Chrey Thom: For the moment the situation is calm at this river town on the Cambodian
side of the border with Vietnam. Boats of all sizes cluster along the shore and the
sounds of children playing carry across the fast-moving waters.
The words "Vietnamese boat people" appear out of place here but each boat
contains an ethnic Vietnamese family with nowhere left to go.
The Vietnamese have long lived in Cambodia despite the Khmers' historical antipathy.
Their numbers grew during the French protectorate when educated Vietnamese were brought
in to fill the lower echelons of the colonial administration.
Racist persecution reduced the population in the early 1970s during the Lon Nol
regime and the Khmer Rouge period saw an almost total exodus.
After the Vietnamese invasion in Dec. 1978, they began to return. Some had long-term
roots in the country while others sought a better life.
Before Jan. 1993, estimates of the number of Vietnamese in Cambodia ran from a low
of 150,000 to the Khmer Rouge scare-figure of one million. A reasonable figure would
appear to be between 400,000 and 600,000.
The killings of Vietnamese, especially around the Tonle Sap lake, began to grow in
March and April of this year. Deliberate sectarian killings in Phnom Penh's Vietnamese
quarters soon followed.
Thousands fled. Hundreds of skilled artisans from the construction and ancillary
industries, traders and prostitutes headed for the border but, most visual of all,
were the massed convoys of fishing boats heading down river from the great lake towards
Vietnam and safety.
Up to 42,000 individuals escaped to the border between May and June. A very considerable
number crossed into Vietnam but a significant proportion, including many who knew
no other home, elected to stay moored on the Cambodian side of the frontier.
For the moment, all those on the Vietnamese side of the Bassac and Mekong rivers
are under the aegis of the IFRC, ICRC and UNHCR.
On the Cambodian side at Chrey Thom, World Food Program (WFP) is currently providing
aid to 5,092 people.
The government has placed the problem low down its list of priorities with no solution
For the moment, the numbers on the Cambodian side of the frontier are small enough
to manage but as many as 20,000 may be attracted, say some observers, by WFP's emergency
Meanwhile, their plight is leading to health and sanitation problems. The level of
the river has dropped by around three meters in the Mekong, reducing their chances
of using the backwaters to return to the Tonle Sap.
By traveling on the main river system, they risk extortion at government check-points
and other harassment.
Time is running out in all senses. The question being asked now is whether international
aid agencies should actively intervene to fill the void left by the Cambodian government's
inaction. But, if they do not, who will?