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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Power politics and moving KR refugees

Power politics and moving KR refugees

John C. Brown delves into the murkier aspects of the affair which sparked

international outrage

Why did the Thais move the Pailin refugees so

quickly back across the Cambodian border?

The Thai military explanation:

"We do not want refugee camps in Thailand again." Between 25 and 35,000

Cambodian refugees were returned to Cambodia. Once the move started, Thai

officers claim it was accomplished in less than 24 hours.

The easy

explanation is that the refugees were repatriated because of close ties between

the Khmer Rouge and the Thai military: the Thai military saved the KR

skin.

Can a case be made that the swift repatriation was the result of

negotiations between the Royal Cambodian government and the KR? Did the

Cambodian government trade safety for the refugees in return for

Pailin?

Was it possible for the Thai government to ignore the US if it

suggested the Thais allow international monitoring of the refugees. And if they

had turned a deaf ear wouldn't US criticism now be based on stronger grounds

than humanitarian concern?

Criticism from the Royal Cambodian government,

UNHCR and the US was couched in the language of humanitarian concern, but this

can almost immediately be dismissed.

Priavetly the UNHCR was angry because it

lost the opportunity for a new mandate.

And everyone else was angry

because the KR were not separated from the most important source of what power

they still retain: their people. As one high level Thai officer put it: "Refugee

camps. The UN makes money, Thai business makes money, but they only create

problems for the Thai military."

How did it happen?

The return of

the refugees to KR control was not due to the "friction of war," or by accident.

It was planned in advance. But planned by whom?

Pictures in the Thai

press and first-hand descriptions by the Thai military indicate an organized

withdrawal, not a rout of frightened refugees spilling across the border under

military pressure or fear of death.

The Cambodians had packed and piled

their belongings on their motorcycles. And they started out days before the

government took Pailin.

Thai military officers claim that the refugees

requested to be returned to KR-controlled Cambodia. This claim is easily

dismissed by those who can't imagine that anyone, even KR families, would want

to return to KR control or are unwilling to understand why they might refuse to

accept the safety of Royal Government control.

But if the return had been

involuntary, it could not have been done so quickly. If the Cambodians had

demanded to be placed in camps, or asked for international intervention, would

the Thai military been able to say 'no' and to force them back into Khmer Rouge

hands? It seems unlikely.

These refugees knew where they wanted to go.

They organized to go there, and they did it in a remarkably short amount of

time. And the Thai government found it in their interest to help

them.

But why should we believe that what these Cambodians requested, and

what the Thai government facilitated, is what the Royal Government wanted or was

quietly willing to allow?

King Sihanouk publicly asked the Royal

government not to attack Pailin. This was advice that the Royal Government

declined to take - at least appeared to.

And the Royal Government is

sensitive to the Royal concern about Cambodians killing

Cambodians.

Secretary of State for Information Khieu Kanharith said in

Thailand: "The Khmer Rouge casualty figures in Pailin were quite high, we cannot

say how high because of the King's concerns." Quietly some were told

600.

But photographers who came into Pailin saw very little evidence to

back Khanharith's claim. Their pictures record a town that was completely

unscarred by fighting.

There was no "battle" for Pailin as such. Like

every "battle" between the Khmer Rouge and the Royal Government in the past two

years, there was an exchange of propaganda and detailed military plans,

exchanges of artillery fire, minmal casualties on both sides, more exchanges of

propaganda, and then withdrawal by the Khmer Rouge, and more propaganda,

followed by government occupation and, as is common, pillaging, and of course

denials by the KR.

As in the past, the government casualties suffered at

Pailin were from mines, or from artillery, not from infantry assaults. Press

reports confirm this.

This peculiarly Khmer form of combat minimizes

casualties and creates the temporary impression of military success.

It

also, Cambodians say, results in psychological victories for the government,

though I will admit to some puzzlement about how that works. Outcomes seem to be

decided in the advance of fighting and at the end, in its absence. To the degree

that backing down is involved, one side "loses". But why aren't psychological

accounts evened when contested terrain returns to KR hands?

However, the

KR was more than psychologically weakened by the "loss" of Pailin, if only as a

result of the interruption in their flow of revenue - however temporary that

might turn out to be.

They would have been even more weakened had the KR

fighters lost their families.

If the price for gaining Pailin without a

bloody fight was allowing the refugees to return to their fathers and brothers

in the KR, how can we criticize this? Pailin, for the time being, belongs to the

government, and something more than a psychological victory has been won.

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