By THOMAS FULLER | JUNE 15, 2014
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Tens of thousands of Cambodians working in Thailand have fled the country in a chaotic exodus that appears to be driven by fears of a crackdown on illegal foreign laborers by the military junta that seized power in Thailand last month.
The abrupt departures threaten to strain relations between the two countries and could hurt both Thai industries that rely on Cambodian workers and the Cambodian economy, which benefits from the workers’ remittances.
“It has been chaos,” Anek Manusnirobon, the head of customs at the Aranyaprathet border checkpoint, said on Sunday. Mr. Anek added that officials opened extra departure lanes after the line of trucks and buses leaving the country reached four kilometers, or more than two miles.
The exodus appears partly to stem from a lack of trust in official announcements in military-ruled Thailand, where the junta censors television broadcasts and bars any criticism of the coup. The generals seized power last month after months of denying they had any plans for a coup.
The Thai Foreign Ministry issued a statement Saturday saying rumors circulating about the “military’s abusive treatment of illegal workers” were false.
Joe Lowry, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental organization that is helping the Cambodians return, said rumors were playing a “substantial” role in spurring the departures.
“There is certainly a lack of clear information,” he said, “and people trust what they hear from their own communities.”
More than 122,000 Cambodians had crossed the border at the Aranyaprathet checkpoint over the past week, Mr. Lowry said Monday. There had also been an unknown number of crossings at other, smaller checkpoints along the border.
The Thai economy relies on around three million foreigners, mainly from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, who work in factories, on construction sites and as domestic servants for wealthy and middle-class Thais and expatriates, among other menial jobs. Some Thai news outlets said there were concerns that businesses would be short-staffed if the departures continued — and especially if they spread to workers from Myanmar, who are much more numerous.
Cambodia and Thailand are historical enemies, but people have moved relatively easily across the porous border between the countries for years. Cambodians waiting to leave described a sort of collective hysteria in the Cambodian community living in Thailand. Some said they did not have clear reasons for the urgency of their departures.
Na Kuan, 22, one of several dozen Cambodian workers packed into a bus at the border, said that he had “no idea” why he was returning but that he had been urged by so many relatives to go that he joined the exodus.
“My parents, my brothers, my sisters all called me from Cambodia saying I must return home,” he said.
We Kaowwee, a street food vendor and part-time construction worker who has lived in Thailand for 15 years, said “news” had spread that Cambodian people were killed by the Thai military.
“I’ve never felt this fear before in Thailand,” he said. “It’s not worth living here right now. I don’t want to risk it. We are all afraid of the military.”
The military government has struck a mildly nationalistic tone in recent weeks, criticizing protests against the coup as un-Thai and warning the subsidiary of a Norwegian telecom company, Telenor, that it would scrutinize its shareholding structure to check for legal violations. The comments came after the company revealed that the junta had ordered a temporary blockage of Facebook.
There has also been a backlash against Western governments that criticized the military takeover, which was relatively popular among the urban elites and middle class because it broke a political deadlock that had persisted for six months.
The Foreign Ministry said the junta’s intention was to “clean up society from illegal activities which include gambling, drugs and illegal workers.”
“The cleanup process of illegal workers will take place gradually with the intention not to affect Thai businesses that rely on foreign workers,” the Foreign Ministry said.
The junta has sought to play down the exodus. Patamaporn Ratanadilok na Phuket, a spokeswoman for the military government, described the return of Cambodian families to their homes as “normal” because it was harvest season.
“The Cambodian people have to rush back to help their families,” she said. A number of Cambodians at the border, however, said they were not returning to help on farms and many of them were returning to urban areas.
Ms. Patamaporn added that rumors of a crackdown had prompted business owners to “deport their migrant workers temporarily.”
“We would like to affirm that there’s no order to crack down on migrant workers as has been reported,” she added.
An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Aranyaprathet, Thailand.
A version of this article appears in print on June 16, 2014, on page A8 of the New York edition with the headline: Fearing a Junta Crackdown, Cambodian Workers Stream Out of Thailand.
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