The warring rulers of the refugees

Two separate but related worlds exist along the Thai-Cambodian border today. The first is that of the established refugee camps operated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The largest of these camps, Khao I Dang, is a well-planned, organized community. Streets are laid out, ample space exists between dwellings, housing (in long thatched-roofed shelters) is crowded but adequate, hospitals are well- stocked, and sanitation facilities are located well away from water supplies. An orderly atmosphere prevails, which conveys a sense of relative security.

A different world exists in the immediate border zone, an ill-defined no-man's-zone where some 600,000 to 800,000 Cambodians are gathered in insecure and transitory refuge. The largest concentration of these people is at Ban Long Mak Mun, a makeshift city or over 200,000 straddling the border. Smaller concentrations contain one, 30, or 80,000. Mak Mun and most of the concentrations like it are under the control of Khmer Serei units have actively fought against each other, and have resisted attempts by the United Nations and the Thai military to remove the residents of their camps to more secure UN shelters.

The Red Cross and other international relief agencies operate inside the camps in daytime, but are withdrawn at night. Food is delivered outside the camps each night by representatives of the World Food Program, but distribution is done by the Khmer Serei leaders themselves. The monopoly of those leaders over weapons in the camps, and over the available food supply, gives them the leverage by which they enforce control over their sometimes reluctant constituents.

Elsewhere along the border are population concentrations controlled by the Khmer Rouge. This fact, plus the ever-present threat of military strikes by the nearby Vietnamese Arm|, creates a situation of inherent instability throughout the border area. All three groups -- Khmer Serei, Khmer Rouge, and Vietnamese -- are heavily armed and mutually antagonistic. Divisions among the Khmer Serei further complicate the situation. Fighting has even occurred between the Khmer Serei and the Thai army, which has ultimate authority over the border area. An outbreak of violence at any time has the potential of spilling tens or even hundreds of thousands of Cambodians into Thai territory and the UN camps.

The basic human problems of the Cambodian refugees -- starvation and disease -- appears to be under control, and well on its way to solution. Thanks to the concerted efforts of a variety of public and voluntary relief organizations, the Cambodian people along the Thai border are now receiving food, medical attention , and other assistance necessary to meet their basic needs.

The question that remains -- and which still appears intractable -- is a more long- term political one. What will be the eventual fate of these refugees? The Thai Government considers them "displaced persons" rather than "refugees," and so has agreed to grant them only temporary refuge.If hundreds of thousands more cross the border or are subsumed under UN protection, the total number of refugees will far exceed the number which the United States and other third countries are capable of absorbing.

Yet the prospects for an early return of many of these "displaced person" to their homes are dim. Despite the presence of nearly 200,000 Vietnamese troops inside Cambodia, it is unlikely that Vietnam will be able to eliminate the remaining Khmer Rouge forces either this dry season or in the next. The morale of the Khmer Rouge army is high, and it now has caches of Chinese-supplied equipment sufficient to allow it to continue fighting for many years. While controlling the towns, the grip of the Vietnamese Army on the countryside is extremely tenuous, particularly at night. And as the Americans learned painfully in Vietnam, superior weaponry is not necessarily a viable answer to the problem of protracted guerrilla warfare.

Peace will therefore not come soon to Cambodia, and until it does, or until some other political solution is reached, the "temporary" camps inside Thailand and along the Thai-Cambodian border will most likely remain as semi-permanent establishments.

The implications of this are far-reaching. The presence of large numbers of Cambodians mixed with armed anti-Vietnamese forces in the border area provides an inviting target for Vietnamese raids or limited military incursions into Thai territory. If carried too far, such incursions could lead to US military involvement under Manila Pact commitments. The refugees also remain an economic burden and a potentially destablizing political problem for Thailand. Finally, there is the question of how long-term is the financial commitment the international community is willing to make to support Cambodia's refugees, should the crisis be extended from months to years. Thus, one year after Vietnam's invasion, the Cambodian refugee problem is moving from a humanitarian to a political phase. New approaches and new solutions will be called for. As immediate human concerns are increasingly replaced by governmental ones, the ultimate solution to the Cambodian refugee crisis will have to be found at that level.

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