Viet buildup keeps Thais on guard

A Vietnamese troop buildup near Cambodian refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border has sparked fear that a full-scale attack on these anticommunist Khmer Serei camps may be imminent.

But the significance of the buildup as reported from Bangkok, Thailand, is still far from clear.

It is still unknown just how many Vietnamese are deployed in the area. And it is unclear whether their presence is a prelude to a full-scale attack -- or simply a minor response to local frictions with the armed young men who guard the perimeters of the refugee camps.

But a full-scale attack would present Thailand with a major problem by driving several hundred thousand Cambodian refugees across the border into Thailand.Some 400,000 anticommunist Cambodians occupy the sprawling, thatched-roofed camps just a few kilometers from Vietnamese positions. Most are in what Cambodia considers to be Cambodian territory.

"We have no idea how many Vietnamese are being deployed around the camps," a Western diplomat is quoted as saying. "But the reports indicate that the number of troops involved is a great deal more than the Vietnamese would need to simply clear out the [Communist China-supported] Khmer Rouge."

This weekened anticommunist Khmer Serei refugee leaders claimed their rifle-and-grenade-carrying guards had repulsed an attack by some 1,000 Vietnamese troops. But some observers have dismissed any such action as minor skirmishes growing out of local frictions, rather than the result of a major Vietnamese offensive. The young, khaki-clad men and women who bear arms for the Khmer Serei have been known to clash with both Thai and Vietnamese troops -- sometimes over quarrels concerning commercial transactions or racial insults.

Nevertheless there has been a debate among Bangkok analysts over whether the Vietnamese would launch a major attack against the Khmer Serei.

One school argues that the poorly armed, rag-tag guards of these anticommunist refugees offer no military threat against the Vietnamese. According to this line of reasoning, it is the highly disciplined China-backed Khmer Rouge that Vietnam will try to destroy. (The Khmer Rouge are situated south of the Khmer Serei both in Cambodia and in Thailand south of Aranyaprathet.)

But another school argues that even though the Khmer Serei presents no immediate military threat, it is a future rallying point of anti-Vietnamese resistance because it is both anticommunist and anti-Vietnamese. The Vietnamese must therefore "nip in the bud" Khmer Serei forces.

Vietnam will thus attack the camps, force hundreds of thousands of refugees into Thailand, and then seal off the border, according to this line of reasoning.

Many Bangkok analysts agree that whichever theory is right, the result is unlikely to be a major conflict between Vietnam and Thailand. Although some "hot pursuit" by Vietnam into Thailand is possible, the primary Vietnamese objective is believed to be to seal off the Thai-Cambodian border by military action on the Cambodian side.

Still Thailand, the United States, and the nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore) have taken steps to warn Vietnam of the military and political consequences of intrusion into Thailand. The hope is that these warnings will induce Vietnam to take the path of caution.

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