Thais pull back welcome mat for fleeing Cambodians

Thailand, which has sheltered nearly 1 million Cambodian refugees in camps or on its borders, is sharply revising the controversial policies that have made it a "magnet" for hungry Cambodians.

The changes appear designed to reduce the financial drain on Thailand's economy, draw greater international assistance, reduce domestic political criticism, and perhaps even to pave the way for slightly improved relations with Vietnam.

So far Thailand has:

1. Designed a plan to thin out the massive 130,000-person Khao I Dang Cambodian refugee camp by moving some 60,000 of them to other holding camps by the end of June. About 60,000 refugees will go to four camps southeast and northeast of Bangkok, financed by the United Nations.

2. Tightened security to prevent more Cambodian refugees from moving secretly from border areas to holding centers inside Thailand such as Khao I Dang. Last week Thailand's new prime minister, Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda, reportedly said Thailand will not admit any more Cambodians into holding centers. Instead, the government would send food into Cambodia to prevent refugees from seeking food in Thailand.

3. Begun a voluntary repatriation program for refugees to return to Cambodia. In a recent interview, Thai Foreign Minister Siddhi Savetsila reportedly said refugees would not be forcibly pushed back, but would go only if they declared their willingness on a paper signed in the presence of a representative of the UN Office of the Commissioner for Refugees.

4. Started a crackdown on Cambodian refugee camps straddling the Thai-Cambodian border, where infighting between rival Free Khmer groups has led to dozens of deaths and razing of refugee huts. On April 12 Thai authorities closed down violence-wracked Camp 204 (opposite the Thai village of Nonmarkmoon) after 46 persons died in earlier factional fighting. The camp of about 55,000 was dispersed to other sites, with about 20,000 former inhabitants taking shelter in nearby Camp 007.

5. Tightened restrictions on processing and acceptance of Vietnamese refugees who have fled across Cambodia to Thailand. Hundreds of these refugees, so-called "bicycle people," have been trapped in border camps of Cambodian refugees, where anti-Vietnamese Free Khmer leaders say they want them for interrogation to determine if they are spies. With these camps sometimes subject to Vietnamese artillery attacks, relief workers sometimes express fear that ethnic hatreds could lead to rape, beatings, torture, or murder of the Vietnamese refugees.

Thailand's changing policy appears influenced by recognition that continued hunger in Cambodia would drastically increase the refugee burden in Thailand, at a time when international willingness to help pick up the costs is declining. Also, some advisers to the new government suggest that ending former Prime Minister Kriangsak's "open door" policy could help improve relations with Vietnam, thus reducing the chances of armed clashes with Hanoi. Vietnam charges that Thai camps are sanctuaries for Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge who cross the border to fight in Cambodia.

On March 25 Thailand "closed" its border to new refugees, instituting more complicated entry procedures for those seeking to move from border-straddling settlements to camps actually inside Thailand.

At about the same time attention focused on Thailand's "task force 80," a military force that "voluntarily" repatriated to Cambodia at least 1,000 refugees from 13,000-person Khao I Dang. The discreet, behind-the-scenes operations of "task force 80" raised concern among some relief workers and others that the task force may be forcibly repatriating some refugees to Cambodia.

Still, outwardly at least, there is no sign the new Thai policies have improved relations with Vietnam or with the present Vietnam-backed government in Cambodia.

On April 10 that government's foreign minister, Hun Sen, said in Phnom Penh that his government had requested negotiations with Thailand on possible repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians living in Thailand or along the border. The Thai government turned down the request, he said.

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