Safe for Refugees to Return: Thai Gov’t – The Irrawaddy

At a forum involving various Thai government ministries and agencies, along with representatives of the military and international organizations, a Thai Ministry for Foreign Affairs (MOFA) spokesperson said that Karen refugees at Tha Song Yang camp have expressed a willingness to return to Burma.

Karens move out from their refugee camp in Tha Son Yang district, Tak province near the Thai-Burmese border on February 5. Thailand has suspended the forced repatriation of ethnic Karen refugees, heeding calls from US lawmakers and rights groups. (Photo: Reuters)

Today’s statements come despite the Thai authorities suspending plans to deport all the refugees, once numbering over 4500, back to Burma by February 15. However, no definitive answer was given on whether the group of refugees would stay in Thailand or not.

MOFA spokesperson Rachanan Thananand said that the area from which the refugees fled in June 2006 is clear of landmines, according to information received from the Burmese side of the border.

He said that there was no indication that the fighting between the junta-aligned Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) was going to resume anytime soon. His statements were seconded by Thai military representative Col. Phadoong Yingpibool, who said, “We speak the truth about recent events. We would never force people to go back.”

Col Padoong said that “although I wish I could give you more information about these issues, I have been busy with other matters recently.”

However, Guiseppe de Vicentis, the deputy regional representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said that there is ample evidence that there are landmines on the Burmese side.

He said that although the refugees would ultimately like to go home, they cannot do so if the situation in Burma “has not normalized,” concluding that the conditions for safe return have not yet materialized.

The Burmese regime has given ethnic militias until the end of February to comply with demands that they stand down and operate as a border guard force for the state security apparatus. The KNLA has not consented to this order, giving rise to fears that renewed fighting looms in Burma’s borderlands.

Going into more detail, a spokeswoman for the Thailand-Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) said that at least nine people have been injured or killed by landmines in the region since the refugees fled in June 2009.

She added that contrary to the Thai military’s presentation earlier at the forum, international representatives were prevented from accessing the Karen refugee camps prior to the repatriation of three families last week. The Thai military claims that the three families, who crossed back into Thailand on Tuesday morning, had initially volunteered to go back to Burma.

The TBBC spokeswoman said that DKBA troops could be observed inside Burma, from the Thai side of the frontier, undermining claims that the area was safe for return. The DKBA has been accused of forced labor and conscription of Karen civilians, since it aligned with the Burmese army. A statement given to the forum by Karen community groups said that the DKBA extorts hefty fees from Karen who are unable to serve as porters for the militia, which is supported by the Burmese military.

“The cost is too much, so people either work or run away,” a group spokesman said.

Given the contradiction between accounts by Thai authorities and those given by international organizations and NGOs, National Human Rights Commission chair Prof. Amara Ponsapich suggested that international mine-clearance experts be given access to the affected region inside Burma, to determine whether it was clear of mines or not. She asked if the Thai authorities would facilitate this operation as best they could from their side of the border.

Some participants asked whether a regional solution to this issue was possible. Representing the Asean Inter-parliamentary Myanmar Caucus, Democrat member of parliament Kraisak Choonhavan sent a message in absentia to the forum, urging that Asean’s new human rights commission get involved in addressing the issue.

However, he said that Burma’s refugee exodus would not be resolved without broader political reform and democratization within that country.

A spokesman for Thailand’s National Security Council earlier told the forum that Thai policy is first to ensure harmony and cooperation with its neighbors.

While assuring that Thailand will act in compliance with international humanitarian law, he said that his agency must work to ensure the security of Thai civilians in the region. He said that democratization is less of a priority than good relations, and added, “We work with all our neighbors to ensure that border areas can develop.

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