Through the minefield in Cambodia
Ubon, East Thailand Princess Anne's visit last week to a refugee camp here, had something of the appearance of a military exercise. The road to the airport was blocked more than an hour before her arrival, and when I had talked my way past the guards, I saw dozens of heavily armed, steel-helmeted soldiers crouched in menacing postures around the runway. This used to be an American bomber base and its cafe possesses a number of paperbacks from that period including Arthur M. Schlesinger Junior's The Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy 1941-1968. I started to read a chapter contesting the notion of then President Johnson that North Vietnam was merely the servant of Communist China. Full marks to Schlesinger as a prophet. In mid-chapter I heard somebody say that the Princess's plane was about to land, so I went out to the runway through the departure room, which is decorated with five photographic posters of planes that have crashed on the airport. Is this usual at military air bases?
No misadventure attended the Royal Andover that brought Princess Anne, who appeared at The top of the steps wearing a khaki trouser suit of austere, military cut. She was accompanied by her husband Captain Mark Phillips, our ambassador, some of his staff, the military, naval and air attaches, and also the Bangkok head of the Save the Children Fund, the British charity of which Princess Anne is President. This gentleman too is ex-military, Major 'Spots' Leophard. He cut an impressive figure in blue shirt, pink face and lime-green hair, The Princess, the diplomats, the attaches and Major 'Spots' Leophard were introduced to the various Thai generals and colonels on the tarmac, then got into some of the front cars of a heavily-armed procession of fifteen vehicles. I have never seen such a cavalcade for the Queen herself, nor one so well protected. The roads wherever we went had been cleared of traffic and armed sentries guarded the crossings with all side roads.
Since refugees from Indochina are news in England these days, the Princess was accompanied by a dozen or so reporters, two top Fleet Street photographers and TV crews from the BBC and ITN. The Princess met the two doctors and three nurses from Save the Children Fund; she saw some of the children and asked some pertinent questions about the camp. It was left to the press to ask impertinent questions like how many refugees are murdered each month by the guards. The answer is two or three. After seeing the refugee camp the Princess and the cavalcade went for drinks and lunch at the local army camp. One of the two Save the Children Fund doctors, John O'Sullivan, who had shown the Princess round the camp that morning, was privileged to have drinks with her but not invited to sit at her luncheon table, his seat having been taken by one of the service attaches who probably get on better with the hosts, the Thai Army. The visit by Princess Anne at a time when public opinion is exercised over the plight of Indochina refugees will certainly win publicity and donations for Save the Children Fund and two other British charities involved. One of these, Project Vietnam Orphans, has a representative here who is dealing with refugees. The Ockendon Venture, who have a powerful friend in David Ennals, are helping to settle those few Vietnamese who have been allowed into England. The Save the Children Fund and Project Vietnam Orphans both took part in an airlift of 100 orphans from Saigon in April 1975 which certainly earned them good publicity, the Ockendon Venture getting the take of a gala charity 'concert at Covent Garden introduced by David Ennals. The newspaper that organised the baby airlift has issued a writ against the Spectator and myself because of something I wrote last year, so I shall not pursue the subject except to say that I did not consider the baby airlift the best way of relieving human suffering during the Vietnam war. Nor do I believe that Princess Anne's visit has helped relieve human suffering caused by the present Cambodian war. It may have made things much worse.
What does the Save the Children Fund do here in Thailand? This question was put by the Guardian's intrepid reporter to Major 'Spots' Leophard, who had spent ten minutes challenging her to provide some proof that she had been a correspondent here for almost a year. When she convinced him, the major replied: 'If you have been that long in Thailand, you should know what the Save the Children Fund does here'. End of interview. When we got to the camp, we found that we had not known many things concerning the Save the Children Fund. We found out for instance that all the food, housing and medicine they give the refugees is actually paid for by the United Nations. They do offer the children tinned baby food given them free by an English manufacturer but these concoctions cause the children tummy upsets; the doctors badly need the soya bean milk which these children relish.
The Save the Children Fund pays the salaries of the five Europeans employed at the camp. Excellent though their work is, it hardly seems to justify the expense of Princess Anne and her entourage coming to eastern Thailand or of the province being put on a state of armed alert. The seventy refugees who help the five Europeans have been doing so free in the hope of qualifying for resettlement somewhere abroad. But now that they find this work gets no such reward of this kind, most of the volunteers have drifted away to paid jobs in the camp or in town.
The British public, seeing the TV films of the Princess and the children, will naturally think that these refugees are in the same plight as the boat-people from Vietnam or the people forced back into Cambodia. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Almost all the refugees here come from Laos; the Thais are most unlikely to send them back and they face little danger in escaping. In fact anyone wanting to come across pays about £40 to an intermediary who arranges for Thai troops to 'intercept' him on reaching this side of the Mekong river. Anyone who comes across without having made this arrangement will not be accepted, a system with clear advantages for the Thai Army, In any case the Laotians who come across are almost identical in their language and way of life to the locals, many of whom are related. There may be a few Cambodians here masquerading as Laotians but that is another matter.
If the army takes Laotians from the east, it sternly refuses to take in Cambodians from the south. Indeed most of the 40, 000 or so Cambodians who have been forced back during the last month were obliged to cross the border only some 50 miles south of the camp which Princess Anne visited. They were shoved back by her hosts the Thai Army. This is done in a kindly fashion, according to last Saturday's Bangkok Post. 'Over 1,000 Cambodian refugees, mostly civilians, were pushed back to their embattled homeland through safe exits in the mountainous area of Chanthaburi Province yesterday, an informed official source said. The refugees who had been at the Khao .
Lam n refugee centre in Klong Yai District, Trat, for quite some time, were put on 20 military trucks which drove to Ban Laem of Chantahaburi where they were permitted to walk back into Pailin Province of Cambodia.'
The new Vietnamese rulers of Cambodia accuse the Thais of having beaten and stoned the refugees in order to drive them back across the border. Correspondents and other foreign observers have no doubt that the refugees went back unwillingly and in dread of the dangers they faced: meeting troops of the murderous Khmer Rouge, starvation, disease, and worst of all, land mines. It appears that most of the refugees who were pushed through whit the Bang kok Post calls 'safe exits', were in fact dispatched into a mine field. Two refugees who managed to get back into Thailand a second time and were flown to America, reported that people were dying at a rate of 200 a day — not sixty miles from here.
The Thai army and government, which come to much the same thing, insist that the refugees from Cambodia, like the boat people from Vietnam, form part of a Vietnamese plan to invade Thailand by first swamping it with a mass of people. In fact the refugees who come here from Vietnam and Cambodia constitute less than a third of those who have come from Laos and settled down with no fuss whatsoever. It simply does not make sense to say that a few camps of unarmed civilian refugees, many of whom are old, women or children can seriously be a menace.
Thailand's brutal treatment of refugees is linked with its still more disgraceful support for the Khmer Rouge army of Pol Pot and Ieng Sary, the two mass murderers who did to Cambodia in a mere four years what it took Hitler and Stalin decades to do to Germany and Russia. While harmless refugees from the war have been pushed over the border into a minefield, the blood thirsty troops of the Khmer Rouge enjoy a sanctuary in this country and probably get supplied with food and ammunition. The Khmer Rouge leaders have praised and thanked the Thai government for repatri ating the refugees, whose subsequent fate can be blamed on the Vietnamese. In supporting the Khmer Rouge, Thailand also has the open support of Communist China and maybe the tacit support of the United States which, like Great Britain, blames Vietnam for all the present horror of Indochina.
This strikes me as unfair. The Vietnamese have behaved with the utmost callousness in allowing the Chinese minority to put out to sea in small boats; on the other hand, what other way could they leave? There is no country sharing a land frontier prepared to take them; no foreign country has offered to take them out by boat or plane; the city of Paris, but so far no British newspaper, has sent out a ship to rescue them out at sea. It also bears pointing out that during the last four years Vietnam has given shelter to 300, 000 refugees from Cambodia and has done the world a service by making war on the Khmer Rouge —and only after incessant provocation.
Because Communist Vietnam delayed four years before invading its communist neighbour, about a third of the population of Cambodia perished, a large proportion of whom were brutally murdered. Unlike the boat people, the Cambodian middle classes and Chinese minority were given no chance to escape their country and persecution. Those few foreign journalists who have been to Cambodia since the Khmer Rouge fell report that the Vietnamese were generally welcomed as saviours, in spite of historic national enmity. The Western countries like the United States, France and Britain should recognise the new regime and cease giving support to the Khmer Rouge monsters.
The Prime Minister of Great Britain and the President of Thailand have frequently said in the last two weeks that Vietnam is to blame for the refugee problem in Indochina, an argument that excuses them from the obligation to show the least humanity. The visit of Princess Anne was used here to demonstrate that Britain supports the policy of the Thai government in forcibly pushing Cambodians back to almost certain death. That was the object of the military exercise staged last Thursday in Ubon.
When Princess Anne, Captain Mark Phillips, the ambassador and his attaches and Major 'Spots' Leophard had left for Bangkok, I went to see the Catholic Bishop of Ubon, a Thai who expresses true concern for the refugees sent back to Cambodia. He asked me not to publish what he and the priests in his diocese have been doing, but I can say that some have shown outstanding courage in trying to help people out in the minefield, dying at 200 a day. The Catholic church is not so keen as are the British charities to get publicity from the press and TV. Listening to the bishop was like rinsing one's mouth of a bad taste.