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An open letter to our readers

WE OWE IT to our readers to publish this letter from Thailand.
Our editorial staff recently cooperated in a significant joint effort.
The Thai Community Services Center in Southern California
and supportive friends under the leadership of PhraThepsopon, Abbot of the Thai Temple,
coordinated efforts by the Thai communities in the United States in aiding the sick,
starving and dying Cambodians who have sought refuge in Thailand.
They asked Thurston Leon Sexton, an Ambassador College graduate, to assist them.
His heartrending letter to us follows:


Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

We Bring You encouraging reports. The hard work and dedication of organizations such as the International Red Cross and other international relief organizations have brought much improvement in the health and welfare of hundreds of thousands of Cambodian refugees.

"But the problem is not over.

"Renewed Vietnamese offensives against the Khmer Rouge strongholds will bring thousands more streaming across Thailand's border. Camps such as Ban Kaeng and Khao-I-Dang will be burdened with dead and dying.

"Aid efforts must now center on educating for survival the children in the camps.

"Let me tell you now what it is like to walk and talk with fathers and mothers who have watched their children slowly starve to death. To listen to personal experiences of a people who have seen their nation destroyed by Communists with conflicting political ideologies.

"Our first visit to the refugee camps was facilitated by the Office of the Supreme Commander in Bangkok. Through the kind offices of PhraThepsopon, Vinai and I were provided with a car and a driver to visit the sprawling Ban Kaeng camp in the SaKheo district. With a military escort, my Thai friend Vinai Insa-ard (who speaks fluent Cambodian) and I drove to the province of Prachinburi, where more than 250,000 are living in 16 overcrowded refugee camps scattered along Thailand's frontier with Cambodia.

"During our four-hour journey to Ban Kaeng, we watched the countryside slowly change from the verdant rich rice paddies surrounding Bangkok to the dusty dry fields of Thailand's eastern provinces.

"Upon arrival at Ban Kaeng we checked in at the front gate with the military authorities and began walking through a virtual city of temporary shelters filled with more than 40,000 pathetic remnants of the Cambodian race.


"As I walked with Vinai down the dusty paths separating different sections of the camp, I was totally unprepared for what I saw.

"I observed the people of the camp as they went about their daily routine. Gaunt, tired mothers attempting to wash the dirt and the grime of cooking fires from their children. Elderly men crouched in the dirt talking and shading themselves from the intense mid-day sun. Women walking slowly down the dirt tracks carrying their sick children to the infirmary, themselves coughing and wheezing, in need of medical attention. Children carrying tins of whole grain rice gruel, their only food, back to their family shelters.

"We visited one young man preparing his family's meal over an open fire. That meal consisted of only white rice, granulated sugar and a few tiny dried fish. He told us that he was very happy his family was able to eat again. In Cambodia they often had had no food for days.

"This was the same answer that we received from everyone that we questioned about the food in the camps. They usually had no fruit, no meat or vegetables, but they had enough to eat! They were happy to be here.

"When it rains in this part of Thailand, the camp becomes inundated. Due to a lack of adequate shelter, the refugees are exposed to the elements and the camp becomes a virtual sea of mud. During the dry season the problem of water is of a very different nature. This camp possesses only two wells to serve the needs of the entire refugee population of 40,000.

"When we looked into one of the wells, we discovered that it was already completely dry with only mud at the bottom. When we spoke to the Thai military authorities of this camp, we asked them how the refugees were supplied with sufficient water. They told us that they must bring in more than 100 trucks each day in order to provide sufficient water.

"As the dry season begins, and more and more refugees are brought to the camp, the problem of water supplies would reach the critical stage.

"At the infirmary a long line of refugees were outside awaiting medical attention. Some were too weak to walk by themselves and had to be helped by others. The one thing that struck me the most when I entered the building was the extreme fatigue that was in the faces of the doctor and his two assistants. They had been working long hours with little or no relief trying to deal with the thousands of cases of disease and maladies due to malnutrition.

"I talked briefly with Dr. Joe Barnes, an American physician. Briefly, because as we talked, he continued to administer to the slow, almost unending stream of sick refugees in his small, sparsely furnished examination room. Dr. Barnes told me that many still had problems with malaria, dysentery and especially flu. He explained that most of those who were too weak to be. helped were already dead. At the time of my visit, the number of deaths had been reduced to only two or three per day. (Our driver watched soldiers carry two bodies out of the camp during the period that we were there) He also mentioned there was also life; more than 100 babies had been delivered so far since the camp was set up four weeks before our visit.

"I asked Dr. Barnes what is the single most important need of the refugees. He answered, pointing out a window: 'Look out there at the thousands of people jammed together. They have plenty of fresh air, but they need toilets.' Fresh air would aid in checking disease, but because the refugees had no proper latrines, the spread of local epidemics within the camp was an ever present danger.

"We went on to inspect the latrine area. We found a long open ditch filled with stagnant water and sewage. If a refugee was too weak through illness to make it to this area, any open space between the huts was utilized.

"Bathing was accomplished if and when there was enough water, but most of the people we talked with were covered with the dry dust that seemed to cling to everything in the camp, including ourselves.

"Vinai and I walked over to a middle-aged man who was sitting in the shade with his children. We crouched down on the ground with him and began to talk. Previous to the Pol Pot period (pre-1975) he was a business man who traveled frequently across the Thai border on trading missions. When Pol Pot assumed power, he was driven along with the rest of the Cambodian population out into the fields to become a farmer. During the Pol Pot government, his younger brother was beaten to death by Khmer Rouge soldiers. His daughter of four years died of starvation.

"Later, we interviewed a young Cambodian farmer watching his unclothed little daughter playing in the dirt beside their thatch and pole dwelling. He spent five days escaping into Thailand with his wife and two children. He told us that if one was to plant rice, it would be confiscated by either Pol Pot forces who are themselves starving, or by the Vietnamese who want to keep it out of the hands of the Pol Pot troops.

"Our visit had been a shocking experience. Many questions continued to plague me as we returned to my temporary home at Wat Pho in Bangkok.

"What circumstances have led to the starvation and death of so many people? Why did more than 3½ million people have to die and the remnants of an entire race leave their home to live in overcrowded camps totally supported by other people? Cambodia has traditionally grown enough rice for its own use as well as for export:

"What brought about such traumatic changes to this backwater, formerly peaceful country once known for its lack of change?

"On our next trip to the refugee camps, we visited a much larger camp closer to the Cambodian border. This camp is one of the largest camps in Thailand, with approximately 75,000 refugees, all from Cambodia.

"This time, with the help of ChaoKhun PhraThepsopon, Vinai Insa-ard and I were provided with a car and driver to take us on the long trip to the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp only 10 kilometers from the frontier. This time Pravena Lepiboon, a professional photographer, went along with us to take photographs.

"We traveled through the provincial capital of Prachinburi, on to Sa-Kheo, and finally arrived at Aranyabrathet, a town where the United Nations, the International Red Cross, and medical teams from many foreign nations were staying.

"We turned north toward KhaoI-Dang. The Thai military was ever present. We had to visit two army field headquarters as well as four separate checkpoints before we finally reached our destination.

"I was quite surprised at the difference between this refugee camp and the one at Ban Kaeng. As we checked in at the front gate, we walked past a large building with the flag of the United Nations overhead. There are many more volunteers and

international aid workers here than in the smaller Ban Kaeng. Shelters provided for the refugees were also much larger and better built than those at Ban Kaeng.

"Pravena ran off to take photographs of the different areas of the camp, Vinai began interviewing a group of Cambodian men, I walked down the central road of the camp to find refugees who spoke either Thai or English.

"I came upon one section of the camp with people sitting on mats spread over the ground and singing. The song leader motioned for me to come join them. I removed my shoes and a space was made for me to sit down near the front. The song leader addressed me in limited English.

"He had been born in Kanda province near Phnom Penh 30 years ago, he said. His name was Naiem Sakun. He was educated at an Englishlanguage Christian school and previous to 1975, had worked for the American Embassy in Phnom Penh. He, along with his wife and seven other members of his family, had recently been able to escape from Cambodia to find safety here in Thailand. I questioned him about his recent experiences in Cambodia. Let me tell you his long sad story of brutality and death.