Guest Workers Flee Thai Military Coup

No one knows where the rumors started, but they traveled fast among Thailand’s community of undocumented Cambodian laborers.

BANGKOK—No one knows where the rumors started, but they traveled fast among Thailand’s community of undocumented Cambodian laborers. In the aftermath of the Thai military coup, they said, a crackdown was coming. Worried mothers in Cambodia phoned their children across the border: Come home now.

On May 22, the Thai military seized control of an unstable country with the stated goal of returning the nation to democracy after 15 months. But the army also stifled information by outlawing political assembly and detaining more than 300 journalists, activists and professors. The local media have been pressured or shut down.

While Western countries denounced the coup and issued alarming travel advisories, the new Thai military government, the National Council for Peace and Order, began a ubiquitous and, in many ways, convincing public relations push. Last week, the junta’s spokesman, a good-humored army colonel named Werachon Sukondhapatipak, spoke to foreign journalists in Bangkok. “This might sound weird to you, but we are not destroying democracy, we are strengthening democracy,” he said.

Avoiding the word coup, he said the “military intervention” rescued Thailand from street protests that could have spiraled into civil war. Indeed, since November at least 28 people have died in violent clashes between the country’s opposition political movements on the streets of the capital. Since martial law was imposed, the violence has ceased.

Yet the country’s Cambodians have not felt more secure. More than 200,000 Cambodian migrant laborers and their families have fled, according to the International Organization for Migration. If estimates are correct, it’s possible that virtually every undocumented Cambodian has left Thailand.

“There are 120,000 people [as of June 14] who have fled the country in eight days, taking all their meager possessions with them, gathering up themselves and their families,” said IOM spokesman Joe Lowry. “There’s got to be a pretty urgent, compelling reason for them to move all at once. But that’s not yet been communicated in Thailand.”

In early June, a rumor circulated in the Cambodian community that any illegal migrant still in Thailand by August would be shot dead, The Phnom Penh Post reported. On June 13, the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC) lent the rumor credibility, saying it received “credible witness accounts” that Thai soldiers had killed nine Cambodian migrants and had beaten others.

I pressed the CHRAC’s executive director, Suon Bunsak, for details about those witness accounts. He said the rumors came from migrants crossing the border, who heard them from family members back in Cambodia, who heard them from someone else. “Everybody knows about this,” he said. Perhaps. But to date, there’s no evidence of any killings.

Still, news reports of harassment of foreign workers continue, especially outside Bangkok. On Monday, in the northern city of Chiang Mai, the military arrested 104 mostly undocumented immigrants from Myanmar, who were detained briefly and released. And some Cambodians who self-deported say they did so after being extorted by authorities.

The National Council for Peace and Order, meanwhile, has vigorously denied violating any human rights. In one of its executive decrees, the government said it “does not have any policy to accelerate arrests and crackdowns of foreign workers.” And it advised the international press not to perpetuate the rumors about beatings and killings, which “are not accurate.”

The government has acknowledged that rumors played a role in the mass migration but offered other explanations. More than 55,000 Cambodians, for example, have expiring employment contracts in Thailand and needed to return home. “Some also went back home to grow crops during the rainy season,” the government said. (Activists confirmed that these reasons are true in some cases.)

Even as it denied a forced migration, the military deployed trucks to transport Cambodians to the main border crossing at the Cambodian city of Poipet. There, waves of Cambodians carrying no luggage spilled off the backs of trucks, filed through immigration and were loaded onto the backs of Cambodian military trucks, which drove them to provincial capitals throughout the country. Thousands waited in small, muddy areas, unprepared for a mass exodus. Only a few stayed overnight under the shelter of a nearby market. The bathrooms, Lowry said, were clean.

“There would’ve been a serious humanitarian situation on the border if Cambodia hadn’t reacted promptly and sent [between 100 and 200] military trucks,” he said.

By Wednesday the flood of migrants had slowed, and two economies braced for the shockwave.

With its workforce lighter, Thai farm owners and construction companies must replace thousands of employees. The nearly 2 million workers from Myanmar and Laos will help make it an easy adjustment.

Economically weaker Cambodia, however, is now short of millions of dollars in remittances and has a surplus of able-bodied laborers with nothing to do. As it is, more than 80 percent of the workers there have jobs that pay very little, or they work for their families earning nothing at all, the International Labour Organization says.

Nonetheless, the Labor Ministry wants to seize an opportunity to keep its citizens in the country. Vocational training centers are popping up around the country. But Suon, of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, said working conditions in Cambodia are poor, with long hours and low wages. They’ll be back in Thailand, he said, “when the situation is better.”