Thailand ‘will not’ return Burma refugees

Thailand’s foreign ministry has denied reports that it is planning to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Burmese refugees after the 7 November elections.

Kasit Piromya, Thailand’s foreign minister, told reporters in New York last week that a “comprehensive program” was being planned “to prepare them to return to Myanmar [Burma] after the elections”. But a statement issued by the foreign ministry yesterday said that subsequent media reports were a “misinterpretation” of Piromya’s remarks, and that “there existed no such plan”.

It said instead that Thailand is to “help better prepare Myanmar people now residing in Thailand, including Myanmar displaced persons in terms of training, education and capacity building”, although did not clarify what they were being prepared for.

“The objective is to ensure that these people can return home with dignity, be self-reliant, and participate and contribute meaningfully to their country’s development when the situation in their country becomes conducive for their eventual return, whenever that may be,” it finished.

Some 145,000 refugees, the majority from Burma’s war-torn Karen state, live in camps along Thailand’s border with Burma. Kasit said however that “the intellectuals that run around the streets of Bangkok and Chiang Mai province” will also be included included in the repatriation.

Thailand may still be feeling the burn from the condemnation that plagued its forced return of Hmong refugees to Laos earlier this year, as well as the furore that surrounded its plan to send 3000 displaced Karen back to Burma in February.

While much of the world has slammed the looming elections in Burma, Thailand has asserted that opportunities exist for democratic transition, although Kasit acknowledged that conditions may not be altogether free and fair.

The foreign ministry statement said that Thailand “has consistently been supportive of the democratisation process in Myanmar, and the upcoming general election in November 2010 is a crucial step, which could lead to national reconciliation and unity there”.

The sentiment has been echoed by the head of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Surin Pitsuwan, who said on Wednesday in Singapore that “there will be a new Myanmar after the election because there will be a new group of people”.

Critics of the current junta say however that the elections, Burma’s first in 20 years, will be a sham, and that the same military leaders will call the shots after the vote.

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