Thailand ‘to return refugees after elections’

Thailand will only return the 150,000-odd Burmese refugees sheltering in camps along the border once situation in their home country returns to normal, which will likely be after elections this year, a Thai official has said.

Tawin Pleansri, secretary general of the National Security Council, said that the matter of return was still under consideration by the Thai government, but the exact date and time has not been set, Thai News Service reported. It went on to quote Tawin as saying that conditions for return “would probably be after the general elections take place”.

The vast majority of officially-recognised refugees reside in nine camps along the Thai-Burma border, although many more live and work in Thailand’s major urban areas, such as Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

The Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TTBC) puts the current total population of the camps at 147,978, a rise of nearly 11,500 since January this year. More than 60 percent of these have fled a six-decade long conflict in Karen state.

Observers have said that the elections this year will do little to alter the situation in Burma, which has been ruled by a military junta since 1962. Prevailing current opinion is that military rule will continue under the guise of a civilian government, likely headed by current junta ministers.

David Mathieson, Burma researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that Tawin’s comments were likely “a case of rhetoric over reality. I can’t really see that [Thailand is] going to send refugees back unless the situation significantly improves, and there’s no indication that it will before or even after the elections”.

While Thailand, which currently holds the chair of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc, continues significant trade with Burma, it has in the past year voiced concern that Burma’s domestic crisis is becoming a regional problem.

“Thailand’s different from lots of other countries in that it’s suffered more because of the problems inside Burma – Thailand gets most of the refugees, migrant workers, narcotics, cross-border fighting and instability,” Mathieson said.

He added that it was unlikely that the elections this year, even if they were to be free and fair, would transform conditions inside Burma. Karen state in particular is still littered with landmines and people there still have “no livelihoods, no health and education infrastructures in most areas, and pretty serious issues of land ownership and instability between and within ethnic groups”.

“The elections won’t alter the basic human security indicators for a humanitarian repatriation of refugees,” he added. “[Burma] probably won’t be ready for a few years, and that’s being really optimistic”.

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