Sihanouk reverses signals on Kampuchean refugees

Cambodia's unpredictable former head of state, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, has reversed himself once again - and thrown into confusion the issue of Kampuchean (Cambodian) refugees returning from Thailand.

Prince Sihanouk last month visited the Khao-i-dang refugee camp, the largest in Thailand, and asked Kampucheans there to join him ''in a crusade for national independence.'' Now, he has told them to stay where they are.

Prince Sihanouk's call for support last month was answered by some 13,500 refugees, who immediately signed up for repatriation - the largest single group of Kampucheans choosing to return since they began fleeing into Thailand seven years ago.

Although they knew there could be no return to Thailand if they did not like what they found across the border, they were stirred by Sihanouk's enthusiastic words about the new coalition government, which he now leads in the fight against Vietnam's occupation of Kampuchea.

More than 2,000 of the refugees have already gone back, most of them crossing the Thai border through the Chong Chom pass in the top left corner of Kampuchea to an enclave of 5,000 Sihanouk supporters.

The others are meant to leave as soon as transport and camp facilities are ready.

The prince's change of mind, however, has put the scheme in doubt. In messages to the Thai foreign minister and to the refugees themselves, he asked for repatriation to be halted because of insufficient supplies of food and medicine inside Kampuchea.

The Thai authorities wonder whether the unpredictable prince has some unrevealed reason for his policy reversal. All those involved in feeding and caring for the returning refugees - United Nations and Red Cross officials and the Thai Army - say there is no shortage of food and medical supplies.

A Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman said Thailand could not interfere with the repatriation as the refugees had all specifically asked to be sent back.

Among those returning are young men who say they are going back to fight the Vietnamese. They will be welcome recruits in the small guerrilla army who call themselves Sihanoukists but are too small in number to change the balance of military power within the coalition.

The coalition is dominated by the communist Khmer Rouge regime (the former government ousted by Vietnam) because of its overwhelming military strength, which is estimated to be 10 times greater than that of the Sihanoukists and other noncommunists in the coalition.

A few refugees who originally lived in border areas will be able to return to their home villages but most have homes far away in the interior of Kampuchea controlled by the Vietnamese.

Returning home would probably be too perilous to be considered. For these refugees, repatriation is little more than changing one refugee camp for another.

Those going back are men, women, and children including the very young and the very old. After two or three years in a refugee camp they have abandoned all hope of finding another country to take them in.

They have seen 150,000 leave the Khao-i-dang camp for new homes in the United States, Australia, and elsewhere but no call has come for them. Many therefore are going back more in despair than in hope but some feel there may be compensations.

''It may be dangerous with the Vietnamese so close but we will be outside the barbed wire of the refugee camp,'' said one man leaving the camp after 21/2 years.

Most of them have always lived close to the soil, and so they find the prospect of farming Kampuchean land again the strongest pull of all.

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