Sunday, June 22, 2014

Thailand’s military rulers and economy face challenges after Cambodian migrant workers left in their tens of thousands

Exodus chapter two: the fallout

Thailand’s military rulers and economy face challenges after Cambodian migrant workers left in their tens of thousands amid reports of violence and intimidation

Published: 22/06/2014 at 06:04 AM
Newspaper section: Spectrum

Pol Col Subin Boonlek, a stocky energetic man in his fifties, thought he had seen the worst of the frenetic exodus of Cambodian migrant workers across the Aranyaprathet border crossing.

on the move: With delays caused by the large number of people registering with the Immigration Police before crossing back to Cambodia, migrant workers were offered free food and entertainment. photos: chaiyot yongcharoenchai

According to Immigration records, about 78,000 Cambodians had passed through the checkpoint in the previous seven days. The Cambodian casino town of Poipet stands a mere 6km away from Aranyaprathet town in Sa Kaeo province.

“There won’t be many of them left at this point,” Pol Col Subin, superintendent of Aranyaprathet Police Station, told Spectrum last Tuesday afternoon as we waited at Lan Siam Min community hall, in reality a cavernous space with a concrete floor and a large tin canopy roof, for their arrival.

“Most of them travelled over the last week, especially last weekend.”

Pol Col Subin had phoned ahead to railway police who told him that only 74 Cambodians were travelling on the State Railway of Thailand train to Aranyaprathet, the last stop on the eastern line.

Lan Siam Min hall is located across the road from the local Immigration Police Detention Centre where the Cambodians would be taken for processing. Pol Col Subin was in for a surprise as the train pulled in to the station, located about 600m from the hall.

“They are coming!” people in front of the hall shouted as the train disgorged its human cargo. Pol Col Subin stepped from the shade of the hall into the main street to greet the workers. He was stunned by what he saw.

Accompanied by soldiers and police, at least 2,000 Cambodians slowly walked up the road to the hall, occupying all the traffic lanes. Every one of them carried a large plastic bag stuffed with their worldly possessions.

They carried television sets, fans, satellite dishes and DVD players. Some had sleeping mats slung over their shoulders, an indication they weren’t returning to work in Thailand anytime soon.

“I don’t know when or if I will return back to Thailand,” Wan, a 31-year-old Cambodian worker, told Spectrum. “I bought all these items with the money I earned, so I am taking them back home with me.”

Pol Col Subin’s eyes widened at the human convoy heading towards him but he didn’t utter a word. He headed back inside the hall and quickly started issuing crisp instructions to volunteers and staff who had prepared dinner boxes for the Cambodians’ journey home. This was the first main arrival of the day, there would be another at 8pm that night. “You better prepare more food,” Pol Col Subin said sternly.


Rong Kluea market is situated beside the Thai-Cambodian border and is a porous trading area between the two countries. Many Cambodians walk across the border to work at the sprawling market, which sells everything from clothes to toys, and go back the same day.

Besides being an important trading and transit point, Rong Kluea market is also the place where the rumour of the Thai military’s crackdown on Cambodian migrant workers, including unsubstantiated reports that nine had been killed, spread like wildfire.

a long line: Cambodian workers queue to 
register with the Immigration Police office
in the border province of Sa Kaeo. 
The resultant fears saw more than 100,000 Cambodian workers, both registered and unregistered, pack
up their belongings and flee their low-paid labouring jobs in Thailand. The military junta led by Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha which seized power in the May 22 coup has denied any coordinated plan to drive out the Cambodian workers and called for leaders in Phnom Penh to help stem the rumours, after Thai business operators complained of labour shortages.

Pi Ning, a Thai cook at a food stall in Rong Kluea market, told Spectrum Cambodians often took word-of-mouth stories seriously as they had limited access to information. “Some of us might listen to a rumour just for fun, but Cambodians really do take the information seriously,” she said.

Tula, a 31-year-old Cambodian who has worked illegally in Thailand for more than three years, said the talk of a military crackdown had been conveyed from home.

“My father called me up two weeks ago to tell me that the Thai military is going to clean up all illegal migrant workers,” he said. “He told me someone had told him that a few Cambodians had been killed already.”

Tula admitted he was fearful of the military because he had not been working in Thailand legally. He refused to detail how he entered the country, other than to say it was not through the immigration checkpoint at Aranyaprathet.

He said he felt intimidated by the military and decided the best option was to “follow the norm by going back to Cambodia, just like every Cambodian I know in Thailand”.

Man, 28, a Cambodian who works in the market, said that he heard from a friend that the rumour originated in Cambodia. He said the reasoning was that the withdrawal of Cambodian labour would damage the Thai economy and benefit former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in his battle against the junta and the Thai establishment. “They [Cambodians] who support Thaksin Shinawatra want to see the Thai economy fail,” he said. “So they spread the rumour in order to draw Cambodians who work in Thailand back.”

But there are other reports that the Thai military, in conjunction with local police, were actively involved in the intimidation and deportation of the Cambodians.


Interviews of returnees conducted by the Associated Press on the Poipet side of the border include tales of intimidation and disappearance. Also, Banteay Meanchey province governor Kor Samsarouet mid last week put the number of Cambodians to have gone home at closer to 190,000 workers, almost double the figure given by the Thais.

In Poipet, Sary Muy Huy, 43, said she had been waiting at the border checkpoint for three days, scanning the Thai trucks that arrive and discharge groups of returnees. She said her 25-year-old son went to work a month ago at a construction site in Sa Kaeo province in eastern Thailand.

She said that on the afternoon of June 9, he called to tell her, “Mum, I have been arrested by Thai soldiers.”

“Since then I have not heard any news from him,” she said.

Pen Thea has been waiting for two days for her 28-year-old son, who worked illegally at the same construction site in Sa Kaeo. She had also been working there, one among about 100 Cambodians, when a group of Thai soldiers arrived.

“When those soldiers arrived at our work site, they asked us if any Cambodians worked here. We replied, ‘Yeah, all of us are Cambodian,’ ” she said.

The soldiers asked them to stop working and told the women workers to pack their things for leaving Thailand, she said, and ordered the men to come with them. Her 28-year-old son and 42 other Cambodian men were loaded on to pickups and driven away. Pen Thea said she was too scared to ask the soldiers to let her son go because they looked tough.

“For the two days I have been here, I have seen many people, but not my son,” she said. “I am very worried for his safety. I cannot sleep or eat for the moment because I am thinking about his fate.”

Another woman who was returning home, 36-year-old Hem Pong, said she left Thailand voluntarily, but still met with trouble.

She said Thai officers near the border — she wasn’t sure if they were soldiers or military police — told her and those she was with that they would each have to have their thumbprints taken and pay 500 baht. She paid.

“If we didn’t pay them, we would be dragged off and sent to Bangkok,” said the mother of two young boys.

Fear motivated Seng Soeun, 27, who had been working in construction in Chon Buri province for three months. He said that on the previous Friday, his boss told him that it was no longer safe for illegal Cambodian workers. He said they were welcome to take the risk of staying, but he could not guarantee their security.

“When I heard his words, I was shocked, and thought I would be arrested if I continued to live in Thailand because I am an illegal worker,” he said, grasping the side of a Cambodian army truck that was taking him further along his journey home to the central Kampong Speu province.

He and some friends hid in a forest in Chon Buri for three nights, sleeping in hammocks.

“In the forest I could not sleep well because I was worried about running away if Thai solders or military police approached us,” he said. “When we heard dogs barking, all of us woke up and got ready to run.”

They slipped out to a market only at night or early morning to get food.

He said that even if he could do so legally, he had decided he would not return to Thailand.

“In Thailand, life is better than in Cambodia in terms of earning money,” he said. “But I am Cambodian, I cannot speak Thai, so my life is at risk.”

On the Thai side of the border, the Cambodian workers were telling a very different story. Dozens of workers interviewed by Spectrum all denied they had been forcibly deported by either the military or police. None of them said they had been sent to the border checkpoint in vehicles provided by the army.

All said they had travelled under their own steam by bus, minivan or train, covering all the travel expenses themselves.

“I chose the train only because it is very cheap. I paid 48 baht for the ride. There is a lot of room to store all of our belongings, unlike a bus or van,” said Mom, a 33-year-old Cambodian who also said she heard about the alleged military crackdown via a phone call from her family back home.


Irrespective of the veracity of the reports of killings and intimidation, and the source of the rumours, the junta’s governing body, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), had an international public relations disaster on its hands early last week.

By Tuesday the Cambodian ambassador to Thailand and a top foreign ministry official, after a meeting in Bangkok, were photographed shaking hands and agreeing to end the rumours of a crackdown.

But in Phnom Penh, Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng laid the blame squarely at the feet of the junta.

“I think that the current leaders of the Thai junta must be held accountable for what has happened,” he said, adding that eight people had been killed in traffic accidents linked to the exodus.

The NCPO spokesman finessed the message to one of “cleaning up” the illegal migrant worker market, citing concerns Thailand would be downgraded on the United States’ human-trafficking watchlist. No official mention was made of the largest illegal migrant worker group, people from Myanmar, most of whom come from ethnic states.

To allay fears, the junta said it was cleaning up the system and Cambodian workers would be welcomed back if they obtained travel documents and were approved to work in Thailand.

Pol Col Subin experienced the fear of the fleeing Cambodians firsthand and set up his own campaign to quell the rumours. He said when the workers first started to stream into Aranyaprathet they were exhausted, scared and hungry.

“It broke my heart to see how they struggled and how scared they were,” he said. “Last week, I saw a mother with two children walk down from the train. Both children were crying because they were hungry. All she could afford was a meatball that three of them had to share.”

Last Sunday, he used local radio to make a plea for people to donate food, water and money. He says he received a good response from the public.

With help from the local municipality, police and volunteers, mini concerts and free buffets were organised for Cambodian returnees arriving in Aranyaprathet. While they waited to be registered with the immigration police, they were also given free meals or packed meals for the trip back home.

Pol Col Teerachai Dedkad, superintendent of Sa Kaeo Immigration Police, told Spectrum he had told his subordinates to treat everyone with respect “as if they are our brothers and sisters”.

Pol Col Teerachai said most of them feared arrest because they had entered Thailand illegally and would be fined. However, he said none were fined but all were documented for future reference. “All we do is collect their fingerprints and their names,” he said. “Then we provide them free transportation to take them to Poipet in Cambodia.”

Once they are registered, the workers are taken in police trucks and 10-wheel vehicles across the border without having to make another stop at the immigration checkpoint. On the other side the Cambodian army transports them in trucks to their home districts.

Sgt Maj Saman Ponthisaeng, from the intelligence section of Internal Security Operations Command in Sa Kaeo, repeated that the military has no policy to get rid of migrant workers in Thailand. He described the situation as a “complete misunderstanding”.

“We do not have any policy to clear out any illegal migrant workers,” he told Spectrum. “The only policy we received from the NCPO is to make illegal migrant workers legal. All we want to do is to keep everything in order.”

He said the NCPO had requested employers nationwide to submit the names of illegal migrant workers for registration. Sgt Maj Saman said that the NCPO wanted to ensure that weapons smuggling, human trafficking and other illegal operations would not take place inside Thailand.

He said migrant workers were important to Thailand’s labour force and the military was working on ways to get the Cambodians to return.


Pao, 22, earns at least 12,000 baht a month selling clothes at a Bangkok shop. There is no way she can make similar money in Cambodia.

left behind: Half the 60 Cambodian workers
who were living here while building a housing
estate in Chon Buri left last week after rumours
of a crackdown on illegal migrants.
photo: nanchanok wongsamuth
“I’m only going home because my sister, who works with me, is worried about the situation and wants
to go back. I will wait for a week then I will consider going back to Bangkok to work,” Pao said.

But returning to Thailand won’t be that easy due to the financial burden and time constraints of obtaining travel documents in Cambodia.

Sgt Maj Saman said the cost of obtaining a Cambodian passport is the equivalent of more than 10,000 baht.

“I believe there will still be Cambodians who come back in to work in Thailand illegally,” he admitted. “I don’t blame them. I would do the same if I were them.”

One police officer at the Aranyaprathet immigration checkpoint said Cambodians who wish to return to work legally will have to register with the labour office, and apply for a work permit and a visa.

Another option is to get a border pass which allows them to stay as a visitor for seven days, which restricts travel no further than Prachin Buri province, 145km from the border. There is also a 24-hour border pass, which allows Cambodians to come in and out of the Rong Gluea market area. Both types of border pass are free, but are meant for tourism purposes only.

Sgt Maj Saman said the main reason the NCPO came up with the policy was to stop migrant workers being exploited by human traffickers.

The traffickers, who advertise themselves as “job hunters’’ and “work agents”, usually send buses across at Khok Sung subdistrict in Aranyaprathet and Ta Pra Ya district of Sa Kaeo to collect the illegal workers. He said there are limited numbers of Isoc officers in these areas and border patrol police were usually asked to help control the trafficking.

“They [the traffickers] will charge 2,300 baht, 2,500 baht and 3,000 baht for travel arrangements to take them to work,” he said. “Compared with what they have to pay to get a passport and make themselves legal, this seems like a better deal.”

Sgt Maj Saman also explained the discrepancy between the number of Cambodians reported leaving Thailand and the number of reported arrivals on the Poipet side.

“So far it has been close to 80,000 Cambodian workers leaving Thailand, but the number recorded by Cambodia is double that,” he said. “The reason is because many of them chose to go out by the border patrol police area in Khok Sung where they pay 50 to 100 baht each to pass. This usually happens at night-time.”


Uncle Jang owns a sugar cane plantation in Sa Kaeo and his business is on hold until the Cambodian workers return.

“No Thai will accept 300 baht a day to work hard all day in the field any more,” said Uncle Jang. “I have rice fields as well and May to October is the growing season. I hope they come back soon.”

Kong, a housing estate developer in Chon Buri province, said half of his Cambodian workers fled his construction site last Saturday night without giving prior notice. Usually payments of 4,500-5,000 baht are given to them every two weeks, but 30 of his workers hired agents to pick them up even before receiving their salary.

“Migrant workers have always been afraid of the police, who often extort money from them. When rumours of soldiers came, they [migrant workers] were even more afraid,” said Kong, who asked not to be named because he employs illegal workers.

Last week as word spread that soldiers were nearby, Kong gave all his workers half a day off. But it turned out there was no truth to the rumour. Sensing fear among his workers, Kong gathered all 60 of them in front of his office to explain the situation. He had spoken with the police, who told him that they had received a letter from the NCPO saying that the military has no policy of cracking down on migrant workers and that the police are free to arrest anyone threatening them. Two days later, half of his employees left.

Kong’s housing estate has 110 houses, with a further 50 currently under construction. It takes five to six months to build a house, but with the labour shortage Kong expects delays and the time to blow out to about eight months. In his area, migrant workers in the construction sector are mostly Cambodian.

“I explain to my customers that their houses will be delayed, but whether or not they understand is another thing,” he said, adding that customers have the right to ask for their deposits back if the houses are not completed on time.
crammed in: Thai authorities provided registered
workers with free transportation over the border
to Poipet in Cambodia.
photo : chaiyot yongcharoenchai

Most of the 30 workers who decided to stay have worked with Kong for more than a year and seem to have no concern whatsoever about the rumoured crackdown, which they say originated from Cambodia.

Soy Wan Nee said his family called to ask about the situation, but he told them not to worry.

“Cambodians are afraid of and dislike [Cambodian Prime Minister] Hun Sen because he favours only those close to him,” said Soy Wan Nee, who has worked for Kong for a year and a half. “Even if I go home, I won’t have anything to do, and I don’t believe [the Cambodian government] will help me find a job, because they never help us.”

The Labour Ministry’s Employment Department says there are currently 2.23 million legal migrant workers in Thailand — 1.74 million Myanmar nationals, 95,888 from Laos and 395,356 from Cambodia. Of the total, about 1.8 million workers had entered Thailand illegally previously but later went through nationality verification and received permission to live and work here temporarily. The Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) estimates there are more than 900,000 illegal workers in the Kingdom.

Late last week, four officials from the Labour Ministry were moved in a shake-up by the NCPO, two to inactive posts in another ministry for their role in the fiasco. Those transferred to the Prime Minister’s Office had been the director-general of the Employment Department and the head of the office administering foreign workers.

Korrakod Padungjitt, deputy chairman of the iron and steel club of the Federation of Thai Industries, said the mass movement of Cambodian workers will have an immediate impact on businesses in Bangkok and the eastern region of Thailand, especially the fishery, agricultural and small-scale construction sectors in Chanthaburi, Trat, Rayong and Chon Buri.

“These workers come together with their families and neighbours, so businesses that employ Cambodians will automatically have to cease all activities,” he said. “If you think it’s hard to find a replacement for a maid, think how hard it is to replace 10-20 workers.”

Mr Korrakod said in the long term, Cambodian workers would return as they prefer to work in Thailand where the minimum wage of 300 baht per day is twice what they could earn in their home country. He said the time is right to work on a suitable policy for migrant labour, whether it is registration or removing the influence of brokers in the trade.

Former finance minister Thirachai Phuvanatnaranubala has also spoken of the need to encourage the fleeing Cambodian migrant workers to return to Thailand, warning that the economy would be severely affected the longer they stayed away.

But a source from an institute under the Industry Ministry said the effects would be short-term, as a similar situation occurred in 2012 when tens of thousands of Myanmar workers fled the country after relatives urged them to escape possible floods.

He said Cambodians are the second-largest migrant group employed in the construction sector after workers from Myanmar.

“It happens every year that in the dry season, they will do construction work in Thailand and return to their country in the rainy season to work in the agricultural sector,” said the source, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorised to speak publicly on this issue. The construction sector employed 2.3-2.4 million workers last year, with government figures estimating the number of migrant workers at more than 100,000, although the source said the figure is much higher. Thailand faces a shortage of 400,000-500,000 construction workers, he said.

Sgt Maj Saman said while it is true the NCPO is trying to keep everything under control, they are not being overly strict either. “The Cambodian workers can come back to work even though they don’t have any travel documents yet. We are willing to compromise to make everyone feel comfortable coming back here.”


Akkharaphong Khamkhun, a lecturer at Thammasat University’s Southeast Asian Studies Programme, offered several theories behind the mass movement of Cambodian workers, including the NCPO’s sour relationship with the Cambodian government.

Jakrapob Penkair, a fugitive red-shirt co-leader, last week said there is no resistance movement flowering in Cambodia as Phnom Penh comes under increasing pressure via Thai diplomatic channels.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has a strong relationship with Thaksin, but Cambodia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry was quick to deny earlier this month that Mr Jakrapob was in the country.

Several sources told Spectrum that the NCPO threatened to deport Cambodian workers back to their country if Cambodia did not extradite wanted fugitives. News then spread that the military would perform a crackdown on the workers, including rumours that a few were shot dead.

Mr Akkharaphong said junta leader Gen Prayuth was also concerned that the red shirts have hired some Cambodian “fighters” to help them.

But the issue, he said, stems from a long history of nationalism built into Thailand’s education system, which portrays Cambodians as having “forked tongues”.

In Thailand, calling someone with a forked tongue is equal to calling them a monitor lizard. The local word for a monitor lizard, hia, is used as an insulting word for bad and evil things, including evil people.

“They [authorities at that time] had to create a public enemy, and Cambodia was the perfect lamb to be slaughtered,” he said. “Soldiers view neighbouring countries as a threat, and this is normal because Thailand’s history was written during the age of imperialism. Now our country is independent, but our curriculum is still the same.”

In the same way that many Thais despise the Myanmar as the two have been historic enemies, Mr Akkharaphong said Cambodians have always had animosity towards Thailand due to historical invasions by Siam.

But he doubted the situation would worsen to the point that the Thai army wages a war with Cambodian troops.

“In 2011, Gen Prayuth said the army is ready to go to war with Cambodia if the government orders them to do so,” Mr Akkharaphong said. “There is currently no resistance from either the red shirts or Thaksin, so the army will stay still. But if the other side shows resistance, I think the army will react strongly.

“I’m giving them [the NCPO] six months. If the situation still says the same, then [Gen Prayuth] is no different from a gangster with a gun,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mr Jakrapob said Cambodians have always considered Thai soldiers and the elite as enemies, while giving support to what he calls “the democratic movement”.

“The military dictatorship is currently taking revenge on Cambodia because they are threatened that Cambodian leaders express sympathy towards pro-democracy Thais,” he told Spectrum. “But the revenge has taken a toll on workers who are powerless. This shows the wretchedness of Thai soldiers, and Thais who have a heart should be ashamed.”

Viroj Na Ranong, a research director at the TDRI think-tank, said the middle class and those not dependent on migrant labour tend to see foreign workers as a threat to national security without actually realising that Thailand is increasingly dependent on them. The NCPO, he said, also holds a similar view. “Our economy will be disastrous because of this,” he said.

With a declining fertility rate, it is certain that Thailand will increasingly depend on foreign workers if the economy is still in need of manual labour, Mr Viroj said.

Original source can be found here.

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