Cambodian Ruler's Troops Pin Refugees at Thai Border

Some have escaped to Thailand, but many more await fall of royalist stronghold

A boy wanders with a group of other teenagers at a border crossing, 230 miles from his home in the Cambodian city of Pailin. With only $30, the boy left his family and fled for safety behind the lines of royalist soldiers as they held off the soldiers of Hun Sen.

The boy, who says his name is Mong, hopes to cross into Thailand and get away from the fighting in his country, but the border has been closed for weeks. So he waits, finding refuge at night under a large tree.

"I don't know what's happening," he says. He paces restlessly on the red-dirt road that runs through the border town of O'Smach. "I'm angry because both sides have lost the good of the people, and ... people are dying. ... I have very little food, but I can't go back."

He disappears into the crowd of displaced Cambodians hanging around at the border, many of them women and children who have waited weeks for Thailand to let them in or for the fighting to stop. Machine gun-toting royalist soldiers stand nearby, and a few merchants try to sell crudely carved wood furniture and other items to the few who still have cash.

Despite the closed border, more displaced Cambodians arrive daily, pushed against the country's northwest border opposite the towns of Aranyaprathet and Kap Choeng in neighboring Thailand. Many are subsistence farmers who fled shortly after the July 5 coup, which occurred during the crucial rice-planting season. Some have gone for days without food, foraging bananas, leaves, and potatoes.

They are unwillingly caught in the middle of a political power play. Hun Sen, who ousted Co-Premier Prince Norodom Ranariddh in a coup, maintains military control over most of Cambodia. But more than 30,000 displaced people have fled far from their homes, traveling up to 330 miles to live in makeshift shelters along the road and in the mine-riddled forest. Most are concentrated in the royalist-controlled area, a small portion of the country that stretches north of Samrong to the border.

"It's only a matter of time before the whole area is taken," one relief worker says. "It's hard to tell what the people are thinking, and they very well might not want Hun Sen to rule the country. But more importantly, they want the fighting to end."

Since the fighting began July 6, Thailand effectively has cut off most supplies for Cambodia, which gets food and medicine through cross-border trading. But with the help of nongovernmental organizations and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Thailand has allowed 120 tons of rice and other supplies into Cambodia.

Unloaded at the border, the items are transported from O'Smach to displaced Cambodians with the help of royalist soldiers, who reportedly have kept some for themselves.

THE Thai government also designated six areas around Aranyaprathet for refugees, but stipulated that they not be used unless fighting came within six miles of the border. That happened Aug. 1, when some 3,000 refugees, including 2,640 women and elderly people and 350 disarmed royalist soldiers, were allowed to cross into Thailand and settled in areas north of Aranyaprathet.

Relief workers gave them rice, canned fish, salt, plastic tarps, and mosquito nets supplied by the UNHCR. On Aug. 5, the refugees began returning home after troops loyal to Hun Sen, who now control their villages, assured them of safety.

Although there's enough food, conditions are poor in the temporary camp at O'Smach. Part of the settlement is on a rain-soaked rice paddy. The Cambodian refugees lay tree branches and leaves on the ground to keep themselves out of the mud. Canals have been created to divert the water, and it's nearly impossibly to walk around the cramped area teeming with sweat.

"Even with the bad conditions, they don't talk about whether or not they want to be there. They talk about being afraid to go back. It's very sad," says Seng Vuthi, a Cambodian businessman who visited the camp. He says he will donate plastic sheets, which are in short supply, to the camp.

At another area near the border is an overcrowded 30-bed hospital in Kap Choeng, Thailand, where royalist soldiers wounded in battle and more than 70 civilian Cambodians have been treated.

Sok Salvin lies on a thin cot in the hospital's hallway. He and three other soldiers were injured recently by shrapnel during a battle 43 miles away in Samrong.

"I don't want to become a soldier again," Mr. Salvin says, giving a worried look at his wife and 3-year-old daughter, who have accompanied him to the hospital.

"I wish Hun Sen would go away and we can live peacefully."

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