IT was a symbol of hope to many, a source of controversy to some. It is now becoming history. Khao I Dang, the most famous refugee camp in Indochina - and the last Cambodian resettlement center in Thailand - is in the process of closing down.
The controversial decision, which was announced by the Thai government in December, means that the camp's 24,000 Cambodian residents will not only be displaced, but will also presumably lose the opportunity to emigrate.
Yet there are so many imponderables - deadlines set for their transfer, deadlines then delayed - that it remains unclear what legal status, if any, the Cambodians will ultimately retain.
There is thus an eerie silence here in Khao I Dang, and much uncertainty and confusion, as men whisper in corners and women squat on the ground, waiting for some sort of selection process.
Who will go where? Will the ``illegals'' be discovered? Will any of them be trucked unwillingly to one of the displaced-persons camps even closer to the border, possibly one run by the civilian followers of the dreaded Khmer Rouge, which ruled Cambodia with a reign of terror between 1975 and 1979?
The barbed wire surrounding this city - one square kilometer (four-tenths of a square mile) of bamboo and thatch and about 12 km (7 miles) from the Thai-Cambodian border - seems more protective than menacing. There is added protection in the blue-and-white UN flags. Khao I Dang is administered by the Thai military, assisted by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
It is the last of five UNHCR-administered camps directed at resettling Cambodian refugees abroad. The camps to which the refugees are now being sent are administered by the three Cambodian resistance groups - the two noncommunist factions of Prince Norodom Sihanouk and the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF) and the communist Khmer Rouge. It remains unclear precisely what role the UN will be assigned in looking after the refugees after Khao I Dang finally closes down.
And despite the assurance given Western embassies by Prasong Soonsiri, secretary-general to Thai Premier Prem Tinsulanonda, that no one will be placed in a Khmer Rouge camp against his will, there is still a sense of disquiet. The refugees in Khao I Dang don't know for sure.
The disquiet turned to alarm on Jan. 15, when Khao I Dang residents heard that 1,683 displaced persons in Site 8, one of the Khmer Rouge-run civilian camps, were rounded up by Khmer Rouge forces and trucked, in the middle of the night, to Na Trao, a Khmer Rouge military base. The base is controlled by the so-called ``butcher of Kampuchea,'' Ta Mok, and international relief organizations have no access to it. A month later, there was no sign of what had happened to the displaced persons who were rounded up.
Rumors. Plans. Prospects for UN protection. They are all part of the mosaic inside Khao I Dang. It was among its neatly ordered huts that the final scenes of the award-winning movie ``The Killing Fields'' were filmed.
How peacefully the refugees will leave here is a lingering question. Some of the ``illegals,'' or ``sneakers,'' who are thought to number 1,000 to 1,500 and who bought their way into the camp, have turned themselves over to Thai officials in what amounts to an amnesty exchange. If they turn themselves in, they will be permitted to go to the displaced-persons camp of their choice.
But other illegals have literally gone underground, digging holes in obscure corners of the camp, covering the holes with boards and foliage, and coming out only at night.
The first group - about 230 residents - was moved out of Khao I Dang Sunday, and the closure of this camp, established on Nov. 21, 1979, signals the end of an era. It also signals the end of Thai hopes that the remaining refugees, who once numbered 140,000, will be resettled abroad. ``The West,'' said Mr. Prasong, ``could have done more.''
Western diplomats, whose sensitivity about the closure matches that of the Thais, claim that many of the refugees left in Khao I Dang have been screened for immigration two or three times. ``They were simply found unsuitable,'' one Western official said. ``They either lacked skills, had no family connections abroad, or were considered suspect politically - in a word, followers of the Khmer Rouge.''
It was the terror of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot's regime, that sent hundreds of thousands of Cambodians fleeing across the frontier. More than 260,000 remain in Thailand, in the displaced-persons camps - a string of thatched huts hugging the border, some as close as a mile to the frontier.
One such camp, Site 2, only 1.2 miles from the border, is the largest Cambodian city after Phnom Penh, the capital, and the third-largest city in Thailand. Sweltering, dusty, and ramshackle, it is run by the KPNLF and houses 152,000 people, including 3,500 Vietnamese.
Tensions are palpable among rival groups and between the camp's residents and the somewhat notorious Thai Rangers, the paramilitary group assigned to provide security for the camp. (A recent report by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights cited the conduct of some of the rangers as one of the threats to the refugees' security and as having created an atmosphere of fear in the camps.)
Site 2 is already vastly overcrowded, but some of Khao I Dang's refugees are likely to be sent there - although the majority would probably favor Site B, a camp about five miles from the border run by Prince Sihanouk's faction of the resistance.
There is a certain irony to the Khao I Dang illegals being resettled at Site 2, since most of them originated there. In Site 2, they had felt the lure of emigrating abroad and the increased prospects that residence in Khao I Dang could bring. For a price, the ``fixers'' and the ``paymasters'' said they would get the Site 2 residents into Khao I Dang.
According to relief workers, and a number of Khao I Dang illegals who were discovered, arrested, and shipped back to Site 2, thousands of baht, the Thai currency, changed hands in each transaction. Transferring one family of four could cost more than 10,000 baht ($400) - in a nation with a per capita income of only $646 a year. They thought they were buying their way to freedom. The last step was to buy their way out of Khao I Dang's jail.
Today they are back where they started, sitting cross-legged on bamboo slat beds, playing Khmer-style checkers with tiny pieces of wood. Beyond them, at Site 2's outer perimeter, loom the Dangrek Mountains, with Cambodia beyond.
In a dried-out field, in the southern part of this vast, chaotic camp, are the telltale remnants of Vietnamese mortar shells that crashed into a densely populated area on Jan. 26. The attack only wounded six people and no one died - but it was the second time that a civilian camp inside Thailand was shelled by Vietnam.
``It was a warning,'' said Thou Thon, a former Phnom Penh lawyer, now an administrator at the camp, ``of how close we are to the Vietnamese forces, and of what could come next.''
In Aranya Prathet, Thailand, the hot, dusty frontier headquarters of UN agencies and international relief organizations working in the camps, there is the same sense of confusion as there is in Khao I Dang, and more questions than answers to what will happen next in this desolate mountain scrubland.
``The real issue,'' said one international relief worker, ``is not the closure of Khao I Dang, but the questions behind the closure. What will the status of these people be? Will they still be eligible for immigration? Will they remain refugees? And will they still have the same kind of protection now offered by UNHCR? ... No one really knows.''
For Thailand, which intends to phase out all refugee camps and to limit its role as a nation of first asylum, the camps have been an enormous burden.
Not only is Thailand a country of refuge for Cambodians, Laotians, and Vietnamese, there are Karens and Kachins, Iranians, one-time members of the Chinese Nationalist Army, Mons, other hill tribal people, and even Nepalese.
``The Western nations have very short memories,'' said Mechai Viravaidya, a Thai government spokesman. ``The Thai government has done a great deal to resettle refugees. But if others fail in a partnership, it's unfair to drop the burden on us. Thailand has the memory of 1954. There are still 50,000 Vietnamese in the northeast of Thailand left over from the fall of Dien Bien Phu,'' Mr. Mechai added.