The government yesterday began urging most of the 45,000 Cambodians displaced by the country’s latest border fighting with Thailand to head home despite continued clashes for the 11th straight day.
Uy Sam Ath, director of disaster management for the Cambodian Red Cross, said authorities would close all but one of the 13 camps they had set up for the refugees in Oddar Meanchey province by the end of the day.
Fighting between Thai and Cambodian troops broke out over contested land around Ta Moan and Ta Krabei temples along the province’s northern border in Banteay Ampil district on April 22.
The Defense Ministry said yesterday that Thai forces had again started firing on Cambodian positions around the temples at 6 pm on Sunday and followed up with mortars and rockets until 5 the next morning. This was despite a cease-fire negotiated between frontline commanders Sunday, the third in as many days.
The ministry also denied Thai media reports that RCAF soldiers killed in action had been left on the battlefield for days and that Thailand had planted flags around the disputed temples.
“Up to now, there is no Thai flag at either Ta Moan or Ta Krabei temple,” it said.
Despite the continued fighting and bitter language, Mr Sam Ath of the Red Cross said the government was telling most refugees it was safe to head home.
“Nobody forces them…but [we] encourage them to go back,” he said. “They go back because the security in their homeland is safe.”
He said authorities were only keeping refugees away from three communes in Banteay Ampil district where fighting has been heaviest.
“That is why we keep one big camp open,” he said.
At 8 hectares, the camp in Chongkal district’s Chongkal commune is the largest of the camps. It also sits some 60 km from the Thai border, officials say, well out of range of Thai artillery.
But the site was also void of any infrastructure save a dirt road until the prime minister’s bodyguard unit started erecting tents there last week. And though authorities have since installed water tanks, with plans for new wells and latrines, NGOs that visited the site said progress in preparing the camp for the anticipated influx of refugees had been slow.
Mr Sam Ath said only a fraction of the roughly 10,500 displaced families would end up there. The rest are being told to go home.
NGOs that had been helping the government supply the camps said they were taken off guard by yesterday’s closures and worried that authorities were emptying them too quickly.
If the government has a well-planned strategy for the closures, it has not been shared with them.
“No plans have been shared with us,” said Oxfam country lead Francis Perez. “We were totally caught by surprise.”
His staff were told to stop distributing non-food supplies that morning, leaving them scrambling for a response.
“We don’t know where [the refugees] are, we don’t know what their needs are or if they have any needs at all given the new situation,” Mr Perez said.
“It did catch us by surprise,” said Nigel Tricks, country director for Save the Children. “We would have liked a bit longer period of peace so that we could have been part of the government team to go in and assess the situation.”
Vath Pharamin, the province’s administrative director, said the refugees were eager to head home.
“People are really happy to return because they did not want to stay in the camps with few supplies,” he said. “They did not want to stay because they want to get back and plow their land.”
NGOs tell a different story.
The departing refugees who Oxfam staff spoke with said they had no plans to head home just yet.
“They say they do not feel safe to go back to their villages and they will not go,” said Mr Perez. “They say, ‘No, we are not going back.’”
“People are still worried about their safety,” said Srey Naren, provincial coordinator for the human rights group Adhoc. “They are not happy to leave [the camps] because they do not believe in the cease-fire and think the Thais never respect the negotiations.”
Speaking from his home in Samraong City’s O’Smach commune yesterday, Duon Smey said he left one of the camps against his will.
“I did not want to come back,” he said. “I am still scared there will be more fighting because Thailand always shells even when it agrees to a cease-fire.”