At the two major border crossings of Poipet in Banteay Meanchey and Cham Yeam in Koh Kong, the Thai immigration police’s caged trucks discharged their loads of illegal Cambodian migrant workers. Such deliveries must have been frequent if not daily, but apparently Cambodian authorities had little concern. That was before this trickle suddenly became a flood, an exodus, following the Thai military junta’s announcement of its migrant labour policy and the subsequent crackdown on illegal migrant workers. To date, over 200,000 Cambodian migrant workers have returned home.
There has been, however, no such exodus of migrants from Myanmar, whose number is bigger by far. According to official pre-crackdown Thai figures, cited by the Bangkok Post on June 19, Thailand had a migrant worker population of 2.23 million, composed of 1.74 million Burmese, 395,000 Cambodians and 96,000 Laotians. In this total, there were 1.82 million illegal migrants.
The Irrawaddy newspaper on June 16 said the “heavy crackdown . . . has so far mostly targeted Cambodian workers”, and quoted an official of a Myanmar employment agency as saying that “there is no big crackdown on Burmese immigrant workers like on Cambodians”. On June 19, the same newspaper reported that “1,000 Burmese workers alone in Mae Sot [bordering Myanmar] have been arrested and deported since early June”.
The crackdown on illegal migrant workers brings into the open the ineptitude on either side of the border. Successive Thai governments have failed to regulate the recruitment of such workers to ensure their orderly and legal entry, or to cooperate with neighbouring countries over this matter.
Through corruption or otherwise, they have condoned the work of smugglers, traffickers and brokers of such workers. Also at play is employers’ connivance to have cheap and docile illegal labour.
The Thai military junta could and should have asserted its control of illegal migrants in a more orderly manner, through phased legalisation of their stay and work or orderly deportation, in cooperation with the concerned governments so as to ensure no harm was done to the interests of employers or Thailand’s relations with its neighbours.
The ineptitude of the Cambodian government is perhaps more telling. It has failed to ensure that its citizens have proper documents before they travel despite their frequent ignominious deportations at the country’s doorsteps. The government has failed to get successive Thai governments to cooperate in controlling and combating the trafficking and smuggling of its people to work in Thailand, to regulate their recruitment in Cambodia and their employment and stay in Thailand, and to secure for them full protection while out there.
It is doubtful whether Cambodia’s diplomatic mission in Bangkok has kept itself updated on developments in Thailand, including those affecting Cambodian nationals there, and acted upon these promptly to protect them. Diplomats seem to have failed to promote among Cambodian workers there the creation of associations for mutual assistance or to make themselves accessible to Thai immigration officials.
Burmese migrant workers seem to fare better when they have such associations, and their embassy in Bangkok promptly installed a hotline for them during the crackdown.
One needs to appreciate though the difficulties for Cambodia in establishing good relations with Thailand. In the first place, Cambodia has to cope with a neighbour that seems to have the domineering attitude of a big brother. A sense of Thai superiority was enhanced further as Cambodia was torn apart and weakened by continuous war and internal strife, and while Thailand is a big labour market and an important source of food and manufactured goods for its citizens.
Secondly, there is historical enmity between the two countries, enmity that in recent years has been stoked by a series of developments, such as attacks by Cambodian demonstrators on the Thai Embassy and Thai businesses in January 2003 after a local newspaper falsely accused a Thai actress of claiming that Angkor Wat belonged to her country. Another example is the Thai occupation of Preah Vihear’s surrounding areas in 2008 and the ensuing conflict, followed by further Thai incursions into Cambodian territory.
Thirdly, over recent years, the Cambodian government has failed to establish good relations with the whole spectrum of political forces in Thailand. It has established good – but more personal – relations and actually sided with the political machine of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, which other political operatives have stiffly opposed and which the current military junta has ousted from power.
All these failures and weaknesses must have been in the calculation of the Thai military junta when it targeted its crackdown more on Cambodian migrants and dispensed with the nicety of diplomatic communication with the Cambodian government over its migrant labour policy.
Cambodia, nevertheless, needs to stoically bear the consequences of this particular Thai action. It must prove its ability to reintegrate and look after its unfortunate citizens the best it can.
French philosopher and historian Ernest Renan said “shared suffering unites more than joy”. Cambodian leaders could and should use these mass deportations to build national unity by first reaching out to one another to resolve the present political impasse arising from the 2013 elections, and by calling upon citizens to participate in the national dialogue that surrounds this issue. How such distress can be relieved is a test of the character of a nation, and Cambodia needs to prove it can and shall pass this test well.
Next, the same leaders should sit down together to look into the country’s foreign policy, especially its relationships with neighbouring countries. Over recent years this policy has failed. It should be overhauled and those responsible for it replaced.
Lao Mong Hay is a political analyst.