Shipping Cambodians Home

April 02, 1992

High risks are at stake in trying to implement the peace settlement in Cambodia hatched by the Cambodian government, three guerrilla factions and 18 nations. But none higher than those of the first 600 Cambodians moved back to their homeland by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from camps in Thailand, where they have been living for as long as 18 years. They are prey to bandits, to millions of land mines, to murderous Khmer Rouge guerrillas who opposed this movement and to the ongoing war between the government and the Khmer Rouge.

Particularly the last. Never mind the peace settlement of October or the cease-fire dating from last May. The government of Hun Sen launched an offensive on Sunday to recover a stretch of highway linking Kompong Thom and Preah Vihear provinces in the north central part of the country, which the Khmer Rouge has been seizing. At issue is who will hold Kompong Thom when part of the force of 22,000 United Nations peace-keeping troops and civilians moves in. It is a case of the peace settlement provoking renewal of conflict.

There are good motives for removing the first of the 370,000 refugees from infamous camps in Thailand -- one of which ranks as Cambodia's second-ranking city -- where many are preyed upon by Khmer Rouge extortionists. They are a burden on Thailand, which wants them out. United Nations administrators want them home to take part in elections scheduled for early next year, during an interim U.N. administration, to get Cambodia restarted as a sovereign country.

But nobody knows if the migration will work, or on what scale. The first few thousand are going to prepare the way for the rest. The primitive distribution system of Cambodia and the war-damaged land are taxed by their coming. In camps like Site B, they have been dependents, deprived of initiative, subject to the whims of others. But they have had medical care that they won't have in the Cambodian countryside.

The aim of returning Cambodians is right. It is what they want, when conditions permit. But they are being exploited by a fast timetable in behalf of a political settlement that might break down. They are election fodder. Each family is promised five acres of un-mined land on which to start, land as yet unidentified. In humanity's name, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees ought to let facts on the ground, not political imperatives, govern the pace of resettlement.

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