Refugees flood Thai camps as Cambodia returns to dark ages

Miserable and soaked by incessant rains, there is an overriding sense of despair amongst the thousands of Cambodians who have escaped the terror of renewed fighting in their country.

At Thai "reception" camps, set up to embrace an influx of beleaguered and frightened civilians, mothers fan the weak flames of makeshift stoves fuelled with damp wood. Their children, seemingly oblivious to suffering, play and dance in the torrents of rain beating down on tents of leaky plastic sheeting. There are few men, bar the elderly, or women without children amongst these muddy refugees.

They have escaped to Thailand but have left family behind to work the land in the paddy fields of northwestern Cambodia: a harsh but pragmatic line drawn between the possibility of death or injury from a stray bullet fired by one rival Cambodian government faction at another, and the certainty of starvation without a dry-season rice harvest.

"We packed our belongings two days ago because our loved ones wanted us to be safe," said Aim Lem, a 35-year-old Khmer woman who crossed over two days ago on Saturday night into Thailand with her six young children. "But now we are wet and hungry, and I cannot stop worrying about the safety of the rest of my family," she said, clasping a small baby, naked and screaming, to her breast.

The camps are filling up by the day with refugees. More than 6,000 arrived over the weekend, carrying what belongings they could manage to drag through the mud. Some 15,000 more are poised to enter Thailand further north in the province of Surin, as rival Cambodian forces lock in a bitter stand- off, firing barrages of artillery and rockets across the jungle.

Already, according to aid workers at the border, more than 70 per cent of the displaced civilians are affected with illness. There are fears that without adequate sanitation the water-logged ground on which the refugee camps have been sited may prove prone to malaria and cholera.

The United Nations' refugee agency, and other aid groups, have been struggling to provide everyone with just the bare minimum: food, basic medical care and sufficient shelter from the weather.

No one is comparing this crisis to the calamity of the late 1970s, when as many as 500,000 starving Cambodians, shattered by war and the genocidal Khmer Rouge, lingered on Thailand's long border. But although the numbers are smaller this time, the people are fleeing for similar reasons, and with no less fear for their lives.

"We all thought the shelling would kill us," said Sok In, a 63-year-old carpenter. "We are sad to leave our land, but for our children's sake we had to come here," he added.

Cambodia's problem was, and still is, conflict. The old alliance between royalist and Khmer Rouge forces has been re-formed. Their old enemy, Hun Sen, Cambodia's prime minister, is also their new one. Since his bloody coup d'etat last month, which ousted Prince Norodom Ranariddh, his rival co-premier, Hun Sen has effectively turned Cambodia's clocks back to the dark days before a UN-sponsored peace effort in 1991 imposed a fragile harmony on the fractured nation.

With most of the country firmly in his grip, its people's hopes for democracy all but gone, Cambodia's north-west is once again a battlefield. As the lines stand, Hun Sen's larger and better equipped forces have the upper hand. The opposing soldiers of Prince Ranariddh's Funcinpec party have been dogged by low morale and indiscipline, which has led to significant troop defections and losses of strategic ground over recent weeks, most recently the key town of Poipet, to Hun Sen's advancing forces. There are now only pockets of Funcinpec resistance, notably at Anlong Veng, the jungle stronghold of the Khmer Rouge.

The unfavourable military odds have produced their own refugees from the Funcinpec ranks: more than 300 soldiers loyal to Prince Ranariddh were granted permission to pass through Thailand at the weekend, said one senior Thai commander. They were stripped of their guns, rocket launchers and their uniforms before being driven as "civilians" by Thai soldiers from Aranyaprathet to border areas where they could re-establish their severed links with royalist comrades-in-arms.

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