Thailand's Time of Troubles: Crossing Over to Cambodia

"Tens of thousands of mostly undocumented Cambodian migrants have been spilling through the Thai-Cambodian border."

When Thailand’s military chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, seized power last month, it was under the assertion of easing political tensions between Thaksin supporters and opponents backed by the royalist establishment. Since November, the nation has been deadlocked in a protracted power struggle between the two factions, resulting in outbursts of deadly violence throughout Bangkok. Thailand’s twelfth successful coup—which is not a coup (according to the military at least), comes to no surprise. The country has had its fair share of military interventions since the end of the absolute monarchist control in 1932. While coup d’états have become the norm and are wielded as formidable political tools, Prayuth would like to remind everyone that Thailand is simply inconvenienced by military rule.

To lighten the mood, the Thai military junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCOP), has taken time out of their busy schedules to launch a “happiness” campaign. Between arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances, the military is staging street parties and music festivals. Prayuth has even penned his own ballad, which has garnered an impressive amount of views on YouTube since it was first uploaded on June 6.

While sexy army girls and free viewings of World Cup soccer make for a highly unusual public relations campaign, the general’s intent is clear: Be happy or else.


Unfortunately, over 200,000 Cambodians are unable to partake in the festivities this year. Since around the time of Prayuth’s song debut, tens of thousands of mostly undocumented Cambodian migrants have been spilling through the Thai-Cambodian border. While most of them are fleeing amidst rumors of a military-led crackdown on Thailand’s irregular labor force, many are reporting first-hand accounts of violence, arrests, raids and extortion by the Thai army.

A quick jaunt to the Cambodian border town of Poipet not only confirms the rumors, but also reveals a steady stream of overcrowded farm trucks, Thai detention vehicles and buses depositing thousands of workers and their children into Cambodia. Poipet has effectively become an aid camp teeming with soldiers, doctors and relief agencies. The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has mobilized 150 military trucks to transport migrants back to their home province.

At least nine migrants have reportedly died in Thailand—most of them are victims of traffic accidents. However, Cambodians remain skeptical of the circumstances surrounding the deaths. On June 12, the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC) released a statement that “ADHOC investigators have received credible witness accounts up to nine Cambodian migrants have been killed, and that beatings have occurred at the hands of the Thai armed forces." Cambodia’s Minister of Interior Sar Kheng was reported as saying that Prayuth should be held responsible for the loss of lives.

The crackdown—which is not a crackdown (again, according to the government)—has now left many grappling with an uncertain future. Cambodia also stands to lose millions of dollars in remittance and must cope with an overwhelming number of jobless migrants.

While Cambodia appears to have a low unemployment rate, there are very few options available aside from agriculture, which is seasonal and low paying. Cambodia’s garment industry is no better. Factory workers launched over 130 strikes last year in pursuit of higher wages and better work conditions. In January 2014, armed troops fired live ammunition on a group of demonstrators, killing four people in Phnom Penh. In another part of the city, twenty people were wounded after being struck by batons.