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Key Cambodia Refugee Camp Closed by Thais : Move of 25,000 People in Next 5 Days Will Reduce Them to ‘Displaced Person’ Status

Associated Press

Thai authorities closed a major Cambodian refugee center Wednesday but said it will be five days before its 25,000 occupants are moved to other camps.

The Cambodians at Khao I Dang, unlike those at other refugee camps in Thailand, were classified by the Thai government as eligible for resettlement abroad. Their move to other camps means they will be demoted to the status of “displaced persons” who can be ord1701995876authorities say conditions permit.

Khao I Dang is about 7 1/2 miles from the Thai-Cambodian border. The other camps are closer to the border and thus more vulnerable to sporadic fighting between Vietnamese troops occupying Cambodia and Cambodian guerrillas trying to drive them out. Many guerrillas live in the border camps, which already house 250,000 people.

Dominique Goy, a French worker at the physical rehabilitation center for the Khao I Dang camp, said Cambodian refugees on her staff are “very apprehensive about their future.”

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Journalists who earlier this week were granted permission to enter the holding center were barred Wednesday.

A senior military officer said news coverage of the closure would harm the image of Thailand, which has designated 1987 its Year of Tourism and plans to begin the campaign with a parade Sunday in Bangkok.

Western Nations Chided

Prasong Soonsiri, secretary general to Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda, said Monday in announcing the closing that Western countries had moved too slowly to resettle Khao I Dang’s residents, and Thailand had always maintained that it could not offer them permanent homes.

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The United States has accepted about 500,000 Cambodian refugees.

Despite their loss of refugee status after the move, however, Prasong said Western officials still could interview former Khao I Dang residents at other camps for possible resettlement abroad. He said Thai officials would evacuate the refugees from the border camps if fighting erupts.

A senior Thai military officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said authorities will not begin relocating Khao I Dang’s residents until Monday.

By declaring the camp closed Wednesday, officials seemed to be signaling their determination to keep out any refugees trying to enter illegally.

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Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians have fled their homeland since the mid-1970s to escape the prolonged warfare, persecution under the former Khmer Rouge government, food shortages and the 1979 Vietnamese invasion.

Hospital and Schools

At its peak in 1980, Khao I Dang was home to 147,000 refugees and was a veritable Cambodian city, second in size only to Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh. It included an International Red Cross hospital, a cultural center and schools to prepare refugees for new lives in the West.

Mark Gorman, director of the U.S.-based International Rescue Committee, said Tuesday that Khao I Dang had been a “symbol of compassion” to refugees since it opened Nov. 21, 1979. He called it “the last neutral haven for those Indochinese refugees truly seeking asylum.”

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The camp served as a backdrop for the final scene in the 1984 Academy Award-winning movie “The Killing Fields,” the true story of an American journalist who leaves Phnom Penh when the Communist Khmer Rouge take over and the sufferings of his former Cambodian assistant under the new regime. The two eventually are reunited at a Thai refugee camp.

Khao I Dang was run by the Interior Ministry, the army and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The border camps are run by the Thai army and the U.N. Border Relief Operation.

Thai authorities say the first group to leave the camp will be 4,300 “illegal entrants” who bribed their way into the camp or sneaked in.


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