As Morm Khoeun’s 20th year in Thailand comes and passes, he’s seen the development of his career change drastically, from a migrant laborer to working at an HIV foundation in Rayong. But for the two decades he’s spent living a few hundred kilometers from his hometown on the Thai-Cambodia border, he’s been unable to vote — four general and commune elections since his arrival.
“Firstly it’s because of my duty [at work], but most important is the issue of border-crossing restrictions,” Khoeun said. Depending on their immigration status, workers can face additional burdens upon crossings, and recent Covid-19 restrictions haven’t helped. “I need a vaccination document and an approval letter from the Thai Ministry of Health.”
For up to 2 million Cambodians living and working in Thailand, this trip back to their commune will be too difficult in the coming days. The ability to vote, considered a human right by local advocacy groups, is reserved for those living in and who can afford the journey back to Cambodia.
Citing the potential for fraudulent elections and confusion, Hun Sen recently encouraged Cambodians living in the U.S. to return to Cambodia if they wanted to vote. While critics have argued this strategy denies migrant workers who are likely to support alternative parties, workers and organizers in neighboring Thailand say that the lack of absentee voting has only created more mistrust in elections and effectively barred the vast majority of migrant workers from casting their vote in this year’s commune election.
As June 5 presses closer, Chanthaburi labor organizer Saing Ry estimated that less than 10 percent of workers in her network would be able to return to their own province, citing a plethora of issues, including work-related documentation required to cross the border, expenses for making the trip, and distrust in their government.
“The first and most important factor is because of border crossing restrictions, it’s not like we have all the documents and can cross directly,” she said. In 2019, the labor group Central estimated that nearly 20% of Cambodian migrants in Thailand lacked proper documentation to work in the country. Saing added that workers end up paying close to 1,200 baht at the border, or about $35, and other workers VOD spoke with echoed fears of unofficial fees requested by Thai authorities and confusion regarding the necessary paperwork to come back into Thailand. Through a system based on memorandums of understanding, a quota of migrant workers from Cambodia and other neighboring countries fill Thailand’s labor shortage through specific placements in the country’s manufacturing, fishing and agriculture sectors. Given the MoU’s difficult process, many migrant workers from both Myanmar and Cambodia rely on brokers, who set their fee independently to procure proper documents.
Others are unable to get time off of work, risking dismissal or docking pay to make the journey home.
“Another factor is the employers wouldn’t really care about the immigrant workers’ duty to vote,” Saing added. “If they come back to vote, the employers would deduct money from the worker’s pay.”
It’s been five years since civil society organizations again pressed for a greater freedom to vote overseas, a legislative push that has been met with “no progress,” according to Central’s Khun Tharo. In 2017, Central joined four other organizations, including human rights groups Adhoc and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, to make formal policy recommendations regarding the status of Cambodians abroad. In interviews with migrant workers in Thailand, he said that for two-thirds of polled potential voters, their ineligibility comes largely down to the cost of going home.
This year, Central met with the four expected participants of next year’s general election on International Labor Day on May 1 — the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, the Grassroots Democratic party, Funcinpec, and the Candlelight Party — to again encourage an amendment to facilitate a voting process for Cambodians overseas, which he says was “fully endorsed” by the Candlelight Party. He said they’ve received no concrete response from the CPP or the National Election Committee, and believes the ruling party has a longer game in mind for migrant voters abroad before they are willing to introduce a change.
“The government is trying to build up the supporters of the CPP [overseas] — that’s why they’re very concerned in terms of different groups of opposition supporters, mainly the migrant workers in Thailand,” he said. “So we think there’s an imbalance in terms of migrants who are supporting the opposition and migrants who are supporting the ruling party.”
Organizers believe this fear isn’t totally unfounded, as Ry, the labor organizer, said the majority of her Chantaburi network would vote for the Candlelight Party and are eager to see change in the country. Of the five workers VOD spoke with, four said they hadn’t made up their mind or were afraid to disclose their choice. Some added that they believe the migrant vote holds a lot of power.
While overseas support of opposition parties has been a perceived fear of the CPP, even those in support of the ruling party said they were unable to come back to vote due to other commitments and costs. Bun Tol, who has managed to go home in the past to vote in elections, said that this year the financial burden was too great with his children in school and his job working at a durian and mangosteen farm.
“I really wanted to go to vote as a Cambodian citizen. It’s important if the Cambodian government makes the process easier to come back when we are done voting,” he said, adding that he would vote for the CPP if he were given a chance, as his whole family supports the ruling party.
But the NEC still points to perceived problems with postal voting, such as potential voter fraud and recounts. NEC spokesperson Hang Puthea said that they’ve attempted to connect with potential voters abroad, reaching out to migrant-dominated factories to give more lenient leave to encourage better voter turnout.
“We’ve informed them through the ambassador, so it’s their business. We can’t tell how many people are coming,” Puthea said. He claimed that only 10 countries allow postal voting, though prior studies have found at least 40 countries allowed postal voting from abroad or for recent national elections. Additionally, at least 78 countries allowed overseas citizens to vote in person at diplomatic missions or other recognized locations, one study said.
“Voting by hand, counting by hand is the most recognizable,” Puthea said.
Adhoc’s deputy director of women and children’s rights, Meas Saim, said migrants abroad have also reported political parties standing outside of their factories who have attempted to recruit them.
She agreed with Central’s Tharo that efforts to allow migrants to vote could be dependent on the CPP’s ability to ensure support abroad.
“Some of the migrants told me they’ve set up team leaders for the parties within businesses in [Thailand] as well. I’m not sure if the majority of their supporters are outside, then they may make another way for them to come back to vote,” Saim said.
Migrants’ perceptions of Thailand’s development might drive their desire to develop Cambodia, she added. “They say they want that [too], but they can’t find a way to develop their own country, so they need to fill their stomach first. They need to survive first.”