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Bordering on despair

A man walks past the deserted O’Smach international border checkpoint in Oddar Meanchey province last week
A man walks past the deserted O’Smach international border checkpoint in Oddar Meanchey province last week. The checkpoint has been quiet since the Thai military coup last month. Heng Chivoan

Bordering on despair

In the wake of last month’s Thai military coup, an uneasy quiet has fallen over official checkpoints in Oddar Meanchey province, leading many on this side of the border to fear for their livelihoods.

Sitting on a motorbike in the queue for O’Smach international border checkpoint on Wednesday morning, 45-year-old Duong Sophan said increased security checks since the coup have made it harder for those whose jobs depend on what until recently had been easy access to Thailand.

“We are vegetable transporters, and our living is damn difficult due to the current situation,” Sophan told the Post.

“When we cross the border, we will be checked at four different places, and before crossing, they call our names, and if our names are not [listed] we will be arrested and we cannot come back.

“Before, it wasn’t quiet like this; many people crossed the border. Now we almost have no one [crossing],” he said.

Border officials agreed that Cambodians who used to be able to cross into neighbouring Thailand with no passport and for a payment of just 10 baht (about $0.30) are now being put under more scrupulous security checks.

Since Wednesday, in addition to the payment of 10 baht, border-crossers are now required to present identification and an immigration letter, which is issued to groups of 10. They are also required to return to Cambodia before 5pm.

“Currently, the Thai side restricts access, while our side gives no problems. Our people are checked by black-uniformed [Thai] soldiers at four locations before arriving at the Thai markets,” Ou Chan Sokha, immigration officer at O’Smach border, said.

“They force our people to come back at 5pm. If there are problems in Thailand, they never tell us, so we tell our people crossing the borders to Thai markets to be wary all the time,” he said.

On May 20, Thai authorities ordered all unofficial border-crossing points in Banteay Meanchey province to be closed after the Thai army imposed nationwide martial law. When the military seized power two days later, official checkpoints followed suit.

The resultant bottleneck at the border is being felt in different corners of the local economy.

Sitting under the shade of a tree and waiting desperately for people to cross the border, 42-year-old motodop Meas Bantha said that since the coup he has earned just $2.50 a day.

“I may take my family back [to my home province] for a while, because we have no money to cover the rent,” Bantha said.

Metres down the road from the border, once-lively O’Smach market was devoid of customers as the few remaining vendors considered shutting up shop.

Che Phalla, a vendor with a small stall selling tents and novelty items, said that since the coup, he has not earned enough money to cover the market’s rental rates.

“In one day, I sell less than 200 baht [about $6], so I will have to close my stall, because I have no money to pay the rent.

“Even during the clashes at Preah Vihear, we still had many clients. But now it is pretty quiet,” he said.

At the Cham Srangam border checkpoint in Oddar Meanchey province, people are also feeling the crunch.

Some of those at the border told the Post that Cambodians are only permitted to cross into Thailand on Thursdays and Sundays, and – unlike before – have to present proof of identification.

“The border gates are still closed and the Thai side has not given us a clear timetable [of when they will be opened],” Pich Sovann, director of Cambodian-Thai border relations, told the Post on Thursday.

Suos Sam Ol said the number of customers at Cham Srangam market has also gone down since the coup.

“The markets are very quiet, because our traders cannot cross the borders and no people come from the Thai side.… We wish the country would return to normal so we can do business as before,” he said.

Chey Ya, the vendor of a shop close to the Cham Srangam border on Dangkrek Mountain, said the coup had hurt her small business.

“If it stays quiet, I will close my stall for a while, because I do not know who I will sell my goods to. If problems happen in another country, it should be difficult for them, not us,” she said.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ALICE CUDDY

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