Mere footpath two years ago, the border crossing at Bo Rai is now a highway and lifeline for the Khmer Rouge, a radical communist group blamed for the deaths of at least 1 million Cambodians during its 1975-79 rule.
Yet business traffic through this Thai military-controlled border area near the Gulf of Thailand could be reduced to a trickle if the Thai government cooperates in enforcing United Nations Security Council sanctions against the Khmer Rouge.
On Nov. 30, the UN Security Council passed an oil embargo against Khmer Rouge-held areas that has not taken effect. Lt. Gen. John Sanderson, commander of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), arrived in Bangkok Dec. 13 to discuss with Thai military and civilian officials the timing of UN sanctions and the cooperation required from Thailand.
Along with the oil embargo, the UN will enforce a nationwide timber export ban starting Dec. 31, as required by Cambodia's ruling Supreme National Council (SNC). If the SNC passes a similar gem-mining ban, as recommended by Phnom Penh Prime Minister Hun Sen, the UN would enforce it as well.
Telling foreign reporters last week that UN-enforced sanctions place "a tremendous burden on Thailand and our private sector," Foreign Minister Prasong Soonsiri said he would ask UNTAC officials for a "grace period" to allow Thai loggers to remove trees they have felled.
"We also believe that there is no direct link between the Khmer Rouge's material gains through trade with Thailand and its continued intransigence," Mr. Prasong added. "The Khmer Rouge [members] are a very dogmatic people and will continue to do and say what they believe regardless of their material wealth."
In October 1991, the Khmer Rouge joined two other rebel factions and the Phnom Penh government in signing UN-sponsored peace accords. Yet most analysts believe earnings from the Khmer Rouge's sale of timber and gem-mining concessions, estimated to be tens of millions of dollars, have allowed the group to avoid implementing the accords.
Effect of fuel ban
Western diplomats say the fuel ban will cut into the Khmer Rouge's warmaking ability but the timber-export ban will have little immediate effect. The rebel group is thought to have enough weapons and money to last for many months.
Thai government support for sanctions has lagged, largely because Thai investors - all with military connections, including opposition party financiers and parliamentarians - are the other main beneficiaries of trade with the Khmer Rouge.
At another border crossing near Bo Rai, three logging companies shared the expense of constructing a 44-mile road leading to their huge concession area inside Cambodia. But after a few months of work, the companies can expect to recoup only a fraction of the multimillion-dollar payment they made to local Khmer Rouge commanders for a three-year contract.
"We only knew a couple of months ago that the UN might impose sanctions," one logger says.
And some gem-miners have gotten cold feet. "Ten companies stopped working last week when they expected the UN to pass sanctions, and they brought all their equipment out," says Amorn Anantochai, governor of Thailand's Trat Province, as he led a recent tour of Thai parliamentarians to the Khmer Rouge area opposite Bo Rai.
"They are afraid the Khmer Rouge will block the road, then they will be stuck there and the Thai government will have to negotiate to get them out," Governor Amorn adds. This concern also makes Thai loggers leery about setting up milling operations inside Cambodia, even though this would circumvent the SNC ban that prohibits exports of unprocessed timber.
As a signatory of the Paris peace accords, Thailand has said it would abide by any UN sanctions but it has refused to allow UNTAC officials to be posted on Thai territory. The UN does not have access to Khmer Rouge-controlled areas inside the Cambodian border either.
The Thai military's long involvement in cross-border trade makes it unlikely it would cut itself off from this revenue, say Western military observers. Sanctions, therefore, are not likely to be effective unless sufficient international pressure compels Thailand to allow military observers onto the Thai side of the border. `They will fight again'
In the meantime, Thailand argues that the sanctions would be counterproductive. "If the UN puts sanctions on them, they will have to fight again," warns Thanit Traivut, a local parliamentarian and logger with connections to the Khmer Rouge and the Phnom Penh government.
It is unclear, though, what the fighting would accomplish. Attacks against the Thais would provoke a tougher defense. Killing blue-berets could force the UN to withdraw, but by doing so the Khmer Rouge would have obliterated whatever international support it has. After hosting several hundred thousand Cambodian refugees over the last 13 years, the Thais are keen to prevent anything that could trigger another human deluge.
"And if there is fighting, where else will the Khmer Rouge go but here in Thailand," Mr. Thanit says.