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Expected release for migrants

Veera Somkwamkid (centre), a former leader of Thailand's royalist movement, holds roses upon his return from Cambodia at Suvarnabhumi Airport
Veera Somhwamkid (centre), a former leader of Thailand's royalist movement, holds roses upon his return from Cambodia at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok yesterday. AFP

Expected release for migrants

Fourteen Cambodians jailed in Thailand will soon be freed, authorities told the Bangkok Post yesterday, just one day after “yellow shirt” activist Veera Somkwamkid returned to Thailand upon being pardoned from his espionage sentence in Cambodia.

Veera was royally pardoned on Tuesday during a Thai delegation's two-day trip to Cambodia, the junta’s first official visit since the coup and subsequent return of more than 250,000 Cambodian migrant workers.

Amid the arrangements commuting Veera’s sentence, Prime Minister Hun Sen reiterated an appeal that Thailand release the 14 migrant workers arrested last month on charges of using fake visas.

But while the reciprocated release announcement was attributed to Thailand’s permanent secretary for justice Chanchao Chaiyanukij yesterday, Cambodian officials were unable to confirm any imminent pardoning of the migrant labourers, though hinted that one would soon be getting under way.

“It [would not be] a prisoner swap,” government spokesman Phay Siphan said of the possibility. “It’s a matter of mutual respect and cooperation.”

Siphan added that a reciprocal prisoner exchange could be arranged under the Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons.

The international framework, however, is intended to allow for convicted persons to finish their sentence in their home country and not meant to grant an exchange of commuted sentences.

“Both countries are using their political power to sway the courts and violate the integrity of the judicial system,” said Kem Ley, an independent political analyst.

Ley added that for both sides, the clemency arrangements represented “easy politics”.

“The workers coming back … are poor, unemployed, many were abused, and their government isn’t helping them,” he said. “In this context, the CPP had to do something quickly so they wouldn’t fuel the opposition.”

But before the 14 Cambodian workers can be released and the political gesture accomplished, Thailand’s justice department reportedly said that Cambodia must first send a list of the prisoners to be freed, a list Cambodia claims it hasn’t yet been asked for.

“We have it and, if requested, we will send it,” said Koy Kuong, Foreign Ministry spokesman.

Kuong would not divulge the names on the list, however, adding only that Cambodia had “not yet” been notified of a release date.

But political experts, some of whom predicted such an exchange of prisoners between countries, had no doubts Cambodia would soon reap the rewards of its bargain.

Cambodian migrant workers queue at the Thai-Cambodia border checkpoint near the border town of Poipet
Cambodian migrant workers queue at the Thai-Cambodia border checkpoint near the border town of Poipet last week. Hong Menea

“For Cambodia, this is about gaining some sense of security for the migrant workers,” said Chea Vannath, another independent analyst. “It will ease tensions the workers are feeling over a lack of jobs in Cambodia and relieve some of the fears over Thailand to make them feel safer to return.”

Vannath added that it was in both countries’ and the workers’ best interests to create a smoother system for regulating the migrant workers’ inevitable return to jobs abroad.

But tired of waiting for the recent slew of overseas regulation reforms to finally take effect, workers are already starting on the road back to better-paying jobs in the neighbouring country. And to get there, they are often reverting to the old illegal methods.

“Most of my village has already [illegally] crossed back through reopened checkpoints to work in Thailand,” said Chan Raksmey, 43, from Banteay Meanchey.

Over the past week, Thailand has reopened more than 40 of the 53 smaller checkpoints – previously known for rampant smuggling – that were closed shortly after the coup on May 22.

“The people who are crossing at those [reopened] points are not going there to stay; they go to the market in the morning and come back at night,” said Korsum Saroeurt, Banteay Meanchey provincial governor. “No one is going illegally; the Thai authorities don’t allow it.”

But residents living close to the international divide and workers eager to return to Thailand said the contrary yesterday, noting hundreds of daily crossings not intended as short trips.

“No one informed us about how to get the new documents; it is difficult to find out what we are supposed to do,” said May Man, a 57-year-old recently repatriated worker. He added that he wants to find a way to get his family back to Thailand, and the job that was supporting them, as soon as possible.

Minister of Labour Ith Sam Heng also admitted that some Cambodian workers are returning to Thailand without the legal documentation.

“It is the same problem again,” he said. “I think that it is dangerous for them. The undocumented workers are abused and dismissed. It should not happen like that again.”

But while the government continues ironing out its new, cheaper regulations, workers are demonstrably growing impatient.

“There are no jobs in Cambodia, so they have no choice but to let the brokers help send them to Thailand illegally, paying up to 7,000 baht [$216] to be smuggled back,” Raksmey said.

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