Nearly a quarter of a million Cambodians have fled Thailand in fear of a violent crackdown on undocumented workers by the new junta. Here’s the story of one such escape.
A motorbike purrs to a stop in the darkness outside the house. Ponleak and Jenn hop off the seat and quickly wheel the bike inside. They swing the doors closed behind them, shutting out most of the mosquitoes. Ponleak steps into the living room with Jenn close behind. It’s Saturday night and everyone tries to smile, but the mood is far from joyful. In his hand there is a heavily-laden plastic bag, which he unpacks onto the gray tile floor. A bag of ice. Four energy drinks. A large Pepsi. Two bottles of whiskey.
That’s a hell of a lot of whiskey for three of us, but no one has any doubt: tonight is a two bottle of whiskey kind of night. Tomorrow Ponleak has to run for the border, leaving behind Thailand and the life he’s built with Jenn, his fiancée. They’ve been torn apart for weeks by the possibility of his flight, but the past few days have made it abundantly clear: Ponleak must join the exodus of Cambodians out of Thailand. He needs to get out before the police or the junta’s foot-soldiers come looking for him.
Everything seems to have returned to normal in Thailand only one month after the coup. The curfew has ended, the visible military presence is relaxing and the cities are more-or-less peaceful. Bars are once again open late. Touts roam the streets in the early hours, whispering “you want girl?”, while backpackers amble down Khao San Road, dodging puddles of vomit and invitations to sin. Yet just beneath the surface, a mass migration is taking place. Nefarious rumors are circulating in the land of smiles, and the past two weeks have seen over 220,000 Cambodians flee the country in fear.
The panic stems from concerns about the new Thai government. Soon after its rise to power in May, the junta declared their intention to rid the country of all unregistered foreign workers. Few details were given concerning when and how this would occur. At first the threat didn’t really seem to have teeth, as the presence of unregistered workers has long been tolerated. Proper working documents are difficult to acquire and expensive — often costing over a month’s salary. As long as Thailand needed low paid workers for the fishing, construction, tourism, and agricultural sectors, the government was more than happy to look the other way. Therefore, few expected anything to come of the junta’s claims in the near future.
Until overnight. The jungle telegraph caught fire.
In the blink of an eye the mood in the migrant worker community swung from that of mild trepidation to one of terror. Through technology and word of mouth, stories began to surface about soldiers and police rounding up unregistered foreign workers, especially Cambodians. A crackdown was in motion. Pictures appeared of military trucks packed to standing room only, shuttling en-mass entire immigrant communities to the border for deportation. People were snatched from their homes and jobs without even time to pack. For some unfortunate families, their spouses and children, mothers and fathers simply never came home from work. Tales were rampant of savage beatings, shootings, and the destruction of legitimate working documents in order to extort bribes from these underpaid laborers.
It is impossible to discern the extent to which these rumors are honest accounts or falsehoods. Human rights organizations have confirmed several deaths, but their numbers are much lower than those claimed by the Cambodian diaspora. In a newly-established dictatorship, access to verifiable information is scarce, to say the least. Officially, the junta and Thai media deny the charges of corruption and violence — admitting only to the deaths of a few in traffic accidents on their way to the border.
What can be confirmed is that nearly a quarter of a million people have fled the country in the last two weeks. Whether intentional or not, a few tales of violence and extortion have been strikingly effective in scaring hordes of Cambodians to run for the border — regardless of whether or not they were here legally.
And while “officially” the junta claims that no crackdown is taking place, as of Friday, eyewitnesses have reported police dragnets on streets known to be inhabited by Cambodian workers. There is no crackdown — the “truth” is simply that a quarter of a million workers spontaneously decided to return home collectively, assisted by the
friendly police and soldiers who have so generously offered to take them to the border, packed like cattle into the back of trucks. Why would a dictatorship have any reason to lie?
The following afternoon, Ponleak departed in a shared car with three other workers. They drove through the night and successfully crossed into Cambodia, arriving in their native province after sunset. Now safely at home, no longer having to fear imprisonment, violence or deportation, he still does not feel at peace. He now finds himself torn between two countries. Ponleak’s family and future are in Cambodia, but his fiancée remains in Thailand. The border, an invisible divide created in the control-hungry imaginations of long-dead men, continues to separate him from his beloved.
Names have been change to protect our Romeo and Juliet.