An Open Letter to Our Readers
Plain Truth Magazine
May 1980
Volume: Vol 45, No.5
Issue: ISSN 0032-0420
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An Open Letter to Our Readers
Thurston L Sexton  

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 3 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 English-language 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.
   Q: "Did anyone in your extended family die in Cambodia?"
   A: "Oh, maybe 45 of my family died."
   Q: "How did they die?"
   A: "The soldiers of Pol Pot killed them. They did not give any rice for them. So they were very sad and very hungry. One day they died."
   Q: "After 1975, when Pol Pot assumed power, what was it like?"
   A: "After Pol Pot came to Phnom Penh, they carried me away to Kampuchenan province. So I worked very hard there no food to eat. I was very sad every day.
   Q: "Did you work in the fields?"
   A: "Yes, in the field planting rice."
   Q: "What did the soldiers do to the people? What did you see?"
   A: "I see the soldiers of Pol Pot in the field where we plant rice. I see them by my eyes. Every day they call the people to go to the field. What time do they call us to work? 3 o'clock in the morning. We work until 12 noon. Come back, eat rice. Two to three spoons per man. After maybe 15 minutes to finish eating, they call again, 'Go, go, in all the provinces of our country, they are planting much rice, but not here.' If one doesn't go, sometimes they carry him away into the mountains and kill him by the gun. And sometimes by the stick and he will die.
   "One day they tell me, 'You go to the field and plant rice.' I go but I work very slowly. I am weak and not strong. So they beat me. I lie down with blood in my mouth. They kick my teeth. (He showed me all the missing teeth in the side of his mouth) I prayed to them, 'My brothers, help me, please don't beat me.' So they got angry again and beat me. I could not get up. They carry me and tie my hands to the bamboo post. They didn't give me any rice to eat. For three days I did not eat any rice."
   Q: "How, did you get here from your home? Did you walk?"
   A: "Yes, I walked with my family."
   Q: "How long did it take?"
   A: "It took maybe 10 days."
   Q: "What do you think about Thailand helping Cambodian refugees?"
   A: "I thank Thailand because they help the people near their country."
   Q: "Did the soldiers of the Pol Pot government know that you had worked for the American Embassy?"
   A: "Pol Pot did not know."
   Q: "If they knew you had worked for the American Embassy, what would they have done to you?"
   A: "They did not know."
   Q: "But what if they knew, what would they have done?"
   A: "They would shoot you immediately."
   Q: "Where do you want to go if you leave the refugee camp?"
   A: "I want to study the Bible because I am a Christian. I hate it when I see the world people very bad."
   "I thanked him for talking with me. As I said good-bye and walked away, sobered by what I had heard, I pondered what it would be like if I were thrust into the same circumstances. Forced to work long hours in the fields with little or no food, to see my friends and family dying of starvation, to see the weak and helpless shot and bludgeoned to death by agents of a harsh and dreadful government. To Mr. Naiem Sakun, it had been very real.
   "While I had been interviewing Sakun and other individuals who had at one time been residents of Phnom Penh, Vinai had been concentrating on interviewing an entirely different class of Cambodian, the average rice farmer and laborer. The first person he spoke with was Mr. Pot, a 70year-old man who in his youth had been a soldier with King Sihanouk. Mr. Pot was from the province of Chiangkat and had lived through the entire experience of the change of Cambodia from a peaceful French colonial, rice-producing country to the Cambodia of today.
   "Vinai began by asking about Mr. Pot's family.
   Q: "How many children do you have?"
   A: "Ten children, six of them have been killed."
   Q: "How were they killed?"
   A: "Some were beaten to death, others died of starvation because food was withheld from them. Each day they gave us one pint of uncooked rice for 20 persons. Not enough for anyone."
   Q: "How many of your children survived?"
   A: "All my sons are dead, but four daughters are alive."
   Q: "Before Pol Pot came to power in Cambodia, what did you do?"
   A: "Farmer, gardener, laborer, a weaver of baskets."
   Q: "What about the food here at the Khao-I-Dang camp, is it enough?"
   A: "They give enough rice, and they have salt fish. They give us oil and eggs, but no curry. Once. in a while we have a shortage of food."
   Q: "How about your shelter. Is there enough space?"
   A: "It is very convenient here, no problem, much better than in Cambodia. But there is a shortage of water, not enough for a bath, just enough for drinking and cooking."
   Q: "When the Vietnamese came into Cambodia, did they allow you to cultivate the rice paddies?"
   A: "Yes, they allowed us to cultivate, but when the time for harvest came, they did not allow harvesting. They either buried mines in the paddy or the soldiers killed those caught harvesting. No one has been harvesting.
   Q: "Do you have Buddhist monks in Cambodia now?"
   A: "No, and if there are, they are not real monks. The senior monks have all been killed, and whatever other monk refused to disrobe was beaten to death with bamboo sticks."
   Q: "How long did it take you to escape into Thailand?"
   A: "For those who live far away, it takes more than one month. Those who live nearer to the border take less time. Sometimes three weeks, sometimes one week. The people must walk. There is no time to stop. We were always hiding. If they had discovered us they would have killed us. Many died along the way."
   Q: "How did they die?"
   A: "They died because they were shot by Khmer Rouge soldiers, others died of starvation along the way. During the escape many were shot by Vietnamese soldiers. Some soldiers would rob all the goods from escaping refugees."
   Q: "In this refugee camp, are there many people sick?"
   A: "There are some, but there are doctors and the International Red Cross helps give treatment. So we don't have much of a problem now. We are very happy to be here."
   "It was after dark before Vinai, Pravena and I met again on the dusty main road leading into Khao-I-Dang. Each of us had much to tell the other about what we had seen and heard during our brief visit to the camp.
   "We had only talked to a few of the thousands of Cambodian refugees who made their homes here. We had only been slightly exposed to what it was like just a few kilometers away in the dying country of Kampuchea.
   "I knew that I didn't really know what it was like to be a Cambodian refugee, to really know what it was like to see friends starve to death, to see my country destroyed and my family killed. As we started on our long journey back to Bangkok and Wat Pho, the West seemed very, very far away.
   "The Thai government now faces many difficulties. Thailand is ill prepared to support the estimated one million Cambodian refugees who will eventually cross the border. Poverty and drought, especially in Thailand's northeastern provinces, is already a major problem.
   "What is Thailand to do with these homeless people? Resettlement of the refugees within Thailand's borders is presently out of the question. The area where the refugees are now located is in the drier region of Thailand where the present population of Thai rice farmers already are plagued by a lack of water resources. Turning over vast sections of land, already owned and farmed by Thais, for the resettlement of Cambodians would pose far too many legal and economic problems.
   "Presently the Thai government will be able to offer aid and protection to these homeless people as long as the United Nations and international relief
   organizations continue to help support them by sending food, clothing, medical teams and supplies.
   "However, it remains the understanding of the Thai government authorities that this can only be a temporary arrangement. If the refugees are not accepted by third countries, they must eventually return to Cambodia.
   "But can they return?
   "The Vietnamese, possessing the strongest and most formidable military machine in Southeast Asia have not been able to dislodge the Khmer Rouge from their mountain strongholds. The Vietnamese control the cities, the rice fields and the day. Pol Pot controls the mountains and the night.
   "Neither side in this ethnic struggle among Communists has shown any inclination towards negotiating a peaceful settlement. The struggle will be a long and bitter one.
   "There is no end to death and destruction in Cambodia, not in the foreseeable future as long as this world's governments stand. Cambodia, once known as a serene land filled with contented smiling people has become a land of desolation where death is a way of life.
   "There is no more Cambodia. But there is hope for the younger generation if we concentrate on education for survival."

Thurston Leon Sexton

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Plain Truth MagazineMay 1980Vol 45, No.5ISSN 0032-0420