JUST eight years after Vietnam's military occupation of Cambodia, the UN operation fielded to rescue refugees fleeing the conflict enters 1987 plagued by controversy, recrimination, and uncertainty about its future. The situation with the UN Border Relief Operation (UNBRO) stems from two recent developments:
Bangkok's announcement that it is closing its sprawling Khao I Dang refugee camp. Thailand's reasons: It is not satisfied with Western nations' slowness in accepting the refugees and it wants to stem the flow of Khmer (Cambodian) refugees entering Thailand.
The compound's more than 26,000 war-displaced Khmers are thus losing their legal status as refugees and, as ``displaced persons,'' are being sent to settlements closer to the Thai-Cambodian frontier. There, they are more vulnerable to the fighting between the forces of the Vietnam-backed Cambodian regime in Phnom Penh and the tripartite Khmer resistance coalition led by Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
The split between donor governments and UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar over his surprise replacement of the full-time Cambodia aid coordinator with a part-timer. Donors are concerned that the move is the start of a UN effort to downgrade the refugee relief program for that area.
In any case, together, the two developments are certain to add to the misery of the refugees, some of whom have been shunted from one site to another for more than a decade.
Bedeviled by what he calls ``the severest financial crisis'' in UN history, the Secretary-General announced he will replace the multi-million-dollar relief program's coordinator - Japan's Tatsuro Kunugi - with a part-time appointee on March 1. He also has put Mr. Kunugi's deputy, Jamshid Anvar of Iran, on notice that his days at the post are numbered. And he suggested at the year-end donors meeting called to plan for 1987 that other unspecified measures aimed at ``streamlining'' the operation are in the works.
Mr. P'erez de Cu'ellar's announcement drew sharp reactions from UN representatives of donor and regional governments. Jeremiah Kramer of Canada, a major aid contributor and principal refugee-resettlement country, expressed a widely shared concern when he implicitly cautioned against downgrading the program and accepting the political status quo.
``The changes which have been announced,'' Mr. Kramer said, ``cannot betoken an impression that the Kampuchean [Cambodian] border and refugee situation are no longer major international concerns or that large numbers of displaced persons are permanent features of the regional landscape.''
Another frequently voiced criticism of the changeover was that the Secretary-General had acted without consulting governments concerned - including the United States, UNBRO's biggest contributor - and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN): Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand.
As Michael Cheok, Singapore's deputy permanent representative to the UN, put it bluntly: ``The new arrangements ... have been foisted on us.''
Some 250,000 refugees from the conflict between Prince Sihanouk's UN-recognized rebels and the Phnom Penh-Hanoi alliance are still strung out along the Thai-Cambodian frontier. And the new budget of nearly $36 million for UNBRO projects an upsurge to at least 267,500 during 1987.
The UN moved into the Cambodia aid business on an ad hoc basis shortly after Vietnam invaded, drove the genocidal Pol Pot leadership out of Phnom Penh on Jan. 7, 1979, and installed the Khmer puppet regime of Heng Samrin.
The resulting wave of Khmer refugees that swept into Thailand that year prompted Bangkok to appeal for international aid. After a year of piecemeal assistance on the border and inside Cambodia, the UNBRO program was regularized. Australia's veteran UN troubleshooter, Sir Robert Jackson, was named on Jan. 2, 1980, as the Secretary-General's special representative to coordinate the mammoth relief effort.
Seven years later, P'erez de Cu'ellar admits that because the underlying political deadlock remains unresolved, refugee aid will have to continue. The question is, at what level and for how long?
US delegate Frances Cook, although sympathetic to the necessity of cutting UN expenses, expressed reservations about eliminating the office of a full-time Cambodia representative. She said the coordinator was the only office that provides centralized leadership in fund-raising for the 250,000 displaced persons.
Kunugi, who has held the post of special representative since taking over from Sir Robert three years ago, is being replaced by S.A.M.S. Kibria of Bangladesh, executive secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). Mr. Kibria, a respected diplomat and administrator, has served concurrently as Bangladesh's high commissioner (ambassador) to Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji; chief representative to the UN office in Geneva; Foreign Ministry political-affairs chief; and foreign secretary.
Kibria, who has headed ESCAP since 1981, was named to a second term at the same time that he was designated Cambodia representative. The double-duty appointment raised the question of whether what one delegate called a ``part-time worker'' could do justice to the demands of the coordinator's post.
As Mitsuhei Murata, director-general of the Japanese Foreign Ministry's UN bureau, observed, Kibria will have to be ``willing and able to devote all the time necessary'' to the challenging job. He said Kunugi had not only administered the giant operation, but coordinated cash and in-kind aid from governments and private organizations and shuttled among national capitals on fund-raising missions. The implication was that Kibria could not be expected to perform such arduous duties while also fulfilling his demanding responsibilities with ESCAP, the UN's main presence in the region.
Similarly, in paying tribute to Kunugi, Brunei's permanent representative, Awang Ahmaad Bin Haji Mohammad Yussof, pointedly praised him for his performance of a ``full-time'' job.
The closing of Khao I Dang camp, likely to be completed by March, will put new demands on Kibria.
Bangkok has long complained that the industrialized countries have reneged on promises to take the refugees off its hands. Now its patience is running out.
The complaint is not wholly unjustified, since between 1975 to August 1986, only six nations have each resettled more than 1,000 Khmers from Thailand.
Although it is too soon to assess the impact of the Khao I Dang shutdown, one senior UN aid official remarked gloomily: ``It isn't likely to make our job - or the refugees' lives - any easier.''