Cambodia Refugee Crisis: History

Focus: Food, Politics and Humanitarian Response

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.