10. Sa Kaeo

On October 22, 1979, two days after announcing the open door policy the Thai government informed UNHCR that they would transport Cambodians at the border (all from areas south of Aranyaprathet) to a location outside of the Thai town of Sa Kaeo, about 40 miles inside the border. The site was a 160,000 square meter uninhabited area used for rice cultivation. The Thai government requested UNHCR to make immediate emergency preparations for the Cambodians. With less than 1 day advance notice, UNHCR and other volunteer agencies hastily tried to construct basic camp infrastructure as thousands of severely malnourished Cambodians arrived.

On Oct 24, 8,000 refugees arrived by bus from settlements at the border to Sa Kaeo. Within 8 days the population grew to over 30,000 people. Sa Kaeo was very crowded and camp conditions were very poor. On arrival the health status of the refugees in Sa Kaeo was dire; for several months many of them had been starving in the mountains sandwiched between the Vietnamese to the east and the closed Thai border to the west. Almost immediately television crews filmed the skeletal refugees at Sa Kaeo, broadcasting the images on the nightly news in the West.

A large proportion of the Cambodians in Sa Kaeo were Khmer Rouge soldiers and the civilians they had forced to flee with them to the border. The Khmer Rouge were eager to move some of their cadre to the protected sanctuary inside Thailand where they could receive food and medical attention, rest and recuperate, and regain their strength in order to fight the Vietnamese later. The Khmer Rouge quickly replicated their power structures in Sa Kaeo and their cadre exerted almost complete control over camp residents.

In an effort to show US support for the Thai response, Rosalyn Carter, President Carter’s wife, visited Thailand with several members of Congress and a barrage of journalists to tour Sa Kaeo refugee camp in November 1979. Her visit was widely publicized and appeared on the nightly news on all major US networks; Later, Time magazine published A Devastating Trip, an article describing her visit, and an 8-page cover story, Deathwatch: Cambodia.