By the end of Wednesday, June 25, at least 246,000 Cambodians had fled Thailand in just 18 days, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Most travelled back across the Thai border at Aranya Prathet, past the garish no-man’s land of casinos separating the two countries and on to a roundabout a few yards inside the Cambodian town of Poipet. Some came voluntarily in crammed, open-topped trucks. Others stood caged up in Thai border police vans after their arrest and deportation for illegal entry. Almost all carried meager possessions.
Already Southeast Asia’s largest mass international migration since the end of the Indochina wars in the 1970s, there are still more questions than answers as to why so many Cambodians have fled Thailand. Following the May 22 coup in Bangkok, could Thailand’s ruling military junta be systematically targeting undocumented Cambodians due to recent bad blood with Phnom Penh?
At a press conference in Phnom Penh on Friday, rights group ADHOC presented Cambodian migrant witnesses who spoke of friends and relatives injured and killed because of brutality by Thailand’s military. So far, ADHOC has documented up to nine Cambodian migrants who have been killed since the exodus began on June 7, including one case in which Thai soldiers reportedly shot the tires of vans carrying returnees, causing a crash, injuries, and a handful of fatalities, says organization President Thun Saray.
“They should have asked migrant workers to leave voluntarily,” he said by telephone from Phnom Penh. “But according to our observations they didn’t do this. They didn’t do it in a civilized way.”
On June 6, a day before the exodus started, Thai army spokeswoman Sirichan Ngathong reportedly said illegal migrant workers “will be arrested and deported.” Since then the military government has denied a crackdown and vehemently rejected reports of violence.
“I have insisted to [the Cambodian ambassador] that the rumors are unfounded,” Sihasak Phuangketkeow, acting foreign minister under the military government, told Thailand’s English-language daily The Nation last week.
Most observers, including ADHOC’s Thun Saray, say there is no doubt the Thai military has a new policy to force out as many as two million illegal migrant workers in the country. But opinions remain divided on whether Cambodians are the main target.
Some aid workers, rights researchers, labor officials, and politicians on both sides of the border told The Diplomat they suspected Thailand’s military was deliberately targeting Cambodians due to sour bilateral relations in recent years. Few would go on the record, however.
Jakrapob Penkair, an exiled former aide to ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, said he believed Thailand’s military government is punishing Cambodians because Thai dissidents have been welcomed across the border, especially since last month’s coup.
On June 7, the same day as the migrant exodus started, Thailand’s military government said it had received assurances from the Cambodian Ambassador You Aye that Phnom Penh would not house opponents of the junta after Jakrapob announced plans for an anti-military group in exile.
Former Pheu Thai leader and interior minister Jarupong Raungsuwan was among a number of ex-ruling party members and dissidents who had already fled to Cambodia. On Tuesday, he announced – from an unknown location – his leadership of the first official anti-junta group in exile, the Organization of Free Thais for Human Rights and Democracy.
Jakrapob, the spokesman of the group, has remained a guest of Hun Sen since fleeing army threats of lèse-majesté charges in 2009, three years after he founded the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, the main Red Shirt faction that opposed the previous Thai coup in September, 2006.
“I believe the sudden migration of Cambodian workers is a result of the Thai junta and their aristocratic network’s sense of revenge,” Jakrapob said by email from London.
There are likely fears within the junta that Cambodia could harbor a Thai government in exile, said Paul Chambers, a researcher on the Thai military at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs, affiliated with Chiang Mai University. Sympathy for Thaksin runs deep in Phnom Penh.
In 2010, Hun Sen appointed Thailand’s exiled billionaire tycoon an economic advisor in a move perceived as deliberately provocative towards the then government of Abhisit Vejjajiva, the man eventually installed as prime minister after the 2006 coup against Thaksin. At the time, Abhisit and Hun Sen were in furious disagreement over Preah Vihear temple, a sovereignty dispute that dates back to the early 20th century. In November, the International Court of Justice ruled in favor of Cambodia on the land around and below the temple.
“The arch-royalist faction currently leading the Thai military holds a grudge against Hun Sen,” said Chambers. “I think there is some embedded anti-Cambodian discrimination among Thai military elements.”
But does this extend to a systematic and as yet secret policy to use violence against illegal Cambodians, or perhaps isolated cases of heavy-handedness by individual Thai soldiers? Kanchana Di-ut, program director of the Thailand-based Myanmar migrant NGO the MAP Foundation, is among those who argues a campaign against Cambodians is an illusion.
There are an estimated half a million-plus illegal Myanmar migrants in Thailand, about double the number of Cambodians (although estimates of the number of Cambodians have been revised upwards in the wake of the recent exodus). If the junta’s crackdown on Cambodian migrants was no different to that against Myanmar nationals then reports of violence against the latter group would be expected to be far more common. However, the very tangible exodus – mainly through one checkpoint at Poipet – has created a media focus on the Cambodian situation. Many international news agencies have made no mention of a crackdown also involving Myanmar migrants. But reports in Myanmar have.
On June 12, Democratic Voice of Burma reported a raid on an illegal Myanmar settlement in Chiang Mai involving 100 Thai security police using loudspeakers. Three days later, Yangon-based Eleven Media reported that 163 illegal Myanmar workers had been arrested in Thailand in the previous 12 days during combined operations by the military, immigration officials, and border security. Some undocumented Myanmar workers had hidden in farms and remote buildings.
“Myanmar migrants are facing the same situation [as Cambodians],” said Kanchana.
Most Cambodian migrants in Poipet spoke of a brother, distant relative or friend who had been treated poorly, or worse. On Sunday, none could be found who had themselves received treatment any worse than spending six or seven hours crammed into a lorry.
Cambodian migrants were already jumpy after the leader of rallies against the former Yingluck Shinawatra government, Suthep Thaugsuban, claimed “without evidence” that Cambodians were among Red Shirt ranks, said Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson.
Rumors of a crackdown on migrants by the new military government then spread quickly among Cambodian migrants prompting many to flee as the exodus gained critical mass, MAP, ADHOC and HRW told The Diplomat. The Cambodian government also slashed the price of passports on Friday from $135 to $4, spurring another surge in returnees over the weekend – 6,000 poured through Poipet alone on Sunday, said the IOM’s Cambodia Project Officer Brett Dickson.
By contrast, illegal Myanmar migrants have taken their usual course of action ahead of all-to-common raids – they have laid low, said MAP’s Kanchana.
Cambodians have a lot more to go back to in general. Although employment opportunities remain scarce in rural areas, most have families and homes.
By contrast, Myanmar’s border with Thailand remains dotted with landmines following decades of civil war. Schools and hospitals are non-existent in places like Karen state and villages have all but disappeared with thousands of families still holed up in a string of refugee camps on the Thai side of the border. In northern Kachin state and parts of Shan state which borders Thailand, civil conflict rumbles.
“Traveling back home for Cambodians is much easier compared to Myanmar workers,” said Kanchana.
As rights investigators continue to gather evidence on the crackdown in Thailand, speculation continues over why the junta has targeted the millions of poorly paid workers that do the country’s lowliest jobs.
Following a recent investigation by The Guardian into slave-like conditions for many in the shrimping industry, and last week’s decision by the U.S. to downgrade Thailand to the lowest tier on human-trafficking – which had been expected – the junta decided enough was enough, said Kan Yuenyong, director of the economic think-tank Siam Intelligence Unit.
The crackdown on illegal migrants fits into a wider program to eradicate Thailand’s grey markets, which Kan estimated makes up to 50 percent of the country’s overall economic activity. The military has already busted mafia-like taxi cartels in the holiday resort of Phuket and there have been reports that street vendors – ubiquitous but unregulated across Thailand – will be next.
“This is a part of the economy that no-one talked about,” said Kan.
Answerable to their electorate and shackled by pervasive corruption on the ground, successive Thai governments have failed to put a dent in the grey economy. But the new military administration views cleaning up these increasingly embarrassing industries as the lesser of two evils, said Kan.
“This will create a short-term problem for the Thai economy.” But control of cartels, illegal industries and undocumented migrant activity will reassert control over industries which secretly generate revenues to trade arms and other activities that challenge state authority, he added.
There are already signs the junta’s recent harsh crackdown on illegal migrants could produce long-term results. On Saturday, Thailand’s military authorities held a meeting with migrant groups in Chiang Mai where officials spoke of plans for a new policy to document all foreign workers and issue them with health cards, said Kanchana whose MAP Foundation took part.
Two days earlier, pressure from Thai authorities prompted Cambodia to announce a new one-stop shop to document migrants in Poipet opening next month. And with new, cheaper passports, already Cambodians are trickling back into Thailand, noted Tun Sophorn, the International Labor Organization’s national coordinator in Phnom Penh.
“It seems that these [hundreds of thousands of] workers will try to return to work in Thailand the legal way,” he said.
Steve Finch is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, TIME, The Independent, Toronto Star and Bangkok Post among others.