Cambodia

Cambodia Map

Public Health and Humanitarian Action

A Decade of War and Forced Migration

From 1969 to 1979, Cambodia, also known as Kampuchea, was torn apart by constant internal conflict and war with its neighbors. In 1969, President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger authorized a secret bombing campaign in eastern Cambodia, which harbored North Vietnamese bases and part of the Ho Chi Minh trail. In 1970, the neutralist Prince Sihanouk, who led the country as head of state and had managed to keep Cambodia out of the war in Vietnam and Laos throughout the 1960s, was overthrown in a military coup by Lon Nol. A civil war between 1970 and 1975 between the American-backed Lon Nol government and the North Vietnamese soldiers and their Cambodian communist allies, the Khmer Rouge, killed tens of thousands of people and displaced over two million, mostly to the capital Phnom Penh, but also to Thailand and Vietnam. During the 5-year civil war almost all agricultural infrastructure was destroyed; as a result, Cambodia went from being self-sufficient in rice production to being almost completely dependent on food aid from the United States. Indiscriminant American saturation bombing of the countryside in 1969-1973 devastated eastern Cambodia, forcing thousands of villagers to flee the countryside or join the Khmer Rouge. The United States dropped more bombs on Cambodia than it did during the entire Second World War. When the United States Congress forced President Nixon to stop the bombing in Cambodia the US continued to channel millions of dollars in military aid and food assistance to the Lon Nol government. Despite this aid nearly all of Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge by 1975. With the imminent fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge, the US embassy was evacuated on April 12, 1975; two weeks later, on April 30, the US left South Vietnam, ending the United States’ presence in Indochina.

The Khmer Rouge 2

The Khmer Rouge occupied Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. At the time of the Khmer Rouge’s take-over the population of Phnom Penh had swollen to approximately 3 million people, most of them internally displaced persons. Seeking to rebuilt the country’s agricultural infrastructure and rice self-sufficiency the Khmer Rouge depopulated the city immediately and ordered everyone to go to work collectives in the countryside. Families were often separated and sent to different places.

Several western journalists, including Sydney Schanberg from the New York Times, remained in Phnom Penh for a few days after the take-over, trapped in the French embassy; all of the journalists were deported to Thailand soon afterwards. [Sydney Schanberg later published The Death and Life of Dith Pran, an account of the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975 and his search for and reunion with his Cambodian interpreter in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border. The film The Killing Fields was based on this account.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Khmer Rouge closed Cambodia to the outside world. Very little information came out of the country during the Khmer Rouge era between 1975 and 1978. Media coverage of Cambodia during this time was rare. One of the only sources of information about what was happening in Cambodia came from refugees that had escaped the Khmer Rouge and fled to Thailand and Vietnam. Their accounts were often discounted as exaggerations.

In the spring of 1978, in an attempt to improve its international image, the Khmer Rouge permitted Elizabeth Becker from The Washington Post and two other journalists to visit Cambodia. That same year a group of American journalists from The Call, a communist newspaper from Chicago, also visited Cambodia and published a photo book. The two accounts of what was happening in Cambodia were vastly different. The question of what was happening in Cambodia was fiercely debated by journalists and academics in the West. The world soon found out what the Khmer Rouge had done.

After the Khmer Rouge

In December 1978, after a series of border skirmishes, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and captured the capital city of Phnom Penh, forcing the Khmer Rouge to flee to western Cambodia, near the Thai border. News coverage of Cambodia picked up considerably after Vietnam invaded the country. In the aftermath of the invasion, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians began to return home and look for their family members. Many fled to the Thai border and into Thailand.

After the Vietnamese invaded and occupied Cambodia the world saw the full extent of the Khmer Rouge era. Alarming reports of mass graves and widespread starvation in Cambodia filled the newspapers throughout 1979. The extent of starvation and availability of food were fiercely debated in the western media and among humanitarian relief agencies. In August 1979 the journalist John Pilger and the filmmaker David Munro went to Cambodia to record the current conditions in Cambodia. The resulting documentary Cambodia Year Zero: the Silent Death of Cambodia was broadcast in the UK on October 30, 1979. Much of the documentary focuses on the lack of action by the international community to bring humanitarian aid to Cambodia.

The Politics of Humanitarian Relief in Cambodia

For the first half of 1979 the international community did very little to assist Cambodia. The focus in Indochina at this time was on the tens of thousands of Vietnamese boat people fleeing Vietnam to Thailand, Malaysia and other nearby countries. The attention that was given to Cambodia tended to focus entirely on the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia rather than the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge and the present state of the country.

Efforts to launch a large-scale humanitarian aid operation in Cambodia were slow and fraught with political difficulties. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), known together as the Joint Mission, negotiated with Vietnam and the new Cambodian government to begin a relief operation. The new government was led by Heng Samrin, a former Khmer Rouge leader who had defected to Vietnam. The Vietnamese maintained a significant level of influence and control over the new government in Phnom Penh, as a result, negotiations to initiate a relief operation had to be conducted in both Hanoi and Phnom Penh. These efforts were continuously jeopardized by geopolitical tensions.

The Cold War had a substantial impact on the Cambodian crisis. With the recent warming of relations between the United States and China and the conflict between China and Russia, shifting Cold War dynamics had a significant impact on the Cambodian crisis. In this case there were essentially two sides: on one side was the Soviet Union, Vietnam, the Soviet Bloc countries and the new Cambodian government led by Hang Samrin; on the other side were China, United States, Thailand, Singapore and most other western countries. The Hang Samrin government in Phnom Penh was not diplomatically recognized by any western government. Only the Soviet Union and Soviet Bloc countries supported the Vietnam and its occupation. China, the only major government that recognized and supported the Khmer Rouge while they were in power, lobbied fiercely on their behalf at the international level after the Vietnamese invasion. In fact, after Vietnam occupied Cambodia, China briefly invaded North Vietnam to “teach them a lesson” and attempt to draw the Vietnamese army out of Cambodia. To deny the new Cambodian government recognition and the Vietnamese legitimacy China, Thailand, the United States, and most other western countries voted in 1979 to continue to recognize the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia, though they controlled very little of the country.

Regional tension between Vietnam and Thailand, countries that were wary of each other’s regional intentions, further complicated the Cambodian crisis. Cambodia had traditionally acted as a buffer between Thailand and Vietnam. For hundreds of years the Vietnamese and Thais vied for influence and control in Cambodia. With the recent expulsion of the United States from Indochina and the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia Thailand feared Vietnam’s expansionist intentions. With the Cambodian buffer removed, the threat of a direct conflict between Vietnam and Thailand loomed large.

 

Amidst these tensions, the Joint Mission’s attempted to create a humanitarian space to operate a relief program. Throughout 1979, the Joint Mission negotiated for greater operational presence in Cambodia, something that Vietnam and the new Cambodian government resisted. On August 9, 1979 UNICEF and ICRC delivered their first shipment of relief supplies by plane to Phnom Penh. From August onwards a slow but steady amount of relief aid began to enter the country by plane and boat. The logistical and operational capacity of the Cambodian authorities to manage the relief aid was a source of constant debate.

Separate from the Joint Mission operation, Oxfam and a consortium of several other NGOs reached an agreement with the Heng Samrin government to deliver humanitarian aid to Cambodia. Unlike UNICEF and ICRC, Oxfam agreed to channel all aid through the Phnom Penh government and not operate on the Thai-Cambodian border. Jim Howard, the head of the Oxfam operation in Phnom Penh, was a vocal advocate for expanding the relief operation in Cambodia.

The Border Camps

Throughout 1979 tens of thousands of Cambodians fled to the Thai border. Barred by the Thai military from entering the country a vast number of them—combatants, traders, farmers and many others—accumulated in several makeshift camps along the ill-defined border. Many were starving, had malaria, and were in very poor health. Several of the largest camps, including Nong Chan, Nong Samet, and Mak Mun, grew into vast open-air markets, each controlled by a different faction of Khmer Serei. Conditions in the border camps were very poor: most of those who settled in the camps lived in squalor with access to no basic services.

After lengthy negotiations with Thai officials UNICEF and ICRC began a border relief operation. One key consideration for the Joint Mission was the need to balance border relief activities with the on-going attempts to deliver and distribute food and other humanitarian assistance inside Cambodia. The new Cambodian government was extremely sensitive to activities at the border, claiming publicly that humanitarian agencies were aiding the perpetrators of genocide, i.e., the Khmer Rouge, at the border, rather the millions of victims of the genocide inside Cambodia.

Throughout the establishment of the border relief operation the United States exerted significant political and financial influence, both overt and subtle. As the largest contributor to the relief operation the US frequently flexed its political muscle. The US embassy in Bangkok set up the Kampuchean Emergency Group (KEG) to monitor activities at the border. Consisting of current and former military and political attaches KEG was seen by many aid workers at the border as an extension of the US foreign policy agenda in Southeast Asia. US embassy in Thailand did not hide the fact that it thought aid should be distributed all Cambodians at the border, including the Khmer Rouge and Khmer Serei armed groups.

There was no doubt that the border camps contained large numbers of combatants. Both the perpetrators and victims of the Cambodian genocide flocked to the border area and into Thailand. Along with the Khmer Rouge and anti-communist Cambodian resistance groups known as the Khmer Serei (free Khmer), tens of thousands of refugees lived in the border camps, most of whom were noncombatants. In general, the Khmer Serei controlled the border camps north of Aranyaprathet, a small border town in eastern Thailand on the main road to Cambodia, while the Khmer Rouge controlled the camps south of Aranyaprathet. Some of the camps had only a few thousand people while others had over a hundred thousand people. Because of its location Aranyaprathet quickly became the nuclei of the border relief operation, as international agencies set up offices to coordinate aid to the camps.

The border was a dangerous, chaotic place. Far from being a safe haven many of the border camps were subject to attack. Conflict raged just across the border in Cambodia, as remnants of the Khmer Rouge fought Vietnamese forces. At times the border area became a battleground and the refugees were caught in the middle. A different military faction controlled each of the border camps. Frequently these groups fought one another. A wild array of black marketers and other traders sprout up in and around the camps. Corruption was rife along the border, and the black market trade in food and other essential items was widespread. Gold, hidden away by many Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge era, was one of the most common forms of currency.

The Thai military controlled most activity along the border and exerted tremendous power in some of the border camps. Though the Thai military’s primary concern was the threat of the Vietnamese army and a potential invasion, they also ensured that the Cambodians did not cross the border. This policy was not consistent though: large groups of Cambodians were periodically allowed into Thailand and given aid by local Thai villagers, while other times The Thai military put up barbed wire along the border crossing points and threatened to shot anyone who crossed.

Food distribution at the border

Food distribution was one of the most lucrative activities along the border; whoever controlled it had tremendous power and influence with the humanitarian agencies and refugee population. The humanitarian agencies working on the border had tenuous relationships with the Khmer Rouge and Khmer Serei groups that controlled the camps. This relationship had a huge impact on the success of humanitarian relief among the refugees.

When the refugees first started to accumulate at the border some humanitarian agencies had hastily organized several trucks to deliver food, plastic tarps and other essential supplies. Trucks were mobbed the moment they entered the camps and it had been impossible to determine who got the supplies and if it had been enough for everyone.

Food distribution in the refugee camps was haphazard: there was no reliable data on the number of refugees in each camp, since new refugees arrived everyday. The amount of food needed and number of people to feed was at best a guess; few, if any, logistical mechanisms were in place in the camps, and transportation, coordination and distribution were problematic from the beginning. Humanitarian workers at the border suspected that camp leaders inflated the number of refugees in the camps in order to receive more food.

A few camp surveys had been conducted to estimate the size of the population in the larger camps, but the numbers often differed greatly from what the camp leaders claimed. Given this tension humanitarian organizations debated how to proceed.

Relief agencies decided to give the rice to the camp leaders and rely on them to distribute the rice throughout the camp. The effectiveness of this program was a source of constant debate among relief workers at the border and at headquarters in Bangkok. Some relief workers suspected that much of the rice was misappropriated by the camp leaders. A survey in one of the largest border camps found that camp leaders were distributing less than 25% of the rice to households. Large stockpiles of rice were visible at many of the military barracks in the border camps.

Some relief workers argued successfully for a direct distribution system. An initial trial to distribute food directly to camp inhabitants was chaotic and largely a failure. Many of the aid workers had quickly become overwhelmed and had had little support from camp leadership. Though they knew giving the food to camp leaders was ripe for abuse and fraught with ethical dilemmas, many of them insisted that there was no other way. Another direct distribution trial also ended in disaster. Eventually a more effective system of direct distribution was implemented, utilizing a system of distribution to the female head of household, substantial pre-planning and coordination with refugee leaders, and more effective distribution mechanisms, but the equity and reliability of the system were always in question. The success of direct distribution in the border camps was far from uniform and never consistent.

The Land Bridge

Almost from the beginning of the refugee exodus in the fall of 1979 some aid workers working on the Thai-Cambodian border had argued that rice, rice seed, farming tools and relief aid should be sent across the border to western Cambodia. Advocates of cross-border food distribution argued that rice would reach people in western Cambodia faster via the cross-border routes than it would if it went through the official route starting at the ports of Kompang Som or Phnom Penh and traveling by train 300+ miles to Battambang. Newspaper reports of delivery and distribution problems in Phnom Penh and Kompong Som reinforced the belief that food had to sent across the border to prevent famine in 1980. With the imminent threat of famine—last year’s rice crop had been devastated because of the conflict—there was, many aid workers argued, a critical need for humanitarian organizations at the border to take matters into their own hands and figure out a way to send food across the border.

There was no official way of bringing food across the Thai-Cambodian border. The new Cambodian government had closed the border at Aranyaprathet and had refused to allow humanitarian organizations to cross there, arguing that the Khmer Rouge hiding along the border would benefit from food distribution in western Cambodia. The Joint Mission was extremely concerned with not upsetting the new Cambodian government, so decisions over border and cross-border relief activities were delicate matters.

Robert Ashe, a British aid worker who had worked in Thailand for many years and was hired by ICRC to work in the border camps, was a strong advocate for organizing food distribution points in the border camps. With a system of inter-camp food distribution in place Ashe believed a similar system could be organized to send rice to the interior of Cambodia. Ashe had noticed that many Cambodians came to the border camps for food and other supplies and then returned to the interior of the country. Ashe thought that the relief agencies could capitalize on this impromptu transportation system and send rice deep into western Cambodia and beyond. Starting in December 1979 relief agencies started sending rice across the border with the vast number of Cambodians with oxcarts and bicycles that came to the border every day. Called the “land bridge,” thousands of kilos of rice were sent across the border starting in December 1979.

The land bridge program was not without controversy. Some aid workers and journalists claimed that the whole border relief operation, especially the cross-border distributions, were an attempt by the United States to draw Cambodians off their farms in order to further destabilze the country and deny the Vietnamese occupation any legitimacy. Some aid organizations argued that the land bridge was sending rice straight across the border to Vietnamese soldiers; others argued that it was going straight to the Khmer Rouge. There was no means of monitoring where the rice went and who used it. The Joint Mission, particularly ICRC, worried that the land bridge would jeopardize their delicate relationship—and on-going negotiations—with the new government in Phnom Penh, who demanded that all relief aid be channeled through them. The Hang Samrin government was adamantly opposed to any cross-border distribution system. For this reason the Joint Mission tried to keep the program as inconspicuous as possible. During negotiations the border relief operation, especially the cross-border food distribution system, was constant sources of tension between the Joint Mission and the Heng Samrin government.

Rice was initially distributed across the land bridge and other essential supplies, such as farming tools, were periodically included. Believing that distributing rice alone would only temporarily halt mass starvation and not stem the predicted rice harvest failure in 1980, aid organizations began to send rice seed across the land bridge for the first time in March 1980. Prioritizing rice seed over rice was a source of heated debate among aid workers at the border.

Throughout the land bridge program its effectiveness was debated. Was it distributing rice and rice seed deep into Cambodia? Did it help avert the predicted famine? Were the food supplies diverted to combatants or resold by traders? No one ultimately knew.

Is Relief Aid Being Distributed in Cambodia?

The claim that relief supplies were not reaching farmers in western Cambodia was not held by all journalists in the region. In the documentary Cambodia Year One, first broadcast in the UK on September 10, 1980, John Pilger interviewed Jim Howard from Oxfam/UK in the spring of 1980 at the port of Phnom Penh. Responding to the criticism that supplies were being misappropriated and not getting through to those who need them the most Jim Howard responded that they had seen no misuse of supplies but acknowledged that there had been problems with transportation and bureaucratic red tape.

Pilger followed a shipment of rice seed by train 350 miles to the western providence of Battambang. Pilger notes many of the criticisms— the lack of sufficient rice distribution in the countryside, the perception that rice was being stockpiled in warehouses rather than distributed and the government’s choice to prioritize the distribution of rice seed over rice—that international relief agencies have made concerning the government’s efforts to distribute rice throughout the country. Pilger also notes the continued threat of the Khmer Rouge, who have regrouped along the Thai border and have begun attacking western Cambodia.

Child Protection 1

Focus: Food, Politics and Humanitarian Response
Objectives:

1. A decade of war and forced migration

From 1969 to 1979, Cambodia, also known as Kampuchea, was torn apart by constant internal conflict and war with its neighbors. In 1969, President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger authorized a secret bombing campaign in eastern Cambodia, which harbored North Vietnamese bases and part of the Ho Chi Minh trail. In 1970, the neutralist Prince Sihanouk, who led the country as head of state and had managed to keep Cambodia out of the war in Vietnam and Laos throughout the 1960s, was overthrown in a military coup by Lon Nol. A civil war between 1970 and 1975 between the American-backed Lon Nol government and the North Vietnamese soldiers and their Cambodian communist allies, the Khmer Rouge, killed tens of thousands of people and displaced over two million, mostly to the capital Phnom Penh, but also to Thailand and Vietnam. During the 5-year civil war almost all agricultural infrastructure was destroyed; as a result, Cambodia went from being self-sufficient in rice production to being almost completely dependent on food aid from the United States. Indiscriminant American saturation bombing of the countryside in 1969-1973 devastated eastern Cambodia, forcing thousands of villagers to flee the countryside or join the Khmer Rouge. The United States dropped more bombs on Cambodia than it did during the entire Second World War. When the United States Congress forced President Nixon to stop the bombing in Cambodia the US continued to channel millions of dollars in military aid and food assistance to the Lon Nol government. Despite this aid nearly all of Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge by 1975. With the imminent fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge, the US embassy was evacuated on April 12, 1975; two weeks later, on April 30, the US left South Vietnam, ending the United States’ presence in Indochina.

2. The Khmer Rouge era

The Khmer Rouge occupied Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. At the time of the Khmer Rouge’s take-over the population of Phnom Penh had swollen to approximately 3 million people, most of them internally displaced persons. Seeking to rebuilt the country’s agricultural infrastructure and rice self-sufficiency the Khmer Rouge depopulated the city immediately and ordered everyone to go to work collectives in the countryside. Families were often separated and sent to different places.

Several western journalists, including Sydney Schanberg from the New York Times, remained in Phnom Penh for a few days after the take-over, trapped in the French embassy; all of the journalists were deported to Thailand soon afterwards. [Sydney Schanberg later published The Death and Life of Dith Pran, an account of the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975 and his search for and reunion with his Cambodian interpreter in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border. The film The Killing Fields was based on this account.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Khmer Rouge closed Cambodia to the outside world. Very little information came out of the country during the Khmer Rouge era between 1975 and 1978. Media coverage of Cambodia during this time was rare. One of the only sources of information about what was happening in Cambodia came from refugees that had escaped the Khmer Rouge and fled to Thailand and Vietnam. Their accounts were often discounted as exaggerations.

In the spring of 1978, in an attempt to improve its international image, the Khmer Rouge permitted Elizabeth Becker from The Washington Post and two other journalists to visit Cambodia. That same year a group of American journalists from The Call, a communist newspaper from Chicago, also visited Cambodia and published a photo book. The two accounts of what was happening in Cambodia were vastly different. The question of what was happening in Cambodia was fiercely debated by journalists and academics in the West. The world soon found out what the Khmer Rouge had done.

3. After the Khmer Rouge

In December 1978, after a series of border skirmishes, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and captured the capital city of Phnom Penh, forcing the Khmer Rouge to flee to western Cambodia, near the Thai border. News coverage of Cambodia picked up considerably after Vietnam invaded the country. In the aftermath of the invasion, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians began to return home and look for their family members. Many fled to the Thai border and into Thailand.

After the Vietnamese invaded and occupied Cambodia the world saw the full extent of the Khmer Rouge era. Alarming reports of mass graves and widespread starvation in Cambodia filled the newspapers throughout 1979. The extent of starvation and availability of food were fiercely debated in the western media and among humanitarian relief agencies. In August 1979 the journalist John Pilger and the filmmaker David Munro went to Cambodia to record the current conditions in Cambodia. The resulting documentary Cambodia Year Zero: the Silent Death of Cambodia was broadcast in the UK on October 30, 1979. Much of the documentary focuses on the lack of action by the international community to bring humanitarian aid to Cambodia.

4. The politics of humanitarian relief in Cambodia

For the first half of 1979 the international community did very little to assist Cambodia. The focus in Indochina at this time was on the tens of thousands of Vietnamese boat people fleeing Vietnam to Thailand, Malaysia and other nearby countries. The attention that was given to Cambodia tended to focus entirely on the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia rather than the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge and the present state of the country.

Efforts to launch a large-scale humanitarian aid operation in Cambodia were slow and fraught with political difficulties. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), known together as the Joint Mission, negotiated with Vietnam and the new Cambodian government to begin a relief operation. The new government was led by Heng Samrin, a former Khmer Rouge leader who had defected to Vietnam. The Vietnamese maintained a significant level of influence and control over the new government in Phnom Penh, as a result, negotiations to initiate a relief operation had to be conducted in both Hanoi and Phnom Penh. These efforts were continuously jeopardized by geopolitical tensions.

The Cold War had a substantial impact on the Cambodian crisis. With the recent warming of relations between the United States and China and the conflict between China and Russia, shifting Cold War dynamics had a significant impact on the Cambodian crisis. In this case there were essentially two sides: on one side was the Soviet Union, Vietnam, the Soviet Bloc countries and the new Cambodian government led by Hang Samrin; on the other side were China, United States, Thailand, Singapore and most other western countries. The Hang Samrin government in Phnom Penh was not diplomatically recognized by any western government. Only the Soviet Union and Soviet Bloc countries supported the Vietnam and its occupation. China, the only major government that recognized and supported the Khmer Rouge while they were in power, lobbied fiercely on their behalf at the international level after the Vietnamese invasion. In fact, after Vietnam occupied Cambodia, China briefly invaded North Vietnam to “teach them a lesson” and attempt to draw the Vietnamese army out of Cambodia. To deny the new Cambodian government recognition and the Vietnamese legitimacy China, Thailand, the United States, and most other western countries voted in 1979 to continue to recognize the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia, though they controlled very little of the country.

Regional tension between Vietnam and Thailand, countries that were wary of each other’s regional intentions, further complicated the Cambodian crisis. Cambodia had traditionally acted as a buffer between Thailand and Vietnam. For hundreds of years the Vietnamese and Thais vied for influence and control in Cambodia. With the recent expulsion of the United States from Indochina and the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia Thailand feared Vietnam’s expansionist intentions. With the Cambodian buffer removed, the threat of a direct conflict between Vietnam and Thailand loomed large.

 

Amidst these tensions, the Joint Mission’s attempted to create a humanitarian space to operate a relief program. Throughout 1979, the Joint Mission negotiated for greater operational presence in Cambodia, something that Vietnam and the new Cambodian government resisted. On August 9, 1979 UNICEF and ICRC delivered their first shipment of relief supplies by plane to Phnom Penh. From August onwards a slow but steady amount of relief aid began to enter the country by plane and boat. The logistical and operational capacity of the Cambodian authorities to manage the relief aid was a source of constant debate.

Separate from the Joint Mission operation, Oxfam and a consortium of several other NGOs reached an agreement with the Heng Samrin government to deliver humanitarian aid to Cambodia. Unlike UNICEF and ICRC, Oxfam agreed to channel all aid through the Phnom Penh government and not operate on the Thai-Cambodian border. Jim Howard, the head of the Oxfam operation in Phnom Penh, was a vocal advocate for expanding the relief operation in Cambodia.

5. The border camps

Throughout 1979 tens of thousands of Cambodians fled to the Thai border. Barred by the Thai military from entering the country a vast number of them—combatants, traders, farmers and many others—accumulated in several makeshift camps along the ill-defined border. Many were starving, had malaria, and were in very poor health. Several of the largest camps, including Nong Chan, Nong Samet, and Mak Mun, grew into vast open-air markets, each controlled by a different faction of Khmer Serei. Conditions in the border camps were very poor: most of those who settled in the camps lived in squalor with access to no basic services.

After lengthy negotiations with Thai officials UNICEF and ICRC began a border relief operation. One key consideration for the Joint Mission was the need to balance border relief activities with the on-going attempts to deliver and distribute food and other humanitarian assistance inside Cambodia. The new Cambodian government was extremely sensitive to activities at the border, claiming publicly that humanitarian agencies were aiding the perpetrators of genocide, i.e., the Khmer Rouge, at the border, rather the millions of victims of the genocide inside Cambodia.

Throughout the establishment of the border relief operation the United States exerted significant political and financial influence, both overt and subtle. As the largest contributor to the relief operation the US frequently flexed its political muscle. The US embassy in Bangkok set up the Kampuchean Emergency Group (KEG) to monitor activities at the border. Consisting of current and former military and political attaches KEG was seen by many aid workers at the border as an extension of the US foreign policy agenda in Southeast Asia. US embassy in Thailand did not hide the fact that it thought aid should be distributed all Cambodians at the border, including the Khmer Rouge and Khmer Serei armed groups.

There was no doubt that the border camps contained large numbers of combatants. Both the perpetrators and victims of the Cambodian genocide flocked to the border area and into Thailand. Along with the Khmer Rouge and anti-communist Cambodian resistance groups known as the Khmer Serei (free Khmer), tens of thousands of refugees lived in the border camps, most of whom were noncombatants. In general, the Khmer Serei controlled the border camps north of Aranyaprathet, a small border town in eastern Thailand on the main road to Cambodia, while the Khmer Rouge controlled the camps south of Aranyaprathet. Some of the camps had only a few thousand people while others had over a hundred thousand people. Because of its location Aranyaprathet quickly became the nuclei of the border relief operation, as international agencies set up offices to coordinate aid to the camps.

The border was a dangerous, chaotic place. Far from being a safe haven many of the border camps were subject to attack. Conflict raged just across the border in Cambodia, as remnants of the Khmer Rouge fought Vietnamese forces. At times the border area became a battleground and the refugees were caught in the middle. A different military faction controlled each of the border camps. Frequently these groups fought one another. A wild array of black marketers and other traders sprout up in and around the camps. Corruption was rife along the border, and the black market trade in food and other essential items was widespread. Gold, hidden away by many Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge era, was one of the most common forms of currency.

The Thai military controlled most activity along the border and exerted tremendous power in some of the border camps. Though the Thai military’s primary concern was the threat of the Vietnamese army and a potential invasion, they also ensured that the Cambodians did not cross the border. This policy was not consistent though: large groups of Cambodians were periodically allowed into Thailand and given aid by local Thai villagers, while other times The Thai military put up barbed wire along the border crossing points and threatened to shot anyone who crossed.

6. Food distribution at the border

Food distribution was one of the most lucrative activities along the border; whoever controlled it had tremendous power and influence with the humanitarian agencies and refugee population. The humanitarian agencies working on the border had tenuous relationships with the Khmer Rouge and Khmer Serei groups that controlled the camps. This relationship had a huge impact on the success of humanitarian relief among the refugees.

When the refugees first started to accumulate at the border some humanitarian agencies had hastily organized several trucks to deliver food, plastic tarps and other essential supplies. Trucks were mobbed the moment they entered the camps and it had been impossible to determine who got the supplies and if it had been enough for everyone.

Food distribution in the refugee camps was haphazard: there was no reliable data on the number of refugees in each camp, since new refugees arrived everyday. The amount of food needed and number of people to feed was at best a guess; few, if any, logistical mechanisms were in place in the camps, and transportation, coordination and distribution were problematic from the beginning. Humanitarian workers at the border suspected that camp leaders inflated the number of refugees in the camps in order to receive more food.

A few camp surveys had been conducted to estimate the size of the population in the larger camps, but the numbers often differed greatly from what the camp leaders claimed. Given this tension humanitarian organizations debated how to proceed.

Relief agencies decided to give the rice to the camp leaders and rely on them to distribute the rice throughout the camp. The effectiveness of this program was a source of constant debate among relief workers at the border and at headquarters in Bangkok. Some relief workers suspected that much of the rice was misappropriated by the camp leaders. A survey in one of the largest border camps found that camp leaders were distributing less than 25% of the rice to households. Large stockpiles of rice were visible at many of the military barracks in the border camps.

Some relief workers argued successfully for a direct distribution system. An initial trial to distribute food directly to camp inhabitants was chaotic and largely a failure. Many of the aid workers had quickly become overwhelmed and had had little support from camp leadership. Though they knew giving the food to camp leaders was ripe for abuse and fraught with ethical dilemmas, many of them insisted that there was no other way. Another direct distribution trial also ended in disaster. Eventually a more effective system of direct distribution was implemented, utilizing a system of distribution to the female head of household, substantial pre-planning and coordination with refugee leaders, and more effective distribution mechanisms, but the equity and reliability of the system were always in question. The success of direct distribution in the border camps was far from uniform and never consistent.

7. The land bridge

Almost from the beginning of the refugee exodus in the fall of 1979 some aid workers working on the Thai-Cambodian border had argued that rice, rice seed, farming tools and relief aid should be sent across the border to western Cambodia. Advocates of cross-border food distribution argued that rice would reach people in western Cambodia faster via the cross-border routes than it would if it went through the official route starting at the ports of Kompang Som or Phnom Penh and traveling by train 300+ miles to Battambang. Newspaper reports of delivery and distribution problems in Phnom Penh and Kompong Som reinforced the belief that food had to sent across the border to prevent famine in 1980. With the imminent threat of famine—last year’s rice crop had been devastated because of the conflict—there was, many aid workers argued, a critical need for humanitarian organizations at the border to take matters into their own hands and figure out a way to send food across the border.

There was no official way of bringing food across the Thai-Cambodian border. The new Cambodian government had closed the border at Aranyaprathet and had refused to allow humanitarian organizations to cross there, arguing that the Khmer Rouge hiding along the border would benefit from food distribution in western Cambodia. The Joint Mission was extremely concerned with not upsetting the new Cambodian government, so decisions over border and cross-border relief activities were delicate matters.

Robert Ashe, a British aid worker who had worked in Thailand for many years and was hired by ICRC to work in the border camps, was a strong advocate for organizing food distribution points in the border camps. With a system of inter-camp food distribution in place Ashe believed a similar system could be organized to send rice to the interior of Cambodia. Ashe had noticed that many Cambodians came to the border camps for food and other supplies and then returned to the interior of the country. Ashe thought that the relief agencies could capitalize on this impromptu transportation system and send rice deep into western Cambodia and beyond. Starting in December 1979 relief agencies started sending rice across the border with the vast number of Cambodians with oxcarts and bicycles that came to the border every day. Called the “land bridge,” thousands of kilos of rice were sent across the border starting in December 1979.

The land bridge program was not without controversy. Some aid workers and journalists claimed that the whole border relief operation, especially the cross-border distributions, were an attempt by the United States to draw Cambodians off their farms in order to further destabilze the country and deny the Vietnamese occupation any legitimacy. Some aid organizations argued that the land bridge was sending rice straight across the border to Vietnamese soldiers; others argued that it was going straight to the Khmer Rouge. There was no means of monitoring where the rice went and who used it. The Joint Mission, particularly ICRC, worried that the land bridge would jeopardize their delicate relationship—and on-going negotiations—with the new government in Phnom Penh, who demanded that all relief aid be channeled through them. The Hang Samrin government was adamantly opposed to any cross-border distribution system. For this reason the Joint Mission tried to keep the program as inconspicuous as possible. During negotiations the border relief operation, especially the cross-border food distribution system, was constant sources of tension between the Joint Mission and the Heng Samrin government.

Rice was initially distributed across the land bridge and other essential supplies, such as farming tools, were periodically included. Believing that distributing rice alone would only temporarily halt mass starvation and not stem the predicted rice harvest failure in 1980, aid organizations began to send rice seed across the land bridge for the first time in March 1980. Prioritizing rice seed over rice was a source of heated debate among aid workers at the border.

Throughout the land bridge program its effectiveness was debated. Was it distributing rice and rice seed deep into Cambodia? Did it help avert the predicted famine? Were the food supplies diverted to combatants or resold by traders? No one ultimately knew.

8. Is relief aid being distributed in Cambodia?

The claim that relief supplies were not reaching farmers in western Cambodia was not held by all journalists in the region. In the documentary Cambodia Year One, first broadcast in the UK on September 10, 1980, John Pilger interviewed Jim Howard from Oxfam/UK in the spring of 1980 at the port of Phnom Penh. Responding to the criticism that supplies were being misappropriated and not getting through to those who need them the most Jim Howard responded that they had seen no misuse of supplies but acknowledged that there had been problems with transportation and bureaucratic red tape.

Pilger followed a shipment of rice seed by train 350 miles to the western providence of Battambang. Pilger notes many of the criticisms— the lack of sufficient rice distribution in the countryside, the perception that rice was being stockpiled in warehouses rather than distributed and the government’s choice to prioritize the distribution of rice seed over rice—that international relief agencies have made concerning the government’s efforts to distribute rice throughout the country. Pilger also notes the continued threat of the Khmer Rouge, who have regrouped along the Thai border and have begun attacking western Cambodia.


Cambodia: Year One
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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.

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.

11. Khao-I-Dang

A few weeks later, the Thai government requested UNHCR to build another holding center, one capable of holding 300,000 people. With 4 days of rapid construction Khao-I-Dang Holding Center, opened on November 21, 1979, several kilometers inside of the Thailand, just north of the border town Aranyaprathet. Over a period of several weeks tens of thousands of refugees are bused to Khao-I-Dang from the border. In general these refugees were in better health than the refugees that initially came to Sa Kaeo. Khao-I-Dang was immediately different from Sa Kaeo: it was larger and had better facilities and the refugees that came there were mostly people who had fled the Khmer Rouge.

Buses from the border arrived each day with thousands of refugees; An average of 1,600 refugees arrived each day. Between November 1979 and January 1980 the population of Khao I Dang grew from zero to 140,000 people, making it the second largest Khmer city in the world, after Phnom Penh.

As with Sakaeo, UNHCR was in charge of the camp, ICRC operated the medical facilities, WFP supplied the food and several volunteer agencies (“volags”) provided a variety of other camp services. Each volunteer organization came with a different political agenda and set of management structures, skills, protocols and beliefs about providing humanitarian assistance. Coordination was difficult.

12. Growing Western attention

Meanwhile, back in the US and Europe, considerable attention was being directed towards Cambodia. On Dec 26-29, 1979, the musician Paul McCartney and Kurt Waldheim, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, organized a four-night benefit, Concerts for the People of Kampuchea, to raise funs for UNICEF and UNHCR. The concert featured Paul McCartney and Wings, The Who, Queen, Elvis Costello, The Pretenders, The Clash and other artists at the Hammersmith Odeon in London, England.

As a result of increasing coverage of the Cambodian crisis the public in the West responded with unprecedented goodwill. Martin Barber, a senior UNHCR staff member in Thailand, noted “As soon as the dimension of the problem became apparent we were besieged by people wanting to do something.” Individuals in western countries donated money and old clothing, church groups held fund raisers, hundreds of volunteers offered their services and adoption agencies offered to take Cambodian orphans.

Meanwhile, the refugee crisis at the border became a cause célèbre among many activists, artists and academics from the West, many of whom visited the border camps. In early February, for example, a group of aid workers, peace activists and celebrities, including Joan Baez and Elie Wiesel, led a “March for Survival” at the border town of Aranyaprathet, demanding an end to what they perceived was the deliberate obstruction of food distribution by the Vietnamese. Using a bullhorn the group offered 20 truckloads of food and medicine to the Vietnamese and Cambodian soldiers on the other side of the border. Though they received no response the group donated relief aid and money to relief agencies on the border.

13. Another famine?

On January 24, 1980, the Thailand government reversed its earlier decision and abruptly closed its borders again. Throughout the spring refugees continued to flee fighting in Cambodia and the threat of famine, seeking refuge on the border or trying to sneak into Thailand. With the border officially closed again entry into Thailand was much more difficult and dangerous. Cambodians caught crossing the border were imprisoned and deported, often subject to violence and extortion. Thus began a risky night-time flow of human traffic back and forth from the border to Khao-I-Dang.

Fighting between different Cambodian factions continued along the border. Civilians were often caught in the middle, with scores being injured and killed each time fighting erupted. The Thai army frequently retaliated, shelling border camps indiscriminately. The wounded were often taken to Khao-I-Dang camp for treatment by international medical staff. Despite the lack of safety at the border thousands of Cambodians continued to come to the border camps or pick up rice to take back to the interior.

At the end of March 1980, international relief agencies predicted the failure of rice harvest and massive food shortages in the coming year. At a conference with donor countries, the Joint Mission requested new pledges for funding to deliver rice seed to Cambodian farmers to plant now for the next harvest in December. The problems of delivery and distribution of food aid inside Cambodia were omnipresent. Whether the new Vietnamese-backed government in Phnom Penh was able to distribute food throughout the country to those most in need was a debated subject for most of 1980.

There appeared to be no end to the refugee crisis at the border or the threat of famine inside Cambodia. In March 1980 William Shawcross published a 6-part series in The Washington Post on the relief effort in Cambodia and at the border. Henry Kamm visited Cambodia in April and wrote a series of articles highlighting the obstacles of food delivery and distribution and supporting his belief that food was not being properly distributed.

14. The Return of the Khmer Rouge

By the middle of 1980 the rehabilitation of the Khmer Rouge in hidden bases along the border and in Sa Kaeo and other refugee camps in Thailand was noted with shock by several observers. Having been driven out of Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese army and trapped in a few remote mountain hide-outs along the border, the Khmer Rouge were almost wiped out by starvation and disease in the fall of 1979. With the emergency border relief program, the opening of Sa Kaeo refugee camp in Thailand and covert aid by China and the Thai military, the Khmer Rouge were able to regroup and regain their strength as a fighting force. The irony that much of the humanitarian aid for the border was benefiting the perpetrators of genocide was not lost on many aid workers and journalists.

During the summer of 1980 the necessity of withdrawing aid from the Khmer Rouge and other armed groups at the border became a matter of urgency among the aid agencies. In June 1980 the UNHCR and the Thai authorities started a highly controversial “repatriation” program from the holding centers. As a direct result of the repatriation program Vietnamese forces attacked the border camps, killing scores of refugees. In early July 1980, UNHCR closed Sa Kaeo camp and transferred its inhabitants to Khao-I-Dang and Sakeao II. Many of the Khmer Rouge cadre returned to the border. On July 16, 1980, Robert Jackson, the UN Secretary General’s personal representative in Thailand, and officials from UNICEF, ICRC, WFP, and UNHCR met with the Thai Foreign Minister to discuss “various difficulties on our side”. Jackson knew that feeding the Khmer Rouge had to end immediately. He opened the meeting by telling the Foreign Minister that much had changed since the initial border emergency operation began and it was time to review the situation. Jackson cited three primary difficulties:

1. Monitoring what happens to relief aid
2. Security in the camps
3. Guarantee that relief aid did not go straight to combatants

Jackson presented these difficulties knowing that the United States, who funded a majority of the relief activities, and Thailand, who hosted the relief operation, openly wanted to maintain pressure on the Vietnamese by supporting Cambodian resistance groups along the border, including the Khmer Rouge.

The relief organizations faced an impossible dilemma: Combatants and non-combatants were mixed in almost every camp. Were the refugees to be denied food simply because they could not be separated from the soldiers? Feeding combatants was a clear violation of the humanitarian principles, but many aid officials argued that these people had to be fed even at the price of rejuvenating the Khmer Rouge and other armed groups.

Child Protection 2

Focus: Separated children

 

In Class: After an initial review of the case study, we will divide into two groups and discuss the following key decision points. Please review the case study with these areas in mind:

 

Decision Point #1: What is the best initial placement for separated children? Why?

 

Decision Point #2: What are the best interim care arrangements for separated children? Why?

Decision Point #3: What are the best long-term arrangements for separated children? Why?

Resettlement to third country? Foster care, group homes, adoption?

 

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. Several hundred unaccompanied children were in these first groups of refugees.

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
.

Video: Williamsons talk about Cambodia crisis

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Khao-I-Dang

Kao-I-Dang Refugee Camp

 

A few weeks later, the Thai government requested UNHCR to build another holding center, one capable of holding 300,000 people. With 4 days of rapid construction Khao-I-Dang Holding Center, opened on November 21, 1979, several kilometers inside of the Thailand, just north of the border town Aranyaprathet. Over a period of several weeks tens of thousands of refugees are bused to Khao-I-Dang from the border. In general, these refugees were in better health than the refugees that initially came to Sa Kaeo. Khao-I-Dang was immediately different from Sa Kaeo: it was larger and had better facilities and the refugees that came there were mostly people who had fled the Khmer Rouge.

Buses from the border arrived each day with thousands of refugees; An average of 1,600 refugees arrived each day. Several hundred unaccompanied children were among the arrivals. Between November 1979 and January 1980 the population of Khao I Dang grew from zero to 140,000 people, making it the second largest Khmer city in the world, after Phnom Penh.

As with Sakaeo, UNHCR was in charge of the camp, ICRC operated the medical facilities, WFP supplied the food and several volunteer agencies (“volags”) provided a variety of other camp services. Each volunteer organization came with a different political agenda and set of management structures, skills, protocols and beliefs about providing humanitarian assistance. Coordination was difficult.

Within the first twenty-four hours of opening Khao-I-Dang (as well as Sakaeo), aid workers were faced with the question of how to provide for children who were alone. Each day the number of children without family members continued to grow. Where were their families? Were they orphans? How should these children be cared for? With no guidelines aid workers had to make a series of decisions regarding the care and protection of these children. This quickly became one of the most controversial issues during the Cambodian refugee crisis in Thailand.

As in Sakaeo, UNHCR invited voluntary agencies to establish centers for the unaccompanied children. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) operated programs for unaccompanied children in Sakaeo and Khao-I-Dang.

Offers of Help

Meanwhile, back in the US and Europe, considerable attention was being directed towards the Cambodian crisis. On Dec 26-29, 1979, the musician Paul McCartney and Kurt Waldheim, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, organized a four-night benefit, Concerts for the People of Kampuchea, to raise funds for UNICEF and UNHCR. The concert featured Paul McCartney and Wings, The Who, Queen, Elvis Costello, The Pretenders, The Clash and other artists at the Hammersmith Odeon in London, England.

As a result of increasing coverage of the Cambodian crisis the public in the West responded with unprecedented goodwill. Martin Barber, a senior UNHCR staff member in Thailand, noted that “As soon as the dimension of the problem became apparent we were besieged by people wanting to do something.” Individuals donated money and old clothing, church groups held fund raisers, hundreds of volunteers offered their services and adoption agencies offered to take the Cambodian “orphans”.

Western embassies, international adoption agencies and the media exerted tremendous pressure to immediately remove the unaccompanied children from the holding centers. Offers to adopt the Khmer “orphans” came almost as soon as the first news reports about the children. International adoption agencies, government representatives and ordinary people showed up at Sa Kaeo and Khao-I-Dang offering to adopt the Khmer “orphans.” In the early days some children were taken out of the camps: some were ‘adopted’ by aid workers who promised to bring them home to the US or Europe, some were placed in orphanages or Buddhist temples in Thailand and others simply disappeared.

Controversy

From the beginning there was tremendous controversy about what to do with the unaccompanied children. Everyone had their own idea of what was in the best interest of the children. There were essentially three positions: the unaccompanied children should stay in the camps, they should return to Cambodia or they should leave the camps for international adoption. Some people saw the insecurity and poor conditions in the camps and believed that the children should be removed immediately; they thought that the children had suffered enough and should be taken out of the camps for interim care elsewhere in Thailand or for international adoption. Others thought that the unaccompanied children should be kept in the camps because they likely had parents, siblings and other relatives at the border or in Cambodia who they could later be reunited with. Still others believed that in the aftermath of the genocide children were the life blood of Cambodia and must return to Cambodia to re-build the country; they believed that sending Cambodian children abroad for adoption was cultural genocide and would lead to the extinction of the Cambodian people.

In time for Christmas…

In time for Christmas…

Several Western countries offered to take a large number of the unaccompanied children. For example, in November 1979, in the aftermath of winning the 1979 Nansen Refugee Award, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the president of France, announced that his government would accept a group of unaccompanied children and take them to France “in time for Christmas”.
On December 22, 1979, a team of French representatives took 62 children from Sa Kaeo for France. Several aid workers in Sa Kaeo protested the removal of these children. In total, by the end of 1979, about 300 unaccompanied children were taken, under tremendous diplomatic pressure, by France, West Germany and Belgium for adoption.

In addition to pressure from western governments the Thai royal family decided that it would help care of some of the unaccompanied children. A member of the Thai royal family announced that some of the unaccompanied children from Khao-I-Dang would be taken to Khao Larn, a different camp set up under the patronage of the Thai royal family. Aid workers did not want the children to be removed from the children’s center, so on the day that the Thai officials were to get the children several aid workers emptied the children’s centers and temporarily scattered the unaccompanied children throughout the camp with Cambodian families. The Thai royal family was embarrassed and as a result one aid worker had to leave the country. Here, as in the previous cases, the question of what was in the best interest of the child was fiercely debated: good intentions did not always match what was in the best interest of child, but who would decide?

The December 5th memo

The situation became so heated that on December 5, 1979, Poul Hartling, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, issued a memo clarifying UNHCR’s position on the care of unaccompanied children and the reunion of families.

The High Commissioner’s recommendations included the following: begin rapid family tracing and reunification; establish special children’s centers for unaccompanied children; avoid adoption until the a child’s family situation can be assessed; assess the situation of extremely vulnerable children, e.g., infants, those with medical needs, the handicapped; in the event of international adoption insist on mechanisms to allow children to be reunited with their family if they are located in the future; recognize the potential harm of removing children from their ethic and cultural setting; and coordinate all activities among concerned agencies.

Amidst the controversy surrounding the unaccompanied children UNHCR and voluntary agencies tried to implement the December 5th memo and create programs and policy for unaccompanied children from scratch.

The Children’s Centers

The children’s centers

Initially, sick and injured unaccompanied children who were brought to the holding centers went to the hospital and ones that were well went to an area next to the hospital where tents had been arranged for them. When there were over 500 unaccompanied children UNHCR requested Catholic Relief Services (CRS) to set-up and administer special children’s centers in Khao-I-Dang. These centers were built in each section in the camp to enable the children to live with their own people and to have the chance of being recognized by relatives.

The children’s centers attempted to create a family-like environment. As “house parents” Cambodian adults cared for the children. Running the children’s centers required a balance between keeping a low profile so that the centers would not be seen as being above the level of the camps around them and the need to provide special care for children who had no family.

It was difficult to keep track of all of the unaccompanied children. The number of unaccompanied children in the children’s centers was always a source of uncertainty, as some older children would leave the centers. Spontaneous reunification occurred in the holding centers and at the border. With a constant influx of refugees and movement back and forth to the border parents sometimes found their children on their own.

March for Survival

Meanwhile, the refugee crisis at the border became a cause célèbre among many activists, artists and academics from the West, many of whom visited the border camps. In early February, for example, a group of aid workers, peace activists and celebrities, including Joan Baez and Elie Wiesel, led a “March for Survival” at the border town of Aranyaprathet, demanding an end to what they perceived was the deliberate obstruction of food distribution by the Vietnamese. Using a bullhorn the group offered 20 truckloads of food and medicine to the Vietnamese and Cambodian soldiers on the other side of the border. Though they received no response the group donated relief aid and money to relief agencies on the border. IRC used some of that money to print school textbooks.

Protection Issues

As Khao-I-Dang grew the camp was broken up into smaller, more manageable sections. Staff noticed that when a children’s center was to be moved the number of “spontaneous” reunifications increased dramatically. Staff discovered that some parents in the community had been placing their children in the children’s centers, believing that the children there received better services and would be resettled in the West. When a children’s center was to be moved, parents suddenly appeared to claim their child. The problem of the children’s centers being a magnet and creating child separation was a problematic issue throughout the relief operation.

Separate from the children’s centers, many unaccompanied children were cared for by Cambodian families in the holding centers. The full extent of these informal fostering arrangements was unknown, though it was estimated that more unaccompanied children were cared for outside of the children’s centers than in them. While there were some protection concerns, namely the risk of physical and sexual abuse, aid agencies, in general, did not disturb these informal arrangements. The question of the viability of fostering as an alternative to the children’s centers was a topic that was discussed throughout the operation of the program for unaccompanied children

Other groups of unaccompanied children required special consideration. Landmine injuries and amputations were a common sight among children in the holding centers. This was true in the holding centers as well. Other children had physical disabilities that required special needs. Some children had experienced severe mental trauma having witnessed a family member being killed or other graphic experiences during the Khmer Rouge era. The extent of psychosocial programs for these children varied; much of the time it was a learning process for the aid workers.

Older adolescents who were unaccompanied also required a different level of support; they often lived on their own with support from aid agencies. Older children were unlikely to be considered for resettlement; as a result vocational programs were set up to enable them to learn a trade and live independently.

Abandoned babies at the border and in the holding centers also required very special consideration. With pre-verbal children the chance of obtaining any information to help with tracing and family reunification is almost impossible. To further complicate the problem the question of whether abandoned babies were to be considered as unaccompanied children and cared for in the children’s centers was a controversial issue.

The border closes

On January 24, 1980, the Thailand government reversed its earlier decision and abruptly closed its borders again. Throughout the spring refugees continued to flee fighting in Cambodia and the threat of famine, seeking refuge on the border or trying to sneak into Thailand. With the border officially closed again entry into Thailand was much more difficult and dangerous. Cambodians caught crossing the border were imprisoned and deported, often subject to violence and extortion. Thus began a risky night-time flow of human traffic back and forth from the border to Khao-I-Dang and other sanctuaries inside Thailand.

Fighting between different Cambodian factions continued along the border. Despite the lack of safety at the border thousands of Cambodians continued to come to the border camps or pick up rice to take back to the interior. Civilians were often caught in the middle, with scores being injured and killed each time fighting erupted. The Thai army frequently retaliated, shelling border camps indiscriminately. Though the border was officially closed the Thais allowed two exceptions for Cambodians entering Thailand: the wounded and unaccompanied children. The wounded, who were often combatants, were often taken to Khao-I-Dang camp for treatment by international medical staff, while unaccompanied children were brought to children’s centers that had been set up to provide temporary care for them.

Life in the holding centers

Life in the holding centers was, in general, safer than being in the border camps; nevertheless, life there was far from easy. The Thai military controlled the holding centers. A new group called Task Force 80 was created to maintain security along the border and at the holding centers. Task Force 80 quickly gained a reputation for indiscriminate violence and abuse of the Cambodian refugees. Though the children’s centers were generally safe and offered an additional layer of protection for the children there, there were often problems when unaccompanied children left Khao-I-Dang to search for relatives at the border. If the Thai military found them out of the camp the children were often imprisoned; in these cases international staff from the children centers had to expend tremendous pressure to have the children released.

Violence and intimation by the Khmer Rouge and other combatants was a constant issue in the border camps and the holding centers. In Sakaeo, in particular, the Khmer Rouge attacked those that did not support their cause. The Thai guards frequently turned a blind eye and allowed the Khmer Rouge to administer camp “justice” as they saw fit.

While child recruitment was not an issue in Khao-I-Dang, it was a problem in Sa Kaeo and the smaller holding centers of Mairut and Kamput. There were numerous instances of recruitment in the children’s centers by the Khmer Rouge. In some case the Thai social service agency in charge of the children’s centers were complicit in the recruitment, believing it was in the best interest of the children to return to Cambodia to fight the Vietnamese.

Sexual abuse was widespread in the camps and holding centers. Again, while the children’s centers offered an additional layer of protection to the unaccompanied children who lived there, children outside of the centers did not benefit from this protection and were subject to abuse. Some international staff in the holding centers had relationships with Cambodian refugees; the degree of consent in this type of relationship was highly questionable. Thai soldiers raped adolescent girls in the holding centers with impunity; those that protested were often killed. Hanne Sophie Greve, a UNHCR Protection Officer in Thailand at this time, noted the prevalence of rape in the holding centers and the lack of action by UNHCR.

“No one could prevent rape occurring in a camp where there are no locked doors for a refugee to hide behind, and no around-the clock international presence. At night, when the soldiers went around and ‘lifted up the mosquito nets’, as the parlance was, and pointed a gun at someone, there was no way anyone could resist them. An elderly woman who once tried to stop the rape of her sixteen-year-old daughter had her shoulder blasted with a fast M-16 bullet. Whether she finally had to have her arm amputated I do not know—it was under question when I visited her in hospital. In any case, the mother’s sacrifice provided no escape for her daughter. The number of young girls I was personally involved in hiding was high, and I spoke with many, many women who had been raped. I could not persuade them to testify against the guards who would remain guarding them even after a case was made, though I did not try very hard as we all knew there was no way anyone could really protect them. It was deplorable that the official UNHCR records denied the existence of rape because of the lack of absolute evidence tested in court according to proper criminal procedures. It was a crime which in some parlance was as common as the night in the refugee concentrations. Or, as a refugee friend once expressed it, “It seems that night is their death, and day is their life.” Several brutal murders resulted when Thai soldiers chased unwilling women.”

(from Kampuchean Refugees: Between the Tiger and the Crocodile, p. 351.)

From a programmatic level the issue of protection was problematic, since international staff, as noted above, left the camps during the night, and had little power to control the Thai soldiers that guarded the camps. As noted in the child recruitment example above, even some Thai social service staff could not be relied on to provide adequate protection from abuse. While the vast majority of Thai and Cambodian staff and volunteers operated with the highest level of concern for unaccompanied children, and children in the camps in general, there were an alarming number of instances were basic protection was severely compromised.

Tracing

Serious efforts at tracing and family reunification began in March 1980. The High Commissioner’s December 5 memo was explicit about tracing: It is of the utmost importance that every effort be made to reunite [unaccompanied children] with any family members who may still be alive. To this end I have been in touch with the ICRC with a view to developing common programs to facilitate the rapid tracing of missing relatives.

ICRC has traditionally been responsible for family tracing and reunification in times of war. Since World War 2 ICRC has used the same approach for unaccompanied children: they waited for an adult to come to their office and make a claim for a separated child; ICRC then verifies the claim and the child is reunited if the claim is valid. ICRC believed this approach was the best means of protecting children from harm or false claims.

In Cambodia ICRC’s approach yielded few family reunifications. Almost no parents came forward to make a claim. IRC wanted to try a different approach to tracing: IRC believed that “passive tracing” would not work in the holding centers and at the border; rather, they believed that tracing efforts should actively reach out to the refugee population using a variety of outreach efforts.

The process of tracing required enormous amount of paperwork. Dossiers had to be created for each child; children had to be interviewed, this material had to be distributed, tracing efforts in the holding centers, at the border, and in Bangkok had to be coordinated – the process was far from easy. Redda Barna/Save the Children Norway initiated a major tracing in the holding centers, developing a number of innovative tools including photo tracing books and interview guidelines for unaccompanied children.

An uncertain future

Through the summer and fall of 1980 the status of the Cambodians and the holding centers were in flux. While UNHCR in October 1979 had assumed that the refugee crisis would be resolved in 6 months and had planned accordingly, by the summer of 1980 it became increasingly clear that the refugee crisis had no end in sight. The new Thai government that came to power in the spring of 1980 was not as flexible with the Cambodians refugees as the one that had agreed to open the borders. The Thai government started to push for the Cambodians to go home, though it was also clear that the Thai policy framework for the refugees was to use them as a human buffer between Thailand and the Vietnamese army in Cambodia. Despite the efforts by the humanitarian agencies to improve security in the camps and ensure that aid was distributed equitably to non-combatants, it became clear that the camps were becoming more militarized, not less.   

In June 1980 a “repatriation” program from the holding centers created tremendous controversy among aid workers, UNHCR and the Thai government. The question of whether repatriation from Sakaeo was voluntary, given the level of control and intimidation by the Khmer Rouge, was one obvious issue. Another issue was whether it was safe for Cambodians to return to the border, where there was ongoing fighting, or to the interior of Cambodia were there was serious food shortages and questions of intimation by the occupying Vietnamese forces. As a direct result of the repatriation program Vietnamese forces attacked the border camps, killing scores of refugees. In early July, in an attempt to separate civilians from the Khmer Rouge, Sakaeo, the original holding center, was closed. Most refugees moved to Sa Kaeo II, a new camp, or Khao-I-Dang. Rather than being moved to a new camp many Khmer Rouge cadre returned to the border.

Throughout the summer and fall of 1980, as the status of Cambodian refugees in Thailand grew more uncertain, protection concerns intensified. Security issues in the border camps and holding centers were a regular dilemma. Recruitment by armed groups was a constant concern; adolescents faced intimidation to “repatriate” and join the armed groups at the border. Sexual exploitation and physical violence were persistent problems. Programs for the unaccompanied children expanded, but program staff faced the dilemma of how to widen tracing and reunification efforts in the face of the continued militarization of the camps and conflict along the border. The promise of resettlement for unaccompanied children created separation in some instances. Program staff continually dealt with the dilemma of providing care and support for unaccompanied children that was on par with that in the rest of the camps for children with their families.

As policy and practice evolved program staff returned again and again to the same dilemma they faced in the fall of 1979: what was in the best interest of each unaccompanied child and who should make this decision?

Resettlement Fever

The issue of resettlement grew to become one of most problematic issues with the unaccompanied children. While there had been some resettlement in the fall of 1979, after the High Commissioner’s December 5th memo, there was a general moratorium on resettlement. This did not stop Cambodian families from sending their children to the children’s centers, believing that children there would be sent to live in the West. The prospect of resettlement created an atmosphere of “resettlement fever” that enormously complicated the programs for unaccompanied children. One of the biggest pitfalls of resettlement was dealing with cases where a children that had been resettled abroad was later claimed by parents or other relatives in Thailand or Cambodia. UNHCR had insisted that in such cases the child be returned to the child’s family or have the family join the child abroad. While resettlement was fraught with difficulties for many unaccompanied children who were not reunited with their family it was the only option.

The idea of returning unaccompanied children in the holding centers to children’s centers in Cambodia was discussed as another long-term care arrangement. IRC assessed the children’s centers in Phnom Penh to determine if it would be appropriate to send children there from the holding centers.

Resettled Refugee Interviews

Cambodia Refugee Crisis: History

Focus: Food, Politics and Humanitarian Response
Objectives:

A decade of war and forced migration

From 1969 to 1979, Cambodia, also known as Kampuchea, was torn apart by constant internal conflict and war with its neighbors. In 1969, President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger authorized a secret bombing campaign in eastern Cambodia, which harbored North Vietnamese bases and part of the "Ho Chi Men' trail. In 1970, the neutralist Prince Sihanouk, who led the country as head of state and had managed to keep Cambodia out of the war in Vietnam and Laos throughout the 1960s, was overthrown in a coup by Lon Nol. A civil war between 1970 and 1975 between the American-backed Lon Nol government and the North Vietnamese soldiers and their Cambodian communist allies, the Khmer Rouge, killed tens of thousands of people and displaced over two million, mostly to the capital Phnom Penh, but also to Thailand and Vietnam. Indiscriminant American saturation bombing of the countryside in 1969-1973-a sideshow of the American war in Viet Nam-devastated eastern Cambodia, forcing many villagers to flee the countryside or join the Khmer Rouge. The United States dropped more bombs on Cambodia than it did during the entire Second World War. When the United States Congress forced President Nixon to stop the bombing in Cambodia the US continued to channel millions of dollars in military aid to the Lon Nol government. On April 12, 1975 the US embassy in Phnom Penh was evacuated; two weeks later, on April 30, the US left South Vietnam.

The politics of humanitarian relief in Cambodia

The politics of humanitarian relief  

For the first half of 1979 the international community did very little to assist Cambodia. The focus in Indochina at this time was on the tens of thousands of Vietnamese boat people fleeing Vietnam to Thailand, Malaysia and other nearby countries. The attention that was given to Cambodia tended to focus entirely on the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia rather than the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge and the present state of the country.

Efforts to launch a large-scale humanitarian aid operation in Cambodia were slow and fraught with political difficulties. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), known together as the Joint Mission, negotiated with Vietnam and the new Cambodian government to begin a relief operation. The new government was led by Heng Samrin, a former Khmer Rouge leader who had defected to Vietnam. The Vietnamese maintained a significant level of influence and control over the new government in Phnom Penh; as a result, negotiations to initiate a relief operation had to be conducted in both Hanoi and Phnom Penh. These efforts were continuously jeopardized by geopolitical tensions.

The Cold War had a substantial impact on the Cambodian crisis. With the recent warming of relations between the United States and China and the conflict between China and Russia, shifting Cold War dynamics had a significant impact on the Cambodian crisis. In this case there were essentially two sides: on one side was the Soviet Union, Vietnam, the Soviet Bloc countries and the new Cambodian government led by Hang Samrin; on the other side were China, United States, Thailand, Singapore and most other western countries. The Hang Samrin government in Phnom Penh was not diplomatically recognized by any western government. Only the Soviet Union and Soviet Bloc countries supported the Vietnam and its occupation. China, the only major government that recognized and supported the Khmer Rouge while they were in power, lobbied fiercely on their behalf at the international level after the Vietnamese invasion. In fact, after Vietnam occupied Cambodia, China briefly invaded North Vietnam to “teach them a lesson” and attempt to draw the Vietnamese army out of Cambodia. To deny the new Cambodian government recognition and the Vietnamese legitimacy the China, Thailand, the United States, and most other western countries voted in 1979 to continue to recognize the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia, though they controlled very little of the country.  

Regional tension between Vietnam and Thailand, countries that were wary of each other’s regional intentions, further complicated the Cambodian crisis. Cambodia had traditionally acted as a buffer between Thailand and Vietnam. For hundreds of years the Vietnamese and Thais vied for influence and control in Cambodia. With the recent expulsion of the United States from Indochina and the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia Thailand feared Vietnam’s expansionist intentions. With the Cambodian buffer removed, the threat of a direct conflict between Vietnam and Thailand loomed large.   

Amidst these tensions, the Joint Mission’s attempted to create a humanitarian space to operate a relief program. Throughout 1979, the Joint Mission negotiated for greater operational presence in Cambodia, something that Vietnam and the new Cambodian government resisted. On August 9, 1979 UNICEF and ICRC delivered their first shipment of relief supplies by plane to Phnom Penh. From August onwards a slow but steady amount of relief aid began to enter the country by plane and boat. The logistical and operational capacity of the Cambodian authorities to manage the relief aid was a source of constant debate.  

Separate from the Joint Mission operation, Oxfam and a consortium of several other NGOs reached an agreement with the Heng Samrin government to deliver humanitarian aid to Cambodia. Unlike UNICEF and ICRC, Oxfam agreed to channel all aid through the Phnom Penh government and not operate on the Thai-Cambodian border. Jim Howard, one of the Oxfam staff leading the operation in Phnom Penh, was a vocal advocate for expanding the relief operation in Cambodia and working with the new government.

The border camps

The border camps
 
Throughout 1979 tens of thousands of Cambodians fled to the Thai border. Barred by the Thai military from entering the country a vast number of them—combatants, traders, farmers and many others—accumulated in several makeshift camps along the ill-defined border. Many were starving, had malaria, and were in very poor health. Several of the largest camps, including Nong Chan, Nong Samet, and Mak Mun, grew into vast open-air markets, each controlled by a different faction of Khmer Serei. Conditions in the border camps were very poor: most of those who settled in the camps lived in squalor with access to no basic services.

After lengthy negotiations with Thai officials UNICEF and ICRC began a border relief operation. One key consideration for the Joint Mission was the need to balance border relief activities with the on-going attempts to deliver and distribute food and other humanitarian assistance inside Cambodia. The new Cambodian government was extremely sensitive to activities at the border, claiming publicly that humanitarian agencies were aiding the perpetrators of genocide, i.e., the Khmer Rouge, at the border, rather than the millions of survivors of the genocide inside Cambodia.

Throughout the establishment of the border relief operation the United States exerted significant political and financial influence, both overt and subtle. As the largest contributor to the relief operation the US frequently flexed its political muscle. The US embassy in Bangkok set up the Kampuchean Emergency Group (KEG) to monitor activities at the border. Consisting of current and former military and political attaches KEG was seen by many aid workers at the border as an extension of the US foreign policy agenda in Southeast Asia. US embassy in Thailand did not hide the fact that it thought aid should be distributed to all Cambodians at the border, including the Khmer Rouge and other armed resistance groups.

There was no doubt that the border camps contained large numbers of combatants. Both the perpetrators and victims of the Cambodian genocide flocked to the border area and into Thailand. Along with the Khmer Rouge and anti-communist Cambodian resistance groups known as the Khmer Serei (free Khmer), tens of thousands of refugees lived in the border camps, most of whom were noncombatants. In general, the Khmer Serei controlled the border camps north of Aranyaprathet, a small border town in eastern Thailand on the main road to Cambodia, while the Khmer Rouge controlled the camps south of Aranyaprathet. Some of the camps had only a few thousand people while others had over a hundred thousand people. Because of its location Aranyaprathet quickly became the nuclei of the border relief operation, as international agencies set up offices to coordinate aid to the camps.

The border was a dangerous, chaotic place. Far from being a safe haven many of the border camps were subject to attack. Conflict raged just across the border in Cambodia, as remnants of the Khmer Rouge fought Vietnamese forces. At times the border area became a battleground and the refugees were caught in the middle. A different military faction controlled each of the border camps. Frequently these groups fought one another. A wild array of black marketers and other traders sprout up in and around the camps. Corruption was rife along the border, and the black market trade in food and other essential items was widespread. Gold, hidden away by many Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge era, was one of the most common forms of currency.

The Thai military controlled most activity along the border and exerted tremendous power in some of the border camps. Though the Thai military’s primary concern was the threat of the Vietnamese army and a potential invasion, they also ensured that the Cambodians did not cross the border. This policy was not consistent though: large groups of Cambodians were periodically allowed into Thailand and given aid by local Thai villagers, while other times The Thai military put up barbed wire along the border crossing points and threatened to shot anyone who crossed.

An Open Door

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 and inside 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 refugee camps 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.