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