9. An ‘Open Door’

In October 1979, a major offensive by the Vietnamese against Khmer Rouge hide-outs in their mountain sanctuaries pushed thousands of Khmer Rouge soldiers, their families and the civilians under their control to the Thai border. Western journalists based in Bangkok, an easy drive to the border—responded with immediate coverage, reporting about and filming the desperate scenes at the border for the nightly news back home.

Throughout most of 1979 the Thai government refused offers of humanitarian assistance from the United Nations for the Cambodians at the border. Thailand was not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and it insisted that any Cambodian who entered Thailand was a “illegal migrant” rather than a refugee. As the situation at the border grew more desperate, considerable international pressure and the offer of substantial amounts of money convinced the Thai government to allow UNICEF and ICRC to begin a formal border relief operation as well as a program to assist Thai villages at the border affected by the Cambodian influx. The Thai government reversed its policy of barring the Cambodians from entering Thailand and implemented an “open door” policy.

The Thai government informed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Thailand that within a few days Thai border authorities would start busing thousands of Cambodians into Thailand to designated holding centers. The Thais requested UNHCR to build and manage these holding centers inside Thailand. At this point the relief operation split in half: UNHCR managed several holding centers inside Thailand and UNICEF and ICRC delivered aid to and operated medical facilities in the border camps as well as delivering food aid to Cambodia. The World Food Program supplied nearly all of the food aid for the relief operations, most of which could be purchased locally in Thailand, a rice-exporting country. International NGOs, such as CARE, CRS and IRC, worked in the holding centers and in the border camps.

Many Cambodians at the border were hesitant to go to the holding centers. Many chose to remain at the border or return to the interior of Cambodia. Camp leaders saw the attempt to shift the refugee population into Thailand as a threat to their power; many resisted sending the refugees to the new holding centers inside Thailand, fearing that losing a large part of the population would result in the loss of the lucrative food distribution programs in the border camps. International aid workers went to the border with buses to collect any refugees who wanted to come to the new camps in Thailand. Camp leaders exerted tremendous pressure on the camp residents to not go, spreading a wild assortment of rumors about what awaited them in Thailand. Frustrated by the lack of cooperation of the camp leaders the Thai military cut food aid to some border camps to force the camp leaders to allow those people who wanted to come to the new camps to leave. In other instances the Thai military shelled some of the border camps. The civilian population was inevitably caught in the middle.