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Thailand's Response to the Cambodian Genocide

Dr. Puangthong Rungswasdisab, Research Fellow, Cambodian Genocide Program, Yale University




I. The Khmer Rouge as a Threat

II. Alliance with the Khmer Rouge

III. Doing Business with the Khmer Rouge




Since the popular uprising of 14 October 1973, which overthrew the military regime of Thanom Kittikachorn and Praphat Jarusathien, Thai society has undergone various changes. Civilian groups, such as the political parties, student, intellectual, media, non-governmental organizations, peasant and labor movements, have been allowed to participate in various aspects of Thai politics. Though democratic development was sporadically interrupted by attempts to restore military rule through several coups, the spirit of the 14 October revolution has continued to develop. The country has become more pluralistic with the growing influence of the business elite and of integration into the world economy. Two decades after the October 14 revolution, further civilian challenges to military interference in politics significantly contributed to the decline of the Thai military’s power. Thai society has become a more open society than it was before 1973. It may be said that nowadays political ideas such as "decentralization of power," "bureaucratic reform," "political reform," "public participation," "transparency," etc., have become central to the country’s political, social and economic development.

Amidst a stream of public calls for reform of the Thai political system, one aspect has hardly been challenged or questioned by the growing political forces in Thailand. That was the country’s foreign policy towards its neighboring countries, in particular the Indochinese states. In this area, decision-making has remained heavily dominated by bureaucrats and military. In fact, it is the only aspect of Thai politics, where one can find a consensus among the foreign policy-makers (the foreign ministry, the National Security Council and the army), some academics and the media. We have hardly heard calls for a rethinking or change of the Thai foreign policy direction. Not to mention the Thai government policy of supporting the Khmer Rouge, which has been strongly criticized internationally. In fact, critics of the government’s policy comprised only a small group of academics, and their criticism received little attention from the Thai media. Some appear to have limited their comment to the role and implication of the military in the foreign policy-making process. Their disapproval of the policy on the Cambodian conflict often focused merely on different tactics in negotiations with Vietnam, or the degree to which Thailand should get involved in, and the implications of, this protracted conflict.

Thus, as Suchit Bunbongkorn and Sukhumbhand Paribatra have pointed out, the power of the military in Thai politics has been significantly challenged since 1973. But developments in foreign affairs in the 1980s, dominated by the Cambodia-Vietnam issue, still served to strengthen the Thai bureaucratic polity in general and the power of the military in particular. The Cambodian conflict allowed the Thai armed forces to monopolize all channels of information concerning border problems and to increase the defense budget as well as to expand its manpower. The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, in early 1979, reinforced traditional suspicions and fears of Vietnamese imperialist ambition, and catalyzed security concerns. It effectively enhanced the role of bureaucrats, both civilian and military, in the decision-making process because they were considered "specialists". While foreign affairs has been an area in which extra-bureaucratic actors tend to take less interest, criticisms or suggestions from them were usually dismissed as motivated by ignorance or interference.

Chai-anan Samudavanija has noted that the prolonged Indochina conflict gave the Thai military a justification to exert its role in internal politics by keeping the perceived threat of communism alive in Thai politics, despite its earlier claim of victory over communism. Moreover, the issue of the Indochina conflict and its implications did not receive much attention from political parties. No Thai party included a plank on the Cambodian conflict in its platform, or voiced concern over the government’s policy on the issue. The belief that "specialists" had handled the problem effectively appeared to result in a lack of serious attention among the Thai political parties. They seemed to trust that agencies involved in foreign policy would do their utmost to protect "Thai national interest". Such belief and trust was also shared by the mainstream Thai academics.

Various publications were produced to support the Thai government’s policy towards Vietnam and the Cambodian coalition forces of Pol Pot-Sihanouk-Son Sann on the Thai-Cambodian border, with the Institute of Asian Studies at Chulalongkorn University playing a leading role. The Institute’s view was expressed in an interview with its director, Khien Theeravit, which appears in its publication on The Kampuchean Problem in Thai Perspective: Positions and Viewpoints Held by Foreign Ministry Officials and Thai Academics. His view was similar to the official view, and even stronger than those of some of the officials. In the closed-door discussion between the foreign ministry officials and the invited academics, which comprises the first section of the book, no academic challenged the wisdom of the Thai government in supporting the Khmer Rouge forces.

Thai academic and media circles seem to have agreed with the military’s idea of national security and interest. They did not question the secret nature of the information provided by the concerned government agencies. The Thai public tends to accept that because foreign affairs is highly sensitive and concerned with the national interest the information is to be kept highly confidential among specialists only.

The Thai elite’s perceptions of the impact of the Cambodian conflict on national security issues was also a reason why the policy received strong public support. In a 1985 survey of the Thai elite’s perceptions, almost all respondents (over 98 percent) saw Vietnam as a threat to Thailand’s national security. Vietnam also ranked high in many forms of threat, including direct military invasion, political subversion, undermining of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’s regional solidarity, and support of military aggression by other countries. The majority of respondents (almost 60%) also felt that the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia produced a grave impact on Thailand’s security, while 38% saw the impact in a lesser light. Most agreed that the impacts came in various forms, including armed tension along the Thai-Cambodian border, transformation of Kampuchea into a base for threatening Thailand’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, aggravation of regional tension and intensification of superpower rivalry in Southeast Asia. In addition, 98% of the respondents rejected the notion of acquiescence to the Vietnamese military occupation in Cambodia as an acceptable outcome. Most of the Thai elite also considered Vietnam’s patron, the Soviet Union, a threat to Thailand’s security. The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia had exacerbated a historical agony between the Thai and the Vietnamese. Both of them had tried to dominate Cambodia and Laos since the eighteenth century.

The attitude of the population of one country towards another is also an important basis for its foreign policy. The standard text books on Thai history, at both school and university levels, usually begin with the migration of the Thai race from the North to the Chaophraya River basin, where the Khom, or Khmer, had earlier settled. Then the Thais, under capable leaders, were soon able to drive off the Khmer from the river basin. The rapid expansion of the Thai kingdom finally brought down Cambodia’s Angkorean Empire, forcing the Cambodians to move their capitals southward, from Angkor to Lovek, Udong, and Phnom Penh respectively.

A new interpretation by a Western scholar arguing that the southward movement of the Cambodian capitals tended to be influenced by the changing economic environment- as the maritime trade in the region became increasingly important to the post-Angkorean statecraft,- has not been welcomed by Thai scholars. Perhaps, such interpretations do not go well with the notion of the greatest Thai kingdom, successfully bringing down the Angkorean empire.

Moreover, Thai popular history books by amateur historians describe Cambodia as a subordinate, untrustworthy neighbor, often shifting its loyalty between the Thai and the Vietnamese courts. Cambodia sought to attack Siam whenever the Thai kingdom was facing trouble. The classic case with which the Thais have been familiar was the execution of Cambodian King Lovek, known as Phraya Lavek in Thai, by the Ayudhyan King Narasuen. The Thai chronicles tell of King Lovek, who had raided and evacuated villagers in the Siamese eastern border while King Narasuen was occupied by war with Burma. King Narasuen decided to take revenge on Cambodia. The Thai chronicles depicted a dramatic execution of Phraya Lovek. The Thai king mercilessly beheaded the Cambodian king and washed his feet with the latter’s blood. It was considered the act of contempt for the enemy. In fact, however, evidence from Western missionaries reveals that the execution never happened. The Cambodian king was able to take refuge in southern Laos. However, this Thai version of the King Lovek story still dominates the general understanding of Thai-Cambodian relations among average Thais. The wars and chaos in Cambodia have always been described as the fault of untrustworthy and factional Cambodia rulers, while the Thai invasions were interpreted as based on rights to control their tributary state and/or to prevent Cambodia from Vietnamization.

Such historiography has enhanced a nationalistic feeling of a great nation with a great history in comparison to its neighboring countries. On the other hand, it has depicted Cambodia, and of course Laos, as inferior nations. This leads to the question of the situation of Indochinese studies in general, and Cambodian studies in particular in Thailand. Perhaps, the perception of Indochinese countries, as poor, inferior countries with little business potential, has dictated the direction of area studies in Thailand. In contrast to American, European and Japanese studies, which dominated international studies in Thailand for three decades, Indochina is much less attractive to Thai academics as a field of study. Thus, the situation of Indochinese studies in Thailand now is not much different from what Charnvit Kasetsiri described in 1991, when he asserted that Thai academic institutions so far have not yet paid enough attention to Southeast Asia as a study area. He wrote that "despite the fact that Thailand belongs to the area, there is no serious attempt to pursue such study. The Thai government, elite and academic specialists, know very little of the economies, politics, society and culture of its neighbors, without mentioning further away Southeast Asian countries." Charnvit further noted that in Thailand only Silpakorn University offered an M.A. Program in the field of Southeast Asian History, while the Institute of Asian Studies at Chulalongkorn and the East Asian Studies Institute at Thammasat University, which have concentrated on China and Japan, are primarily research institutions.

Thus, nationalistic attitudes and ignorance became an obstacle for Thailand to develop a constructive policy towards neighboring countries both during and after the Cold War. With national interest, politically and economically, as the most important priority, Thailand’s foreign policy towards the Khmer Rouge simply bypassed Cambodia’s human cost and tragedy.

For two decades already, Thailand has thrown clandestine support behind the Khmer Rouge group, ever since the murderous regime was overthrown by the Vietnamese forces. It is thus timely to examine the relationship between Thailand and the Khmer Rouge. This study will therefore examine Thailand’s policy towards the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to the early 1990s. It will focus on the response of Thai governments as well as the perspectives of various Thai political groups on the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge.


I. The Khmer Rouge as a threat


The Khmer Rouge rule began as Thailand was going through a transitional period, from four decades of military dictatorship to democratic rule, and from its role as an American client to a rapprochement with the communist states. The transition was a result of the rapid changes in both the domestic and regional situations. The unstable civilian governments after the 14 October 1973 revolution were forced to cope with the challenges in fear of expansive communist power. The open political system permitted the internal political forces to participate in various policy issues, including foreign affairs. The intense struggle between the left and the right subsequently led to a massacre of students in the heart of the Thai capital, and the military coup on 6 October 1976. Between 1973 and 1976 there were rapid shifts of Thailand’s foreign policy toward its neighbors from anti-communism to co-existence and then back to anti-communism again. It was also the only period in which the country’s foreign policy towards its neighbors was heavily criticized by non-bureaucratic elements. This chapter will discuss the factors which influenced the establishment of relations between Thailand’s civilian government and Cambodia between 1973 and 1976, and the subsequent suspension of the relationship after the Thai military staged the bloody coup of October 1976.

Changes and new friends

Since Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat took power in 1958, Thailand had served as a springboard for the United States to conduct covert operations against the communist movements in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. The Thanat-Rusk Agreement, signed by the Secretary of State Dean Rusk and the Thai Foreign Minister Thanat Khoman in 1962, provided reassurance that the U.S. would stand by Thailand in fighting against both internal and possible outside communist attacks. The agreement also promised Thailand economic and social aid as indirect measures to contest the local communist movement. While the Thai military enjoyed extensive American military training and aid, it in return allowed the presence of seven U.S. military air bases on Thai soil, which were used to wage war against the communist movements in Indochina. The U.S. presence was in fact a supporting pole for the military power in Thai politics. Benedict Anderson has termed Thailand in the period between Sarit’s rule (1958-1963) and the Thanom-Praphat regime (1963-1973), the "American Era".

The Thai military had always believed that U.S. military power would no doubt defeat the communists in Southeast Asia and that they could rely on the U.S. commitment in the region. But the U.S. failure in the Vietnam War as well as Washington’s shift of focus to the Middle East, Europe and Latin America forced Washington to abandon its full involvement in Southeast Asia. The U.S. signed the Paris Accord with Vietnam in January 1973, and Congress prohibited direct or indirect U.S. combat activities in Indochina after August 1973. Meanwhile, the Thai military was facing serious political storms from both domestic and regional political changes. The collapse of the Thanom-Praphat regime in the popular uprising on 14 October 1973 not only threatened the power of the Thai military in the domestic politics, but also their leading role in foreign policy-making. Thailand’s military-led anti-communist foreign policy became a target of liberal political forces.

After the October 14 incident, the new civilian governments were therefore forced to adopt two interrelated policies: the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Thailand and the establishment of normal relations with the communist countries. Soon after the royally appointed Prime Minister Sanya Dhammasakti (October 1973-February 1975) had taken office, his government announced that the U.S. was no longer allowed to use the air bases in Thailand to support its war in Indochina. The successive governments of M.R. Seni Pramoj (February-March 1975 and April-October 1976), and his younger brother M.R. Kukrit Promoj (March 1975-April 1976) also adopted the same policy. The Sanya administration also tried to establish relations with Vietnam. Later, Kukrit announced the establishment of diplomatic relations with China, visiting Beijing on July 1, 1975.

Pressures for Thailand to adopt such policies arose from both democratic forces and the political situation in the region. In fact, criticism of the patron-client relationship between the Thai military and the U.S. had emerged at the beginning of the 1970s. American-educated Thai intellectuals played a major role in raising concern over the atrocities the Americans were committing in Indochina. They strongly criticized the presence of the U.S. troops as violating Indochina’s internal affairs, and also objected to Thailand’s role in the Vietnam War. At the beginning, the young Thai intellectuals expressed their voices in an academic journal named Sangkhomsat Parithat (Social Science Review). Later, this critical view was widely adopted and appeared in several new journals and magazines after the October 14 uprising in Thailand and the collapse of the right-wing regimes in South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in 1975. The withdrawal of the U.S. bases in Thailand became one of the top campaign issues for the leading student organization, the National Student Center of Thailand (NSCT), after 1973.

The post-October 14 civilian governments were apparently unable to resist the increasingly strong pressure for the U.S. withdrawal. For example, Siang Puang Chon (Voice of the People), urged the Seni government that the U.S. presence meant the loss of Thailand’s sovereignty and honor as well as future damage to the country and its neighbors. The newspaper warned that Thailand would become another Vietnam and Cambodia if the government still followed the U.S. strategy of communist suppression, which had just brought catastrophe to Saigon and Phnom Penh. The daily went on to encourage the NTSC to carry on their fight against the presence of U.S. bases in Thailand. Several Thai newspapers criticized the Seni and Kukrit governments for Thailand’s involvement in sabotage activities against the new communist regime in Phnom Penh and a possible setback on Thailand’s security. They stressed the need for Thailand to immediately oust the U.S. forces and, instead, establish contact with Cambodia. The Seni government finally announced that the U.S. must be pulled out in 18 months, while Thailand would seek to normalize relations with its neighboring countries.

In fact, the governments of Seni and Kukrit, which comprised conservative and right-wing politicians, were initially reluctant to force the U.S. troops from Thailand, particularly at the time of the rapid expansion of both domestic and regional communism. They believed Thailand’s security would be in danger if the Khmer Rouge-Sihanouk group came to power in Cambodia. Thailand would be the next domino to fall. At the beginning of his tenure of office in February 1975, Prime Minister Seni Promoj primarily stressed the necessity of maintaining U.S. troops in Thailand, reasoning that it was Thailand who had invited the U.S. troops and that Thailand should, therefore, give them time for withdrawal. He even expressed the gratitude to the U.S. for recently providing planes to transport rice to help the flood victims in southern Thailand. Thailand should therefore repay such gratitude by allowing the American troops in Thailand. The expected fall of the Lon Nol regime at the time even necessitated the presence of American troops. Seni’s Defense Minister General Thawit Seniwong expressed deep concern that the fighting in Cambodia would threaten Thailand’s security if the North Vietnamese forces got involved, and that Thailand would seek assistance from other members of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). As the situation in Phnom Penh entered the terminal period, the Thai Army Commander General Kris Sivara expressed strong opposition to the calls for immediate withdrawal of the U.S. troop. Kris pointed out that "the situation in Cambodia was most critical. The danger is very close to Thailand. We would rather see a war in foreign countries than fighting in our own land." He wanted the U.S. troops presence as a deterrent against communist attacks in neighboring countries.

The short-lived Seni government, which failed to obtain parliamentary approval, was succeeded by that of his brother M.R. Kukrit Promoj in mid-March 1975. Though the Kukrit administration saw a necessity to revise the country’s foreign policy toward its communist neighbors, it was apparently reluctant to implement this option, and that resulted in its contradictory policy toward the Khmer Rouge.

In March 1975, as the anti-U.S. campaign was continuing and calls for revising Thailand’s policy toward its neighbors were getting louder, the Thai public learned that the U.S. was freely using the U-Tapao airbase in southeastern Thailand for the airlift of arms and ammunition to the falling Lon Nol government. The U.S. also employed trucks from the Thai state enterprise, Express Transport Organization (ETO), to transport arms across the border at Aranyaprathet, in Prachinburi Province, to the Lon Nol forces in Battambang. After this U.S. operation was exposed to the public, Prime Minister Kukrit immediately told the press that he had ordered the suspension of the use of the base for shipping arms to Cambodia and that the American had no right to do this. Kukrit and his deputy and Defense Minister, Major General Pramarn Adireksarn stressed that Thailand did not want to interfere in its neighbors’ affairs, and would provide them only humanitarian aid. However, one week later the Thai media revealed that the operation across the Aranyaprathet-Poipet was still underway. Prime Minister Kukrit appeared to be furious at the reports, claiming that he had no knowledge of the arms shipment. He publicly blasted Defense Minister Pramarn for allowing the U.S. operation. Obviously, the U.S. arms shipments went on with cooperation from the Thai military as the custom official told the press that the ETO trucks to Cambodia had the supreme military command office’s immunity, and they were not subjected to any search. Besides, the customs office did not receive an order either from the military or the government to stop the arms transport.

Another move to save the Lon Nol regime came from Kukrit’s Foreign Minister Major General Chatichai Choonhavan. On the eve of the Khmer Rouge’s seizure of Phnom Penh, Chatichai announced that the Thai government was willing to offer Thailand as a site for peace negotiations between the Lon Nol government and the Khmer Rouge, claiming that Thailand wished to see peace in Cambodia. Despite a warning from Prince Norodom Sihanouk, nominal president of the National United Front of Cambodia (NUFC), that Thailand should stop playing the U.S. henchman and interfering in Cambodian affairs, Chatichai did not want to give up this effort. He announced out of the blue that he had already arranged a meeting between Lon Nol’s Prime Minister Long Boret and a Khmer Rouge representative in Bangkok. Chatichai’s claim was soon dismissed by both Boret and the Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan. Sihanouk lashed out at the Thai foreign minister’s initiative as "a figment of the too-fertile imagination of the Thai authorities". Kukrit told the public that he himself did not know anything about the arranging of negotiations, and Thailand did not want to have any role in it. Typically for a Thai politician, Chatichai now told Kukrit that he had never made such a statement.

It is intriguing that Kukrit apparently pretended that he had no knowledge of what his cabinet members were doing. Some scholars have suggested that a contradictary policy toward Cambodia was a result of the right-wing and military groups while the civilian governments tended to favor a rapprochement policy and the withdrawal of U.S. troops. But, considering Kukrit’s background as a royalist and a long-term anti-communist leader, it would be too optimistic to believe that the Thai Prime Minister easily adopted a friendly attitude toward the communist neighbors. Some evidence suggests that Kukrit himself shared the idea of the leaders of military factions in his government, Pramarn and Chatichai. While Kukrit always stressed that his government did not want to interfere in the internal affairs of neighboring countries, he urged Washington on the eve of the Khmer Rouge victory that South Vietnam and Cambodia would not be able to survive if they did not receive enough aid. If these two states fell, the political situation in the region would change, including Thailand’s foreign policy. His conservative daily newspaper, Siam Rath, was one of a few presses in 1975 opposing the calls for immediate U.S. troops withdrawal from Thailand. The paper argued that the deteriorating situation in Cambodia had made conditions along the Thai-Cambodian border more dangerous.

When the situation dispelled all hope for the U.S. military intervention in Indochina, the Thai leaders realized that they had to try to live with communist neighbors. As it became clear in April 1975 that Washington had decided to abandon its client Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam, Kukrit told the press that he had never thought of relying on the U.S. The Thai Supreme Commander, General Kris Sivara, later denied a report that he would lead a team of senior military officers to seek assurance and military assistance from Washington. Kris even scorned U.S. assistance to Southeast Asian countries as unreliable, since the U.S. had already deserted some of its allies. The Kukrit government soon moved toward a rapprochement by offering the Khmer Rouge regime recognition on 18 April.

However, the Thai elite has never trusted communism. It was considered necessary for Thailand to maintain the rebel armed forces along the borders to destabilize the communist regimes. Some may argue that the Thai civilian governments had limited power over the security and border issues. But secret support for guerilla forces has never created real conflict between the civilian faction in the governments and the armed forces, in contrast to other domestic issues. Whether the civilian governments have chosen to turn a blind eye, or have secretly approved such clandestine operations, does not make much difference. This two-faced diplomacy toward neighboring countries has been common practice for Thai governments even nowadays, as I will show.

The rapprochement with the Democratic Kampuchea by the Kukrit administration was soon testified by the so-called Mayaguez incident. On 12 May 1975, the Khmer Rouge force seized and charged an American cargo ship named the SS Mayaguez with trespassing in its waters. The Ford administration demanded the unconditional release of the ship and her crews of thirty-nine. Washington immediately ordered its Seventh Fleet to sail for the Gulf of Siam the next day. The Kukrit government had informed the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Bangkok that the Thai government would not permit the Americans to use the air bases in Thailand in the Mayaguez dispute. But the next day, Thailand saw 1,100 U.S. marines from Okinawa landing at the U-Tapao air base. The U.S. forces launched heavy attacks on the Cambodian port at Kampong Som and on Tang Island. Finally, the Mayaguez was released at the end of 14 May. The Thai government sent a protest note to the U.S. Embassy, charging the Americans with violating Thailand’s sovereignty. The Thai ambassador to Washington was recalled. The NTSC and civil groups joined the government in condemning the Mayaguez operation. Various Thai-language dailies urged the government to implement an immediate pullout of the U.S. troops, stressing that the establishment of friendly relations with neighboring countries would not be possible as long as Thailand allowed the presence of U.S. troops in its soil. Washington finally conveyed regret to the Kukrit administration.

It is unlikely that the U.S. use of U-Tapao air base took place without the cooperation from the Thai military. The White House adviser Henry Kissinger told the press that they should not pay attention to Thai politicians, but rather to the Thai military, who was willing to let the Americans use U-Tapao during the Mayaguez operation. Defense Minister Pramarn Adireksarn even asserted that the U.S. operation did not violate Thailand’s sovereignty, but was only a breach of promise between the two countries.

Soon after Thailand offered the Khmer Rouge regime recognition, contacts between the two sides began. In late April 1975, twenty Khmer Rouge soldiers reportedly contacted Thai border authorities at Aranyaprathet district of Prachinburi Province, stating that they wanted the Thai-Cambodian border to reopen as soon as the situation in Cambodia returned to normal. They added that the Khmer Rouge wanted to be friends with the Thais. Thai authorities turned a blind eye to a resumption of unofficial business between Aranyaprathet and Poipet. Gasoline and rice were the two top products brought to Cambodia. Later, the Cambodian government conveyed messages, via its border officers and China, to the Kukrit government that it wanted to establish diplomatic and trade relations with Thailand. Finally, full diplomatic ties between the two countries were established following Cambodian Deputy Premier and Foreign Minister Ieng Sary’s five-day visit to Thailand in late October 1975. The meeting succeeded with an issue of a joint communique, which promised an exchange of ambassadors, establishment of liaison offices on the border provinces, a mutual respect of the exiting frontiers. Both sides also pledged that they would not allow any third party to use their territories to violate each other’s sovereignty, and would not resort to the use of force in solving their differences. The Cambodian delegates also expressed their need to begin official trade with Thailand as Cambodia was facing shortage of food. A liaison committee was set up on 17 November, following a meeting in Poipet between Thai Foreign Minister Chatichai and Ieng Sary. Cambodia reportedly wanted to buy ten thousand tones of salt each month from Thailand. The return of all the Cambodian refugees in Thailand was another issue raised by the Khmer Rouge leader.

However, diplomatic relations between Thailand and Democratic Kampuchea was built up in parallel with tension along the Thai-Cambodian border. In April, the Khmer Rouge troops stationed opposite Pong Nam Ron District of Chanthaburi Province threatened to attack Thailand, after Thai authorities refused to hand over six armored personnel carriers brought to Thailand by fleeing Lon Nol military officers. Another 60 Khmer Rouge troops contacted Thai authorities on the border at Trat Province for permission to cross into Thailand to suppress the Lon Nol troops. But the request was turned down. A Thai navy patrol boat was sent to reinforce the coastal border of Trat. The first territorial dispute began on 12 May 1975, when the Khmer Rouge forces opposite Trat Province claimed that Cambodia had lost a large amount of land to Thailand during the Lon Nol period. They gave Thailand seven days to withdraw to a demarcation line one kilometer from the existing line. Otherwise they would do it by force. The Khmer Rouge also held four Thai fishermen, charged with violating Cambodia’s maritime border. At the end of May, another Thai fishing boat on the Trat coast was attacked and set ablaze by Khmer Rouge soldiers. Two weeks later Thai Marine Police engaged in an hour-long fight with Cambodian forces off the Trat coastal district of Ko Kut. At least seven Thai officers were wounded. At the same time, another clash between the Thai and Cambodian forces took place on the Aranyaprathet-Poipet border. Thai border security forces in Surin Province also faced a series of border attacks by the Khmer Rouge forces. A Thai security officer summed up: from the day the Thai-Cambodian border was closed on 18 April to the end of June, Khmer Rouge troops had purposely intruded across the Thai border in Surin Province more than 30 times. The intruders, the Thai officers added, had planted mines along the border inside Thai territory, abducted villagers and stole their food. In November 1975, fighting between Thai and Khmer Rouge forces on the Aranyaprathet-Poipet border area became intensified.

With some sympathy for the communist revolution, the Thai left-wing press tried to tone down the border clashes as ordinary conflict between neighboring countries. They even blamed some the right-wing groups for exaggerating the conflict. Later on when the border conflict intensified, they emphasized the sabotage activities by the Thai military-supported Cambodian opposition forces as a major cause of misunderstandings and casualties in the border area.

Part of the border conflict was due to the overlapping claims over border areas by Thailand and Cambodia. It was also believed to be the work of the guerilla operations of the Cambodian right-wing forces, which received secret support from the Thai armed forces and were allowed to use the Thai border areas as their sanctuaries. These forces, generally known as the Khmer Serei, comprised various ex-Lon Nol government groups. One of them belonged to the former Cambodian Prime Minister In Tam, whose base was on the border of Prachinburi and Battambang Provinces. In late November, Prime Minister Kukrit and his Foreign Minister Chatichai publicly blamed In Tam’s force as the cause of the border conflict. Kukrit finally ordered In Tam to leave Thailand within seven days in order to show the Cambodian government his own government’s good intention. However, the Prime Minister’s order was contradicted by his Deputy Interior Minister, Colonel Prakop Prayoonphokharat, who told reporters that In Tam would need more than a week to seek asylum in a third country. Prokop also pointed out that, in fact, Thailand did not give In Tam a one-week deadline. Moreover, the Thai

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