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Tension to force more refugees into Thailand

Bangkok (Mizzima) - With an offensive expected in northern Karen State this dry season and the possibility of renewed hostilities between the junta and ceasefire armies in Shan State, there is a possibility of tens to hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to Thailand this year. However, last month’s forced repatriation of Hmong refugees to Laos and current discussions on the repatriation of Karen refugees in Tak province indicate that future refugees may no longer be welcome. 

Three reports last week of stepped up operations by the Burmese Army in northern Karen State have prompted fears of an offensive this dry season.  Karen National Union (KNU) sources told Mizzima that Burmese Army units are reoccupying camps in eastern Pegu Division that had been abandoned after the 2006-2008 period of intense military operations. refugee-flee1

Reports by the Karen Human Rights Group and Free Burma Rangers said at least 10 villages and over 2,000 people have been displaced by military patrols. At least three villagers have been killed, they say, and another three captured by Burmese Army columns.

The re-emergence of Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) units in the same area as well as recent aggressive statements by DKBA commanders, a forced recruitment campaign and reports of skirmishes have resulted in many Karen believing that a DKBA-led push into the Papun area is imminent.

In June last year the DKBA with support from the Burmese Army carried out a successful offensive against the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) in central Karen State forcing it out of its border enclaves. The fighting together with a drive for recruits by the DKBA and conscription of porters that precluded it drove over 4,000 villagers to seek refuge in Thailand.

In northern Karen State many Karen have lived displaced for years, preferring to at least live near their old villages rather than run to Thailand. Already in a hand to mouth situation, a strong military push in the area may finally force many of these people out when their food supplies run out. This is what happened in 2006 when more than 1,100 villagers from Thandaung Township fled to the Thai-Burma border with many seeking refuge in Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province.

refugee-flee2In Shan State, where the situation has largely returned to normal since the August offensive against the Kokang, negotiations between the regime and the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and its allies the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N) and the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) are at an impasse. Opinions are divided among observers whether the military will carry though with its threats to attack if the groups do not agree to its Border Guard plan before elections scheduled for later this year.

Of particular concern to Thailand is the swath of UWSA-controlled territory along Burma’s border with Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces. To date the Thai authorities have only permitted the establishing of one small refugee camp of 656 people at Piang Luang. Tens of thousands of other Shan, who could be classified as refugees for fleeing fighting and human rights abuses, have been forced by these circumstances to live as illegal migrants in Thailand. In a fortaste of what could happen, over 37,000 people sought refuge in China during the August attack.

Never comfortable with the large refugee populations it has been forced to host since the 1970’s, and not a signatory to either the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, Bangkok has tolerated the presence of refugees along its borders and that of the non-governmental organizations providing assistance. Three recent events, however, suggest that this attitude may be changing.

The international community was outraged in January last year when reports surfaced that its military was towing Rohingya refugees back to sea on rickety boats and an uncertain fate. Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajeva made statements at the time that he would seek to promote respect for human rights.

In December 2009, Thailand again invoked the ire of the international community when it forcibly repatriated over 4,000 Hmong refugees to Laos.  While many were economic migrants, the government itself had recognized some 800 as having legitimate fears for their safety should they be returned to Laos. Over 150 in an immigration detention centre in Nong Khai who had already been given person of concern status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees were also sent back.

Thailand received praise for its acceptance of over 3,000 Karen refugees in June last year, especially as it came in the wake of the Rohingya turn back. Now that the fighting has died down and the rainy season has ended, impetuousness is building to send the Karen back. Thai General Thanonsak Apirakyothin, commander of the Third Army, told journalists on January 25 that Thailand has no policy to continue providing temporary shelter.

A meeting this week between the Thai military, representatives from the UNHCR and the Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) as well as the KNU and DKBA seems to have concluded with mixed results. Although the Thai military claims it will not force the refugees back, it clearly wants them gone. Despite this stance, there is still some possibility, NGOs sources say, of an alternative to allow those that wish to stay in Thailand.

The DKBA has given assurances of protection against forced labour and voiced a willingness to clear its own landmines, but human rights groups and refugee advocates are not convinced. They worry that returnees will become victims of ongoing human rights abuses in the area and the possibility of death or injury from the thousands of landmines in the area that have already maimed five villagers. 

A KHRG report released on January 27 detailed the possible dangers to returnees from landmines, forced labour and possible reprisals from DKBA commanders for providing assistance to the KNLA. The refugees have said that they are willing to return to their villages in Burma, but only if their fears of human rights abuses and security can be addressed.

After decades of playing host to refugee populations from its neighbours, Thailand’s tolerance seems to be reaching its limit. If the current trend continues then future refugees should hope for little more than temporary shelter.

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 02 February 2010 15:42 )  

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