Cambodia hosted 226 refugees and asylum seekers at the end of 1998, the great majority from Vietnam.

More than 51,000 Cambodians were refugees at the end of 1998, including more than 36,000 in Thailand and 15,000 in Vietnam. However, as many as 40,000 Cambodians repatriated from Thailand. Nearly 22,000 Cambodians were internally displaced.

Five years after some 370,000 Cambodian refugees repatriated from neighboring countries, Cambodia in 1998 experienced renewed political turmoil, the flight of more than 16,000 Cambodians, and the death of former Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. By the end of 1998, Cambodia had taken steps toward the restoration of representative government, and the repatriation of Cambodians from Thailand had begun again. Many observers, however, remained skeptical about the country's political prospects and the safety of returnees.

Although Cambodia is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, it has no domestic law on refugees and asylum seekers. However, UNHCR reports that the Cambodian government has "better accepted" the presence of asylum seekers and refugees in the country and has "more appreciated" UNHCR's protection of them.

Political Developments

Cambodia's past and present coincided in 1998 with the death of Pol Pot, the architect of Cambodia's "killing fields," along with the last gasp of his Khmer Rouge movement.

In March 1998, after nearly 20 years of beleaguered existence, the Khmer Rouge began to implode. A faction of Khmer Rouge soldiers began a mutiny with the assistance of Cambodian government forces. Some 10,000 people from the region fled into the jungle to avoid the fighting.

In early April, thousands of defecting Khmer Rouge guerrillas and their families fled their northern base at Anlong Veng, where fighting was still heavy, and headed south. The defectors sought refuge at a Cambodian military camp at O Bai Tap, where the military cleared space for as many as 4,000 people. Other guerrillas, including Khmer Rouge leader Ta Mok, who deposed Pol Pot in 1997, remained behind in a last-ditch attempt to prevail over government troops.

On April 15, the Khmer Rouge stated that Pol Pot had died in his jungle hideout. Pol Pot is believed to have overseen the deaths of nearly two million people while the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. During that time, nearly a quarter of Cambodia's population died from forced labor, starvation, disease, and execution.

On May 1, as Khmer Rouge guerrillas and dependents began pouring into Thailand, Cambodian government forces seized control of Anlong Veng.

New elections were scheduled in Cambodia for July 26. Although the UN coordinated an international monitoring effort, charges of irregularities – including violence and intimidation – were widespread leading up to and during the election. Cambodia, Thailand, and UNHCR had hoped to repatriate most of the refugees in time to register to vote; however, security concerns prevented a large-scale return. Despite the problems, most international observers deemed the process reasonably fair, and the results were accepted by the international community.

Cambodia's constitution requires a governing party or coalition to receive a two-thirds majority vote in parliament. Prince Norodom Ranariddh took advantage of this regulation to reject the initial results of the election, and months of violence and political maneuvering ensued. In November, Ranariddh and Hun Sen finally struck a deal to end the political warfare and form a new coalition government.

On November 30, a parliamentary vote formally recognized the new government. Cambodia subsequently reacquired its seat at the United Nations. ASEAN announced it would admit Cambodia when the coalition government was in place.


As many as 40,000 Cambodians repatriated during 1998 – more than 7,000 with UNHCR assistance and the others by their own means.

Since October 1997, when UNHCR began assisting with the post-coup returns, voluntary repatriations had decreased because of political violence in Cambodia and the prevalence of landmines in nearby areas. Nevertheless, 3,596 Cambodians repatriated by land with UNHCR assistance between October 10 and February 24. Another 229 Cambodians, mainly members of FUNCINPEC and their relatives, returned by air between December 17 and April 24.

In May, more than 300 Cambodians repatriated. Two groups crossed at Aranyaprathet into Sisophon Province in Cambodia and proceeded, under the supervision of UNHCR and the Cambodian Red Cross, to destinations they chose in eleven provinces. UNHCR supplied kits of household items, while the UN's World Food Program provided rice, fish, vegetable oil, and salt for 40 days.

By July 20, six days before the election, the number of UNHCR assisted returnees reached just 6,000 – far short of the goal of 64,000. However, UNHCR estimated that thousands more had returned without their assistance. At that point, the official repatriation was halted. Thailand and UNHCR had agreed to stop the returns one week before and after the voting due to concerns about violence. By that time, voter registration had already closed.

Repatriations resumed on August 4. At the end of 1998, 7,143 Cambodians had repatriated during the year – and nearly 10,000 since October 1997 – with UNHCR assistance.

Internally Displaced Cambodians

WFP announced in mid-May that it would begin feeding 12,000 Cambodians who fled Anlong Veng and were displaced within Cambodia. The group had set up makeshift camps along a flood plain in the O Bai Tap region, which was under government control. WFP said the displaced were mostly civilian women and children and that many children were severely malnourished.

At the end of the year, nearly 22,000 Cambodians remained internally displaced. According to UNHCR, the displaced were in provinces such as Battambang, Siem Reap, Koh Kong, Preah Vihear, Kampong Thom, Pursat, Pailin, and Banteay Meanchey. In addition to the WFP, assistance was provided by the Cambodian Red Cross and, to some extent, the Cambodian government.

(In early February 1999, UN officials began investigating whether 11,000 Cambodian returnees from Thailand were coerced by remaining Khmer Rouge leaders to return to their former base at Anlong Veng despite their wishes to go elsewhere. The results of the investigation were mixed, with UNHCR concluding that some coercion had likely taken place. On March 24, 1999, the UNHCR-assisted repatriation of Cambodians from Thailand was completed. As of that date, 300 to 500 Cambodians remained in urban areas of Thailand, but all camps had been closed.)


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