and where they were going. “He let us go,” he says, adding that “I’m sure we would have been detained had the Vietnamese soldier challenged us.”

    The family also escaped other potential dangers—including robbers and military skirmishes—as they made their way by overloaded and ancient buses, bicycles, ox-drawn cart, and train to Batdambang, south of the Thai-Cambodian border.

    The train made frequent stops because the railroad tracks had been damaged by land mines. “To clear the tracks, the train crew would unhook the locomotive from the passenger cars and use it to push ahead a weighted freight car to set off any unexploded mines,” explains Brother Thach. “Then they would repair the track. This took so long to do each time that all of us on the train were afraid we would be stranded without food.”

    At one repair stop, Brother Thach left the train, silently praying that the Lord would help him find food for his family, who had not eaten for some time. He walked about two kilometers and came to a village. There he went to a house and asked a woman if he could buy some food. She cooked a pan of rice, added a pinch of salt, packed it in a banana leaf, and gave it to him. He paid her and then took the rice back to his wife and the two hungry children, thanking the Lord for his help.

    When the family arrived at the refugee camp in Batdambang, Brother Thach asked if they could be transferred to a safer refuge at Phanat Nikhom, in Thailand. The family arrived there in May, two months after leaving Vietnam.

    At Phanat Nikhom, Brother Thach surprised Church welfare services missionaries by greeting them with handshakes instead of the traditional Cambodian bow. He told them that he had been a member of the Church for ten years, and that he held the Aaronic Priesthood.

    It was welcome news for the missionaries. United Nations policy prohibited proselyting, and missionaries weren’t allowed to conduct Sunday meetings. However, refugee Church members were permitted to function as Church leaders and to hold Sunday services. The missionaries contacted Elder Marion D. Hanks, who was then Church Executive Administrator for Southeast Asia, and informed him that an Aaronic Priesthood holder had arrived in the camp. Elder Hanks interviewed Brother Thach and then ordained him to the office of an elder. With a Melchizedek Priesthood holder in the camp, the tiny group of Latter-day Saints began holding Sunday meetings.

    Before he had left Vietnam, Brother Thach had written a letter to the editor of the Ensign, asking if another letter, to a Latter-day Saint friend of his who was then living in Huntsville, Utah, could be forwarded. The friend, Stephen Silver, who now lives in Mississippi, corresponded with Brother Thach and helped him and his family immigrate to the United States, where they settled in Taylorsville, Utah.

    Both Brother and Sister Thach acknowledge the Lord’s help in their journey. “A power supported me along the way,” says Brother Thach. He adds that he often felt it was important for him to keep praying. Those prayers were answered—sometimes in miraculous ways.

    Since their arrival in America, the family has received more blessings. Minhdan was baptized, and Brother Thach obtained employment as an electronic test technician with an engineering and research company. Their family has also grown; two years ago, a son, Khaivien, was born. They are currently members of the Taylorsville Fortieth (Vietnamese) Branch, where Brother Thach is a counselor in the branch presidency and Sister Thach is a counselor in the branch Relief Society presidency.

    Illustrated by Scott Snow

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    • Sandra Williams is a visiting teacher in the BYU 142nd Ward.