Fearing the Thai military junta, more than 166,000 Cambodian workers have spilled across the Poipet international checkpoint over the past two weeks, overwhelming aid officials and straining relations between the two countries.
Officially, the Thai Foreign Ministry blames rumours, especially about shootings and military perpetrated violence against workers, for scaring mainly undocumented Cambodian migrants from the country.
“The [government] does not have any policy to accelerate arrests and crackdowns of foreign workers,” General Prayuth Chan-ocha said in an official order on Monday.
“[The] regularisation … at the current moment is controlling foreign workers, by ordering employers and entrepreneurs … to prepare lists of foreign workers under their employment for further inspections,” reads an unofficial translation of the statement made public yesterday.
But analysts say that harsher statements previously delivered reveal the junta is using illegal migrants as a scapegoat to distract from a flagging economy and to further assert its authority.
“By cracking down on so-called irregular or undocumented Cambodian migrant workers, the military junta could be seen to be in control and, at least on the surface, attempting to improve Thailand’s social and economic problems,” said Kevin Mcgahan, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore.
Prayuth’s order on Monday came less than a week after an army spokesman threatened all “illegal foreign workers” with arrest and deportation, and spelled the situation out in distinctly xenophobic terms.
“We see illegal workers as a threat, because there [are] a lot of them and no clear measures to handle them, which could lead to social problems,” spokesman Sirichan Ngathong said last Wednesday.
Ou Virak, chairman of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, believes the junta is using the deportations to push a message of nationalistic politics.
“[The military government is] finding a shared external enemy to divert attention from the polarised nature of Thai politics,” he said.
But if the nationalistic rhetoric is to blame for the Cambodian workers’ mass exodus, it hasn’t caused a universal response among all migrant workers.
“Burmese migrant communities are also experiencing raids every day, but we have so far not received news on Burmese migrants leaving on the scale experienced by Cambodian migrants,” said Reiko Harima, regional coordinator for the Mekong Migration Network.
While the reasons for the discrepancy between migrant groups is not obvious, suggested rationales include the socio-political situation each community would face upon returning home, as well as cultural susceptibility to fear of arrests.
“Many of [the Cambodian] migrant workers will be the children of Khmer Rouge soldiers and, or victims,” said GDM Wijers, an expert in migration studies. “A medical team working with the witnesses of the Khmer Rouge tribunal has brought forward again how traumatised first-generation survivors can transfer their fears, inadvertently, to the second generation. This could make the Cambodian workers more susceptible to panic in fear of violence by the Thai regime.”
The Thai junta’s less-than-warm reception of Cambodian migrant workers specifically could in part stem from diplomatic repercussion of Hun Sen’s strong ties with ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
“Thailand sees the migrant workers as a security concern, they [are from] a country that has openly supported Thaksin and the ‘red shirts’,” said Kem Ley, an independent analyst.
Such “dangerous politics” aren’t expected to benefit either country in the long run, he added.
Thai businesses are already reporting feeling pinched by a shortage of cheap labour, and even the junta acknowledged that the policy was hurting “works, business entities and the overall national economic system”.
Cambodia, which stands to lose several million dollars in remittances because of the returned labourers, had until yesterday stayed temperate in its response.
“I think the current Thai junta leader must be responsible for the problems happening, including the loss of lives,” said Minister of Interior Sar Kheng, referring to traffic accidents that have killed 10 Cambodians en route to the border.
For now, Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong vows that relations between the countries have not deteriorated over the sudden shock of more than a hundred thousand unemployed Cambodians streaming back into the country, but political analyst Kevin Hewison warned that the situation is a ready fuse.
“I fear that another border dispute could easily be manufactured by the military junta, and that this could play into its current emphasis on nationalism as a way to ‘unite’ Thais,” he said. “This is a potentially dangerous situation. Watch the border.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHHAY CHANNYDA