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Tens of thousands of Cambodians flee Thailand after coup, fearing crackdown on migrant workers

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - Tens of thousands of Cambodians have fled neighbouring Thailand to return home, fearing a crackdown on migrant workers under Thailand's new military government, a senior Cambodian official said Saturday. Activists said the workers had been forced out of the country, but Thailand denied the accusation.

More than 84,000 workers have returned this month through the border crossing at the western Cambodian town of Poipet, said Kor Samsarouet, the governor of Banteay Meanchey province, where Poipet is located. About 40,000 crossed over on Friday alone, and 10,000 returned to Cambodia on Saturday morning, he said.

The U.N.-affiliated International Organization for Migration gave similar figures. Earlier in the week, it said more than half of the migrants were women and children. "Aside from transport, there is also a growing need for food, water, health care and shelter," the IOM said in a statement.

The trigger for the exodus seems to have been comments by Thailand's military government, which took power in a coup last month, that it would crack down on illegal immigrants and those employing them. Several were reportedly fired from jobs and sent home, and the belief spread that both legal and illegal workers were being ejected.

The numbers of those fleeing swelled as unsubstantiated rumours circulated that Thai authorities had shot dead or beaten several Cambodian workers. Thai authorities have denied the rumours and sought to quell concerns about a crackdown, adding that they have plans to systematize migrant labour.

The Cambodian government has sent scores of trucks to Poipet to take the workers home.

Cambodians, working both legally and illegally, fill low-paying and undesirable jobs shunned by most Thais, as do migrants from Thailand's other poor neighbours, especially Myanmar.

Cambodian Labor Minister Ith Samheng told reporters that about 200,000 Cambodian migrants had been working in Thailand, just 80,000 of them legally. Other estimates of the number of workers are higher.

As the number of Cambodians seeking to leave ballooned this past week, Thai immigration authorities joined hands with the military to help transport them to the border, said Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Sek Wannamethee, stressing that the process was meant to provide convenience to the Cambodian workers, not to forcibly expel them.

"The Thai authorities realize the importance of migrant workers from neighbouring countries toward driving Thailand's economy forward," he said. "As a result, we would like to revamp and integrate the management system, as well as to get rid of exploitation from smugglers, in a bid to prevent abuses of the workers and human trafficking problems."

The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a coalition of 21 nongovernment organizations, saw the matter differently, posting an open letter Thursday deploring what it described as the Thai junta's decision to deport Cambodian migrants en masse.

"The Thai military violated the human rights of undocumented Cambodian migrant workers when it forcefully expelled them from the country, placing them in crowded trucks," the letter said, accusing the army of subjecting the workers to "cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment."

Cambodia and Thailand have a history of strained relations. Many Cambodians regard their bigger and richer neighbour as pushy, and the two nations have had several armed skirmishes in the past decade over disputed border territory.

Thailand's new military leaders also distrust Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen as a friend of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by an earlier coup in 2006, and there have been accusations that Cambodia sent terrorists to Thailand to foment trouble on his behalf.

Thai army and paramilitary rangers in the past few years have also been accused of shooting dead several Cambodians they caught allegedly carrying out illegal logging in frontier areas.

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Associated Press writers Grant Peck and Thanyarat Doksone in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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