The official departure of the Vietnamese troops from the country in September 1989 initially meant little to the hundreds of thousands of Cambodians who were living in refugee camps in Thailand at the time. Most camps had originally been set up by politicized factions-such as then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s Funcinpec; the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front of Son Sann, a prime minister in the 1960s; and the Khmer Rouge. For 10 years the motley coalition of forces on the border had been fighting the Phnom Penh government’s army backed by Vietnamese troops. It would take the forces on the border more than a farewell ceremony to the Vietnamese to convince them to disarm and demobilize while the country was led by a Cambodian administration that the international community had deemed illegitimate.
Nevertheless, the events of September 1989 did not go unnoticed in the border camps.
Chhoung Chhunly, who was then 14 and a refugee on the border, remembers hearing of the Vietnamese troops’ withdrawal in a Voice of America radio broadcast. “I was so happy,” he recalled, believing that soon all Cambodians would be reunited “as one Khmer” family on their own soil. “I did not want to see Red Khmer and black Khmer anymore,” said Mr Chhunly, now a Japanese-language guide at Angkor.
But a 17-year-old Khuon Det had not been as optimistic. “This was not changing anything,” he remembered thinking at the time.
In spite of official statements about their departure, Mr Det said, “We knew that Vietnamese soldiers were still in Cambodia.”
Many of the border camp refugees were convinced that Vietnam was continuing to exert control over the country. It would take the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement signed by the Cambodian government and the various political factions before the camp population would start to return, said Mr Det, now the head of a circus school near Battambang town.
When the Vietnamese forces officially left the country in 1989, the number of Cambodians in camps on Thai soil was estimated at more than 250,000.
Site 2 refugee camp alone had a population exceeding 140,000 people, with more than a third under 10 years of age. Site 2 was actually the second most populous Cambodian city after Phnom Penh and it was buzzing with activity, said Belgian photographer John Vink who toured the camps for nearly three weeks in October 1989 as part of a 12-country series on refugee camps.
Site 2 camp was no longer in a state of emergency but rather administered as a small city, complete with police and firefighting services, he said.
“It was like any other Cambodian city except that people could not get out- they were stuck in it,” Mr Vink said. “In terms of morale, one could strongly feel this: people did not laugh much. One could feel that something was wrong in that city…that there were barbwires around it.”
Thai forces guarding the camps prohibited any refugee from leaving-many Cambodians have vivid memories of Thai soldiers brutally beating those who ventured outside.
Adding to this was the threat of military attack on Site 2, which was not far from the Cambodian border and had been shelled over the years, Mr Vink said. “The reality of war was still strongly felt in the camp and in people’s mentality,” he said. “Many men living there used to leave clandestinely at night to fight the Vietnamese [and Cambodian government forces] on the border.”
What made people run off to the Thai-Cambodian border after the Khmer Rouge defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese in 1979 varied from a need of food and security to fleeing the war zones.
In some cases, the Vietnamese presence prompted the decision to leave.
Mr Chhunly said his father had been jailed by the Vietnamese for anti-government sentiments and managed to escape to the border with his family in the early 1980s.
Ong Thong Hoeung was another of those cases. In 1979, Mr Thong Hoeung, who had been assigned to work on a history school manual in Phnom Penh, feared being sent away for “reeducation” for telling his Vietnamese supervisor that he would not let him dictate Cambodian history. After spending years in a Khmer Rouge camp for Cambodian returnees, Mr Thong Hoeung could not face “reeducation” again, he said.
So he and his family decided to leave for the camps. After a journey that included negotiating with a Vietnamese captain to hide at the bottom of a cargo boat, and dodging landmines and bullets while walking from Battambang town to the border, they nearly fell victim to a Cambodian bandit who, along with Thai smugglers, was taking advantage of the confusion along the border. Mr Thong Hoeung eventually relocated to Belgium with his family and wrote, in 2003, the book “I Believed in the Khmer Rouge,” which has been translated into several languages including Khmer.
He later learned that his Vietnamese supervisor on the contested history book did not have the authority to send him for reeducation.
“I sometimes wonder what would have happened to me had I made a different choice,” he said. “But one cannot rewrite one’s life.”