Last Updated: Monday, 11 December 2017, 15:40 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1998 - Cambodia

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 January 1998
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1998 - Cambodia, 1 January 1998, available at: [accessed 12 December 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

More than 75,000 Cambodians were refugees at the end of 1997, including an estimated 62,000 in Thailand and 15,000 in Vietnam. Nearly 30,000 Cambodians were internally displaced.

Four years after some 370,000 Cambodian refugees repatriated from neighboring countries, Cambodia in 1997 again plunged into violence, suffering new refugee flight and internal displacement. In July, troops loyal to Hun Sen, Cambodia's second prime minister, ousted Prince Norodom Ranariddh, first prime minister. USCR visited Cambodia and Thailand during July-August to assess the situation for Cambodians uprooted by the violence.

Political Developments In the elections that followed the 1991 Paris peace accord, which ended Cambodia's long conflict, Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) lost to FUNCINPEC (the United National Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia), the party led by Ranariddh, the son of King Sihanouk. Hun Sen, who had been Cambodia's Vietnamese-installed leader during the 1980s, controlled the army, police, and civil administration, however, and forced Ranariddh to form a coalition government.

Political violence intensified in March 1997, when alleged Hen Sen associates attacked participants in a political rally. Respected opposition leader Sam Rainsy, head of the Khmer National Party (KNP), had organized the rally.

The grenade attack, the worst incident of political violence in the capital since 1993, killed 20 people and injured more than 150. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, which investigated the attack because an American citizen was among the wounded, blamed Hun Sen's personal security force for the assault.

Political violence exploded in July when Hun Sen launched a coup, ousting Ranariddh. Hun Sen's CPP forces attacked FUNCINPEC and KNP supporters while both Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy were out of the country. During heavy fighting in Phnom Penh on July 5-6, CPP forces assassinated several opposition figures. Within days, Hun Sen controlled Phnom Penh.

During and after the coup, Hun Sen's forces executed between 40 and 60 people, including high-ranking government officials, mostly FUNCINPEC members. Hun Sen's forces arrested hundreds of others, torturing some, according to human rights observers. Despite widespread condemnation of the coup, the international community took no concrete action. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations postponed its decision on admitting Cambodia as a member.

The UN Center for Human Rights led efforts to document human rights abuses both during and following the coup. Hun Sen later accused the center's staff of encouraging people to flee the country and called on the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) to replace the center's staff.

The United States and Australian embassies allegedly denied assistance to Cambodians who feared for their safety. In a September hearing, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific Affairs probed the U.S. ambassador's actions during the coup. A former UNHCHR staff member testified that the U.S. and other embassies refused to provide sanctuary to Cambodian politicians, political party activists, journalists, or others who feared persecution. U.S. officials denied the allegation.

In July, the Khmer Rouge, responsible for Cambodia's "killing fields" in the late 1970s and a guerrilla group since Vietnam ousted them from power in 1979, were involved in a bizarre turn of events in the jungles of northern Cambodia. Khmer Rouge authorities reportedly put their long time leader, Pol Pot, on trial. One of the most infamous figures of the 20th century, Pol Pot headed the Khmer Rouge government that murdered as many as 1 million Cambodians. At the end of the year, Pol Pot apparently remained in Khmer Rouge detention.

USCR visited Phnom Penh in August. In a report issued that month, USCR said, "A number of people continue to fear for their safety because of their association with FUNCINPEC or other political parties.... The lack of constraints on the actions of the military and police is one of the causes of continuing concern."

Although Hun Sen gained control of Phnom Penh quickly, fighting between CPP and opposition forces continued throughout the year, mostly in western and northwestern areas of the country, resulting in renewed refugee flows into Thailand. Residual Khmer Rouge forces joined FUNCINPEC and other opposition groups under the leadership of Ranariddh to oppose Hun Sen.

In an effort to gain respectability for his regime, Hun Sen announced in August that except for a handful of individuals whom he accused of committing crimes and of seeking to oust him, politicians and others who had fled to Thailand or the border area could return home safely. Initially, there were few takers. Late in the year, however, some opposition leaders in Thailand did begin returning to Cambodia to test Hun Sen's sincerity.

Among the first to return were several exiled members of the National Assembly who repatriated in October. In November, KNP leader Sam Rainsy returned to Cambodia. He later met with Hun Sen and pledged to cooperate with the government in the national interest. In December, FUNCINPEC reopened an office in Cambodia.

New Displacement FUNCINPEC and KNP leaders and supporters fled overland to Thailand to escape Hun Sen's forces. Many entered without difficulty in the days immediately following the coup. The UN Center for Human Rights in Phnom Penh assisted more than 100 opposition figures and other Cambodians to leave the country. Most went to Thailand, whose embassy in Phnom Penh issued them visas quickly.

By late July, however, Thai authorities blocked Cambodians from crossing the border, stranding 2,000 would-be refugees in and near the Cambodian town of Poipet. Thailand's embassy in Phnom Penh also stopped issuing visas to Cambodians. Fighting between CPP and forces loyal to Prince Ranariddh in northwestern Cambodia led thousands of other Cambodians to flee to the border area.

During the first few weeks after the coup, another 15,000 people gathered at the border town of O'Smach, opposite Thailand's Surin Province. Several thousand more gathered near O'Bei Choan, north of Poipet.

On August 1, when fighting near Poipet threatened more than 3,000 displaced Cambodians gathered at O'Bei Choan, Thailand permitted them entry. After the fighting ended, Thai authorities said that the refugees must return to Cambodia. Most returned voluntarily and were assisted by local authorities. About 400 who initially refused to return later agreed to join the Cambodians who had sought refuge at O'Smach. Thai authorities took them to Surin, where they crossed into O'Smach.

By the second week of August, up to 30,000 displaced Cambodians were at O'Smach. It was unclear whether any sought to enter Thailand. Thailand, however, was clear that it would permit only those Cambodians whose lives were at immediate risk to enter. Thailand allowed an international NGO to cross into O'Smach to provide medical care and UNHCR to transport food to O'Smach from Thailand. USCR sought Thailand's permission to visit O'Smach, but was denied. USCR repeatedly called on Thailand, privately and publicly, to permit the Cambodians at O'Smach to enter Thailand.

When fighting neared O'Smach in mid-August, Thailand did permit the Cambodians to enter, setting up facilities in Surin Province and permitting UNHCR and NGOs to assist the refugees.

In late August, fighting in western Cambodia, south of Poipet, forced some 3,500 Cambodians into Thailand's Trat Province. Some 6,000 more fled fighting in the same area in late September. Fighting and new refugee flows continued the rest of the year. Another 2,000 refugees crossed into Thailand following clashes near Poipet and O'Bei Choan in late December.

In late 1997, about 9,000 refugees in Thailand's Surin Province repatriated to Cambodia. Some 3,500 repatriated with UNHCR assistance; the rest repatriated independently. At year's end, approximately 62,000 Cambodian refugees remained in Thailand.

More than 28,000 Cambodians were internally displaced at year's end, according to the Cambodian Red Cross. Most were in Battambang, Preah Vihear, and Banteay Meanchey Provinces, which border Thailand.

Other Refugees from Cambodia About 15,000 refugees from Cambodia remained in Vietnam at year's end. All had fled Cambodia in earlier years.

Some 13,000 were ethnic Vietnamese who fled Khmer Rouge inspired violence in Cambodia during 1993-95. About 2,000 others were ethnic Chinese who fled to Vietnam during 1978-1980.

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