Cambodian refugee children in Thailand
Courtesy CARE, Inc.
The forced migrations of Indochinese to Thailand for political or economic reasons had been a common occurrence throughout the 200 years of the Chakkri Dynasty. The most recent refugee influx began in 1975 with the fall of the Lon Nol regime in Cambodia, then the collapse of the South Vietnamese government in April, followed by the change of leadership in Laos in December. According to official Thai figures, 228,200 refugees, mostly from Laos, entered Thailand between 1975 and 1978. Included were Lao, Khmer, Tai Dam, Tai Nung, and Hmong, who came overland, and Vietnamese, who came by boat. Fifteen camps and four detention centers were established and jointly funded and operated by the Thai government, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and various international relief agencies. Most of the camps were along the border with Laos and Cambodia or at ports on the Gulf of Thailand. Until October 1977, Thai authorities generally accepted incoming Indochinese on the assumption that they would stay only until repatriated or relocated elsewhere.
After the coup of October 1977, the new Kriangsak Chomanand government reviewed Thai refugee policy. As a result of the growing refugee burden, the Thai government made it clear that greater international recognition of the refugee problem was needed, as well as financial and technical support for Thailand’s relief program. Citing population pressures, land shortages, and potential economic friction between Thai and refugees, the Thai government refused to permit permanent resettlement of large numbers of refugees. Thus, in November 1977 the government banned new arrivals from Laos (termed "illegals") on the basis of the determination that these refugees were economically rather than politically motivated.
The actual number of Lao in Thailand continued to be impossible to determine; in 1987 Thai authorities claimed that up to 10,000 arrived daily, adding to an estimated 84,000 Lao refugees and illegals already in the Mekong Valley and border camps. Of the 42,000 inhabitants of Ban Vanai camp, between 3,000 and 6,000 were illegals. These numbers were subject to rapid change because of government-enforced repatriation, resettlement, and voluntary returns. In 1987 Amnesty International expressed concern over the fate of 155 Hmong who presumably were forcibly repatriated from Thailand; they were then arrested and detained without charge or trial by Lao authorities. This alleged incident may have led to resettlement requests by at least 5,000 Hmong (there were 56,000 in Thai camps) at the time. There was also a steady flow of persons returning to Laos on their own.
Laotians were not the only refugees caught in the Thai repatriation policy, which vacillated between national interest and humanitarian concerns. In 1979 tens of thousands of people, mostly ethnic Chinese, began to leave Vietnam by sea; hostilities between China and Vietnam directly or indirectly encouraged this migration by boat. Ships of the Royal Thai Navy sometimes discouraged Vietnamese refugee craft from attempting landings; some of Thailand’s neighbors had been even more strict about turning away "boat people." Despite its relatively lenient position, Thailand was judged harshly by the international community as a result of reported acts of piracy by Thai vessels. However, because of increased vigilance and improvement in training of Thai maritime police in the 1980s, convictions for piracy increased significantly, and Thai fishermen began to provide greater assistance to the boat people. Nonetheless, the international press continued to report acts of piracy by Thai citizens.
In January 1979, Cambodia’s Pol Pot regime was overthrown in fighting between Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge forces, and hundreds of thousands of destitute Cambodian civilians fled westward to the provinces of their country adjacent to the Thai border. Tensions built quickly along the ill-defined and disputed Thai-Cambodian border. It was extremely difficult for Thai police to mount effective patrols against illegal entry or illicit trade activities. Smuggling by Thai citizens and foraging raids into Thailand by Khmer Rouge troops soon became a major source of concern. In June 1979, Thailand began forced repatriation of more than 40,000 Cambodians, who were loaded into buses with a week’s supply of food each and taken back across the border.
In July representatives of fifty nations concerned about this forced repatriation met in Geneva, where they pledged increased aid and permanent asylum for more refugees. Under international pressure, Thailand revised its refugee policy in October 1979; although still considered illegal entrants, Cambodians would not automatically be intercepted but would be given every assistance possible as a matter of compassion. In November 1979, camps were opened near the border with Cambodia, and within 2 months 156,000 illegal immigrants were housed in them. The Thai military had assumed responsibility for another 149,000 Cambodians; there were also 113,000 at Khao-I-Dang and 28,400 at Sa Kaeo. The Ministry of Interior was responsible for the illegal immigrants in other camps.
Increased armed warfare along the Thai-Cambodian border disrupted the lives of the Thai citizens as well as Cambodian civilians. Hence, Thai military officials became more closely involved in refugee affairs and at times overruled or interfered with civilian government policies. Supporters of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea occasionally staged border attacks on refugee holding centers. In March 1984, Cambodian civilians encamped directly across from the Thai province of Sisaket were attacked; because of such activities, about 10,000 Cambodian civilians fled into Thailand. Between 1975 and February 1987, some 211,000 Cambodians were resettled abroad; this left about 22,000 in Khao-I-Dang, near the southeastern border city of Aranyaprathet in Prachin Buri Province, since all other camps for Cambodians had been officially closed. More than 100,000 remained at various sites along the border, however. The possibilities for resettlement remained unclear.
As refugees in East Africa and Central America began to receive more international attention in the 1980s, Thailand became increasingly concerned that the large number of Indochinese people, especially Cambodians, would become solely a Thai problem instead of an international one. In 1987 the Thai government officially closed the Khao-I-Dang holding center, in part to refocus international attention on the issue of Indochinese refugees. In announcing the closing of Khao-I-Dang, Prasong Soonsiri, secretary general to Thailand’s prime minister, stated, among other reasons, that these camps in Thailand had created a "pull factor" that had encouraged more Cambodians to cross the border. Asked about the border people’s fate, a high official of a Cambodian resistance group answered in December 1986 that "the camps [are] closed but not closed."
The Thai government stated that as of February 1986 there were still 127,817 Indochinese refugees in Thai holding and processing centers, while some 500,000 refugees had been resettled in third countries. After 1981 the rate of resettlement declined sharply; for example, only 33,090 people were resettled in 1982, a drop of about two-thirds from the 102,564 resettled in 1981. Thai authorities had become concerned not only that international attention had decreased but also that the decline in third-country resettlement would continue because of more selective criteria and more stringent procedures for screening and accepting candidates for resettlement. People had always moved across natural and artificially imposed borders in Indochina for economic and political reasons, but between 1975 and 1980 about 1.3 million people were displaced by the Second Indochina War and its aftermath. Because of its common borders with Laos and Cambodia, Thailand had shouldered the burden of a great number of these refugees who sought first asylum there. The flow of refugees after 1980 decreased little, but the numbers who found permanent homes did. In the late 1980s, the Indochinese refugee crisis remained both unsolved and a factor of growing importance in understanding late twentieth-century Thai society.
The burden of sheltering, even temporarily, several hundred thousand refugees placed stresses on social services already stretched thin by rapid urbanization. The more serious prospect of having permanently to assimilate large numbers of refugees was an even greater worry for Thai officials and the society as a whole. It was not a new problem, however, for a nation composed as Thailand was of many ethnic groups whose ancestors down through the centuries had sought refuge in the region of the Chao Phraya Valley.
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American, British, Thai, and other scholars have carried out research on Thailand’s rural communities since the late 1940s. These studies are marked by varying perspectives and different, sometimes contradictory, emphases. From the end of World War II until the 1970s, Americans were the leaders in Thai studies. This dominance has ended, however, because of the dramatic improvement in education in Thailand and the increased involvement of the scholars of other countries, such as Australia. In the late 1980s, excellent studies in both English and Thai were being produced by Thammasat University’s Thai Khadi Research Institute and Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Asian Studies. The Study of Thailand, edited by Eliezer B. Ayal, presents a historical review of works relating to Thai studies.
Thailand in the 80s, published by the National Identity Office of the Office of the Prime Minister of Thailand, presents a comprehensive overview of Thailand with an economic and social orientation. An examination of changes in Thai society, polity, and culture since World War II is presented in Charles F. Keyes’s Thailand: Buddhist Kingdom as Modern Nation-State. A more historical approach is presented in David K. Wyatt’s Thailand: A Short History. The Thai political framework is addressed by John L.S. Girling in Thailand: Society and Politics. Several texts have been written on Thailand’s physical setting and population; the most comprehensive of those was Wolf Donner’s The Five Faces of Thailand. In the Thai context, it is best to accept the melding of society and religion; true to this blending is Japanese scholar Yoneo Ishii’s Sangha, State, and Society. Wyatt’s The Politics of Reform in Thailand still stands as the preeminent work on Thai education, but a number of new works on Thai literature have been published. Most recently, Herbert P. Phillips’s Modern Thai Literature and Wibha Senanan’s The Genesis of the Novel in Thailand provide a good overview of twentieth-century thought through the medium of literature. For a wider perspective on Thai art and culture, Facets of Thai Cultural Life, published by the Office of the Prime Minister in 1984, is useful. (For further information and complete citations, see thailand/th_bibl.asp"> Bibliography.)