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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Back to the past as refugees flee to Thailand

Back to the past as refugees flee to Thailand

KAP CHOENG, Thailand - Bun Chuot, aged 48, spent the 1980s in "the camps".

Four of his five children were born behind the barbed wire of refugee shanty towns

in Thailand.

"When I was repatriated to Cambodia, I never imagined that I would see a refugee

camp again," says Chuot of his United Nations-sponsored return to Cambodia,

along with thousands of other refugees, in 1992.

Today, Chuot, his wife Roun and their children have returned to the past. They are

among some 21,000 Khmer refugees given sanctuary on Thai soil after fleeing the fighting

around the northern Cambodian border town of O'Smach.

"I want this to end now - I don't want to spend a long time in the camps again,"

says Chuot from their temporary camp at Kap Choeng, in Thailand's Surin province.

"It is very sad, very difficult. People don't want the camps again."

But Chuot is also adamant that he doesn't want to return to Hun Sen's Cambodia.

"When Funcinpec wins, I will go back," he says of the resistance fighters

led by Nhek Bun Chhay across the border. "We need the democratic party in Cambodia.

I am angry with Hun Sen, he wants to fight the people. The people want peace."

Asked how long it would take for there to be peace, the tattooed chest of this former

Lon Nol army soldier heaves with laughter. "Maybe a long time, a long time,"

he says after a moment's thought.

Chuot spent 1979-92 in refugee settlements, most of it at the huge Site 2 camp. In

1992, after the Paris peace agreements, the UN took him home to Cambodia and he settled

in Dei Thmei (New Land) village, in a part of northern Siem Reap, which includes

O'Smach, also known as Oddar Meanchey.

Five years on, Chuot is looking to the United Nations again. "UNTAC must come

back. Four years ago, when UNTAC came to hold the elections, we had a good situation

in Cambodia. Now, the situation has become difficult.

"If the United Nations does not come to Cambodia, Khmer and Khmer cannot talk

about peace. They will just keep fighting."

The return of UNTAC may be only the stuff of refugees' dreams, but much else of what

is happening in this border region today is straight out of the history books.

In the '80s, more than 300,000 Khmers were housed in seven main camps along the Thai

side of the border. In Surin, not far from Chuot's camp today, was Site 2, where

up to 60,000 refugees lived. Further south was the largest camp of Site 2 - Chuot's

former home - with a population which peaked at about 200,000.

The past few years have seen sporadic cases of refugees fleeing to Thailand, but

the battle for O'Smach marks the biggest single exodus.

On the night of Aug 18, as the fight for the royalist enclave grew fiercer, the Thais

opened the border and more than 20,000 Cambodians streamed into Thailand.

They were taken to a site at Kap Choeng, about 7km from the border, where the Thais

prepared a site for a camp they insist is "temporary".

Here, thousands of crude shelters fashioned out of bamboo, bits of wood and the trademark

blue tarpaulins of refugees have sprung up. Guarded by barbed wire and Thai soldiers

- one man who fled the camp after an argument with his wife was reportedly shot dead

last week - the settlement covers about 1 square kilometer next to the Huay Kheung

reservoir.

Conditions are basic but, say aid workers, bearable. A line of makeshift toilets

- cut-off fuel drums sunk into the ground behind plastic sheets - stretch alongside

the reservoir. Refugees wash and clean their clothes in the reservoir, and line up

daily to get drinking water pumped into a dozen or so stainless steel tanks near

the camp entrance. Work is underway to lay water pipes around the camp, and the refugees

have gradually been allowed to collect wood and other material to make their shelters

stronger.

In the dust under the blazing sun, regularly turned to mud by driving rain, the refugees

manage as well as they. The contrast is stark: some appear relatively well-off, others

face abject poverty.

There are many traders among them - the entire market at O'Smach, which used to stretch

for several kilometers down Rt 68, has been moved to Kap Choeng - who have set up

stalls offering jewelry, tape cassette players, shoes, food and more.

For those who can afford it, there are noodles, vegetables and delicacies for sale

from Khmer and Thai merchants. The unluckier refugees rely on food from the United

Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR): roughly 3kg, or 10 cans, of rice

per person each week. There is some canned fish, which refugees complain is past

its expiry date. Otherwise, a few fish are caught from the reservoir, and the occasional

stray dog is thrown on an open fire.

While the sounds of war at O'Smach drift over the border to the camp, the biggest

danger for the refugees is disease: malaria (including the most dangerous type),

diarrhea and respiratory infections claim the most victims.

An ad hoc hospital has been set up by the Thai Red Cross, Medicins Sans Frontieres

(MSF) and other NGOs, attracting queues of people, mainly mothers and children, each

day.

At least two people died from malaria the day after the refugees arrived at Kap Choeng,

but medical staff say there have been no fatalities since.

The hospital treated 3,609 outpatients, with 277 people admitted to two improvised

wards, in the week from Aug 24-30, according to MSF. Most had respiratory infections

(1400-1500 patients) or diarrhea (700-800), while malaria claimed about 200 people.

There are two kinds of malaria in the area including Falciparum, the most dangerous

type, according to MSF doctor Antoine Dardel. Falciparum can cause cerebral malaria,

with a high risk of brain damage or death if left untreated. It is resistant to some

anti-malarial drugs but can be treated by a combination of quinine and tetracycline.

Some but not all of the refugees have mosquito nets - the Thai Red Cross has distributed

only 400 nets. "They don't know how to use them anyway," said one Red Cross

doctor. The main form of mosquito control is DDT spray bombs, set off each night,

spreading a thick cloud of fumes.

Doctors are most concerned about possible outbreaks of diseases, caused by poor sanitation,

such as cholera, and about the health of the many children at the camp.

There is no school or other facilities; children wander around, the sick or hungry

ones crying, the others generally oblivious to their families' predicament.

Thailand has made it plain it doesn't want to play host to the refugees for long,

but nor does it want to be seen to be forcing them back homeward.

The refugees come from all over Cambodia, but most are from around Samrong and O'Smach.

They seem to be a mixture of Funcinpec partisans along with traders, farmers and

other "non-politicals" caught up in the fighting.

Many are clearly anti-Hun Sen and vow not to return to government-controlled areas

in Cambodia. Others say they don't care about politics and are happy to go back if

they know they will be safe from bullets and shells.

Amid delicate negotiations over their future between the Thais, UNHCR and camp leaders,

politics is clearly an issue. The de facto chiefs of the camp are several senior

former Funcinpec government officials, who asked not to be named, citing safety fears.

The officials consider many of the camp inhabitants "political refugees"

who would face persecution in Cambodia. One man, accused of being pro-CPP, was removed

from the camp by Thai soldiers after a confrontation with fellow refugees last week

UNHCR and Thai authorities are sounding out the Kap Choeng people about returning

to Cambodia via one of three points: Poipet, to the southwest, firmly under government

control; Tatum, an old anti-Vietnamese base and the likely fallback position for

Nhek Bun Chhay's troops from O'Smach; and O'Smach itself, if the fighting stops.

While the Funcinpec resistance considers that it derives a degree of legitimacy from

the refugees- these are the people "who can't live under Hun Sen" as one

official puts it - no one wants to be seen to be preventing their return. "I

asked Nhek Bun Chhay and he said 'We are democrats, we don't force people to stay',"

says one former senior Funcinpec civil servant.

But he expresses some irritation at Thai officials and the UNHRC: "Some people

ask our people: 'Where do you want to go?' They make propaganda. They tell them 'If

you go to Poipet, some international organizations will help you, or maybe Hun Sen

will help you'. Even the Thais and the foreigners speak like this."

The official acknowledges that some people want to go home. "They are traders

and people like that. They don't think about the nation, or the future, they just

think about how to earn money."

He estimates about 20% of those in the camp would be prepared to go to Poipet. Random

surveys by UNHCR and the Thai military put the figure at about 45-50%, according

to other sources.

Thai Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, speaking after Cambodian Ministers of

Defense Tea Banh and Tea Chamrath visited Bangkok to discuss the border last month,

said the Kap Choeng people were not "refugees".

"I'd rather see them as displaced people. If we consider them as refugees, the

problem may be prolonged," Chavalit said. He added that he wanted to see "some

stimulation from all sides" so the people were happy to return "voluntarily".

Tea Banh told reporters the refugees should "return and serve their country",

promising that they would face no punishment.

The people of Kap Choeng, meanwhile, wait and ponder their futures.

"I want to go back to Cambodia, but I will wait," says disabled former

soldier Ra Mon as he untangles a fishing net to try his luck in the nearby reservoir.

"Maybe it will be a long time, but that is okay. I can live in a refugee camp.

There isn't much food, but I can live here."

Conversely, Phnom Penh teacher Si Tina, 38, seems uncertain about what she is doing

at Kap Choeng and wants to return home - but doesn't know how.

Tina and her four children, aged 3-11, whose father died several years ago, left

Phnom Penh July 10 after getting a message from her brother, a Funcinpec soldier

at Kong Kriel, near O'Smach.

They first went to Siem Reap, then to Kong Kriel and - as CPP troops advanced - to

O'Smach, and finally across the border.

"My homeland is in Phnom Penh," says Tina, with her neatly-combed hair

and lip-stick, from her bamboo hut. "I want to go back. Life is not good here

for my children."

Tina's four children lay motionless on a wooden bed, all sick with fever. "I

have no medicine," she explains. "I went to the hospital here, but there

were many people lined up. I didn't stay."

Met Savorn, one of 19 monks who fled two temples near O'Smach, said: "I don't

want to live here. It is difficult, and this is not my country. I want to return

but I have to wait till the fighting is over."

Asked if he was praying for peace in O'Smach, Savorn, 25, summed up a mood of uncertainty

and despondency expressed by some others: "I do not pray here. I am sad. My

country has fighting. I think maybe it is hopeless, so I do not pray."

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