The Thai military on Saturday warned Karen refugees at Tha Song Yang not to speak to the media or the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR––or risk arrest and deportation.
According to Blooming Night Zan, a spokesperson for the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO), army personnel entered camps where the Karen refugees are staying on Saturday afternoon. She told The Irrawaddy that army personnel entered the camps in plain clothes to evade the attention of international representatives and media.
This comes after an overnight suspension of plans to begin the deportation of all remaining Karen refugees in the area, who fled a June 2009 military offensive in northeastern Karen State by the Burmese army and its proxy-militia, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), against the rebel Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).
The refugees were scheduled to be sent back by Feb. 15, with 161 originally due to be sent on Friday in what the Thai authorities deemed to be a voluntary repatriation.
After media reporting, lobbying by NGOs and the intervention of 28 US lawmakers in a letter to the Thai government, the army called a suspension of the deportations after 12 Karen were repatriated on Friday morning. The 12 were sent back to Ler Per Her, a camp for internally displaced persons inside Karen State in eastern Burma.
This smaller group had been repatriated before a US embassy official and UN representatives arrived at the Thai-Burmese border. The Thai army said that the 12 had crossed the border to tend to livestock and later came back to the Thai side.
Rights groups have said that the refugees do not want to go back and claim the Thai army has been pressuring them to leave.
The local commander, Col Noppadol Watcharajitbaworn, said the group of 30 families who were to be deported as part of the original scheme “planned to go back on Friday,” then changed their minds after talking with the foreign representatives.
Activists, including the Friends of Burma and the KWO, on Friday submitted an open letter to Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva calling for an end to the deportations. The letter was copied to the National Security Council and the ministries of interior and foreign affairs.
Contradictory statements have been coming from the Thai authorities on this issue. The army has said that the deadline for all the refugees to be deported is Feb. 15, while others say there is no deadline.
Acting government spokesperson, Dr. Panitan Wattanayagorn, told The Irrawaddy that there was no immediate plan to change the deportation policy or deadline, but later Col Noppadol said the Defense Ministry has told his task force to suspend all further repatriation, according to a report in Saturday’s Bangkok Post.
“We are re-evaluating the situation after rights groups voiced concerns,” he said.
However, the Thai military is maintaining pressure and intimidation on the refugees. Karen representatives said that in recent weeks the military has been ordering the refugees to tell international representatives that they were willing to return to Burma. It is thought that the area they are to be repatriated to is heavily mined, despite claims by the Thai authorities that mines have been cleared.
Blooming Night Zan said, “We are not sure what will happen over the next few days. It is not clear that the deportation is going to be stopped permanently. We ask the Thai authorities not to go ahead with this, as the refugees do not have a safe place to return to.”Show