Thailand will soon begin repatriation of Cambodian refugees now in Thai camps. But the possibility that some of those returned will take up arms against Vietnamese soldiers occupying Cambodia raises an important question: Will the program provoke Vietnam and dash any chance for improved Thai- Vietnamese relations?
Such a setback could bring an intensified border conflict between a US-backed Thailand and a Soviet-backed Vietnam.
Under an incomplete plan that must be approved by Thailand's government, the Thai military will work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to return some of the 174,000 Cambodian refugees in Thai camps. Another 600,000 are camped in sprawling settlements along the often ill-defined Thai-Cambodian border.
The number to be returned has not been disclosed. But one Southeast Asian diplomat says it is likely to be small. Nevertheless, the issue still could be controversial because the repatriations will begin after refugee interviews at Sa Kaew camp, Thai and Western sources have been quoted as saying.
Sa Kaew has been a stronghold of anti-Vietnam, pro- Chinese Khmer Rouge refugees. Those selected to return thus could theoretically join what some military sources suggest is a steadily strengthening Khmer Rouge.
Still, one Asian diplomat notes that Vietnam has so far made no public criticism of the policy. The refugees will not be allowed to return with arms.
If this reasoning is correct, Vietnam will not interpret the new Thai policy as a hardening toward Hanoi. Indeed this view finds grounds for optimism: It notes that for the first time Vietnam has shown interest in discussing the situation in Cambodia.
A more pessimistic view maintains that Thai-Vietnam relations are still frozen. Vietnam has not agreed to refrain from attacking refugees along the Thai border.
One analyst emphasizes the Thai motivation is simply to prevent large numbers of refugees from living too long in Thai camps.