Thailand planning Burma refugee return

The Thai government is making plans to repatriate Burmese refugees to their homeland after elections in the military-ruled country next month, the Thai foreign minister said.

Along with the 150,000-odd refugees in camps along the Thai-Burma border, “the intellectuals that run around the streets of Bangkok and Chiang Mai province” will be included in a “comprehensive program…to prepare them to return to Myanmar [Burma] after the elections”, Kasit Piromya told reporters in New York at the weekend.

One border-based aid worker who asked to remain anonymous said however that it was unlikely Thailand would return the refugees, many of whom have fled civil war in Burma’s volatile border regions, given the outcry it would trigger.

Kitty McKinsey, Southeast Asia spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), echoed that feeling, telling DVB that, “We don’t have any reason to believe that the Thai government will force refugees to return to Burma”.

The comments mirror those made in July by Tawin Pleansri, secretary general of the National Security Council, who said that refugees would likely be repatriated once conditions in Burma return to normalcy, which “would probably be after the general elections take place”.

But the Abhisit administration has already come under fire this year after the high-profile repatriation of some 4000 Hmong refugees back to Laos, as well as an attempt to send around 3000 Karen refugees back to Burma who had fled fighting close to the border.

Moreover, Abhisit’s Democrat Party is still being scrutinised for its handling of Red Shirt protests earlier this year, and as a self-projected human rights defender would not want to draw the ire of the international community a second time, the aid worker added.

The Thai prime minister is due to visit Burma on 11 October as the country gears up for the controversial 7 November elections. The Bangkok Post said that he will expect to be briefed on post-election plans, as well as discussing political prisoners, ethnic minority groups and the status of detained opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi, whom a government official said recently would be released days after the vote.

Thailand remains Burma’s largest foreign investor, and relies on the pariah for around 30 percent of its gas needs. As a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Thailand is required to abide by the bloc’s non-interference policy, although it has issued sporadic statements of criticism particularly over the flow of refugees across the border.

Up to three million Burmese are believed to be in Thailand, many of whom are migrant workers with little or no legal status who have fled economic ruin and political instability in Burma.

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