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KR refugees-monitors needed

KR refugees-monitors needed

Dear Sir,

I am independent researcher who has been studying Cambodian

repatriation for the last 18 months under grants from the MacArthur and Ford

Foundations. I am writing in response to John C. Brown's article "Power politics

and moving Khmer Rouge refugees" in the April 8-21 issue of the Phnom Penh Post.

Mr Brown raises several intriguing questions about the brief flight into

Thailand and ultimate repatriation of about 25,000 Cambodian refugees who

escaped the fighting in Pailin last month.

He asks: "Can a case be made

that the swift repatriation was the result of negotiations between the Cambodian

Royal Government and the Khmer Rouge? Did the Cambodian government trade safety

for the refugees in return for Pailin?" Perhaps so, although Mr. Brown presents

no real evidence for his case. Moreover, I think in focusing on the possible

terms of the exodus, he misses the main point about the unilateral return:

Namely, that the action was carried out by the Thai military in the absence of

monitoring by the appropriate international agencies-specifically, the UN High

Commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) and the International Committee of the Red

Cross - or the international press, or, I should add, Thai government officials

and humanitarian organizations.

Although Thai officials have insisted

that the repatriation was voluntary, the deputy commander of the Chantaburi-Trat

Task Force, Rear Adm Treerat Chamanan, told the Associated Press that he had

orders from his superiors to send the people in the Thai border village of Ban

Pakkard back into Cambodia. They refused to return in the direction of Pailin

but "their leaders" he said, agreed to be repatriated at Ban Sabtari, about 40

km to the north and across the border from Khmer Rouge-controlled


On Friday, March 25, UNHCR sent a letter to the Thai

government seeking access to the refugees at Ban Pakkard and offering to assist

in their safe return to Cambodia. The same day, Thai soldiers began to load

refugees in Ban Pakkard on trucks and transport them to Ban Sabtari. The

operation was completed by Saturday afternoon. Absent international monitoring

or any apparent choice on the part of the refugees to return to areas free of

fighting and under Cambodian government control, the Thai military action

constitutes forced repatriation and deserves the wide condemnation it


"Criticism from the Cambodian Royal Government, UNHCR, and the

US was couched in the language of humanitarian concern," Mr Brown writes, "but

this can almost immediately be dismissed." He shouldn't be quite so cynical.

UNHCR has a standing mandate to ensure that the return of refugees and displaced

people across international borders is carried out safely and voluntarily. It

was not seeking a "new mandate" as Mr Brown suggests, or proposing new refugee

camps in Thailand but simply seeking access to a vulnerable population and

adherence to internationally accepted norms for their humane treatment and safe


Likewise, the US and Cambodian governments had little to gain in

their relationships with Thailand by issuing public protests of the

repatriation. Certainly, humanitarian motivation should not be immediately

dismissed as among their concerns. It is also true that Cambodia and Thailand

are engaged right now in a war of words fought largely through the media.

Unsubstantiated charges are met by flat denials and no real discussions is

taking place.

I recognize, too, that there has been an element of

"choreography" in some of the recent battles between the RCAF and the Khmer

Rouge. The incidents at Phnom Chat in August 1993 traced many of the same steps

as Pailin, including the orderly evacuation of Khmer Rouge populations through

Thailand to Phnom Malai and other Khmer Rouge areas at a distance from the

immediate conflict. But many of the same questions arise: Did the Thai military

transport Khmer Rouge soldiers as well as civilians? Did anyone wish to defect

or depart from Khmer Rouge areas and did they have a chance to make that choice?

Was their return to Cambodia voluntary and was it safe? I only wish the

international criticism had been as strong in raising these same concerns at the


Ultimately, it matters little that the refugees fled in an

organized manner or that some, probably many, and perhaps all of them were Khmer

Rouge cadre or camp followers. Again, the question is: Were they returned safely

and voluntarily? Lacking access to the group from either the Cambodian or Thai

side of the border, we have only the Thai military's word that this was so. That

is insufficient even if it were reliable.

In late March, I spoke with a

senior Thai official in the Chantaburi provincial administration, who said he

was frustrated with the military's control of border policy. "I myself was not

given permission to visit the refugees at Ban Pakkard," he said. "My requests

that the Thai Red Cross be permitted a visit was also ignored. What was done to

these refugees was inhumane and an injustice."

No one wants to see a

return of the border camps and all of the abuses they engendered. But pending a

final resolution of the conflict in Cambodia, there will be those who continue

to cross for temporary haven in Thailand. Consistent with the recommendations of

NGOs in Thailand and Cambodia, I propose the following:

  1. Thailand and the Cambodian government should jointly agree to international

    monitoring of the population returned across the border at Ban Sabtari. Those

    who express a wish to move to non-Khmer Rouge-controlled areas should be

    assisted in doing so.

  2. Thailand should open its borders for those seeking temporary shelter from

    the fighting. Any further repatriations should be carried out safely,

    voluntarily, and under appropriate international auspices.

  3. Thailand and Cambodia should establish a joint task force to develop

    protocols to deal with future border crossings in a manner consistent with

    international principles on refugee and human rights.

Thailand has taken a small but positive step in the right direction by

permitting UNHCR and ICRC access to a population of about 900 refugees who

crossed over into Beng Takuan in late April. They subsequently were handed back

by the Thai military into the care of the Cambodian armed forces, so questions

remain about the safety or voluntariness of the repatriation. As the Khmer Rouge

forces press toward Battambang, more than 20,000 people have been added to the

lists of internally displaced. Their care and safety is now the pre-eminent

concern. But substantial new displacements across the Thai-Cambodian border

remain a real possibility. By working out more transparent and humane terms for

repatriation, the governments of Cambodia and Thailand could serve to put their

rocky relationship back on safer ground.

- Court Robinson,



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