Today In History: The ‘Preah Vihear Push Back’, June 1979

June 11, 1979: Around thirty to forty thousand Cambodian refugees were forcibly repatriated by Thai military authorities over a period of several days.

The new government of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) would later claim 300 were killed by the Thai army out the 45,000 who were forced across the border in by June 23. Other claims state that as many as 10,000 died after being sent across minefields.

Henry Kamm, writing for the Associated Press and published in the New York Times on June 12, described the scene:

For the fourth day today, a long column of buses was moving along the Thai side of the Cambodian border from the area of Aranyaprathet northeast to the spot where the temple of Preah Vihear dominates the landscape on the Cambodian side.

The buses were crammed with Cambodians who had been told they were being moved to another refugee camp. They assembled at a spot near the border until darkness had fallen over the deserted region, which is flat and rocky on the Thai side and rises sharply into the Dangrek Mountains in Cambodia.

Then the passengers, far more of them women and children than men, were ordered to alight. They were surrounded by Thai soldiers and trooped into a narrow mountain, pass. On the border they were ordered to keep walking. Those who stalled or wanted to turn back were threatened with being shot.

A United Nations official said many of the refugees were seriously ill. “If they have to walk for days, many will die,” he said. He reported that Thai soldiers were distributing small amounts of food before forcing the Cambodians across the border.

Bus drivers who are ferrying the refugees are reported to have said they have heard shots from the Cambodian side after groups of refugees walked into the dark.”

Thai authorities claimed that they had no choice than to send the Cambodians back after the country became swamped with hundreds of thousands of civilians who crossed the border or made encampments along it. They cited security concerns and blamed western nations , the ICRC and UNHCR for not acting quickly enough to assist after waves of refugees began arriving when Vietnamese forces toppled the government of Pol Pot in early 1979.

A Thai officer, according to Kamm, said that Preah Vihear was decided as the safest point of crossing “because it offered the best chance for their survival”.

However, “He conceded that mines and booby traps would cause casualties among the refugees.

The site may have chosen for what it represented. The Angkorian era temple of Prasat Preah Vihear had long been contested between the Thais and Khmers, with the International Court of Justice at the Hague ruling 9 to 3 in favor of the Cambodian claims and ordered the area be returned by the Thais. At the time Bangkok reacted angrily at the verdict- which was delivered on June 15, 1962, almost 17 years to the day before the refugees were expelled.

The Vietnamese army were said to be in control of the border, but in small numbers. Reports claim that the nearest units were perhaps some 40 km away and reluctant to enter the no-man’s land which had been heavily mined and booby-trapped by the Khmer Rouge during the civil war and subsequent years in power. It was the final stronghold to fall to the Khmer Rouge

Most of the refugees who fled from the north of Cambodia were ethnic Chinese-Khmer, from provinces such as Battambang and Siem Reap, who feared the new regime. The Sino-Khmers had suffered appallingly under the Khmer Rouge and, although the situation was improved, still faced further persecution from the pro-Vietnamese PRK government, which viewed them with suspicion.

An elderly neighbor of mine told me that she was singled out as ‘Vietnamese’ by Khmer Rouge authorities and given extra hard labor after being sent to Pursat province in 1975. She was later denied access to some basic supplies and government institutions in the 1980’s because she was deemed ‘Chinese’. Her light-skin complexion was all the reason that was needed for this discrimination.

To compound matters, humanitarian agencies were being beseeched by overseas Khmers, desperate to find news of family members who had not been heard from since the Khmer Rouge took power.

The majority of the Cambodian diaspora were in France, and French officials, along with the US Embassy in Bangkok gathered names from refugees who had relatives overseas, and good claims for asylum.

Around 25,000 names of refugees and information on their relatives in other countries were given to Thai authorities, along with other lists of refugees who would be admitted for immigration. About 1,500 were sent to refugee transit centers before the forced return began, and most were sent back to Cambodia before they could be processed.

Even as the forced return was underway, more refugees were crossing over into Thailand- over 2,000 were recorded in two days at Aranyaprathet. They were placed on buses and driven towards Preah Vihear.

Henry Kamm continued to cover the story, as some refugees managed to later slip back into Thailand:

“From the accounts of survivors who made their way back to Thailand a story can be pieced together. It took three days for one of the survivors to cross the minefields at the foot of the cliffs and find the Vietnamese soldiers inside Cambodia. Most of the refugees had no food and water was hard to find. “The crowd was very dense. It was impossible to number the victims of the land mines. The wounded people were moaning. The most difficult part of the walk was near the dead bodies.”

About 10,000 of the refugees clustered at the foot of the cliffs below Preah Vihear and there they stayed for a week or more, too frightened to continue their journey through the mine fields, foraging for food in the forest and drinking rainwater. Many of them were killed by mines; others died of exposure and disease in the cold monsoon rains. Some tried to return to Thailand and were shot; others bought food from the Thai border guards or ate what was sent in to them on trails cleared of mines by the Vietnamese.”

A UNHCR report on July 3 estimated that 42,000 Cambodians had been pushed across the border at Preah Vihear. 32,000, UNHCR estimated, found their way across the minefield to the Vietnamese soldiers on the other side; 3,000 died; and 7,000 were left trapped at the foot of the cliffs, their fate is still unknown.

The situation caused UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim to convene an international meeting on Indochinese refugees in Geneva in July 1979.

In an effort to prevent the expulsion of refugees, and permit them to claim asylum in Thailand safely, Western nations, led by the United States, pledged to resettle them. That year 192,000 Indochinese refugees (mainly Cambodians, Vietnamese, Laotian and ethnic hill-tribespeople) were resettled in western countries from Southeast Asian camps in 1979 and 260,000 more in 1980.

The brutal and unnecessary actions from Bangkok succeeded in getting the attention of international agencies and governments. Now the Cambodian refugees, who would be sent to ‘Holding Centers’ such as Khao-I-Drang or anti-PRK camps inside Cambodia would not be the sole responsibility of Thailand.

Further reading:

An anonymous account

Preah Vihear Foundation

Sources: Kamm- New York Times (June 12, 23, 1979), Robinson- Double Vision, Thompson- Refugee Workers in the Indochina Exodus-1975-1982

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