Forced Repatriation of Karen Refugees

Karen refugees walk along a road on the Thai-Myanmar border in Per Nwe Pu village on June 17, 2009. (Photo: Nicolas Asfouri/ AFP-Getty Images)

Thai authorities were set to start deporting 3,000 Karen refugees living in Tha Song Yang camp back to Burma on Friday. This is despite pleas from the refugees and from more than 70 Thai and Thai-based Burmese NGOs that the group be allowed to stay in Thailand.

The refugees fled fighting in Burma between the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and the Karen National Union (KNU) in June 2009, and now fear for their safety if they return to their homes in a heavily mined area still occupied by the DKBA. The DKBA is an ally of the Burmese army.

All 3,000 refugees are due to be sent back to Burma by February 15, according to Surapong Kongchantuk, the vice-chair of the Human Rights Subcommittee on Ethnic Minorities, the Stateless, Migrant Workers and Displaced Persons of the Lawyers Council of Thailand. However, the Thai military did not go through with the planned deportation of 161 refugees on Friday due to overnight media reporting.

Surapong said that repatriation should be suspended until land mines are cleared from the refugees' region of origin, and until the refugees are willing to go back voluntarily. Acting Thai government spokesperson Dr. Panitan Wattanayagorn has said that the Thai authorities have been assured by their Burmese counterparts that the areas are clear of land mines, but Karen Women's Organization (KWO) spokesperson Blooming Night Zan refuted the claims, saying that there is ample evidence that the area is mined.

Ms. Zan said that this is the second time the Thai military has sought to send the refugees back to Burma, despite the land mine danger. UNHCR spokesperson Kitty McKinsey said, "We met the Thai authorities on January 28 to discuss this issue, and we reached an agreement with them that no forced repatriation would take place." She said that the UNCHR expects the Thai authorities to honor that agreement.

Five refugees from the area have either been killed or injured by land mines when slipping back into Burma to see to livestock left behind when fleeing. One woman, eight months pregnant, had her foot blown apart on January 18, according to a recent KWO statement.

Ms. McKinsey said that officials talk to the refugees all the time, and they are very nervous about going back home. "All refugee returns to Myanmar [Burma] must be voluntary. In our interviews with the refugees, none expressed any desire to return home."

Some of the refugees were already displaced from their homes in Burma, prior to fleeing to Thailand. About 1,200 came from Ler Per Her IDP camp, just inside Karen State, on the Thailand-Burma border. Christian Solidarity Worldwide says it has visited this camp many times in the past and that its sources say "it is now riddled with land mines and under the control of the DKBA."

In an open letter to the Thai prime minister, the chairperson of the National Security Council, the Minister of the Interior and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the signatories, numbering more than 70 NGOs, urged the Thai authorities to "suspend any action to push the refugees back, pending genuine participatory and open investigation led by authorities and the UNHCR."

The letter stated that the Thai military insists that "safeguards have been put in place to ensure safety of returned refugees in compliance with international standards." When asked what specific safeguards were discussed, Friends of Burma representatives at Friday's press conference said that the Thai military had not outlined the safeguards in any detail.

Surapong said that the Thai military told representatives lobbying for the refugees that it would assist in land mine clearance in the affected region, if it was granted access by the relevant bodies inside Burma.

The letter was given to the Thai premier on Friday. However, Surapong said that "this issue is more to do with the army than the government." He said, "In principle, the government can decide what to do with this case, but in reality, it seems the army has more power."

Thai army chief General Anupong will be in the United States until February 15, which is the deadline for all the Karen refugees to be returned to Thailand.
Asked if international intervention could make any difference on this issue, Surapong said that he at least hopes that Thais living in the United States can raise this issue as soon as possible.

On Thursday, a group of 27 U.S. legislators, echoing several similar international and domestic calls, appealed to Thailand against sending the refugees back to Burma. "If forced to return, these refugees will suffer horrific human rights abuses," said the Americans' letter to Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Thai prime minister.

Outlining the bodies responsible for deciding upon and implementing the repatriation, Dr. Panitan said that "the deadline and process [of repatriation] is subject to the relevant agencies responsible for border control and martial law areas," and added that the Thai government was happy to proceed based on "preliminary reports" from the military that the refugees were willing to go back to Burma.

Thai officials, however, have denied that anyone would be forced to leave, saying any repatriations would be on a voluntary basis. "There is no forced repatriation as it's not our policy," said Colonel Noppadol Watcharajitbaworn, the military commander in the Thai province of Tak where the refugees are sheltering.

Thailand's National Human Rights Commission is "not involved" in this issue, according to Amara Ponsapich, chairperson of the commission, as "the activity is being managed by the government and military."

The Burmese military has a long history of scorched earth campaigns in ethnic minority regions, part of its "4 cuts" strategy to defeat ethnic minority armies such as the KNU. The Burmese army has also cleared villages and farmlands to facilitate natural resource extraction and transportation. A Harvard University study last year said that the scale of destruction and displacement ranked alongside that carried out in Sudan's Darfur region. The International Criminal Court was scheduled to rule on Thursday on whether the Sudanese regime carried out genocide in that region.

Benedict Rogers, the East Asia Team Leader at CSW, said in a press statement, "There is a severe risk that if they return, the Karen refugees will be subjected to severe human rights violations, including forced labor and rape by soldiers of the Burma Army. This is an urgent situation which requires immediate international attention."

Thailand could find itself again in the international spotlight if the repatriation goes ahead. This latest episode follows the recent deportation of around 4,000 Hmong refugees back to Laos, despite international pleas for the Hmong to be allowed to stay in Thailand.

Thailand has sent 100 tons of rice to Haiti, to help feed the 2 to 3 million affected by the disaster there. "It is only right that Thailand is sending relief to Haiti after the earthquake there, but there are refugees in Thailand who have nothing, who need help as well," Surapong said.

Thailand hosts more than 150,000 Burmese refugees, mainly in camps along the northern Thai border with Burma. An estimated 2 to 3 million more Burmese work in Thailand, mostly illegally.

Zoya Phan, international coordinator for the Burma Campaign U.K., said, "Over the past 25 years Thailand has earned the respect of the international community by giving shelter to refugees fleeing abuses in Burma. If refugees are now forced to return it will not only be morally unacceptable, it will also damage the reputation of Thailand in the eyes of the world."

This article was originally published in two parts by The Irrawaddy:

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Simon Roughneen.