In the humid heat of a Thai morning, the newly ordained elder knelt on an old newspaper to protect his knees from the rough concrete floor of the hut. He was wearing a second-hand white shirt, an old tie, and sandals on his feet. Reverently, he broke bread and blessed it. Thach Khuong was not only grateful for the opportunity to participate in a sacrament service, but also for life itself. He had recently led his family through the dangers of war-ravaged Vietnam and Cambodia to the promise of freedom and safety in a United Nations refugee camp in Panat Nikom, Thailand.
When Brother Thach first arrived at the camp, he surprised Church welfare services missionary Elyce Jones by shaking her hand instead of giving her the traditional Cambodian bow of greeting. He told her that he was a member of the Church and that he held the Aaronic Priesthood. It was welcome news. Welfare services missionaries were assigned to teach refugees Western culture and English as a second language, but it was against United Nations’ policy for them to proselyte. However, with proper authority, refugee Church members were permitted to conduct Church affairs, including Sunday services.
At Brother Thach’s news, Sister Jones and other welfare services missionaries contacted Elder Marion D. Hanks of the First Quorum of the Seventy, then the Church executive administrator for Southeast Asia, and informed him that an Aaronic priesthood holder had arrived in the camp. Following a personal interview, Elder Hanks ordained Thach Khuong to the office of elder. “Brother Thach was our first priesthood holder in the camp,” says Sister Jones. “With his ordination, we were permitted to hold Sunday services.”
Brother Thach had joined the Church in 1971 while on a South Vietnamese air force training assignment in the United States. He made Latter-day Saint friends, attended Church meetings, accepted the missionary discussions, and was baptized. On his return to Vietnam some nine months later, his suitcase containing his copy of the scriptures was stolen. At the time, he was not aware of any Church organization in Vietnam, although a branch did exist in the capital city. But he did receive a twelve-month gift subscription to the Ensign, the English-language Church magazine. Reading and rereading the twelve copies of the magazine sustained him spiritually during the next ten years. When the government changed in Vietnam and “foreign” printed materials were viewed with suspicion by the authorities, he cherished his copies of the Ensign even more and hid them for safe-keeping.
When he left Vietnam and arrived in the refugee camp, he wrote to the Ensign and asked that his letter be forwarded to an old Latter-day Saint friend in the United States. The friend was traced. He began corresponding with Brother Thach and sponsored his immigration to the United States.
Thach Khuong is only one of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees who attempt to escape Indochina in order to live a better life. Many fail. Many die.
Many pay large amounts of money to be transported in small, overcrowded boats that often are in disrepair, hoping that some friendly vessel will come to their rescue before ocean storms, pirates, starvation, or dehydration overcome them.
Others, like Brother Thach, risk capture and death by traveling from Vietnam in the south, northward through Cambodia to neutral Thailand. With Brother Thach was his wife, Minhdan, three-year-old daughter, Minhvan, and a nephew, eight-year-old Khaivien. Brother Thach says, “Khaivien’s father was unable to pay the price to get his wife and six children out of Vietnam. He asked me to take the boy. Even though it meant giving up their oldest son, he and his wife felt that at least one of their children should have a chance at freedom.”
The journey through Cambodia was arranged with the help of a “guide” who charged Brother Thach one and one half taels of gold, approximately equivalent to his entire earnings for eighteen months. Brother Thach worked hard to save the money, accumulating the funds secretly so as not to arouse the suspicions of the authorities. Finally prepared, after selling the family’s meager possessions to relatives and friends, the group left on a moonless night in March, 1981, praying that they would be successful in their venture.
Brother Thach knows that their prayers were answered. Although they were Vietnamese citizens, he and his wife shared a Cambodian heritage and assumed the identity of Cambodians for their journey. “We were not always successful,” he recalls. “For instance, my wife dressed like a Cambodian woman, but one day we were questioned by someone who wondered why her sarong looked Vietnamese and not Cambodian. Even though the two countries have the same cultural background there is a difference in the style of sarong and in the way that it is worn. We gave some excuse or other, and we were allowed to go on our way.”
They were stopped several times by soldiers, but each time a small miracle occurred and they were free to continue. “One time,” says 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. I decided to tell him the truth—where we were from and where we were going. He let us go. I’m sure we would have been detained had the Vietnamese soldier challenged us.”
The family also escaped other potential dangers—being attacked by robbers or getting caught in military skirmishes—as they made their way by overloaded and ancient buses, bicycles, ox-drawn cart, and railroad train to Batdambang south of the Thai-Cambodian border.
The train carrying them had to make frequent stops while repairs were made to railroad tracks damaged by land mines. Brother Thach explains, “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. 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.”
Brother Thach says that at one repair stop, “I left the train and prayed that the Lord would help me find food for my family. They had not had anything substantial to eat for some time. After walking for about two kilometers I came to a village. I went to a house at the edge of the village and asked a lady if I could buy some food from her. She cooked a pan of rice, packed it in a banana leaf, added a pinch of salt, and gave it to me.” He paid her and took the rice back to his wife and the two hungry children, not forgetting to thank the Lord.
The family finally arrived at the refugee camp in Batdambang, but because it was located in Cambodia, Brother Thach requested that they be transferred to safer refuge at Panat Nikom, Thailand, where they arrived in May, two months after leaving Vietnam. From Thailand, they relocated to the United States where Minhdan Thach was baptized. She now serves as a Relief Society counselor in the Taylorsville 40th (Vietnamese) Branch, Taylorsville Utah Central Stake. Brother Thach, second counselor in the branch elders quorum presidency, is now an electronic test technician with a national engineering and research company with a manufacturing plant and offices in Utah.