Thailand Shutting the Door on a 'Symbol of Compassion'

Times Staff Writer

An amputee's crutches, the barbed wire fence, a dusty reception for the daily water truck; in its seven years, Thailand's Khao-I-Dang refugee camp has become a montage of symbols.

For many Cambodians fleeing the turmoil and violence in their country, just eight miles east, Khao-I-Dang was seen as the exit, a door to the possibility of resettlement somewhere far from the fighting--North America perhaps, or Europe or Australia.

According to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, nearly 210,000 Cambodians passed through this door at Khao-I-Dang and several smaller camps over the years, nearly 140,000 of them en route to the United States.

In the past few years, however, the flow has become a relative trickle, and recently the Thai government announced it was going ahead with its long-planned decision to shut down refugee operations at Khao-I-Dang. The reaction, perhaps predictably, dealt with symbols:

--Mark Gorman, Thailand director for the International Rescue Committee, a New York-based aid agency, called Khao-I-Dang a "symbol of compassion . . . the last neutral haven for those Indochinese refugees truly seeking asylum." Gorman, whose agency is involved with medical care at Khao-I-Dang, said the camp's estimated 26,000 remaining refugees are "very anxious" about Thai plans to disperse them to border camps allied with political and guerrilla factions fighting Cambodia's Vietnam-installed central government.

'Symbol of Human Tragedy'

--The English-language Bangkok Post declared Khao-I-Dang "a grim symbol of a human tragedy," but challenged foreign criticism of the government's decision. "While they preach the doctrine of humanitarianism, they have turned a blind eye to the refugees' plight. . . . Suddenly nobody cares anymore, which poses the question: Why should Thailand stand alone?"

--In Washington, a State Department spokesman said the United States regretted the Thai decision to close a camp that has been "a conduit to freedom for hundreds of thousands of refugees," and has made known in Bangkok "the seriousness of our concern."

Prasong Soonsiri, secretary to Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda and architect of Thailand's refugee policy, acknowledged the criticism but the government has stuck to its decision.

"We are closing Khao-I-Dang on 31 December," he told a press conference. "Newcomers will be stopped from coming in. For those still here, there will be a step-by-step return to their own people at border camps."

Of the 26,000 Cambodians in the camp, 16,737 are the last of a large pool designated by the Thais in 1979 as eligible for resettlement in some third country. Since early 1980, the Thai policy has been to treat all other Cambodians within its borders as illegal aliens, given sanctuary but only until it was safe for them to return to their country. Their numbers have varied over the years, but since the overpowering Vietnamese offensive against the Cambodian guerrillas in the winter of 1984-85, more than 250,000 Cambodians have lived in camps in Thailand.

The controversy centers on a group of people, small in comparison with the 16,000-plus at Khao-I-Dang, who have been designated eligible for third-country resettlement but for various reasons have not been taken.

"The West could have done more than this," Prasong said. "But so many have only promised and have taken no action."

Plans to close the camp were announced last June, but the Thais delayed implementation until Dec. 31.

Phyllis Oakley, a U.S. State Department spokesman, pointed out that Washington had agreed in October to accept another 1,300. But according to Oakley and refugee workers here, the remainder, with few exceptions, cannot meet U.S. criteria for resettlement. In a majority of the cases, the reason for rejection is the refugee's presumed former connection with the Khmer Rouge guerrillas, a Communist faction that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. The U.S. refugee law prohibits acceptance of anyone who took part in the persecution of his countrymen, and the Khmer Rouge ran a brutal regime.

Refugee workers, while conceding the Thais' right to close down the camp at Khao-I-Dang, make two points:

--The refugees there might be placed in danger if they are returned to the border camps. Several Khao-I-Dang residents have told reporters that they would fear violence from border refugees who might believe they sought resettlement to avoid joining guerrilla groups. Also, the border camps are within range of Vietnamese artillery.

--The 16,000 at Khao-I-Dang have been given refugee status, making them eligible for resettlement, and to remove that status by sending them to the border would be unfair.

Prasong said the people in that group would still be eligible for resettlement "case by case." Talks between the Thais and the international community on their refugee status are continuing.

Prasong also said that no move will be made precipitously. The first group to leave Khao-I-Dang will be 500 to 1,000 "illegals," Cambodians who sneaked or bribed their way into the camp in the past few years in the apparent hope of being registered for resettlement. Next to go will be a larger group registered as legal occupants of Khao-I-Dang but ineligible for resettlement. Last would be the core group of refugees eligible for resettlement but so far not accepted by foreign governments.

Prasong's announcement that the camp would be "closed" Dec. 31 suggested that the Cambodians might be headed for the border camps in a matter of days. However, with consultations continuing between the Thais and international refugee organizations, one foreign expert said, evacuation of the camp will take months, perhaps a year. The Cambodians will be sent to the border camp of their choice, Prasong said.

Since 1975, when Communists came to power in neighboring Cambodia and Laos and in nearby Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of Indochinese have sought refuge in Thailand, and more than 540,000 have been resettled abroad, mainly in the United States. Before and since the Indochinese crossed into Thailand, its border country provided refuge for others, pressed by the Burmese army in the west, guerrillas of the Karen and Mon peoples irregularly seek safety inside Thailand. In the south, Malaysian Communist rebels operate on Thai soil.

For political, security and economic reasons, the Thais are not willing to settle the refugees on their own soil. But except for one notorious incident in 1979, when Thai troops drove tens of thousands of fleeing Cambodians back into a war zone in their own country, the Thais have provided sanctuary to refugees. They have kept it Spartan, to discourage a refugee flood, practicing a policy they call "humane deterrence." Closing Khao-I-Dang is part of the program to reduce the "pull factor" of sanctuary here.

Meanwhile, the drama of the Cambodian conflict subsides. It has been a decade since the outside world learned the horrors of Khmer Rouge rule, seven years since the Vietnamese threw out that Cambodian government and installed one of their choice, five since international aid agencies relieved a Cambodian famine with a "land bridge" of food supplies and two since the big Vietnamese border offensive against the guerrillas.

Aid official Gorman called Khao-I-Dang a "symbol of compassion," but what is happening there is also a symbol of what refugee workers call "compassion fatigue." It takes money to resettle refugees and to support refugee camps abroad. In Cambodia's case as elsewhere the flow of money is driven up in direct relation to the distance of dramatic events.

Khao-I-Dang itself, a sprawling camp of bamboo and thatched huts baking under the hot sun of the east Thailand plain, will not disappear. The Red Cross hospital will remain, treating Cambodian wounded from border battles in addition to local Thai villagers.

(The hospital itself became a symbol of symbolic Khao-I-Dang; its buildings and rooftop red cross were portrayed in the final scene of "The Killing Fields," the 1984 film about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.)

The site will also probably continue as a packaging and distribution center for food. A soap factory will remain within the barbed wire compound. But the classroom huts with the packed dirt floors will be empty, their students either gone abroad or back to the border.

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