By Brendan Brady / Mae SotTHAILAND’S foreign minister announced at the end of last month that his government plans to repatriate an untold number of Burmese refugees. Sometime after Myanmar holds its November elections, the first in two decades, the Thais plan to expel its citizens who have made their home in Thailand.
Kasit Piromya made the remarks during a speech to the Asia Society (full video) in New York on September 28th. “I am going back to Bangkok and one of the first things I will be doing is to launch a more comprehensive program for the Myanmar people in the camps, the displaced persons, the intellectuals that run around the streets of Bangkok and Chang Mai province, to prepare them to return to Myanmar after the elections.”
Thailand’s foreign ministry has since said Mr Kasit’s remarks have been misinterpreted. They say that Burmese asylum seekers will not be returned until “the situation in their country becomes conducive”, whenever that may be. The proviso has not done much to reassure Burmese refugees however. Thai authorities have shown an inclination in recent years to carry out deportations even in the face of strong opposition from rights groups and foreign powers.
Thailand has for decades served as a refuge for Burmese opposition leaders and activists fleeing political, ethnic and religious persecution. Border camps in Thailand hold an estimated 150,000 Burmese, tens of thousands of whom are unregistered. Another two to three million Burmese have slipped into Thailand proper to escape a dire economy at home; they have become an underclass of cheap labour for Thai businesses.
The forced return of these various groups raises the prospect of a massive humanitarian crisis. Human-rights groups have lambasted the plan, which they say would represent a grave breach of international law. The principle of non-refoulementprohibits the repatriation of refugees to areas where they are likely to be threatened.
Mr Kasit said the repatriation was warranted by Myanmar’s progress towards becoming “half-democratic”. Few observers outside Myanmar (which is still called Burma by many) believe the elections will deliver any real change in its government’s treatment of opposition groups or in its dictatorial manner of running the country in general. As the November 7th elections approach, more than 2,100 political activists are held in Burmese prisons and hundreds of thousands of Burmese citizens, predominantly from ethnic-minority areas, are displaced internally because of conflicts with government troops or other ethnic militias. As recently as this past August, America called for an inquiry into alleged war crimes by the government.
“We have no reason to believe the political activists or ethnic groups will be able to return safely to Burma,” says Andy Hall, a consultant to the Bangkok-based Human Rights and Development Foundation. “There’s nothing to say the conflict will get any better after the election.”
The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), led by the army’s plainclothes generals, is expected to sweep the elections. Many members of the opposition have been barred from running and others have faced intimidation and worse as they struggle to mount campaigns. For its part, the USDP has drawn heavily from state assets to present its deep field of candidates. A new constitution reserves a quarter of all parliamentary seats as well as the most influential ministries for the army.
If carried out, Thailand’s repatriation of Burmese nationals would top off what has been a less-than-stellar few years in its treatment of refugees. There have been widely corroborated accounts that in December 2008, the Thai navy towed into to deep waters a convoy of un-seaworthy boats carrying hundreds of ethnic Rohingya who had been fleeing Myanmar and Bangladesh. Many on board those vessels are believed to have perished. In December 2009 Bangkok deported thousands of ethnic Hmong back toLaos, where right groups expect them to face harsh retaliation for the Hmong’s historic opposition to the Laotian government. Earlier this year thousands of ethnic Karen who had fled to Thailand to escape fighting in Myanmar returned home across the border; their advocates say they were driven by harassment from the Thai army.
But Thailand’s longer record on Burmese refugees has been admirable, says David Mathieson, the head of research on Myanmar for Human Rights Watch. Thailand has for decades borne the brunt of refugee exoduses from South-East Asian conflicts, including wars in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. “You put that in context and Thailand actually has been very tolerant in its refugee policy towards Burmese.” But Mr Kasit’s recent proposal is deeply dangerous, he says—and vague, too. “It’s unclear who exactly this would apply to and how it would be carried out.” In the meantime, he adds, “it has made hundreds of thousands…if not millions of Burmese in Thailand very nervous.”
[Published by Economist.com on October 15, 2010]