COVID-19 Border Closure Hits Cambodians Serving Thai Border Hard

cambodia-police-border-check-to-thailand-nov-2019.jpg Cambodian police (R) check people as they try to cross the border to Thailand in the Cambodian town of Poipet, Nov. 9, 2019.

Cambodia’s border restrictions to combat the coronavirus pandemic have taken a huge toll on the livelihood of citizens relying on commerce or migrant work in neighboring Thailand, workers and local leaders near the frontier told RFA on Thursday.

Villagers from Poipet in Banteay Meanchy province told RFA’s Khmer Service that they are struggling with lost income as a result of the Thailand border closure, which began in March as the pandemic was spreading around the world.

One family from the city made their living by pulling hand carts full of goods between Thailand and Cambodia to make their living. Korng Vathey, the family’s 42-year-old matriarch, told RFA that the family has lost all their income due to COVID-19.

She said once the borders were closed, she began picking wild Asian watergrass which grows along the banks of nearby creeks, and trying to sell enough of it in the market to buy enough rice for the day. For her efforts, she was able to make about 10,000 riels (U.S. $2.44) per day.

But now even this meager income has been taken away.

“All the streams are flooded, so there is no more [watergrass],” Korng Vathey said.

“Now if I see snails, I try to catch and sell them [instead],” she said.

But since so many have lost their jobs, there are others competing with her for wild vegetables and snails. With such a meager income, on some days she is resigned to having a meal of just porridge with a little salt, she said.

Sao Pheary, another villager, told RFA that she and her 10-year-old go out with a group of 20 other vilalgers to pick watergrass. She is able to make about 8,000 riels ($1.95) per day, which she said was not enough to live on.

“Sometimes [the adults] don’t eat so we can give more food to the children,” she said.

Poipet’s Commune Chief Kork Lorn told RFA that most people living there rely on jobs in Thailand or in businesses along the border, which is why so many are suffering since the closure.

He said authorities have distributed rice, canned fish, and fish sauce to 2,000 families, or about 12,000 people in the commune. He also said he was registering the names of the poor so that the authorities could distribute aid.

“We are choosing [to help] them. They used to pull carts to get by, but now they are staying at home and have nothing to eat,” he said.

The commune chief urged villagers on the brink of starvation to reach out to the local authorities to get aid.

The border closure has not only impacted rural villagers, but also those in Cambodia’s larger cities, who are feeling the pinch after months of shuttered businesses.

Ork Soeun, a Phnom Penh bus driver, used to transport passengers to and from the Thai border.

“Since the buses stopped, I’ve lost all my income,” he told RFA.

Ork Soeun took out loans to pay for living expenses, but now he is in a situation where he must juggle debts to four different lenders, borrowing from one to pay another, because he cannot make any money.

He said that some of the lenders agreed to let him delay payments, and are only charging interest.

Cambodia’s border with Thailand remains closed, but border officials have said they might reopen in June. But even those who don’t rely on cross-border commerce are out of work due to the coronavirus.

Meak Sophea, a motor taxi driver from Phnom Penh, has been forced to take out loans to support his family, as he and his wife lost their income to COVID-19.

He told RFA that he owes $270 to a moneylender, and if the lender refuses his request to delay payment, he will have to resort to drastic measures to repay his debt.

“I can’t make any money. I might have to sell my motor taxi,” he said.


A local NGO that focuses on the human rights of workers urged the government to release a stimulus package to help those out of work.

“Our neighboring countries are helping people, including by giving them money for food,” said Vorn Pov, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA).

“Cambodia should follow [the example] of Thailand to ensure people’s livelihoods, so they don’t have to sell their belongings to buy the things they need to live. We don’t have jobs. We have nothing left to sell, so we’re just waiting around to die,” he added.

Vorn Pov pointed out that Prime Minister Hun Sen claimed that he has set aside about $3 billion to help those who were left unemployed because of COVID-19.

Cambodia’s Ministry of Labor said that workers who lost their jobs should receive stimulus money totaling $40 this week. The government previously promised $40 payments would be delivered earlier, but has so far failed to deliver.

The ministry said it has received the names of about 50,000 workers in need but has to pay them from a reserve fund of about $110,000.

330 Cambodian factories have suspended operations since the onset of COVID-19. Of those, 100 have resumed but 20 closed down permanently.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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