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.