RIGHTS: This Time Around, Thailand Targets Karen Refugees
By Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK, Feb 5, 2010 (IPS) – Thailand’s attempt to repatriate over 3,000 ethnic Karens who fled the conflict in military-ruled Burma last year has triggered strong local and international objections, including from 27 members of the United States Congress.
“We urgently request that you halt the repatriation of refugees back to Burma’s conflict zone and continue to offer them protection in Thailand,” stated the Feb. 4 letter by the bi-partisan group of U.S. legislators to Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
“If forced to return, these refugees will suffer horrific human rights abuses,” added the letter, whose signatories included Rep. Howard Berman, chairman of the committee on foreign affairs. “They will undoubtedly be subject to forced labour, executions, torture and mutilations, forced recruitment as soldiers, and theft and extortion, making their survival very difficult.”
By Friday afternoon, Bangkok appeared to have caved in to some of this pressure, including the cries of concern from the Bangkok-based Lawyers’ Council of Thailand and the Karen Women Organisation (KWO).
“Because of concerns raised, we have decided to temporarily halt the process,” Thani Thongphakdi, deputy spokesman of the Thai foreign ministry, told IPS. “We have asked those who want to return to do so voluntarily, and today 12 Karens from three families went back.”
However, Bangkok views the ground realities in the Karen areas of Burma, or Myanmar, as it is officially known, differently from how the U.S. legislators and the KWO do. “Since the fighting on the other side of the border has stopped, we felt it is safe for them to return,” Thani revealed.
The temporary suspension of the Karen repatriation has done little to ease their anxiety, said Blooming Night Zan, joint secretary of the KWO, which is based in the north-eastern Thai town of Mae Hong Son. “The people are really scared. They fear they will be sent back soon.”
Part of such fear of return stems from the treacherous route the refugees will have to walk through once they enter Burma. “The fighting may be over, but there are a lot of landmines,” Zan said during an IPS interview. “Five people from the area have been injured by landmine explosions in recent months. One of them was a pregnant woman, (who was injured) in January this year.”
The flight of the Karen refugees from eastern Burma in June last year followed a round of fighting between Burmese troops and the Karen National Union, a rebel group that has been waging a separatist struggle for six decades.
The over 3,000 refugees who entered Thailand in 2009 added to the estimated 120,000 refugees, most of them Karen, who had been living in camps on the Thai side of the border for over two decades.
The ongoing conflicts in Burma is also behind the estimated 540,000 internally displaced people who have sought refuge in forests and mountains after fleeing attacks, including the burning of villages, by the Burmese army.
Little of this, however, appears to concern Thailand’s powerful International Security Operations Command (ISOC), a Cold War relic that was resurrected with new powers by Bangkok’s last junta, which came to power following a September 2006 coup and ruled till January 2008.
Among the powers of ISOC is to determine the country’s border policies with its four neighbours – Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Malaysia. Permission for refugees from neighbouring countries to remain in Thailand or not is one of the powers of this institution, where the country’s powerful army chief hold sway.
“Thailand’s border policy has been placed in the hands of the military through ISOC,” said Sunai Phasuk, the Thai researcher of Human Rights Watch (HRW), the New York-based global rights lobby. “The military’s interpretation of refugee policy is very narrow and not in compliance with international law and humanitarian standards.
“The military will open the country’s borders if people are fleeing conflict,” Sunai confirmed in an IPS interview. “But they don’t care if people are fleeing human rights violations, political persecution, religion persecution and oppression.”
Such increasing militarisation of Thailand’s border policy was brought into relief in late December last year, when some 4,300 ethnic Hmong who had fled conflict in Laos were deported in a military-style operation.
That deportation, which also provoked howls of protest from the international community, did not trigger a policy rethink by the one-year-old Abhisit administration, which came to power as a result of political deals shaped by the Thai military rather than through a popular mandate.
Bangkok dismissed criticism of being cold towards refugees by reminding the world of its impressive record of hospitality since the 1970s, when tens of thousands of refugees from the U.S. war in Indo-China fled to Thailand for safety. The South-east Asian country has, in fact, been home to some 1.5 million refugees over nearly four decades.
But until the powerful ISOC was resurrected, refugee policy was shaped by the prime minister’s office, the foreign ministry, the military and the national security council. “It was a delicate balance between these four that ensured a sense of checks and balances on refugee policy,” a highly placed Thai source said on condition of anonymity.
The first signs of a more military twist to refugee policy under ISOC emerged with Thailand’s treatment of the Rohingyas, a Muslim ethnic minority fleeing persecution in western Burma. “It started after the coup when the military started to define the Rohingyas as a national security threat,” the Thai source added. “They were linked to the insurgency in southern Thailand because the insurgents happen to be Muslims.”
ISOC’s attitude towards the Rohingya refugees gave the Abhisit administration its first black eye soon after it came into office. The military was exposed in the international media of forcing back to sea boatloads of Rohingya refugees.
“ISOC has two clear policies about the Rohingya refugees,” said Sunai of HRW. “They should be intercepted before entering Thai territorial waters, but if they do, they should be arrested and detained.”