Why did more than 200,000 Cambodian workers leave Thailand?
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Why did more than 200,000 Cambodian workers leave Thailand?

At the time of writing the previous post on June 15, 100,000 Cambodian migrant workers had left Thailand. This has obviously increased since then.

VOA on June 19 quoted IOM as stating that 200,000 had left Thailand. Then Xinhua on June 19:

“As of Thursday evening, about 225,000 Cambodian migrant workers, mostly illegal ones, have been repatriated from Thailand,” Major Gen. Pich Vanna, chief of Cambodian-Thai Border Relation Affairs Office, said via telephone. “About 5,000 laborers were sent back to Cambodia from Thailand today (Thursday).”

On June 20, IOM stated that 225,000 Cambodian migrant workers had left Thailand. Hun Sen stated on June 26 that at least 250,000 had left.

The Thai authorities have been reporting much lower figures. The Bangkok Post explains that it is because the Thai authorities don’t record all those leaving:

Sgt Maj Saman also explained the discrepancy between the number of Cambodians reported leaving Thailand and the number of reported arrivals on the Poipet side.

“So far it has been close to 80,000 Cambodian workers leaving Thailand, but the number recorded by Cambodia is double that,” he said. “The reason is because many of them chose to go out by the border patrol police area in Khok Sung where they pay 50 to 100 baht each to pass. This usually happens at night-time.”

BP: This is a huge number. To put it in perspective – believe it was The Cambodian Daily who stated this – that is more than one percent of Cambodia’s total population that returned to the country in a few weeks.

Al Jazeera:

“They didn’t chase us, they just put us in the truck,” said Khim, a 25-year-old who has spent the last four years in Thailand working on a fishing boat. “There wasn’t any violence, but they took 3,000 baht ($92) per person. They asked our bosses to pay us, then [forced us to] pay the soldiers.”

Khim and more than 30 other Cambodian fishermen were nabbed in Hua Hin province after soldiers raided fishing boats and restaurants in the area. “If we stay on the boats, it’s OK, but as soon as anyone climbs onto the banks, they arrested us,” he said on Tuesday, adding that being forcefully expelled won’t deter him from returning to Thailand.

But for those picked up in the raids, such claims ring false. Khim, Borai, and others arriving from Hua Hin on Tuesday morning spoke of having to pay upwards of 3,000 baht ($92) in “fees” after soldiers arrested and processed them locally. “They arrested people only to take the money,” said Neu Savorn, 38.

Savorn, a waitress at a Hua Hin restaurant and five others were rounded up by soldiers who later demanded 4,000 baht ($123) in fees. “When we are working, we keep the money with the boss. When we were arrested, they just took all the money from him,” Savorn said.

Officials at the Sa Kaeo immigration police station refused to speak, saying they were not authorised to talk with the media.

When journalists approached migrants, police allowed interviews but stayed nearby, appearing to listen in. As a group of young men were loaded onto a police truck, an officer inside the cage shouted at them in Khmer: “Don’t talk about chasing and shooting by the Thai military. Just say [it’s something you heard] from one mouth to another.

BP: Don’t talk about because if you don’t talk about it then it didn’t happen.

Global Post:

“When Thai officials see anyone who looks Cambodian they ask them to speak Thai. If they can’t, they’re brought into the police office,” said Tim Bunthoeun, a 29-year-old iron factory worker.

“If [the worker] is legally in Thailand the employer who keeps the passports can come get them from the jail, but if they aren’t [legal], then no one will come. The employer doesn’t want to be fined,” he said.

Bunthoeun claimed he had been legally employed in Thailand. He said police came twice within the last month to “check” his factory for undocumented workers. Last week, officials arrested half a dozen migrants. They demanded 400 Baht ($13) each to get out of jail.

“When I saw the situation was getting worse, I decided I should get out while I still had a chance to reach a safer place,” he said.

Just to get to Cambodia, many migrants said the army extorted them for money to guarantee safe passage. Some workers reported being arrested, detained and eventually deported while already on their way to leave the country.

“The soldiers found us at the bus station and took us to an army base. Over a 1,000 people were pushed under a single roof. They told us we needed to pay 500 Baht ($16) each to leave. If we didn’t have the money, they told us we would have to wait longer,” said Chheat Pin, a 40-year-old construction worker who said he came to Thailand to feed his family after a development project seized his small plot of farmland in Cambodia.

“[At the base] they didn’t give us food or water. If you had money, you could buy it from them, but if not, you went hungry,” he said.

The Cambodia Daily:

At the meeting, a recently returned illegal migrant worker, who declined to give his name for fear of retribution, said he worked in Thailand as a construction worker for a year, but fled after a shooting incident.

On June 10, in the morning, I heard the sound of three gunshots—about 20 minutes later, some workers came to the work site and told us that three Cambodians had been shot,” he said.


The Thai junta’s new regulations have caused a massive flight of migrant workers, who have long endured abuses from officials and unscrupulous employers,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The junta needs to reverse this disaster by quickly putting into place genuine reforms that would protect migrant workers’ rights, not threaten them.”

After the coup, the military National Council for People and Order (NCPO) and the joint military-civilian Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) in many provinces opened a campaign to “regulate” migrant workers. The targets are migrants who entered Thailand without documentation and are working without official permission, those working outside the province designated in their work permits, and those whose travel documents and work permits have expired.

Some employers have also reportedly circulated rumors that Thai authorities will physically harm any migrants arrested, as a ploy to drive out migrant employees without paying wages owed to them.

The Economist:

Worries about a crackdown are felt most acutely by Cambodians in Thailand, mainly for political reasons. Thaksin Shinawatra, an exiled former prime minister who, directly or by proxy, has won every Thai election since 2001, has close ties to Hun Sen, Cambodia’s eternal prime minister, who appointed him his “adviser on economics”. In excitable post-coup chatter, which came to nothing, about a putative Thaksinite government-in-exile, Cambodia was mooted as its base. Suthep Thaugsuban, who led the recent street protests against the pro-Thaksin government, blamed Cambodian gunmen for killing protesters. In January a Thai naval official claimed Cambodians were being bussed into Thailand to attack protesters. Cambodia’s government has denied both claims.


The junta has been keen to show it is serious about kick-starting the economy, leading some analysts to suggest the army misjudged the impact of its warning to illegal migrant workers.

“Politically, it’s always convenient to blame immigrant workers… The junta didn’t realise how quickly the rumours would circulate. Now they’re trying to backtrack,” said Bruno Jetin, a researcher at the Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia.

The Bangkok Post:

Fear motivated Seng Soeun, 27, who had been working in construction in Chon Buri province for three months. He said that on the previous Friday, his boss told him that it was no longer safe for illegal Cambodian workers. He said they were welcome to take the risk of staying, but he could not guarantee their security.

“When I heard his words, I was shocked, and thought I would be arrested if I continued to live in Thailand because I am an illegal worker,” he said, grasping the side of a Cambodian army truck that was taking him further along his journey home to the central Kampong Speu province

Kong, a housing estate developer in Chon Buri province, said half of his Cambodian workers fled his construction site last Saturday night without giving prior notice. Usually payments of 4,500-5,000 baht are given to them every two weeks, but 30 of his workers hired agents to pick them up even before receiving their salary.

“Migrant workers have always been afraid of the police, who often extort money from them. When rumours of soldiers came, they [migrant workers] were even more afraid,” said Kong, who asked not to be named because he employs illegal workers.

Several sources told Spectrum that the NCPO threatened to deport Cambodian workers back to their country if Cambodia did not extradite wanted fugitives. News then spread that the military would perform a crackdown on the workers, including rumours that a few were shot dead.

BP: As blogged previously, there were a multitude of factors that set things off including (1) Cambodians being aware that some were being blamed for being red shirt protesters, accused of killing PDRC protesters, and understanding the military government is aligned with the establishment, (2) military has been cracking down on all types of activity since the coup and despite claims by the authorities, this includes migrant workers,  (3) many of the Cambodians leaving/fleeing do not have the correct documentation, but in the past the crackdowns were infrequent and payments could be made (but with the military in control, there seem to be doubts from workers whether this is possible now), (5) talk of crackdowns has made some Thai employers nervous and this no doubt filters through to employees, and (6) poor impression that most Cambodians have of the Thai military – stories about the Thai military in regards to Cambodian workers/loggers have been frequent over the years – and now there are additional stories of Thai soldiers killing Cambodian workers.

NOTE: Have been meaning to post this for the last 10 days, but never got around to finishing it so have posted it as is and have just tidied up the quotes.