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Cambodians on border living in limbo. Many of the Cambodians want to go home, but politics and war keep them stuck somewhere between home and resettlement

The 230,000 Cambodians living in camps along the Thai-Cambodian (Kampuchean) border are trapped in a sort of bureaucratic and political limbo. Many of the border people want to go home, but they can't -- either because the war makes doing so too dangerous or because the various political forces controlling the camps won't let them out.

Most of the 52,000 people who live in Khmer Rouge-controlled camps simply can't leave. The Khmer Rouge -- the communist faction of the opposition Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea -- keeps a tight grip on its last remaining civilians.

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Thailand regards the border people as illegal immigrants -- not refugees. As such, they are not eligible for resettlement in a third country. (The only people who are eligible are the approximately 17,000 inhabitants of the Khao-I-Dang center administered by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.) Even if the Cambodians were eligible for resettlement, the Thais, the Cambodian opposition coalition, and the coalition's backers in China and the West would probably be loath to see the border population red uced.

Observers say these people are the only tangible proof of a mass base for the coalition government. And they bring much-needed food to the area. Each gets 1,900 calories a day from United Nations Border Relief Operations. The food is restricted to civilians, but border workers admit that they have no way of distinguishing civilians from guerrillas.

The Vietnamese-backed government in Phnom Penh describes the border settlements as ``sanctuaries'' for the coalition guerrillas. When the Thai government talked of moving some of the border people back across the frontier into Cambodia, Phnom Penh said this was really a plan to infiltrate ``Pol Potist terrorists and their accomplices.'' (Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, when hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died of starvation or execution.)

Some officials of the anti-communist Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN, made up of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, and Brunei) argue that, in the interest of the anti-Vietnamese war effort, the civilian Cambodian camps should be moved well inside Thailand. That would separate military from civilians and also reassure guerrillas that their families were safe from the war. In the past, officials say, border battles have been decided when guerrillas broke off the en gagement to go in search of their families.

This year, a major new camp has been created on the border. About 120,000 Cambodians live under the control of one of the noncommunist factions in the coalition: the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF) led by Son Sann. ``Site 2,'' as the UN calls it, lies about 37 miles from the Thai frontier town of Aranyaprathet. The new camp was created in September by the transfer of 53,000 people from another KPNLF camp.

Thai officials say the new camp will provide better facilities for the border people. But another reason for the move is thought to be the growing problem of banditry against camp inhabitants allegedly by renegade Cambodian guerrillas.

Both the UN and the KPNLF itself are anxious about security at the new site. UN officials have urged the faction to move all armed men out of Site 2. But the KPNLF's military bases, including its headquarters, are located within a few kilometers of the camp.

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Faction officials say the bases are being moved far from the camp, but it is not clear if the move has been carried out yet. Meanwhile, Vietnamese troop movement has been detected around the camp -- the most recent last week.

Officials say that Vietnamese military pressure on the camp could neutralize any future military operations the front might be planning. A threat to the camp, they predict, would draw front guerrillas in the interior of Cambodia back to the border to protect their families.

The situation in the Khmer Rouge-controlled camps, however, is much grimmer. Reliable sources say that civilians in two major Khmer Rouge camps have regularly signalled their desire over the last few months to move away from the faction's control. The Khmer Rouge has apparently responded by tightening its grip.

Usually reliable sources report unspecified disciplinary measures at Samrong Kiat, on the northern part of the Thai-Cambodian border. About 10,000 people live in the camp under Khmer Rouge control.

In Site 8, the largest Khmer Rouge civilian settlement (population about 25,000), informed sources estimate that about 10,000 Cambodian civilians have been moved from the camp over the past few months. They have been taken to Site 8 North, a Khmer Rouge military encampment thought to be the rear base of the Khmer Rouge's 320th division, a couple miles due north. The UN relief operation recently cut off food aid to Site 8 North on the grounds that it was not given sufficient access to the camp to monitor

the end-use of the aid.

Some of those moved were family groups, others were young men. Sources with regular access to the camp say that the moves are usually not voluntary. The people are taken away, the sources believe, for the army or to act as porters for the military.

``You're asked once if you want to go,'' said one observers. ``You're asked again, and then you go -- or else something happens to you.'' Some who refused to go were later injured by a mine, the worker added.

The camp's Khmer Rouge leadership -- which includes the nephew of the titular Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan -- recently tried to move Site 8 to another, more controllable location. First they told the camp residents that the present area was unsafe, regular visitors to the camp say. Soon after, the camp residents heard artillery shelling close by. But most of the shelling is reliably reported to have come from the Khmer Rouge itself -- to back up its claim that the camp was insecure.

Late last month Thai officials reportedly intervened to prevent the move planned for Site 8. But some experienced border watchers say they are ``not certain'' the move will not take place sometime in the future.

A small number of Cambodians have, however, recently been transferred to Site 8. About 80 reportedly arrived recently -- reportedly moved out of the UN-controlled Khao-I-Dang holding center (where prospects for resettlement are far better) by the Thais as punishment for such infractions as smuggling.

Meanwhile, the situation is taking its mental and physical toll on the border people, relief workers say.

The last dry season was the worst ever. A massive Vietnamese offensive against the coalition resulted in 23 separate evacuations involving 180,000 Cambodians between last November and this June. Their old settlements, controlled by the coalition and supplied by the UN, were just inside Cambodia. The new sites, mostly located on the border, remain very vulnerable.

``These are tough, resilient people,'' a veteran aid worker said, ``but they're getting really despondent about the future.''

One indication was a noticeable increase in recent months in the number of cases of physical disease complicated by depression, the worker said.

And while the rank-and-file civilians are moved around near the border, the families of some senior Khmer Rouge officials have recently moved to safer areas further inside Thailand, border sources say. And many of the noncommunist coalition leaders are said to regularly shuttle back and forth to the US -- to renew their resident alien green cards or visit their families.

Last of a series of three articles. Previous articles in this series ran Oct. 22 and 23.

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