The Thai army has reportedly told Karen refugees at the centre of a dispute over their forced repatriation to Burma not to speak to media, otherwise they may face arrest.
Around 3000 refugees in northwestern Thailand are currently awaiting news on whether they will be forced back into Burma’s eastern Karen state, which they had fled in June last year following fighting between Burmese troops and an ethnic Karen group.
Rights groups have urged the Thai government to ensure that any repatriation is purely voluntary, following warnings that the area remains heavily landmined and returnees run the risk of being forcibly recruited into the Burmese army.
A senior member of the Karen Women’s Organisation (KWO), Blooming Night Zen, who met with the refugees on Saturday, said that Thai soldiers had told them that they “will face arrest and deportation if they talk to the media and other organisations about [the repatriation]”.
The return was due to begin on Friday last week, although it has been temporarily suspended after strong criticism from rights groups, as well as an outspoken letter sent by 27 US lawmakers to the Thai premier, Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Before the suspension, Thailand had planned to return all refugees by 15 February. Last Friday it was confirmed that eleven refugees, including a toddler, were sent back into to Burma.
The London-based Burma Campaign UK also called on the British government and international leaders to urge Thailand not to send the refugees back.
A Thai government spokesperson last week told a press conference that the refugees had crossed into Thailand not to escape fighting, but instead to find work.
However many of the refugees had fled the Ler Per Har camp for internally displaced persons in Karen state, which was shelled by the Burmese army, and claimed that those who remained were being forcibly recruited into the army.
Bangkok came under fire late last year after forcing around 4600 ethnic Hmong refugees back to Laos, where they are likely to face persecution by the government. The fallout from the incident, which was covered widely on international media, may have shifted their postion on the Karen refugees.