The Cambodian fallout from Thailand’s coup

Author: Leng Thearith, UNSW Canberra

Last month saw the 19th coup d’état in Thailand since 1932 but, unlike previous regime changes, this coup has significant regional implications — especially for Thailand’s neighbour, Cambodia. These are both economic and political.

The most vulnerable area for the Cambodian economy is remittances. From 6 June to 19 June, the Thai military junta has deported over 210,000 Cambodian migrants — approximately half of the total number of Cambodian migrants in Thailand — due to concerns that these workers would join forces with the pro-Thaksin faction to overthrow the junta. The Cambodian economy could lose more than US$1 million per day in revenue due to this policy.

The tourism sector — one of Cambodia’s most important — has also felt the heat. Given Thailand’s position as a regional transit hub, growth in the number of Chinese tourists to Cambodia in the first four months of 2014 has shrunk to 18.2 per cent, compared to 55 per cent in the same period last year, according to the Cambodian Daily. Some tourists might be concerned about their personal safety as the Thai junta has given itself the power to detain any person for up to a week without warrant, charge, or trial. The fear of indiscriminate persecution of foreign workers by the military regime is a further concern. Chinese tourists are now becoming a major target of many Southeast Asian economies. But the coup in Thailand has jeopardised the Cambodian government’s plan to attract at least 1.3 million Chinese tourists by 2018.

The Thai political crisis has not only negatively affected the Cambodian economy but also its security. Thailand’s military leadership has indirectly put pressure on the Cambodian government by accusing Cambodia of harbouring the prominent leader of the Red Shirt movement, Jakrapob Penkair — a claim the Cambodian government has strongly denied. Jakrapob has vowed to create a movement to resist the current military junta from outside Thailand, sparking rumours that Cambodia could be a potential hideout for the pro-Thaksin group.

The junta has also accused Cambodia of secretly supporting the Red Shirts via local media, in an attempt to topple the military government. More importantly, the Thai military has recently erected barbed wire in the Preah Vihear temple’s vicinity — despite the International Court of Justice confirming Cambodian sovereignty over the area around the temple last year. Thailand’s intervention prompted an immediate but peaceful protest from Phnom Penh. As a small country with limited military capability, Cambodia has downplayed this latest provocation for fear of a renewed military confrontation with the junta.

Meanwhile, the current political upheaval in Thailand has also impacted Cambodian domestic politics, heightening pressure on the ruling party in Cambodia.

The Cambodian National Rescue Party leader Sam Rainsy has attacked the government by pointing out that it had failed to create sufficient jobs for Cambodians at home and that, as a consequence, many were forced to risk their lives working illegally in Thailand. The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), whose popularity has declined since last year’s election, has attempted to win back support with its handling of this issue.

Despite concerted efforts on the part of the ruling government to accommodate migrant workers, it is unlikely that Cambodia will be able to effectively absorb the huge influx of migrants continually deported from Thailand. The ruling government has encountered serious problems in the provision of humanitarian aid and attempting to create jobs for those returning from Thailand. An alternative solution is to create favourable conditions for Cambodian migrants to return to work in Thailand legally. For example, one measure intended to encourage Cambodian migrants to migrate legally is the reduction of the passport fee from US$124 to US$4. To qualify for this concession fee, however, the bureaucratic process is excessive. In particular, one must be accepted by local migrant agents, many of whom have a reputation for frequently exploiting and extorting money from workers.

The effects of Thailand’s coup have rippled out into the region, and the government in Phnom Penh will need to find solutions to the numerous problems that its neighbour’s instability poses for Cambodia’s growth and development.

Leng Thearith is currently pursuing his PhD in Political and International Studies at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy (ADFA).

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