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Famed Cambodian refugee camp reopens as educational centre

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Famed Cambodian refugee camp reopens as educational centre

Thailand's Khao I Dang camp offers lessons in life-saving coordination during the Cambodian exodus and responsibility-sharing to help rebuild refugees' lives.
31 May 2016
Aerial view of Khao I Dang camp, 1983.

SAKAEO, Thailand, May 31 – A famed former camp that housed tens of thousands of Cambodian refugees for more than a decade has now reopened as an educational centre, highlighting the response to the Indochinese refugee crisis.

Khao I Dang camp opened in 1979, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and became one of the most enduring refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodia border. At its peak, the huge compound of bamboo and thatched houses sheltered nearly 140,000 refugees. It closed in 1993.

Inaugurated on Monday (May 30), the Learning Centre for the History of Khao I Dang uses photographs, videos and text to pay tribute to an important waypoint in the Cambodian exodus and an enduring symbol of the international humanitarian response to the crisis.

“Khao I Dang offers a poignant reminder… of the Indochinese refugee crisis."

“Khao I Dang offers a poignant reminder of Thai hospitality and responsibility-sharing by the international community at the height of the Indochinese refugee crisis,” said James Lynch, UNHCR’s Regional Representative for South-East Asia.

“Working with Government institutions, UN sister agencies and NGOs, we were able to help refugees rebuild their lives after the ordeals they had been through,” he added.

The UN Refugee Agency managed Khao I Dang together with the Thai authorities for 14 years, looking after construction, camp logistics, food, water and protection. More than 30 voluntary agencies including the International Committee of the Red Cross, International Rescue Committee, American Refugee Committee, SOS and Care provided medical care, education, skills training and other services.

An exhibition at the Khao I Dang learning centre in Thailand showcases the international humanitarian response to the Cambodian refugee exodus that started in the 1970s.

An estimated 200,000 refugees passed though the camp – some of them returning to Cambodia when the situation improved, others resettling to third countries including Australia, France and the United States.

Today a calm pond and surrounding forest cover an area where thatched huts used to sprawl across more than 2.3 square kilometres in the shadow of I Dang Mountain. The new centre is supported by Thailand’s Forestry Department, which manages the current site, as well as ICRC and UNHCR.

In addition to an indoor exhibit, there are also signs around the compound marking the former site of ICRC’s surgical hospital, and a partially completed replica of the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia, that was left behind when artist Yary Livan returned to Cambodia in 1992. He later moved to the United States, and was awarded the 2015 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship by President Barack Obama.

"I hope we can develop this place into an ecological tourist spot that can attract young people to learn about the refugee crisis."

Speaking at the opening ceremony, Sakaeo Governor Phakharathon Thianchai mused that he was just a 17-year-old student when the camp opened.

“I knew about the refugees, and sometimes even heard gunfire across the border,” he recalled. “Although more than 30 years have passed, I’m still impressed by the support and commitment of the humanitarian response. I hope we can develop this place into an ecological tourist spot that can attract young people to learn about the refugee crisis and how different actors worked together to resolve it.”

Thailand has hosted more than 1 million refugees from the region since the mid-1970s. Some 106,000 Myanmar refugees are currently living in nine camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border.