As talk persists about repatriation of Burmese refugees living along Thailand’s western border, a refugee leader said he sees no possibilty for the safe return of tens of thousands of refugees and displaced persons in the immediate future.
Saw Tun, leader of the Mae La refugee camp outside Mae Sot in Thailand’s Tak province, said the current fighting in eastern Burma and the absence of political stability make any talk of refugees’ return to Burma premature.
“At this time, it is impossible for us to go back. As long as there are armed conflicts, especially along the border, we can’t be sent back,” he told Karen News yesterday, adding that he saw no chance of repatriation within “the next five years.”
More than 140,000 refugees from eastern Burma live in nine refugee camps along Thailand’s western border.
Thousands more have taken shelter in make-shift settlements since fighting recently broke out between the Burmese military and a breakaway faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, which signed an agreement with the Burmese government prior to national elections in November last year to serve as a Border Guard Force under the command of the Burmese military.
Statements made to the media by local Thai authorities have added to the refugees’ anxiety.
On April 11, Tak provincial Governor Samart Loifah told the humanitarian media group AlertNet that refugees should be voluntarily repatriated to Burma, saying they posed a threat to the natural environment in his province and incurred the jealousy of local Thai residents because of support received from international organizations as well as from Thailand.
He added that the refugees’ presence on Thai soil complicated the political relationship between Thailand and Burma, whose officials think Thailand is “giving shelter to a resistance movement,” Samart Loifah said.
Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said on April 18 that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was considering the closure of the refugee camps pending a survey by security officials, according to a report in Time magazine.
The Lawyers Council of Thailand’s Human Rights Sub-Committee on Ethnic Minorities, Stateless, Migrant Workers and Displaced Persons, launched a report earlier this week in coordination with the Thai Allied Committee with Desegregated Burma Foundation aimed at addressing recent statements by Thai officials and evaluating the conditions under which the government could repatriate Burmese refugees in a manner consistent with obligations under international law and existing treaties; in particular, the principle of non-refoulement.
Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, and therefore has no specific legal framework to protect the human rights of refugees, the report’s executive summary says.
However, it notes that existing international agreements ratified by Thailand, including the Convention against Torture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child all provide protections against non-refoulement.
The report also states that any violation by Thailand of the principle of non-refoulement could incur the condemnation of the international community, lead to “commercial or diplomatic sanctions,” or potentially constitute grounds for investigation by the International Criminal Court.
It adds that any repatriation of refugees must be voluntary and must ensure the safety and dignity of the refugees, while they are en route to their home country and after they arrive.
Surapong Kongchantuk told a press conference last week at the Foreign Correspondents Club, where the report was launched, that the Lawyers Council of Thailand would be prepared to defend Burmese refugees if repatriation were attempted outside the recommendations of the report.
“In case there are any violations of the rights of refugees … we are more than willing to represent refugees in a trial or in a court case.”
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia bureau, said the current situation in eastern Burma rules out any serious discussion of repatriation.
“It’s not the appropriate time to be talking about sending people back to Burma. These are refugees who have fled persecution. The violence against the ethnic minorities by the Burmese military continues. There’s been no change in the use of forced labor, forced portering and the persecution of political opponents.
Political prisoners have not been released. So, there’s been very little change in Burma.”
Robertson characterized talk of repatriation as “the triumph of hope over experience”.
“Those in the Thai government who are trying to … get these people to go back across the border are … trying to express their own views or their own ideas about what is safe. In this, the refugees don’t have a voice, and it’s clear that the people who need to decide whether it’s safe or not to go back have to be the refugees. Right now, they’re telling people it’s not.”
As the-for-and-against sides of the repatriation debate crank up their political rhetoric many Burmese refugees in Thailand are feeling uncertain and scared about their futures.
Naw Eh Paw took refuge in Thailand in 2006 after Burma army soldiers thrashed her home and destroyed her plantation. Naw Eh Paw, like many of the refugees spoken to by Karen News has a litany of unanswered questions about repatriation that she says are hard to get officials to answer.
“I want to go back, but how can I? My home was burnt. I lost my beetle nut, mango, jackfruit and Durian trees – they were more than 60-years-old. Where do I go? Will I get my land back? Will they pay for my plantation? I’m now more than 65, who will look after me?