In a decade from 1969 to 1979, Cambodia (Kampuchea) was torn apart by war and constant internal conflict with other countries. In 1969, US President Richard Nixon and US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger allowed a secret bombing campaign in the eastern part of the Country, which was believed to be harboring North Vietnamese bases. The year after, neutralist Prince Sihanouk, who was the country’s leader at the time who managed to keep Cambodia out of the war in Laos and Vietnam throughout the 1960s, was overthrown in a coup led by Lon Nol. Between 1970 and 1975, a civil war then broke out between the Lon Nol government (which was supported by the US) and the North Vietnamese soldiers and the Khmer Rouge, killing tens of thousands of people and displacing more than two million Cambodians to Phnom Penh, Vietnam and Thailand. Aside from this, indiscriminant saturation bombings by the Americans of the countryside had also forced many villagers to flee or join the Khmer Rouge. During these times, Cambodia had seen millions of refugees seeking places where they could be safe and continue to live.
1. Refugee Camps and Resettlement
The refugee border camps had fluctuated in size in the 1980s depending on the intensity of the conflict inside Cambodia, with combatants taking shelter in the camps and both the Cambodian and Vietnamese government forces frequently shelling the places. At this point in time, refugees in the camps in the country and Thailand, including middle-class survivors of the Khmer Rouge, were seeking resettlement abroad. This, along with repatriation, had made the high population numbers in refugee camps, such as Khao-I-Dang, to significantly decrease. Although, all border and refugee camps were characterized by political fighting, violence, depression, inactivity and rape, which is why they were declared closed to new arrivals by the Thai government. However, Cambodians managed to gain access to these camps through bribery or smuggling.
Many of the refugees remained in the camps for years, fearing to return to their homes and desiring resettlement in other countries. Between 1975 and 1997, a total of 260,000 Cambodians were resettled mostly in the US and France.
2. The Exodus
During the exodus, a number of Cambodians managed to escape the horrors brought about by the Khmer Rouge in three separate waves.
The first wave, which consisted of about 5,000 people, found sanctuary in April and May of 1975, as President Gerald Ford’s administration set up a task force to handle the potential refugee outflow when Phnom Penh and Saigon governments were about to fall. This campaign allocated 130,000 slots for potential refugees (125,000 for South Vietnamese and 5,000 for Cambodians), where only 4,600 of the Cambodian slots were filled by mostly Khmer Republic Air Force pilots and Khmer Republic Navy personnel, along with their families and friends. The number also comprised diplomats who served in Cambodian consultancies and embassies in foreign countries, as well as other Cambodians who happened to be outside the country during the time.
As for the second wave, it was made up of refuge-seekers who had escaped successfully overland to Thailand during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, with an unknown number dying along the way by hunger, injury, sickness and shooting. Those who arrived early were classified as “displaced persons”, who were interviewed by international organization representatives to be processed as refugees who would be resettled in Western countries. By 1978, some 8,000 individuals who had prior relationships with the Americans or French were cleared for resettlement.
The third wave fled Cambodia after the communist regime was overthrown. At first, no immediate exodus was seen as the first priority of the people was to travel all over the country to search for family members who were separated, but believed to be still alive. But after a few months, the outflow of refugees resumed at a rapid rate, where many people found themselves on the verge of starving to death as farmers could not harvest the crops during the conflict. Aside from the Cambodians, there were also refugees from Vietnam and Laos, who found their way to the Thai-Cambodian border. However, their number had become overwhelming that the Thai government stopped providing the new arrivals with similar presumptive refugee status that was given to the members of the earlier groups. At the height of the influx, there were about 500,000 refugees in Thailand, equaling to one percent of the country’s total population.
3. Cambodians in the US
Between 1975 and 1994, almost 158,000 Cambodians managed to gain entry to the US, with most of them labeled as refugees and a smaller number as humanitarian parolees and immigrants. During this time, ethnic communities from Cambodia springing up in the US live in locations that were chosen by the US Office of Refugee Resettlement. When the country’s census was taken in 1990, there were Cambodians found in all 50 states.
When in the US, the refugees encountered serious difficulties in adapting to life, as only about five percent of them were educated mostly comprising people from the first wave and did not experience the atrocities of the regime of the Khmer Rouge, managing to land white-collar jobs and often serving as intermediaries between the larger American society and their compatriots. About 50 percent of the newcomers from the second and third waves also landed in blue-collar occupations.
Relying on welfare and other forms of public assistance, a significant portion of the third wave was comprised of households that were headed by women whose husbands, fathers or sons were killed by the Khmer Rouge, which means that it was them who had to overcome the most difficult challenges in keeping themselves and their children alive.
Moreover, a huge number of refugees suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, but have received very little assistance to deal with the condition. Their children lacked role models, so they have not performed well academically and even dropped out of school, joining gangs.
Despite the difficulties, these Cambodian refugees are determined to resuscitate their social culture and institutions that were tried to be destroyed during the rule of the Khmer Rouge. Reviving Cambodian classical traditions, they are now trying to valiantly transcend the tragedies that happened in their lives.
Crystal Lombardo is a contributing editor for Vision Launch. Crystal is a seasoned writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience. She has been an editor of three popular blogs that each have had over 500,000 monthly readers.