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Bamboo Wall

Map Khmer Rouge - 1980sIn contrast to Pol Pot's radical, doctrinaire approach to economic development, Heng Samrin and the leaders of the Kampuchean (or Khmer) National United Front for National Salvation (KNUFNS), the umbrella group of anti-Pol Pot forces sponsored by Hanoi, sought to rally public support by formulating a policy that would be pragmatic, realistic, and flexible. In an eleven-point program promulgated shortly before the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, the front articulated the economic guidelines that would mark its tenure in power. These guidelines advocated a gradual transformation to socialism; a "planned economy with markets"; the restoration of banks, of currency, and of trade; and the abolition of forced labor.

But so-called "Voluntary" work soon assumed particularly brutal proportions in Cambodia after the Vietnamese invasion. With the installation of the Heng Samrin regime, tens of thousands of students, civil servants, and employees were "volunteered" for two months of work in the fields, combined with political indoctrination to enlighten the peasants about the advantages of the new collective form of labor being introduced in the villages, known as Solidarity Production Teams (SPT). Large numbers of Cambodian civilians were also recruited after 1979 on a "voluntary basis," i.e., without pay, to work under Vietnamese army supervision on military construction projects.

In January 1979, an invasion by Vietnamese forces drove the Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh into the countryside, and sparked a 13-year civil war. Since Cambodia was surrounded on its other borders by Vietnam and Laos, Thailand was the only front along which such external aid could reach the Khmer Rouge.Thai military and government authorities repeatedly denied any involvement or connivance in the shipment of military hardware.

In the 1980s Thailand was not so much supporting the Khmer Rouge as protecting it. Aid from China reached the Khmer Rouge from Thailand. Such military supplies were brought in by boat and offloaded at Hat Lek or in other places in Chanthaburi or Trat provinces, and then moved to the border.

Since the mid-1970s, more than 500,000 Cambodians had fled into Thailand, first in response to the reign of the Khmer Rouge and later to escape the 1978 Vietnamese invasion and subsequent war with Cambodian resistance fighters. It is estimated that as of 1991 more than 350,000 refugees and displaced persons remained in the border camps.

Insurgent factions at the Thai-Cambodian Border utilized the many refugee camps as sources of medical supply, food, and safe haven for their families. The Khmer Rouge would relocate camps from the Thai-Cambodia border into more obscure, mountainous regions, making them more suitable as bases from which to launch insurrection. In the early 1990s, unrepentant Khmer Rouge forces were still getting assistance from across the border in Thailand.

After the 1984-85 dry season offensive. the Vietnamese did not withdraw from the area but continued their attacks against resistance forces and civilian camps. As a result, Cambodians were forced into Thailand, where they were granted temporary asylum until conditions inside Cambodia improved sufficiently to permit their return. The dry season offensive of 1984-1985 destroyed the major camps of the resistance located in the Thai border areas.

To reinforce this victory, the Vietnamse sought to seal the country against infiltration by the guerrillas and prevent the population from fleeing to the border. At the beginning of 1984, the Vietnamese leadership decided to seal the Thai border. The Vietnamese Communist Party's central committee decided in early 1984 to build a "defense line" some eight hundred kilometers long. This series of defensive fortifications along the Thai border was designed to prevent resistance infiltration.

The decision to build the "bamboo wall" was never publicly announced. But as early as July 1984 it was announced that Cambodians must go to the border for several months a year, in regions mined and highly infected by malaria. Volunteer work on defense projects became a nightmare for countless Khmers, beginning in July 1984, when the Vietnamese began building the so-called "Bamboo Wall," Hundreds of thousands of Khmers were recruited and sent to the border for periods of three to six months.

The requisitioning of civilians started in September 1984. Two or three times a year contingents of so-called "volunteer" workers were recruited for periods ranging from three to six months. A quota was set by the central government for each province, in proportion to the local population. The provinces determined the quotas for each district, the districts doing the same for the communes and the communes for the villages. For the whole country, each departure gathered an average of 100,000 to 120,000 persons.

Work on what the Cambodians called the "K-5" project was essentially slave labor, and conditions in the malaria-infested and heavily mined border regions were appalling and dangerous. A minimum of 50,000 "volunteers" were estimated to have succumbed to yellow fever alone by the end of 1986, prompting one Western observer to refer to the campaign as the "new genocide."

The construction from 1984 was implemented in several steps. The first task was clearing a strip of land three to four kilometers wide along the border, through forests and mountains. Next, constructoin work included excavating trenches, building dams, setting up bamboo fences lined with barbed wire and mine fields. Finally, a strategic road was opened running along the "wall", to convey troops and ammunition and monitor the frontier.

According to one estimate, at least one million people participated in the labor from September 1984 to end of 1986. The ninth contingent left for the border in October 1986. Each contingent numbered an average of 120,000 persons. The mortality rate from malaria amounted to around 5%, so there would have been a minimum of 50,000 dead from malaria alone during this period.

The intention was to seal the border with Thailand by a combination of deforestation, dykes, canals, strategic fences, and minefields. The construction itself went more slowly than planned, and, three years after the work started, only a few sections were completed.





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