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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
Dame Vivienne Westwood has been raging pretty much all of her life
peopleMemoir extracts show iconic designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam