In the immediate aftermath of the coup, CPP soldiers and police began searching the homes of opposition parliamentarians as well as the luxury Sofitel Cambodiana hotel, where many had sought refuge. For many parliamentarians the days that followed meant sleeping in different houses each night, never traveling alone, and making frantic efforts to secure visas and plane tickets for themselves and their families. Although consisting in the main of FUNCINPEC members, their ranks also included parliamentarians from the KNP and the Son Soubert-led faction of the BLDP.

A few parliamentarians appear to have been under particularly grave danger. Among them was Kem Sokha, a BLDP member and head of the Human Rights Commission in the National Assembly. Kem Sokha was already staying with members of the international community in Phnom Penh when his brother informed him on July 7 that CPP forces were deployed outside his house.22 Ahmad Yahya, a FUNCINPEC member and an outspoken proponent of human rights, told Human Rights Watch that he had been issued an arrest warrant on July 5 on charges of harboring opposition troops.23

Within a week of the coup, these two and nearly two dozen other opposition parliamentarians had fled by plane to Bangkok. Most arrived with several family members and limited savings. Their numbers were augmented over the ensuing weeks by lower-level officials and opposition journalists. As of this writing, about 400 Cambodians have filed applications for refugee certification with the UNHCR in Bangkok. While the UNHCR has begun to expedite processing of their applications for refugee certification, finding countries of refuge remains for most an elusive goal, an issue that will be discussed at greater length below.

The greatest human tragedy stemming from the coup may be the swelling refugee population on the country's northwestern border with Thailand. Some 20,000 Cambodian civilians fled fighting between FUNCINPEC and CPP forces at Samrong, twenty miles south of the Thai border, during the third week of July. Most were clustered at the FUNCINPEC-held border town of O'Smach. Aid workers, representing the UNHCR, the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO), and the private relief agencies Médecins sans Frontières and Food for the Hungry, were permitted to visit the refugee camps for the first time on July 26. At O'Smach, they found an acute shortage of food supplies and mounting cases of malaria and diarrhea.24 Relief workers also found that among the displaced civilians were a significant number of opposition members who had fled to the royalist stronghold because they feared persecution.25 On August 18, an estimated 30,000 civilians fled across the border to Thailand, after CPP forces entered the outskirts of O'Smach. While Thai military authorities facilitated their movement, Prime MinisterChavalit Yongchaiyudh said in Bangkok that his government would not accord the Cambodians refugee status and would send them back across the border once the fighting subsided.26

On August 1, 6,000 to 7,000 other refugees streamed across the border to the Thai province of Sa Kaew, amid heavy rocket and mortar fire near the town of Poipet. They were joined by over 350 FUNCINPEC soldiers, whom Thai authorities subsequently disarmed. The majority of the refugees returned to Cambodia, about half doing so immediately after the fighting subsided and the other half on August 5, after receiving assurances from Cambodian officials that they would be safe and being provided with food supplies from the Thai government and voluntary agencies. However, at least 410 chose to remain behind, including family members of FUNCINPEC troops and officials, many of whom had fled to the Poipet area from other parts of Cambodia.27

22 Human Rights Watch interview with Kem Sokha, New York, August 8, 1997.

23 Human Rights Watch interview with Ahmad Yahya, Bangkok, July 13, 1997.

24 Jiraporn Wongpaithoon, "Cambodia Allows Aid to Refugees," Associated Press, July 26, 1997.

25 Memorandum to Human Rights Watch from a private relief agency official in Thailand, August 13, 1997.

26 "Cambodians Flee to Safety in Thailand Ahead of Feared New Onslaught," Agence France-Presse, August 19, 1997.

27 "More than 3,000 Refugees Return Home from Thailand," Agence France-Presse, August 7, 1997.