Thailand weighs 'get tough' policy on Cambodia refugees

The new Thai government of General Prem Tinsulanonda is re-examining its "open door" policy toward Cambodian refugees. As a result, as many as 100,000 could be sent back across the Thai-Cambodian border.

As revealed to the Bangkok Post by Thai military and government sources, this possible policy change reflects growing Thai dissatisfaction with the pace of international refugee-relocation programs.

One purpose of a new "get tough" policy would be to spur greater international assistance for maintenance and resettlement of refugees.

According to the Bangkok Post, the "voluntary" repatriation program under consideration is aimed at completely emptying the Khao-I-Dang camp of some 120, 000 Cambodian refugees. The camp, about six miles inside Thailand, was set up late last year.

About 150,000 Cambodian refugees have been allowed entry to Thailand since last November. Another half million are in camps astride the Thai-Cambodian border.

Last month shortly before the Feb. 29 resignation of Prime Minister Kriangsak Chamanan, Deputy Interior Minister Narong Wongwen suggested that Lao refugees might be forcibly repatriated. At present there are 110,000 to 115,000 Lao refugees in thailand.

As of this writing there have been no confirmed refugee expulsions. But Thailand's new government has made it clear the re-evaluation of refugee policy is a high-priority item in its current policy review.

General Prem's government is scheduled to announce the results of a wideranging policy review to parliament approximately March 28. To be covered will be plans for defense, foreign policy, economics, science, technology, energy, and the natural environment, as well as refugee policy.

One major priority will be to reconsider massive oil price hikes ordered by former Prime Minister Kriangsak shortly before his Feb. 29 resignation.

So far General Prem has pointedly refrained from ordering any call for forced repatriation. But he has not reiterated his predecessor's pledge to refrain from forcible expulsion.

In his first foreign-policy speech delivered March 18 to the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, General Prem repeated Thai policy of caring for Cambodian refugees until it is safe for them to return home. But he said Thailand needs more international help and asked for a new conference to deal with the problem.

The general's comments were compatible with a policy of moving refugees from Thailand's interior. Cambodian refugees should be placed in "a safe haven along the border" until condition permit a return to their country, he said.

There is, reportedly, a debate within the government on how "open" the refugee door should remain. Former Foreign Minister Thanat Khoman, now a foreign policy adviser to the new governnment, is a leading advocate of tougher policy. Foreign Minister Siddhi Savetsila is reported more favorable to the "open door" approach.

The problem in any decision to move refugees from Thailand's interior to holding areas on the border was made clear last week during two days of bloody factional infighting between guerrilla leaders and their supporters in refugee camp 204.

More than 20 people were killed and over 80 wounded when rival groups of anti-vietnamese, anti-communist Khmer Serei (Free Khmer) guerrillas opened fire in the camp of 50,000. Tens of thousands of refugees fled before peace returned to the camp straddling the Thai-Cambodian border.

Since the Thai Army has little control in these border camps, there is always a potential for violence between guerrilla groups seeking to fill the "leadership vacuum." Unarmed international relief workers have little authority.

So if Thailand does move more refugees into such border camps, an improved system for keeping order may be necessary. One proposed solution is some kind of armed United Nations presence.

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