Jim Eckardt visits Huay Chang camp in Surin to report on the conditions of 18,000
of the 61,600 Khmers now living in refuge in Thailand, and asks them where they believe
their future lies.
Refugee camps can quickly gain a feeling of permanence the camps on the Thai border
that lasted from 1979 to 1992 were nearer city-states than camps. But the Huay Chang
camp in Surin, Thailand is different.
Only eight months old, it houses 18,000 mostly Funcinpec supporters in flimsy bamboo
huts. The whole idea is to abandon this camp in time for the July 26 elections. But
no one seems eager to go back to Cambodia.
At 10:40 on a Friday morning, March 6, clouds of red dust are churned up by earth
movers building a giant new reservoir. Desultory rolls of razor wire surround the
tents of the Thai Army communications center, the UN refugee registration team and
Trucks drop off baskets of dried fish, distribution overseen by Thai soldiers barking
into walkie-talkies. At the UNHCR tent, Salika, a cheerful Thai worker, observes
that there is no rush to the border after the announcement of Prince Ranariddh's
possible return home.
Camp chief Hang Yuth arrived in the camp via O'Smach after one of the shortest ever
terms in office as a second deputy governor of Siem Reap.
"I was formally sworn in as vice governor one day before the coup," he
During last July's coup he managed to contact his wife and told her to take their
son and daughter to the border.
When his camp at O'Smach was shelled last August he led 22,000 refugees, predominantly
Funcinpec supporters, across the border to Thailand.
Now he oversees a committee that has jurisdiction over the six sections of the camp,
each of which houses 2,000 to 4,000 people.
So far 4,000 people have returned to Cambodia, most with the assistance of the UNHCR.
But Yuth says the remaining people are reluctant to leave.
"The UNHCR interviews people three times a week, but most are waiting for peace
and real democracy in Cambodia.
"We would like to return to vote in the elections but will Hun Sen respect human
rights? This is the main point. Our position now is to wait and see."
Meanwhile the waiting is not comfortable.
Ly San, the camp security chief, says it has been hard setting up the camp.
"There are 20 of us on the committee in charge of health, sanitation, record-keeping
and so on.
"In the beginning, we had only tents and they were very hot. And the water wasn't
clean and we had a lot of dysentery. We still don't have enough good drinking water.
We have a problem with flies and keeping the latrines clean.
"Khmer, Thai and farang doctors staff the medical tent. Serious cases are sent
to the hospital in Surin."
He says people eke out a living weaving thatch or breaking stones for the new reservoir
at 50 baht a day.
The huts, adorned with laundry lines and tiny vegetable plots, slope down a dried
mud wasteland to a small reservoir.
In the late afternoon women and children squat in line to fill 20-gallon plastic
jugs with drinking water from the 20 stand pipes put in by the Red Cross.
Wells supply washing and cooking water.
Open concrete drains spill sewage down to the reservoir which is lined with concrete
Shops sell vegetables, fruit, meat, clothes, gold jewelry, beer and cigarettes. There
is a barber shop and a Buddhist temple.
The head of the camp's medical unit, Pis Pirapong, says: "We get malaria cases
from O'Smach. But there is not much malaria in the camp itself."
Not surprisingly, given the Funcinpec loyalties of the refugees, many are bitter
about their treatment by the government.
Chaaem Pet says he was forced to flee from Phnom Penh six months ago when the government
shut down the newspaper he worked for while a student.
"I would contribute articles against Hun Sen, for 5,000 riel a story, in order
to put myself through school."
After the papers closed he decided to take a more active role against the government
but it ended prematurely.
"Four months ago, I contacted General Nhek Bun Chhay by phone. Fifteen of my
friends fled with me. I made my way to Surin for a month, then I came down with malaria
at the Tatum base, and was sent here where I've become the clerk in the hospital."
He says he will not return to Cambodia under the present regime.
"Hun Sen is a very violent man. There is no democracy."
Pen Vuthy, a former army major, is one of the camp committee members. He says he
arrived after being driven north by the fighting. "I hated the Hun Sen coup,"
"On July 5, 1997, I left Soi Sanon district to fight against Hun Sen. We were
pushed back to O'Smach and now I'm here."
Vuthy looks back to 1993 and says he would like to see an international solution
to Cambodia's problems.
"The world community, the ASEAN troika and the United Nations have to put pressure
on Hun Sen to control the situation.
"There are a lot of dramatic happenings right now. Officials of Funcinpec and
the BLDP are being killed. We need an authority like UNTAC to separate the parties.
"The Japanese plan to organize elections between Fun-cinpec and the CPP has
come very late. Four months to election is a short time."
Dr Sam Sareth, a former district officer of Samrong, in Oddar Meanchey province,
and Naek Sony, former Secretary General of Funcinpec Battambang, say they do not
see themselves resuming their official duties soon.
"I'm afraid of Hun Sen's soldiers," Naek Sony says simply.
Dr Sam Sareth, camp chief assistant, is the record keeper. He says that 4,300 huts
shelter some 3,767 refugee families, plus groups of unattached people.
Men and boys number 10,147; women and girls 7,853.
Thirty percent of the refugees fled from Siem Riep, 20% from Battambang, 40% from
Oddar Meanchey - all provinces close to the northwestern border. Ten percent came
from other provinces.
The UNHCR says that, as of the end of February, there were 14,838 people in Surin
and, in two camps in Trat, 34,993 and 11,778 people respectively.
Sareth became a medical doctor in 1960. After working in a hospital in Phnom Penh
until 1967, he transferred to Battambang.
He labored in the fields during the Pol Pot era, then resumed work at Battambang
hospital after the Vietnamese invasion. He was sent for further study in China in
1986 for two years.
After the 1993 elections, he became a brigadier-general in the medical corps, and
then district officer of Samrong.
After the July coup, he fled with his wife and daughter to the border. Five other
children live with a relative in Cambodia under assumed names.
"I'm afraid to go back," he says.
"It's no secret who I am, and I will die.
"I would like to return for the elections but only if there's peace. If there
are too many 'accidents', I can't go. I just have to wait and see.
"We'd all be happy to leave here, but only if there is peace."
And he says it is no longer simple to just return.
"The CPP has confiscated my house for example. Other people here have lost their
houses and many are poor.
Naek Sony was a student in Battambang when the Khmer Rouge seized power.
After the usual stint in the fields, he became an information officer in Battambang
under the Vietnamese-installed Heng Samrin regime.
In 1986, he defected to the Sihanouk resistance forces. After the 1993 elections,
he became Funcinpec secretary-general in Battambang.
"When the coup started, the police and soldiers of the Hun Sen regime tried
to find me," Naek Sony recalls.
"They remembered my face. I drove to Poipet, then walked to O'Smach with my
wife. Two children are still in Phnom Penh. I hope to go back to Cambodia if there
is freedom and peace and democracy.
"What I would like is a political situation like Thailand," says Sony.
"I would like a strong king, like the Thai king. I know the spirit of Hun Sen.
When I was with the communist government, I studied for six months in Saigon. The
communist ideology we were taught was for an army without a king. The Vietnamese
wanted to combine the whole region under communism."
For many of the residents this is not their first experience of life in a refugee
"I came here on August 27, 1997, and I'm afraid to go back," says Boon
Sakon. "I was a housewife in Samrong district where my husband was a captain
in the army and in charge of the military hospital.
"He is fighting in O'Smach now. My four children are with me," she said.
Boon Sakon is part of a yo-yoing generation of border refugees.
She came to Surin in 1979 when she fled with her family to Site B after the Vietnamese
She returned to Cambodia in 1992, then fled back to Thailand after the coup.
"All my friends were afraid and came here," she says. "I want to go
back and vote if there is peace and good government, but I'm not sure when that will
She says even if it is stable enough for her to return for the elections the results
will decide if she stays or not. "If the elections choose Hun Sen, I will run
Lee Chan Too was a shopkeeper in Sisophon. She followed her husband to O'Smach, where
for the past two years he has worked as a Thai translator with the customs department.
She set up another shop in O'Smach but it was flattened during artillery shelling.
She wants to return home but only if the fighting stops.
Yoon Chan Too is the wife of a Funcinpec official, a district officer in Bavel district,
Her husband, formerly with the Lon Nol army, has been with Ranariddh's forces since
1979. "My house has been confiscated by the CPP," she says, "but I
still want to go home and vote. I think Prince Ranariddh has a chance to win. If
he says to go back for the elections, I will.
"But there will still be danger and I'll still be afraid. Ask Hun Sen not to
shoot and kill people but to help the poor."
The stories soon become all too familiar - camp section chief Chan Song was a provincial
Funcinpec chief in Svay Rieng province. He says he came to the camp after a number
of attempts on his life.
"Before the coup, I escaped three assassination attempts.
"After the coup, I was lucky that I wasn't killed like the 44 Funcinpec officials.
"Who will find the killers of these men?
"My wife and five children are still in Svay Rieng. I don't know how they are
doing now. I would like to go back to fight for democracy again but one by one, step
by step, Funcinpec is being destroyed.
"I'm familiar with the Japanese plan to make the country calm again.
"I will go back to Cambodia only after a new government wins the election. If
Hun Sen wins, I will never go back."
"You have to understand Cambodian society," Hang Yuth says philosophically.
"Khmers have been killing Khmers for the past twenty years. We look at each
other as the enemy and we try to destroy each other.
"People die in battle and then we want to take vengeance.
"The UN report by Thomas Hammarberg showed that 44 Funcinpec officials were
murdered in the coup.
"But nobody has discovered anything about this. Whatever Hun Sen does is legal,
because he is the government.
"So people in this camp are frightened. If we go home, we must die. Some people
have returned from the camp to Cambodia but they are the common people. They can
keep their ideology a secret.
"If you look normal and ordinary in Cambodia, you will have no problem. But
if you were a big official, everybody knows you.
"It's very difficult to go back. Can the Friends of Cambodia control Hun Sen?
"Who can bring to trial the murderers of the 44 Funcinpec officials?
"If we go back, we will die for no reason.
"It's one thing to die for democracy, but to die for no motive - no trial, just
a massacre - is to die like a domestic animal."