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
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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,