Thai media ‘skewing reality’ for refugees

The nine refugee camps along Thailand’s border with Burma are a ‘Bermuda Triangle’ for domestic reporters that creates a misperception of the plight of refugees among the Thai population, a human right expert has said.

Compounded by the difficulties in accessing the camps, Thai journalists rely too heavily on reports issued from the Thai government who “have their own agenda”, said Veerawit Tianchainan, executive director of Thai Committee for Refugees (TCR).

“When the Thai media talks about refugees, they talk about ‘problems’ and not about ways to treat refugees better.”

The comments were made last week at the Bangkok launch of Amnesty International’s annual Global Human Rights Report, which noted that the situation with regards to human rights had declined in many Asian nations over the past year.

Veerawit also claimed that archaic portrayals in schoolbooks of Burma and the Burmese as Thailand’s old “enemy” did little to aid the current debate about refugees and migrants, whom Thais often fail to distinguish between.

Khin Ohmar, chairperson of the Network for Democracy and Development (NDD) who now lives in Thailand, said that any negative media portrayal of Burmese could make groups here more vulnerable at a time when Thailand appears to be rethinking its policy of sheltering refugees, migrants and political exiles.

The Thai-Burma border camps are home to more than 140,000 refugees, while nearby town such as Mae Sot and Chiang Mai are hubs for NGOs working on Burma. The governor of Tak province, Samart Loifah, said recently that he felt the Burmese government also considered Mae Sot an enclave for armed opposition groups such as the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) who capitalise on the porous border.

But in everyday encounters with Thai people, there was generally little animosity, Khin Ohmar said. “Twenty years ago when we fled across the border, many Thai people were cautious about us,” she said, referring to the exodus of young Burmese in the wake of the 1988 uprising who became the backbone of the student armed resistance movement.

“Now, however, they don’t seem to resent us much. Maybe among some of the older population there is still the view that we are the enemy, but I think that’s changing among young people.”

Whether that translates to the millions of Burmese working in low-skilled industries in Thailand is less clear. Migrant employers regularly flout already flimsy regulations surrounding labour rights, and their fragile security in the country was exposed recently by reports of nearly 60 Burmese migrants who were locked up for eight months and forced to work in slave-like conditions in a garment factory in Bangkok. Rights groups said that employers were treating migrants as “sub-humans”.

Thai policy towards refugees has on several occasions in recent years come under fire from international rights groups: in 2009 the Thai army was accused of towing hundreds of Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority from western Burma, who had washed up in boats on its southern shores back out to sea, with little water or food. Many subsequently died. Complaints of a second ‘pushback’ arose in February this year.

It has also offered mixed messages about the fate of thousands of Karen refugees who have crossed the border since fighting erupted in November 2010. Despite warnings that eastern Karen state remains volatile and ridden with landmines, the government has often spoken of its desire to see the refugees returned.

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